This is a chapter from John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood. As introduction, I would just mention that one of the themes that the book explores is the role of the “influencer media” — those entertainment sites, and their readers/commenters, who follow a film like this from the earliest announcements and who lay the buzz foundation through both the articles that are written, and the comments that the active readers leave. There is some foundation-laying about all this that goes ahead of this chapter — but I think the chapter reads reasonably well as a standalone so I’m going to put it out there as some Sunday reading matter.  By the way — footnotes are indicated like this | <123> |  and can be found if you scroll to the bottom.  

By the way, there are a few interesting things going on in the background regarding the promotion and release of JCGOH (positive thing) which I will update on separately in the next few days.  I don’t mean to be mysterious — but they can’t quite be announced yet.

The First Marketing Blunder: The Title

After the announcement on January 19, 2011 that John Carter of Mars would move its release date forward from June 8 to March 9, 2012, Disney went silent once again on the publicity front. One reason was that MT Carney and her team were preoccupied first with the looming disaster that was Mars Needs Moms, and secondarily with Carney’s efforts to come to grips with both the brand misalignment she saw in JCOM, and because of the larger problem she saw — which was that in order for her to properly bring into play the kind of “brand marketing” strategies that she espoused, the title “John Carter of Mars” was a liability.

First, there was this recent history of films with “Mars” in the title doing poorly — a problem that was sure to be exacerbated when the anemic Mars Needs Moms reached theaters exactly one year ahead of JCOM.

Second, there was the reality that the pulpy, geeky, John Carter of Mars title, in Carney’s view, unnecessarily excluded large portions of the audience that would be needed if the film was to avoid being as big a disaster as Mars Needs Moms was likely to be.

Carney’s solution: drop “of Mars” from the title and go with the simple “John Carter”.

Carney organized focus group testing, the results of which supported her contention that a wider audience could be attracted by dropping “of Mars” from the title. She presented her findings to Rich Ross and got his concurrence.

That left Andrew Stanton to be convinced.

Carney found Stanton difficult to deal with, and so she proceeded cautiously. In late 2010, the first work on a what would eventually become the first trailer was begun, and members of the team visited Stanton and presented their work, which Stanton rejected on a number of occasions. One production team member familiar with the early trailers brought in said: “They were all one version or another of ‘in a world where … ’ generic trailers and Andrew was all about it not being generic. Then on January 27, 2011, a week after announcing the March 9 release date switch, Disney hired Frank Chiocchi, an EVP of marketing at Universal whom Hollywood reporter called “one of the best in the business in regards to trailers” as the new head of creative media for all live-action titles, reporting directly to MT Carney.123 Chiocchi had come up through the ranks of the industry, staring in radio in Phoenix, then owning an ad agency there. He moved into film marketing in 1996 with top agency CMP (now called mOcean”, then moved to Universal in 2002 where he oversaw both print and audio visual campaigns. He was assigned to deal with Stanton.

Chiocchi, with Stanton’s blessing, brought in Joseph Tamusaitis, an award winning creative director whose previous work included the trailer for Pixar’s “Up” and Disney’s “Prince of Persia”.

Over a period of several months Chiocchi and Tamusaitis struggled to find an approach to the trailer that Stanton would accept. Finally in March, during reshoots at the La Playa stage near LAX, Tamusaitis showed up with a completely new version using Peter Gabriel’s “My Body is a Cage”, and it was instantly “problem solved” for Stanton. From that point forward, work on the teaser trailer went smoothly, at least from Stanton and the production team’s standpoint. “It was a clear break-through moment and everyone felt it would work — and Andrew clearly felt justified in having been hard-headed about it,” explained one of those present on the production side.

The trailer was clearly not the one that Carney had wanted to put out there; the earlier efforts which Stanton had nixed, and which were much closer to the eventual main theatrical trailer that would hit screens December, represented her take on what was needed.

Did Stanton have the power to veto the trailers that the marketing team were presenting to him?  Technically, no — he did not have absolute veto power. He had, as is standard practice in studio director contracts,  “meaningful consultation” on trailers, key art, and so on – but not absolute approval.   In sending the trailer back to be re-worked again and again, Stanton was treading a fine line, but he felt justified in pushing for the all important “first impression” to be different.

