Disney’s big budget fantasy film John Carter earned a disappointing $70 million in its opening weekend. Even with an overseas profit of $70 million, that tally barely approaches the film’s $250 million budget, and commentators are suggesting that Disney may have to take a “write off” on the sci-fi epic.
Yet a glance at casual moviegoer comments and internet reviews seems to present a decidedly positive reaction to the film. Overall, people liked it.
So what happened?
A large part of John Carter’s lackluster opening weekend performance arose from a marketing campaign that seemed unable to reach the movie’s target audience. Instead of highlighting the film’s characters, plot, or themes, previews struck a decidedly frenetic tone, focusing primarily on a scantily clad main character…fighting. The previews failed to reach the crowd who flock to Zack Snyder’s films because they didn’t demonstrate the visceral, beautifully filmed violence that appeals to that audience. The previews failed to reach families, Disney’s core audience, because they seemed to depict a far more “adult” action film. The previews failed to reach the audience who made Disney’s Tron so successful because they didn’t sell a sci-fi story or tap into something already established in culture. The previews, in short, missed every target audience.
John Carter is a worthy addition to Disney’s film library. Andrew Stanton, of Pixar fame, is a strong director who has learned the lessons of emotional connection and of subjugating effects to story. A personal fan of Burroughs’ pulp series, Stanton gave a loving fanboy treatment to his material, honoring the vibrant spirit and the brilliant ideas of his source. Viewers liked John Carter because it was fun. It used its effects beautifully. It restrained the graphic nature of its violence to family-friendly levels. It honored morals like family and honor.
But it didn’t sell tickets, and that presents a problem. Ever since Disney’s runaway success with 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean, the company has been active in the pursuit of the elusive blockbuster. John Carter was yet another bid to tap into the audience that won them that earlier success. With it, Disney half succeeded – they made a strong film that will no doubt find success in video releases, but they forgot several essential lessons:
1.) Not everyone knows the source material. For me, John Carter was an instant “must see.” I love Burroughs’ pulp novels, and I couldn’t wait to see the material on the big screen. Before the opening weekend numbers came out, I was pulling for Pellucidar and Tarzan to ride in the wake of Carter’s success. But Edgar Rice Burroughs and his pulp heroes are no longer part of popular culture, and most fans had no idea what kind of film Disney was producing. Properties like Pirates of the Caribbean are already well established – they arrived on an already-extant wave of popular culture. John Carter lacked that, and Disney’s marketing failed to consider that fact.
2.) Make it clear whether you can bring the family. John Carter was as much an adventure movie as a sci-fi or action film, but you would never have known it from the trailers. Instead of playing to the family demographic – the film was just about as appropriate as Indiana Jones or Avatar – the marketing played to the action and violence crowd. Perhaps a little more revelation concerning Burroughs two great themes – the nobility of man and the faithfulness of love – in the film might have won a wider demographic.
3.) People really do care about characters. In a world where Transformers and Project X go big at the box office, some marketers seem to feel that explosions and beefcake are everything, and moviegoers don’t care about character and plot. While that may be true for some of the population, many moviegoers, and particularly parents, do care about the substance of a film. Indiana Jones was iconic because of…well…Indiana Jones. John Carter’s marketing failed to show viewers that those 4-armed aliens were a lot more than a nifty CG trick or another “native” reference; they were important characters. They failed to show the emotional center of the film or the fact that it dealt with far more than beating up random creatures amidst computer generated scenery.
In the end, all Disney’s marketing department can do is learn a lesson. The performance of John Carter on opening weekend was far less about the quality of the film than about its marketing to its audience. And, in a media-saturated culture, that is a failure that Disney cannot afford to keep making. Like The Princess and the Frog, John Carter lost out because of a marketing department that cannot seem to find its target.
What do you think? Did you see John Carter? Was it worthwhile? Did Disney marketing hit its mark with the publicity?