What John Carter Can Teach Us About Marketing

As the year ends, blogosphere and conversation among movie fans will be focused on enumerating the cinematic achievements of 2012. And amid the accolades and fanfare for the best actors, directors and just flat-out great films, talk/posts are sure to turn to subject of John Carter.

Hollywood-watchers love a good bomb almost as much – much, much more in many cases – as a towering success or masterful artistry. In this era of precise marketing by the big studios, a fully-acknowledged financial bomb like “John Carter” is becoming increasingly rare. Quite simply put, the great majority of film projects seen through completion and release turn a profit.

So why did Disney’s planned blockbuster sci-fi flick fail so epically? John Carter defenders point out that audiences didn’t hate the film per se. The movie currently has an OK score of 6.7 at IMDB and the 61% mark at Rotten Tomatoes makes it “fresh” enough.

It could be as simple as not having followed three very basic tenets of business & marketing, namely:

  • Know your subcontractors. John Carter earned about $254 million in U.S.box office (the draw worldwide essentially a trickle); the budget was $250 million, about the max film budget but not outrageous. What was outrageous was the $100 million devoted to marketing which altogether missed the target group – more on this shortly. Additionally, in creating the shooting budget, director/scriptwriter Andrew Stanton and his producers envisioned a script that reportedly included more animation than Wall-E or Finding Nemo. Had Disney managed its contractees a bit more hands-on, the budget could easily have been trimmed and the profit-margin raised.
  • Know your audience. Disney’s intention was to sell John Carter primarily to the 18-to-25 market, but surveys showed that almost 60% of opening-weekend Carter-goers were above this age and the average viewer of the film was over 40. Did you know that 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the character’s creation? Of course not (unless you are a serious sci-fi head, in which case you were likely to see the flick anyway)! Disney couldn’t come out and market the product on this basis because unlike, say, 75-year-old Superman or 125-year-old Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character hasn’t enjoyed prominence in pop culture since the heyday of radio. It’s quite difficult to excite film-goers about a character their grandfathers might remember – so why not try to attract the fortysomethings and up with the promise of a science-fiction romp?
  • Finally, sometimes you just have to know your weak point. It’s natural for marketers to cheerlead any product or project, but in managing marketing, a little realism goes a long way.   Disney may have removed the red planet from the movie’s title, but that wasn’t enough to save it from the Mars Curse, i.e. aside from Total Recall (1990) featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger at his career peak, any film about Mars has a bad habit of bombing. Take a look at the track record: Mars Needs Moms, Mars Attacks, Ghosts from Mars,Mission to Mars … even this year’s Colin Farrell remake of the Governator’s fun flick took in a disappointing $60 million in the ‘States.

Perhaps nothing could have made John Carter a franchise-spawning megahit for Disney, but scaling back on expectations and shooting budget might have the marketers’ jobs in selling this nearly incomprehensible script saddled with a forgettable hero quite a bit easier.