As for Chiocchi and Tamusaitis — they were caught between their need to satisfy two bosses who had different views, Stanton and Carney. The dynamic of a first time director trumping a studio marketing chief was an unusual one — but it was an unusual situation. The marketing chief was inexperienced and overloaded; Stanton had the Pixar “clout factor” working in his favor, and it was still early days so on the first trailer, Stanton was largely given his way. MT Carney and her team weren’t in love with it — they felt it focused too much on the love story, and there wasn’t enough action in it, and especially not enough eye-popping special effects (even though this is a common problem with most “first trailers” for VFX laden films — the major VFX shots often aren’t ready by the time the first teaser trailer comes out). By late May 2011 the trailer had been approved and was set for a July debut.

After the prickly experience with the trailer, Carney left it to Rich Ross to break the news to Stanton about the title change. The meeting occurred soon after the trailer had been locked, and was one of the few face to face meetings between Ross and Stanton during the three year production of JCOM. Ross explained Carney’s theory that “of Mars” was narrowing the audience unacceptably, and that focus group testing confirmed that reducing the title to “John Carter” would open it up to a larger audience.

Stanton was taken aback.  He had been the originator of the title change from “A Princess of Mars”, the title of Burroughs’ book, to John Carter of Mars, claiming that he felt that “Princess” in the title of a Disney made movie would drive the male audience away.  But he had never contemplated dropping “of Mars”.

“Stanton bristled at first; he wasn’t in love with the title change at all. But it was presented to him as a done deal — not an item for his approval, and his only option other than accepting it would have been to throw a tantrum and threaten to quit. He didn’t do that. He accepted it, ” said a senior member of the production team who was among the early group to hear from Stanton about the meeting with Ross. “After giving it some thought, he eventually concluded that from a creative point of view John Carter becomes “John Carter of Mars” through the course of the first movie, and that helped him make his peace with it on a creative level.”

When giving interviews in 2011, Stanton, putting forward a united front with the studio, gave the impression that he had been the author of the name change but later, Stanton gave a more definitive explanation for what had happened, and how: <124>

At the time there was panic about Mars Needs Moms. That wasn’t convincing to me to do anything. Then they did all this testing and found out that a huge bulk of people were saying no off the title. You can’t lie about that stuff, that’s the response you’re getting. I was like ‘Eh, that’s what the movie is.’ But I don’t want to hurt people from coming to the movie. Then I realized the movie is about that arc [of John Carter’s character], and I said, ‘I’ll change it if you let me change it at the end. And if you let me keep the JCM logo.’ Because it means something by the end of the movie, and if there are more movies I want that to be what you remember. It may seem like an odd thing, but I wanted it to be the reverse Harry Potter. With the latest Harry Potter they had Harry Potter and the Blah Blah Blah Blah, but you just see the HP. I wanted the JCM to mean something.

Up until now Stanton and the production team had been referring to the project as JCOM. Now that “of Mars” was gone, they would begin referring to it as ‘Carter.

At Disney, with the decision to change the title now in place, the focus shifted to the question of how and when to announce it — and how to make sure that it was received positively.

In this, Carney’s inexperience played a role.

A Watershed Moment — The Roots of Negativity
The announcement of the title change was by far the biggest “marketing moment” of the campaign up to this point. It was a decision which, it could be reasonably assumed, would be second guessed by many of the influencers whom Disney needed to maintain as allies, and who had been following the movie for years, always as John Carter of Mars.<125>

The solution selected by MT Carney was to leak the information to Garth Franklin of Dark Horizons, who in turn tweeted about it: “John Carter of Mars is now just ‘John Carter’”.<126>

Reaction to the title change was uniformly hostile across the dozen or so entertainment outlets that reported it. Adam Chitwood at Collider.com called it “disappointing. ”<127>   At CinemaBlend Eric Eisenberg called it “quite confounding.”128   GeekTyrant’s Joey Paur called it “stupid” and a “brain fart,” adding: “That’s a boring title and it’s just distanced itself even further from the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic novels from which the film was adapted. So how is that helping the movie? It’s not.”<129>

Slashfilm’s Germain Lussier wrote: <130>
Double Academy Award-winning director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E, Andrew Stanton, is currently working on his first foray into live action, an adaptation of the classic sci-fi fantasy novel John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. For some reason, though, Disney has now changed the title from that to “Gary Carter,” the Hall Of Fame catcher for the 1986 New York Mets. No, I’m sorry. I meant John Carter. That’s the new official title. For real.

