The news is in – Lion’s Gate’s Hunger Games brought in a whopping $155m at the domestic box office in this, its debut weekend, making it the third highest opening weekend ever, just behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 ($168M), and The Dark Knight (158M). Hunger Games is clearly every bit the huge hit that analysts and fans have been predicting. Hunger Games’ global total was $214M, including $59.3m from 67 foreign countries, suggesting its strength in the US may not be matched in foreign territories.

By contrast, “battered” John Carter, struggling under the burden of a weak domestic opening and Disney’s announced $200m write-down (making it the biggest flop in cinema history if magnitude of loss is the measure), brought in $5m bringing its domestic total to $65m after three weekends, and a somewhat better global total of $234m.

Worse yet for Disney, Hunger Games cost $100m to make and $50m to market, while John Carter cost $250m to make and $100m to market.

How does such disparity occur?
In this corner we have Hunger Games at 150m total cost and $214M total BOG after one weekend, and in the other corner John Carter at $350m total cost $234M total BOG after three weekends.

Both are based on literary properties, both feature spectacle and adventure – so how does one do so well and the other so poorly?

First, a reality check. It is unfair to say that the task was the same for both films. It was not. If this was a poker game — Lions Gate was dealt a straight flush and Disney was chasing a full house. No one is saying John Carter should have opened at 155m like Hunger Games did. Hunger Games is arguably the most popular current book series for readers in the target demographic and that alone fueled a level of interest akin to Twilight or Harry Potter. Meanwhile, venerable old Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series, while constantly in print for 100 years and popular enough in its heyday, is not a property that brings with it major pre-existing buzz or an large-scale, established, active, and motivated fan base. (It has a motivated fan base, to be sure … but the numbers of this built-in fan base are not of the same order of magnitude as Hunger Games.) So, while Hunger Games had a ferociously enthused current readership to work with, Disney had at best a pedigree which, if promoted wisely, could turn into an asset but which could not be counted on by itself to deliver an audience.

Which, it would seem, is all the more reason for Disney to be expected to do something innovative with the marketing. John Carter was a high risk, high budget gamble that was a complicated marketing proposition. Hunger Games was a low risk, not too expensive gamble that was about a close to a “can’t miss” proposition as one is likely to find.

So, with Hunger Games in a strong position where “coasting” might be enough to get it done, and with John Carter in a very delicate position where it would all rise or fall based on the marketing — the two movie campaigns “entered the arena” of social media. Who got it, and who didn’t? The answers are painfully clear.

The Writing was on the wall 12 weeks out
A full 12 weeks prior to Hunger Games release it had almost a million Facebook Fans who were burning up the movie message boards with their chatter about the film. John Carter at the equivalent point before its release had approximately 40,000 Facebook fans. The same general percentages hold true for Twitter Followers and other social media measures. Did this just happen because Hunger Games was a current literary phenomenon? Or was there some artfulness involved in the Hunger Games social media marketing that was lacking in the case of Disney and John Carter?

Check out the following chart which John Carter Files prepared on January 5 and which provides the relative position of all the March releases as of January 1, 2012.     (Click to enlarge)

It was clear at this point that John Carter was lagging behind — and this was after two solid weeks of blitz John Carter TV ads which began on December 15 — and before any Hunger Games ads had even started playing on TV.

Not only was John Carter far behind in all categories — it had a particular problem in the area of positive/negative ratio; that is, the ratio of positive comments to negative comments on social media sites.  Hunger Games was running at 9.5/.5, while JC was running at 6.5/3.5.  Or another way of looking at it, JC had five times as many negative comments, relative to positive ones, when compared to Hunger Games.

Here’s another graphic, also prepared on January 5, which shows the scope of the problem:

Again — both the volume of chatter and the positive negative ratios show the scope of the problem.

What was Hunger Games doing so differently than John Carter?
The frustrating fact for John Carter fans is that Hunger Games social media marketing was on a completely different level from the social media marketing that Disney put forward with John Carter. With Hunger Games, there were for example 13 Facebook pages representing each of the districts in the film. It was set up so that fans could become virtual citizens of each district – and because the large novel fan base was familiar with the context – and because of various other “cool factors”, it worked.

There was no equivalent for John Carter even though Barsoom boasted the same kind of opportunity. The problem: Disney would need to educate first, in order for audiences to know. And it never did.

For Hunger Games Lions Gate created both the official @TheHungerGames account as well as a Twitter account for The Capitol, the central city in the story. The account @TheCapitolPN acted as a “welcoming site to Panem, the Capitol, and its 12 Districts”, often tweeting stories, warnings and encouragement in character. Lions Gates efforts in this regard again resonated with fans, and this amplified the buzz.  Between the two Twitter Accounts, Hunger Games had over 400,000 by opening day.

