[Editor’s Note: I really debated whether to publish this or just ignore the report from Nikki Finke about how poorly John Carter is tracking. I don’t want to do anything to dampen enthusiasm for the film. But I decided that if JCF is going to have credibility, it’s necessary to not ignore the 600 pound gorilla in the room–or in this case, a 15 foot tall Great White Ape in the room with us. So I’m publishing this and letting the chips fall where they may. Make no doubt about it — JCF exists out of passion for the underlying ERB material and the passionate hope the Disney’s John Carter will be a great movie and will do well — but we’re going to call them like we see them and right now, this is important news for all to consider.]

Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood is reporting that tracking figures just out show that John Carter’s tracking is “shockingly soft” three weeks ahead of release. Sad and painful as this is to friends of the project like JCF, this is not a surprise to anyone who has been following the campaign closely.

Here is what Finke has to say — and our comments about that has to be done if Disney is to right the ship in the remaining window before opening day.

John Carter Tracking Shockingly soft; could be biggest write-off of all time
Hollywood is in a tizzy over the early tracking which just came online this morning for Walt Disney Studios’ John Carter opening March 9th. “Not good. 2 unaided, 53 aware, 27 definitely interested, 3 first choice,” a senior exec at a rival studio emails me. Another writes me, ”It just came out. Women of all ages have flat out rejected the film. The tracking for John Carter is shocking for a film that cost over $250 million. This could be the biggest writeoff of all time.” I’m hearing figures in the neighborhood of $100 million. And the studio isn’t even trying to spin reports of the 3D pic’s bloated budget any more.

Now, to be fair, this very soft tracking has been expected. The studios’ private reports have shown for some time very soft awareness and very little wannasee. So what’s Disney’s explanation? “It’s the last leftover from the previous regime of Dick Cook,” an executive who works for successor Rich Ross reminds me. “We’re not running away from the movie. Our job is to sell it.” Then again, Cook also left Ross Alice In Wonderland to sell, too, along with other hits and a few misses.

Disney is nervous, really nervous, but trying to hold out some hope. ”We know that we have a long way to go. It’s still four weeks out, and the bulk of the media hasn’t hit yet. Our Super Bowl ad did what we intended it to do: have a pop of awareness. On Sunday we launch a full campaign with 90+% of all of our media ready to go.” Problem is, John Carter (formerly titled John Carter Of Mars) only has a two-week window before Lionsgate’s hotly anticipated The Hunger Games opens March 23rd.

I want to preface what follows with this: Disney, God Bless’em, got this movie made when no one else was able to. They believed enough in the ERB material, and Andrew Stanton, to not only take a shot at it — but invest $250m in production and another $100m or so in marketing. For those of us who have waited decades for the movie to be made — we owe a great debt of gratitude to Disney. So … credit where credit is due, Disney made the movie and by all accounts the movie itself is good.  Disney – thank you for that.

Now for the marketing.

Thus far the marketing has been spectacularly unsuccessful. I will note that this week, the last couple of days actually, was the first time when it seemed to be gaining a little momentum on the strength of a favorable advance review from Europe, a string of accolades from Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News who saw a private screening on Monday and calls it ‘spectacular….a cinematic event’, and the release of actual clips from the movie showing the artfulness of the film-making. All of these things helped — but they also underscore the gap between what the movie itself is able to do–“play” effectively–and what the marketing is not able to do–sell the idea of the movie.

As Finke points out — this shouldn’t be a surprise. Disney from the beginning has just not seemed to understand how to market this movie to mainstream cinema audiences. Perhaps they are doing better with 10 year old kids who watch the Disney channel (and their parents) …. and perhaps that’s not showing up in the tracking data. And perhaps there are more Boomer demo Edgar Rice Burroughs fans out there than the tracking indicates, and maybe they will bring their kids and grandkids to see the film in theaters…..Maybe, maybe, maybe….

But none of that explains why Disney is so:

1) Inexplicably obsessed with the CGI and spectacle of it all–especially the damned white ape scene, which they feature that in every trailer, and now are featuring it as the main image that they are putting out on every bill board, bus billboard, bus-stop one-sheet, and you name it. Aren’t they doing any testing? Where are they getting the idea that this scene resonates and generates “must see” emotion? It doesn’t. They’ve been pushing that scene more than any other moment in the film ever since the Dec 1 trailer (which inexplicably leads with that scene). They made it the focus of the IMAX poster. They can’t seem to make a TV spot without featuring it. The reaction has been tepid from day one yet they continue to try and let this scene define the movie and it does no such thing: It’s NOT WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT. Let go of it, please. There is so much more to work with. Harry Knowles put it succinctly: “Action, Adventure, Romance & a strange world filled with amazing characters brought to life by WALLE dir!”

