'John Carter' of Where? Disney's Bad Marketing Mars Launch of a Fun Sci-Fi Romance

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John CarterDisney's (DIS) new sci-fi epic John Carter performed poorly at the box office on its opening weekend, garnering only $30.6 million in ticket sales. It's said to have cost more than $250 million to make. Adding insult to injury, the film failed to dislodge the previous weekend's winner from the top spot: The Lorax beat John Carter by $8.5 million.

For weeks, movie industry watchers have been commenting about the woeful inadequacy of Disney's marketing campaign for John Carter. The Daily Beast ran a long, extensively reported story detailing the uninformative billboards, incoherent trailers and foolhardy title alterations that plagued the attempt to sell the movie. "Although the character has been known as 'John Carter of Mars' and was envisioned as a movie trilogy under that name, Disney marketers dropped the 'of Mars' part," the Beast reports, "because of industry-think holding that female movie fans are more likely to be turned off by such overtly sci-fi elements."

So, to avoid that peril, Disney left its massive film, based on generally unfamiliar source material -- the Edgar Rice Burroughs's 1917 novel A Princess of Mars -- with a title that gives no hint of what it might be about.

John Carter

Harry Knowles, proprietor of Ain't It Cool News, pointed out the terrible irony that Disney of all companies should fail to see the potential appeal of a title with the word "princess" in it. "You see, Disney is selling this like it's a crazy action film," Knowles writes, "and there is crazy action in this... [but] what I love most is that the story is still a romance."

Which might have appealed to those female moviegoers Disney was so concerned about turning off. Instead of emphasizing the romance -- which is engagingly performed by the two lead actors, Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins -- Disney's trailers focused on a desert arena battle that bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to a sequence from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

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The predictable result was a lack of interest -- even of awareness -- among the ticket-buying public. But consider Disney's response to the box office letdown: "Unfortunately, [John Carter] failed to connect with audiences as much as we had all hoped," said Rich Ross, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, in a statement released on Sunday.

That isn't what happened at all. Ross doesn't yet know how the film has connected with audiences; he'll have to wait for word of mouth to disseminate before he can make that determination. All he knows is that the advertising failed to connect. But apparently, to Ross, there is no difference -- or maybe marketing is all there is?

The Blame Game

"Moviemaking does not come without risk," Ross' statement read. "It's still an art, not a science, and there is no proven formula for success. Andrew Stanton is an incredibly talented and successful filmmaker who with his team put their hard work and vision into the making of 'John Carter.'"

These words are utterly mournful, completely defeatist. Ross doesn't even stick up for his product, only for the people behind it -- suggesting that Disney execs can't be blamed for having entrusted the property to Stanton. (Astonishingly, ads for John Carter failed to mention that the movie was co-written and directed by the man who brought you WALL-E, one of the most popular films of this century.) There is no possibility, in Ross's interpretation, that the underperforming film might actually be good, that it might be able to attract viewers on its own strength, rather than via the power of PR.

Disney's head of distribution, Dave Hollis, sounded slightly more optimistic: "We would have hoped for more considering the larger economics of the film but are still encouraged with how it's been received by audiences that have seen it and hope to see that generate positive word of mouth for the balance of the run." And that is what is likely to happen -- for, as A.O. Scott, chief film critic for The New York Times, noted, John Carter is "messy and chaotic... but also colorful and kind of fun." That "kind of" is the professional critic's obligatory hedge; audiences are more unabashed. (John Carter is currently rated 7.0 out of 10 by users on the Internet Movie Database.)

In a separate, widely-cited article -- cruelly titled 'Ishtar' Lands on Mars -- the Times reports that "Disney will be forced to take a quarterly write-down of $100 million to $165 million" because of John Carter, citing unnamed analysts. Don't necessarily believe it: Despite all the anti-Mars alarmism, John Carter has a decent shot at being one of those rare movies that picks up steam as its run continues. Even all this bad, bottom-line crazed press could be beneficial, stirring up some curiosity. It's a better ad campaign than what Disney devised.

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