Meanwhile, the single John Carter twitter account, @JohnCarter, topped out at an anemic 9,400 followers and today, three weeks into the release, has managed a total of only largely uninspiring 240 tweets – such as: “Which John Carter character was the most exciting to see on the big screen?”, or “John Carter is now in theaters; are you going?”. Yawn.  And not only did the account put out very few tweets (something it can do via automation, meaning no one has to “mind the store” to simply put out tweets), it hardly did any retweeting at all — and retweeting is an essential tool to generate buzz.  For the entire 7 day period prior to opening day, John Carter put out 23 tweets, of which 5 were retweets.

By contrast, the official twitter account @TheHungerGames with 380,000 followers put out over 40 tweets just on opening day, and over 100 in the final week; while the secondary @theCapitolPN account put out an equivalent number and an unofficial account @Hungergames put out even more.    Collectively, the output of the Hunger Games Twitter accounts  generate numerous real interactions with fans and a real sense of an event.  Disney’s far lower output appear to be a series of tweets that were programmed into a computer in December and just allowed to broadcast at specified times up to the release. Spam, essentially. Going through the motions?

As a result — “Hunger Games” mentions on Twitter reached 1 million in the last month while John Carter mentions never reached a tenth of that.

The Facebook comparison is even more disturbing.  As with Twitter, the John Carter Facebook page confined itself to putting out occasional (not even daily — less than that) canned vollies that could have been written month earlier, and probably were.   For examples, I will just take all of the updates of the John Carter Facebook Page for the period March 16-23, a week:

  • In the film, Edgar Rice Burroughs is the nephew of John Carter. He inherits his uncle’s journal, which details Carter’s journey to a strange, new world.
  • “Leave a Thark his head and one hand and he may yet conquer.” -Tars Tarkas
  • The actors playing the nine-foot tall, green Tharks had to learn to walk on stilts to film the scenes with John Carter, giving the correct eye-line for the dialogue.
  • “Did I not tell you he could jump?” -Tars Tarkas
  • Bring Barsoom home with these John Carter items from the Disney Store.
Are you kidding me?  And it was not any better before the release — it was the same “spam-like” stuff, interchangeable with whatever was being tweeted, all feeling as if it had been written months earlier by a single intern in some Burbank Starbucks.
Hunger Games, by contrast managed at least daily updates; had all kind of special offers, free downloaded games that were actually fun, inside activities with plenty of “cool factor”
The unmistakable “takeaway” for anyone visiting the two Facebook pages was that John Carter  Facebook was a joke, and hence the movie was for dummies, and Hunger Games Facebook was hip, run by cool people, and so the movie must be cool and worth seeing.

Is there a silver lining for the now long-suffering (and likely to be much longer suffering) John Carter fans?
As disappointing as the John Carter box office results were – a factor which made them seem even worse was the particularly weak opening in the US ($30.6m) which was about as far as most media outlets looked – even though on the same weekend it brought in $70M from 55 foreign territories – a tally that actually beats the Hunger Games opening foreign total of $59.3M from 67 territories. The John Carter opening weekend total did not include China or Japan – major markets – which is another indication that globally, John Carter was not the dud that it was in the US.

Was John Carter’s relatively better performance overseas simply because overseas audiences are more disposed to this kind of film? Or was there something else? Was there better work being done by the overseas divisions?

Examples:

  • The Domestic official John Carter website, buried on the second layer of Disney Go, was probably not even in the top five of official John Carter websites.  The UK Site, the Austrailian Site, the Singaporean Site, and the German site were all better in terms of accessibility, features, and overall impact.
  • The Japanese Trailer was widely considered to be far better than any of the official Disney trailers put out by the US marketing team.
  • Individual country-specific promotions in a variety of countries all had stronger impact and appeal than anything Disney US did.

In other words — did the other Disney divisions, far from home and outside the specter of what was g0ing on in Burbank, manage to do a better job?

And what, exactly, was going on in Burbank?

There has been much speculation that internal politics may have played a role in Disney’s lackluster marketing efforts, with John Carter having been greenlit under the previous regime of Dick Cook, and with the current regime of Rich Ross never warming to the picture or perhaps even understanding it. Adding fuel to this interpretation was the January 2012 departure of  controversial Disney marketing chief MT Carney, just two months before the release of the film.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to drill down too far into that.  If indeed politics, egos, and hubris are what caused Disney to turn in such a lackluster performance, then that is a subject for another day.

Those factors aside, one thing is clear: Lions Gate today is reaping the rewards of a well planned, well executed marketing campaign while Disney is busy trying to erase the stigma of its John Carter debacle and hope that its stock prices continue to hold firm in spite of what is being called the greatest flop in cinema history, but what will ultimately be more remembered as the “Greatest Studio Blunder in Cinema History”.