Four weeks from today John Carter will be in theaters and no one is a bigger or more passionate supporter of this movie than I am. I am not in the habit of creating or running fan sites–The John Carter Files exists because of my lifetime appreciation of Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars series, and my passionate hope that Disney and Stanton will get it right. Tonight, four weeks out, I will go on record as saying that from everything I’ve seen and read, the movie itself is going to be all right. Stanton earned my respect as a storyteller with Wall-E and Finding Nemo; he has devoted four years of his life and a major career pivot to this film. He hasn’t followed every Burroughsian detail but I’m not obsessed with that; Barsoom is intact, the main characters are all there, and the changes Stanton has made are defensible. So — the movie itself? Check. It will “play”, as they say in the industry.
But there are two parts to the success equation. One is the film itself-the other is the marketing of the film. With a movie, you just get one shot; there is one opening day. A movie is more like an election campaign than any other form of marketing — everything builds to opening day and if you don’t get enough warm bodies in seats on opening day, no amount of “word of mouth” will save you. This is particularly true of a tentpole franchise picture with promotion and marketing costs that mean it must be in the top 10 films released all year, box office wise, to be reasonably assured of turning a profit.
And how has the marketing been?
Here comes some “tough love” for Disney and if anybody there is listening, I hope they will take it that way.
I have been worried about the marketing ever since the day the first “real” trailer came out on December 1. But I’ve held back on voicing a critique in the hope that as Disney puts the trailers and the rest of the marketing out there, and as feedback comes in, the ship would get righted. I felt that certainly, by the time the Super Bowl ad came out, the marketing team would know what’s working, what’s not working, and the promotion would move into the home stretch with some wind in its sails.
Then came the Super Bowl spot — and I’m referring to the 30 second spot that actually played during the Super Bowl and during which 18 seconds were consumed by a slow zoom out on a mosaic of the name ‘John Carter’, not the 60 second version that was released to the internet. I watched in horror and the results were almost instantaneous. In the next 24 hours, John Carter was in last place among all Super Bowl trailers in terms of twitter “buzz” (a hard measurement, not an impression); it was ranked 50th our of 54 commercials on the USA today poll; it was roundly criticized as ineffective by everyone from MTV to the Hollywood Reporter, and on Tuesday Wall Street analysts issued earnings warnings for Disney tied to the “blood in the water” surrounding John Carter. These are all the assessments of others — not my own personal soap box.
Today, with four weeks to go and the urgency of this reaching a boiling point, I decided I must speak out in the hope that somebody in a posit of responsibility might be listening and might have an “aha” moment. I know that’s a long shot — but what’s the alternative? Remain silent and watch John Carter sail into an iceberg?
Fortunately, at a moment when I was gathering myself to write a “critique from a friend of the project” — someone has done it for me. A blogger who goes by “BrianTT” has offered up a clearheaded and well intentioned analysis. Like me, BrianTT wants the film to do well; his criticism comes from a place of genuine concern. Here is his critique, which comes in the context of an article tracking and assessing all of the films which had trailers play in the Super Bowl. This will not be the last word on this — but it’s a very articulate first word.
Movie: “John Carter”
Best Part of the Trailer: There are some fantastic visual landscapes on display.
Worst Part of the Trailer: While fantastic, those landscapes just aren’t that interesting.
OUR TAKE: I’ve been holding off on this, but here goes – I have finally reached the moment where I’m comfortable admitting that I am very, very nervous about “John Carter”.
But how did we get here? “John Carter” should be a slam-dunk. It’s, essentially, the first live-action Pixar film (yes, I know it’s “technically” under the Disney banner, but c’mon); it’s an epic space adventure based on a classic work of pulp fiction; and it’s directed by Andrew Stanton, the card-carrying genius behind “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E.” Andrew Stanton directing a “John Carter” movie should be as much of a no-brainer as Brad Bird directing a “Mission: Impossible” movie. It should be as close to a sure thing as Hollywood can get.
So, with all that in mind, why does it feel like the world just doesn’t really give a damn about “John Carter”? Who is to blame for this growing sense of apathy about what, in theory, should be a very cool movie?