2) Incapable of showing relationships and “DOA” when it comes to depicting the romance that is at the core of the story and would, if properly handled, make it attractive to the female demographic that the tracking says they are failing to attract–cataclysmically so. John Carter has a central romance between John Carter and Dejah Thoris; it has a cross-species friendship between John Carter and Tars Tarkas; it has another cross species friendship between JC and Woola; it has the tragic and poignant Sola; plus it has the epic struggle between Helium and Zodanga which hardly gets any screen time in the promos (except for explosions and spectacle instead of anything showing characters interacting) — and instead, the whole movie as presented in promotion seems to be about John Carter in the desert among the green martians. Where is the balance? Where is the ability to extract this elements that really make the story special? It’s there in the movie but the promotion just misses the mark completely — so far, anyway. There’s still time….still time…..

3) Unwilling to turn Andrew Stanton, Academy Award winning director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E, into a marketing asset of for the film. Hello–the perception is that the film is all CGI and spectacle with no heart or soul because that’s how it’s been marketed (the damned ape scene again and again) — yet Disney is holding two cards that can turn that around — Andrew Stanton, director of Wall-E, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, master storyteller who has inspired everyone in sci-fi. But they seem to be afraid to play those cards in any effective way. Are they afraid that because Stanton’s previous work was in animation — it might “tarnish” the image of this live action epic? Well– maybe that kind of logic could have been defended last fall sitting in a conference room at Disney — but now that the promotion has been going full steam for 8 weeks and it’s not working, this is a card the must be played.

I wish there was a way to stop this train wreck from happening.

Is all hope lost?

As John Carter says when he’s in a tight spot: “We still live.”

John Carter still lives but it is backed into a corner and in danger of being dispatched to a bloody and pitiless death if nothing is done.

Can it succeed?

Or more properly — can it overcome the clumsiness of the marketing and succeed, in essence, in spite of the marketing campaign, not because of it?

Here is a last gasp dying effort of my fevered John Carter fanboy mind to construct a scenario where the film overcomes the deficiencies of the marketing and achieves a level of success:

1. Let’s assume that the tracking polls have it coming into opening weekend tracking at $25-30m which seems likely at this point. That would normally spell doom for a $250m feature. Okay … but let’s think further.

2. Let’s assume that there is a “booster shot” of Disney kids and moms who aren’t showing up in the tracking–this are Disneyphiles who follow all things Disney but may not tweet, may not do a lot on Facebook, may not be quite as “harvestable” as data . Let’s say that causes the tracking to be low.

3. Let’s assume that there are Boomers who read the books in the 60’s and will drag kids and grandkids and they aren’t showing up in the tracking. Let’s say that this also contributes to the tracking being low.

4. Let’s say that the lack of competition helps — after all, JC has March 9th all to its lonesome.

5. Let’s say the fact that overall winter box office is up 18.6% has to help. It means that the top 12 films on March 9 weekend will probably be sharing $130m in Box Office Gross rather than $110m which would have been the number if BO weren’t running hot. As the sole wide new release that weekend, JC gets some of that by default.

6. And let’s say that as the date of the release gets closer, Disney’s strategy of scheduling special advance screenings pays off, and results in a barrage of positive word of mouth that the film is actually very good. There are at least a dozen advance screenings scheduled for the last week before the film is released — can word of mouth, positive reviews, etc leak out during that last week in such volume and intensity as to overcome the flatness of the campaign? At least give it a much needed boost near the end?

Let’s say all of those things come together, plus Disney does manage to somehow get a better feel for the material and comes out with some better spots closer to the release …..can all of that get the film’s opening up to …..say, $40m? Maybe even $45m?

Now let’s add in some other best case scenarios.

Let’s assume that opening weekend is $45m and is not 36% of the domestic total as is typically the case. Let’s say that, this being a film by Andrew Stanton, that it has the kind of “legs” that Stanton’s previous films typically have (a reasonable assumption), or like Pixar films typically have (not quite as reasonable but defensible)….Stanton’s average is 24% — meaning on average, his previous films did 24% of their total on opening weekend. His best, finding Nemo — did 20%. Let’s say JC does 20%.

That would mean that if all the best case options get it to $40m opening weekend, and that ends up being 20% of the total Domestic Gross ….. then it gets to $220m domestic. And let’s assume– again optimistically but justifiably–that is does a 40-60 split between domestic and foreign which is about what most Disney films have done lately, and is what Stanton’s previous films did….That gets it to $550m.

Is this really possible?

Could the Giants, when they were 7-7, still win the Super Bowl?

They did.

It ain’t over ’til it’s over but the signs are very, very disturbing.