Dear John, If Only You’d Told Your Story, We Might Have Come

It probably isn’t a surprise to anyone that JOHN CARTER opened so poorly at just over $30 million.  Disney marketers can take some solace from the markets outside of the US, where the take was around $70 million with the biggest opening ever in Russia.  The shame is that it probably didn’t have to be that bad.  Because there were so many challenges inserted by the marketing team themselves, they lost sight of the story.  If they had focused more on that, perhaps more people might have come to see it.

I can understand their reported concern about mentioning Mars in the title due to some concerns – perhaps unfounded – about people’s perceptions of titles with Mars in it.  But the Mars comps I was hearing were kid’s animated titles – not epic ones like this?  And, with the change to a name like John Carter, isn’t it a no-brainer that you would/should focus everything on conveying who he is?  Even with the fan-made trailer that was better than anything the marketing team put out doesn’t really provide any emotional connection to the character.  It does provide context of where he’s from and, possibly, how he got there, but not much more.

From my understanding, Disney was floundering with how to promote it and became wishy-washy about placement and focus and even relied more on lamenting its qualities.  I don’t buy that hinging a huge picture on a less-recognizable name or less-known source is what the main problem was. In some markets, the blame game had already begun, leaving me to shake my head at the larger international numbers. The marketing seemed to become a grabbing of straws – do we go after kids and show the dog-looking character?  Do we go after the action fan and show battle sequences?  Do we post humongous billboards with battle scenes and retro B-movie design motif or humongous billboard with a four-armed alien amidst an entirely different design motif?

Amidst all of that, there was still nothing about John Carter, the character- or anything that people cared about.  During the same opening weekend, a small film opened with very direct marketing to gain $7 million at the box office.  SILENT HOUSE didn’t hide what it was and went after that crowd with a vengeance.  They’ve got to be pretty happy with the opening weekend return.  Did Disney think they had an epic, so therefore they just needed to be big and hammer at no-one in particular? If you’re going to be sci-fi, tell a sci-fi story.  If you’re going to be an otherworldly fish-out-of-the-water love story, tell it. Paralysis is not an option for storytelling and maybe the testing and second-guessing internally led to that paralysis here.

The books by Edgar Rice Burroughs a century ago were the forefront and inspiration of so many of our beloved stories – from STAR WARS to AVATAR and more. It is truly sad that the story so many storytellers derived their stories from could do no better than seem like a derivative of all those who came after it.  The campaign tried to do everything but tell its own story and it will have nothing to show for it other than the piling on about what the marketing group did or didn’t do – and that isn’t good for anybody in the industry. Just tell the damn story…

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