Clearly and unequivocally, the title change had landed with a thud.

It was time for a little damage control.

THE ‘REPUTATION MANAGEMENT’ THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN
As an executive familiar with digital marketing best practices, Carney’s team would be expected to have been paying attention to not only the articles by entertainment journalists and bloggers — but also the comments by readers, as well as comments on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks and micro-blogs. Such monitoring — with quick response capabilities ready to be deployed — is a standard feature of what is most commonly referred to as “reputation management” — the reputation being that of the brand that is in play, in this case, “John Carter.”

Echo Research <131>, one of the top Reputation Management providers, describes the tools normally employed to monitor reputation, include: “competitive benchmarking, reputation scorecards, key performance indicators, journalist surveys, media content analysis, new media measurement….. reputation survey and analysis, PR and communications measurement and rating methodologies”. Software programs that are readily available and used by studios and independent distributors allow the studio to monitor the “chatter”, assess how much buzz is being generated, and quickly determine the positive/negative ratio. It is widely considered to be an important corporate tool — and particularly so when dealing with a theatrical release, where there are no “do-overs”.  Recognizing a “reputation problem” and taking steps to correct it is a critical function, and one which — on something as sensitive as changing the name of a brand — would normally be expected to be a high priority for any company, and especially so for a $250M theatrical film.

Aside from the negative comments by the influencers who posted their articles — what sort of reader comments were appearing on the sites covering the name change?

The comments on the Slashfilm article typical of the reaction across the influencer media spectrum: <132>

Ken C: John Carter? That’s the one where Samuel L Jackson plays a basketball coach, right? ??Octoberist: John Carter sounds generic while ‘John Carter of Mars’ sounds more pulpy and kinda bold. Bad move, and I hope Disney changes it back.

DNW: The should, but they won’t. Rapunzel became Tangled, The Bear & The Bow became Brave…it’s a trend.??The Dead Burger: I need to pay more attention to John Carter; I just noticed that Stanton directed my two favorite Pixar movies. Gotta put that one on my list.

Marley L: In Andrew Stanton I Trust….

Andreas C: The only reason I can see to change the title of “John Carter of Mars” would be that simply “John Carter” could work better with sequels, but aside from that, the title change makes no sense at all. Very odd.??Monster Killed the Pilot: ‘John Carter’ will look lame on the movie poster.

Ian T: If I were at Disney, I’d be afraid people assumed John Carter was that guy from the Terminator movies.??Mudassir C: or the doctor from ER??VSK: Did they mean John Carter the ER doctor???VL: The bad news just keeps rolling in.  Andrew Stanton has done plenty to earn trust, don’t get me wrong, but everything (except the Giacchino score) sounds like this is going in the wrong direction.

The net result? Carney had tried to reposition the film in a more favorable way for the millions of non-geek, non-influencer, non-fanboy viewers who would never hear of the film until much closer to the release date. In so doing, she had sowed the seeds of distrust and disappointment among the early influencer audience who tracked movies far in advance; commented on blogs; wrote about them on message boards, Facebook, and Twitter, and generally set the tone, positive or negative, that would become the “buzz foundation” long before the casual audience that was the target of the name change even started paying attention. It was an entirely predictable response.

The question then becomes — were Carney and her team paying attention to the reaction? Once the negatives starting rolling in, what sort of countermeasures were taken?

Strangely enough, Carney — hired in part because of her presumed expertise in digital marketing — did not consider the influencers to be important enough to warrant either monitoring or countermeasures — this in spite of the fact that in 2011 when this was happening, it was standard practice among studios and other high profile providers of consumer products to actively monitor such influencer reaction and comment chatter.  Carney gave no instructions for active monitoring; set up no mechanism to monitor the “brand reputation” in social media channels, and no countermeasures were introduced.