At the moment, it’s easiest to blame whoever has been handling the marketing for “John Carter” so far, particularly whoever was responsible for the first trailers. The initial trailers and even this new “extended Superbowl teaser” are just ridiculously inert. They’re just not exciting at all. And, granted, lots of exciting things are apparently happening in these trailers – battles and gladiatorial contests and a whole lot of jumping, jumping, jumping – and yet, when you watch them, it’s like drinking a glass of warm milk. My pace barely quickens and I quickly realize that not even the most rock-opera-ed version of Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” around is enough to get me into a movie theatre these days.
So what’s wrong with these “John Carter” trailers? First off, they all seem to place this huge value on the import and power of the name “John Carter”, which… is a huge mistake. 90% of the viewing public has no awareness of literary pulp heroes of the 1910s, so announcing that “hey, everyone, they finally made a John Carter movie!” means almost nothing to a large bulk of the world. The Superbowl trailer spends half its running time pulling back into this huge mosaic of images spelling out “John Carter”, as if they’re revealing a secret or announcing something shocking, and it’s just not the case. When the title is revealed, I think most people are just sitting back and giving the most natural response imaginable – “Well, who’s John Carter?” And what REALLY annoys me about the Disney marketing team is that they’re COMPLETELY FAILING to address that question.
WHO IS John Carter? THAT is what the trailers should be telling us at this point. The “JC” trailers have been extremely focused on showing us scenes of rich visual lushness and… I hate to say it, but they’re not landing. People aren’t that impressed. They look GREAT, but they’re nothing groundbreaking and more than one person has commented to me about how much the gladiator scenes remind them of the Geonosis gladiator scenes in “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones”. (This Superbowl teaser also includes a moment of Carter hijacking a huge gun to shoot down a spaceship with huge sails that looks remarkably like Luke Skywalker blowing up Jabba’s sail barge in “Return of the Jedi”.) I hate admitting this, but the imagery in “John Carter”, so far, is not convincing audiences that this is an event movie worth seeing. So, why – why, why, why – has Disney not changed tactics and begun promoting the STORY of “John Carter”? Why are they not answering that question – “Who is John Carter?”
Because I think they could get some traction there. Taking a quick poll of my non-fanboy-ish friends and family, I’ve found that a big portion of them are just stymied about what the heck the movie is about. All they’ve seen are a big helping of very expensive, very disparate images and a gladiator fight right out of “Attack of the Clones”. The word “confusing” came up more than once. Heck, maybe if you actually explained why Carter can jump around like a Mario Brother – I’ve heard it’s a reaction to Mars’ lighter gravitational forces… not that they’ve said anything about it in the trailers – you might draw some more people in or convince them that, in theory, this movie is a much, much grander and more thoughtful production than something like “The Chronicles of Riddick”. Or maybe, since the movie is named after its lead character, if you ever gave Taylor Kitsch more than two lines of dialogue per trailer, you might even get some people interested in why this John guy was considered charismatic enough to warrant his own movie in the first place.
Put the albino ape away, Disney. If you don’t start forcibly TELLING people why they should give a damn about who John Carter is and why his story is worth seeing, I have a bad feeling that “John Carter” is going to be Disney’s biggest sci-fi misfire since “The Black Hole”.
TRAILER OUTLOOK: Not great. Lots of expensive toys on display, but I don’t really want to play with any of them.
One last note: On Tuesday Disney put out a 60 second spot on “The River” that , perhaps because things had gotten so bad that anything reasonable would look great — was welcomed by fans who were concerned. A new 30 second spot on Wednesday entitled “Battle” was also marginally better. But neither is remotely enough to turn the tide of apathy and Disney must recognize this. Both feature that damned albino ape as if watching John Carter leap over a white gorilla is so cool that it just HAS to be featured in every trailer. Enough with the albino gorilla already….give people a reason to care about John Carter, and that starts with letting them know who he is.
There’s still time.
UPDATE: Some emails have come in asking that I put up the link to our trailer survey, as it is relevant to this article. Here is the link.