5 Lessons from Hunger Games and John Carter

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From Hey, folks: sick of me talking about John Carter and The Hunger Games? Too bad! I’m going to talk about them again this week!Why? Because the two of them are in fact perfect bookends of science fiction film success: On the one hand, you’ve got The Hunger Games, which racked up $150+ million in its opening weekend, becoming the biggest non-sequel film opening ever — it’s on track to earn its studio, Lionsgate, $300 million in profit when all is said and done. On the other hand you’ve got John Carter, which cost $250 million to make and has performed poorly enough that its studio, Disney, has already declared that it expects it will take a $200 million writedown on the film. That makes it officially one of the biggest flops in movie history.Is there anything we can learn from the divergent paths of these two films? Here are a few things that occurred to me.

1. A Film That Flops Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Film
I know quite a few science fiction writers and professionals, and many of them are flummoxed by how poorly John Carter was received; the general line among the scifi cognoscenti is that it’s a fun adventure film that doesn’t deserve the abuse it’s gotten. And they’re correct: John Carteris not the best science fiction film you’ll ever see, but it’s fun and enjoyable and worth catching on the big screen.But in Hollywood — and this has always been the case — it’s not just whether a movie is good. It’s everything else around the movie as well: The marketing and gossip and even the reviews.John Carter wasn’t a bad film, but neither was it good enough to get in front of everything else about it.The flip side of this is the terrible movie that everything else makes a hit: See anyTransformers film for this. The Hunger Games could have been lackluster as a film and still have done very well; fortunately for it, it’s also generally considered a good film, which will extend its box office reach.

2. When Making a Literary Adaptation, It Helps if Audiences Are Familiar with the Source
To go back to my scifi professional friends, a lot of them knew about John Carter as a literary figure because they are generally fairly well steeped in the history of the science fiction genre; they can also tell you about Odd John and Gully Foyle and Lazarus Long, which are three other names from classic science fiction literature that will draw a complete blank in the general population. In a very interesting article on the failure of John CarterNew York magazine’s Vulture column notes that John Carter director Andrew Stanton apparently believed John Carter was a household name. In the Stanton household and in the households of science fiction nerds? Yes. Everyone else’s? Not so much.

Contrast this with The Hunger GamesThe books have sold millions — and more importantly, have sold millions in the last decade, so that even if folks in the audience hadn’t read the books, they knew someone who had, and had loved them. This was the same advantage that the Harry Potter and Twilight series had going into film adaptations. Sales and familiarity alone are not enough to make a hit — see the film of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as evidence of this — but in terms of generating excitement for a film adaptation, it’s better than not.

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  • Maybe Disney should have re-released the books before releasing the movie. Hopefully it will do this before the Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars sequels.

  • I’m sure Stanton was at odds with Disney over how to market the film, with the ideal approach probably being somewhere in the middle. However, the idea that Stanton had 100% control is absurd.

    The film was a labor of love for its director and most agree the finished product reflects that fact. The same cannot be said of the trailers, which were simply flat and uninspired. Are we really supposed to believe that they were created by someone passionate about the material?

    Sorry, not buying it. The “unnamed source” was merely throwing Stanton under the bus, imo. If Disney had wanted to heavily promote and merchandise the film, does anyone honestly believe Stanton could have stopped them from doing so?

  • Imponderables, all. My thoughts: 1) No, Stanton didn’t have final decision on marketing. Guaranteed. That one article in, sourced to one unnamed “Disney marketing mole”, is the only one saying that. He had “meaningful consultation”, that’s all — I’m sure of it. It doesn’t mean he wouldn’t make his views known, but he didn’t control it. 2) Your note about the fan trailer is completely right. He is also on video being interviewed saying the fan trailer “is the DNA of the movie we made” and obviously that means he was at odds with the other trailers. If they represented his vision, he wouldn’t be swing that. 3) Re the period-ness of it all — Disney just didn’t grasp what they needed to do to make that seem appealing. It’s not that hard to figure out how to position it as a historical/sci-fi epic and make that seem unique and fresh, particularly if you educate the audience about the history and heritage. They just didn’t want to go there.

  • I still have trouble believing Stanton had the final decision on marketing this film. If so, why would he say the fan trailer “gets it”? Disney’s response to the flop was that they need to take a modern approach to their films in the future. That statement seems to conflict with Andrew’s adamant stance that JC retain his 19th century flavor. The fact it was written in 1912 is what made me pick up the book in the first place…how could the Mouse House be so blind to the appeal of its history?

  • The oft mentioned assumption that viewers need to be fans of ERB before seeing the film has been disproved by the friends I’ve taken who had no knowledge of the original stories. And… wow, the two images that head up this article… no contest as to which one makes me want to see it’s corresponding film and which gives me NO interest whatsoever! lol!

    I will see Hunger Games on TV eventually, but regardless of it being up against my fave film, I didn’t have any interest in seeing it anyway. For me, the HG ads did nothing for me, while even the not so great JC Disney ads made me want to see it. Interestingly, my friends with no ERB knowledge had been wanting to see it due to the Disney ads, so they didn’t fail for everyone.

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