SOMETIMES BAD FLOPS happen to good people. Even those hideous, avert-your-eyes flops that cause you to question how so much talent can go to so much disgraceful waste. Amid the commercial carnage that follows the CGI blood-splatter, even Hollywood’s best coroners are sometimes stumped by the precise cause of staggering box-office death. They walk away, shaking their heads, chalking it up to fickle audiences or muddled plots or who-knows-what-exactly? Commercial death comes, as it must, to all serial big-spenders backing gargantuan movies.
But in the case of “John Carter,” it didn't have to be this way.
Disney still has its Imagineers. But where in the Martian world were the studio’s marketeers?
“John Carter” may go down as one of Hollywood’s biggest movie flops ever. But it should rightly go down as one of the town’s biggest marketing flops ever.
Did someone at the Mouse House dial the E.R. instead of PR?
Disney announced this week that it anticipates that “John Carter” — its new film about Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Civil War “Martian” — will “book a loss of $200 million” for the quarter. Meaning in Hollywood dollars, it’s on track to be one of the biggest money-losing ka-booms ever. “John Carter” had grossed nearly $190-mill globally as of last weekend — but had a whopping production budget of about $250-million, plus its $100-million marketing price tag, the AP reports.
At least you can see some of the $250-mill on the screen. But the $100-mill should be reported to the LAPD as missing — filched clean from the company vault. It appears to have gone up in smoke as fast as honesty, loyalty and weed among the arrested-development characters on “Entourage.” How else to explain the lack of a coherent and effective promotional campaign?
What clues can we excavate from the wreckage? Let’s dig in:
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1. Disney research apparently didn’t turn up a key fact: Most moviegoers have never HEARD of John Carter.
Shortly before Edgar Rice Burroughs successfully sold a little character named Tarzan, he sold another pulp story — about the adventures of John Carter, which of course spawned comics (and animated projects) by Burroughs’s son John.
Disney naturally had good fortune more than a decade ago with 1999’s “Tarzan.” People like Tarzan, people recognize Tarzan.
John Carter, in 2012 — as sad as it is to say — you’re no Tarzan.
Hollywood has increasingly been accused of throwing billions of dollars at projects by aging male directors who are nostalgic for the sci-fi and cartoons of their boyhood. Because it’s true. But the Steven Spielbergs and Peter Jacksons of the film-world have fairly gauged the generations-spanning familarity of, and fondness for, “Tintin” and Mordor and hobbit shires.
John Carter — with or without the Mars in his title — has no such luxury.
Why didn’t Disney feature Burroughs’s name more prominently? Or intone: “From the creator of Tarzan...”? Or add a tagline that suggests the time-line: ”Before there was Star Wars...”?
Who knows? Disney’s carefully culled focus groups are surely far wiser and savvier than my randomly selected one of newsroom folk young and old.
Yet if you were trying to bury a film, such (lack of) signage and angle would certainly be the first way to do it.
2. Just how big is Pixar’s pull within Disney? Or: Why don’t they tout a Pixar talent?
In Walter Isaacson’s great 2011 bio about Steve Jobs, he writes of those heated meetings of two decades ago, when the Apple co-founder and his fellow Pixar pioneers, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, had to ward off Disney’s attempts to creatively undercut its future-classic pictures like “Toy Story.”
In the intervening years, of course, Pixar became a massive generator of revenue and public good-will and name-brand excellence. The result: Pixar certainly seems to wield more decision-making clout these days within Disney, from Lasseter’s multiple official/unofficial titles on outward. And one of those brilliant “Toy Story”-trilogy brains is Andrew Stanton, who in directing “John Carter” took on his first feature-length live-action film (and ultimately won a budget that, according to the trades, not even the Gore “Pirates of the Caribbean” Verbinskis of the world.can quite woo out of Disney).
Yet lacking an adventure/sci-fi A-lister along the likes of James Cameron or George Lucas, the Disney Marketeering Machine still could have touted Stanton’s unassailable Pixar pedigree. (I even know industry-tracking writers who had no idea the Pulitzer-winning Michael Chabon had co-written the script.)
I’ve heard from more than a few sci-fi geeks who have asked Comic Riffs: If you’re Disney, how do you not better trumpet any of this?
3. Why didn’t the studio sell John Carter according to popular trends?
We, the moviegoing audience, of course are suckers for space- and time-travel — spanning land and air and eras — as well as historical war heroism. If we’ll appreciate Captain America during World War II, and the X-Men in the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis (and perhaps even the upcoming “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter”), why not sell John Carter in ads as a Civil War-trained superhero?
Instead, the trailers sold us part sword-and-sandals gladiator picture, part “Star Wars” alien adventure.
Surely, given the film’s lack of proven box-office A-listers in its lead roles, the marketing folks had a tough time of it. (And poor, excellent Mark Strong — one among a strikingly accomplished supporting cast — has had to endure the box-office washouts of both this and “Green Lantern” within a year.)
And Disney’s next two quarters should shine much brighter, thanks largely to probable blockbusters “The Avengers” (Marvel) and “Brave” (Pixar) in the next few months.
But what happened to the typical Disney marketing genius this time around?
Last year, Disney took a reported $70-million write-off on the motion-capture “Mars Needs Moms” — another March-launched Mars film that bombed at the box office. (More than a quarter-mill written off two films? That is Red Ink Planet.) But it’s clear why that sorta-kids film by Robert Zemeckis — who got a reported $150-million budget to adapt Berkeley Breathed’s illustrated book.— might be a tougher nut to promote properly.
But from trailers to convention presence, “John Carter” — which needs to become one of the top-65 grossing films ever just to break even, according to the AP — deserved much better. .