An obvious move that not only would have helped as a countermeasure, but would have clearly been a much more effective way of rolling out the news in the first place, would have been to have director Andrew Stanton make the announcement in an interview or release that included an explanation for the reasoning behind it. Stanton did weigh in and try to tamp down the damage — but only via the “edit bay” interviews that took place a month after the title change was announced, and which were embargoed by Disney until July 11, by which time any ability to affect the flow of negativity had been lost.<133>

There is no evidence that Disney either actively monitored the response, or took any countermeasures. No one from Disney went on record with any explanation; no one from the production weighed in until Andrew Stanton’s comments appeared almost two months later on July 11. There was no second wave of articles from bloggers stating a more favorable attitude toward the name change (something that would typically reflect a ‘reputation management’ effort as Disney publicists reached out to bloggers and entertainment journalists).

Meanwhile the negative response to the name change was a watershed moment in the unfolding image of the film. It was a moment when a willing and cooperative audience of key influencers went from a positive orientation supportive of the film, to doubting naysayers who would, increasingly, question everything they saw or heard about the film.

Why was it handled so awkwardly?

Regardless of the “why” of it, the “what” was clear enough: MT Carney, hired in part because of her expertise in social media and new media marketing, failed to anticipate the negative reaction and when it came, failed to employ reputation management best practices.

Disney’s status as a capable steward of the project had taken a hit, and the credibility of the entire enterprise had been knocked down a substantial notch. But the moment for countermeasures had passed. It was on to the next phase of the campaign — one which would see the unveiling of the first poster, the first trailer, and many other firsts that would set the tone for the film’s ultimate reception.

Meanwhile, Stanton was wrestling with the completion of the film itself.

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Footnotes

123. Pamela McClintock, “Disney Hiring Marketing Maven Frank Chiocchi (Exclusive),” The Hollywood Reporter, 27 Jan 2011, 3 Sep 2012 <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/blogs/risky-business/disney-hiring-marketing-maven-frank-84276>.

124. Devin Faraci, “Andrew Stanton Explains Why It’s Still John Carter of Mars … Technically,” Badass Digest, 29 Feb 2011, 2 Sep 2012 <http://badassdigest.com/2012/02/29/andrew-stanton-explains-why-its-still-john-carter-of-mars-technically/>

125. Both Paramount from 2000-2006, and Disney before that from 1986-2000, had settled on John Carter of Mars as the title for the film.

126. Garth Franklin, Dark Horizons Twitter Feed, 23 May 2011, 2 Sep 2012, <https://twitter.com/darkhorizons/status/72573086767132672>.

127. Adam Chitwood, “Title Changes: John Carter of Mars Becomes John Carter,” Collider.com, 23 May 2011, 2 Sep 2012, < http://collider.com/john-carter-of-mars-title-in-time/92540/>.

128. Eric Eisenberg, “John Carter of Mars Now Just John Carter; Andrew Niccol’s Now Retitled In Time,” Cinemablend, 23 May 2011, 2 Sep 2012 <http://www.cinemablend.com/new/John-Carter-Of-Mars-Now-Just-John-Carter-Andrew-Niccol-s-Now-Retitled-In-Time-24846.html>.

129. Joey Paur, “Disney Changes the Title of John Carter of Mars to John Carter,” Geek Tyrant, 23 May 2011, 3 Sep 2012 <http://geektyrant.com/news/2011/5/23/disney-changes-the-title-for-john-carter-of-mars-to-john-car.html>.

130. 130 Germain Lussier, “Title Changes for Former ‘John Carter of Mars,’ ‘Now’ and ‘Still I Rise,” Slashfilm, 23 May 2011, http://www.slashfilm.com/title-john-carter-mars-now-still-rise/

131. Echo Research 20012, 4 Sep 2012 <http://www.echoresearch.com/us/services/corporate-reputation-management/>.

132. It is impractical to cite the comments from all 20 or so of the articles that appeared; however in researching this, each article and the comment threads were examined and the one chosen is typical of the totality of the response.

133. Meredith Woerner, “Everything You Need to Know about Disney’s John Carter Movie,” i09, 11 July 2011, 2 Sep 2012 (http://io9.com/5819836/>.