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Hunger Games vs John Carter Marketing: Time for some tough love for Disney

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The news is in – Lion’s Gate’s Hunger Games brought in a whopping $155m at the domestic box office in this, its debut weekend, making it the third highest opening weekend ever, just behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 ($168M), and The Dark Knight (158M). Hunger Games is clearly every bit the huge hit that analysts and fans have been predicting. Hunger Games’ global total was $214M, including $59.3m from 67 foreign countries, suggesting its strength in the US may not be matched in foreign territories.

By contrast, “battered” John Carter, struggling under the burden of a weak domestic opening and Disney’s announced $200m write-down (making it the biggest flop in cinema history if magnitude of loss is the measure), brought in $5m bringing its domestic total to $65m after three weekends, and a somewhat better global total of $234m.

Worse yet for Disney, Hunger Games cost $100m to make and $50m to market, while John Carter cost $250m to make and $100m to market.

How does such disparity occur?
In this corner we have Hunger Games at 150m total cost and $214M total BOG after one weekend, and in the other corner John Carter at $350m total cost $234M total BOG after three weekends.

Both are based on literary properties, both feature spectacle and adventure – so how does one do so well and the other so poorly?

First, a reality check. It is unfair to say that the task was the same for both films. It was not. If this was a poker game — Lions Gate was dealt a straight flush and Disney was chasing a full house. No one is saying John Carter should have opened at 155m like Hunger Games did. Hunger Games is arguably the most popular current book series for readers in the target demographic and that alone fueled a level of interest akin to Twilight or Harry Potter. Meanwhile, venerable old Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series, while constantly in print for 100 years and popular enough in its heyday, is not a property that brings with it major pre-existing buzz or an large-scale, established, active, and motivated fan base. (It has a motivated fan base, to be sure … but the numbers of this built-in fan base are not of the same order of magnitude as Hunger Games.) So, while Hunger Games had a ferociously enthused current readership to work with, Disney had at best a pedigree which, if promoted wisely, could turn into an asset but which could not be counted on by itself to deliver an audience.

Which, it would seem, is all the more reason for Disney to be expected to do something innovative with the marketing. John Carter was a high risk, high budget gamble that was a complicated marketing proposition. Hunger Games was a low risk, not too expensive gamble that was about a close to a “can’t miss” proposition as one is likely to find.

So, with Hunger Games in a strong position where “coasting” might be enough to get it done, and with John Carter in a very delicate position where it would all rise or fall based on the marketing — the two movie campaigns “entered the arena” of social media. Who got it, and who didn’t? The answers are painfully clear.

The Writing was on the wall 12 weeks out
A full 12 weeks prior to Hunger Games release it had almost a million Facebook Fans who were burning up the movie message boards with their chatter about the film. John Carter at the equivalent point before its release had approximately 40,000 Facebook fans. The same general percentages hold true for Twitter Followers and other social media measures. Did this just happen because Hunger Games was a current literary phenomenon? Or was there some artfulness involved in the Hunger Games social media marketing that was lacking in the case of Disney and John Carter?

Check out the following chart which John Carter Files prepared on January 5 and which provides the relative position of all the March releases as of January 1, 2012.     (Click to enlarge)

It was clear at this point that John Carter was lagging behind — and this was after two solid weeks of blitz John Carter TV ads which began on December 15 — and before any Hunger Games ads had even started playing on TV.

Not only was John Carter far behind in all categories — it had a particular problem in the area of positive/negative ratio; that is, the ratio of positive comments to negative comments on social media sites.  Hunger Games was running at 9.5/.5, while JC was running at 6.5/3.5.  Or another way of looking at it, JC had five times as many negative comments, relative to positive ones, when compared to Hunger Games.

Here’s another graphic, also prepared on January 5, which shows the scope of the problem:

Again — both the volume of chatter and the positive negative ratios show the scope of the problem.

What was Hunger Games doing so differently than John Carter?
The frustrating fact for John Carter fans is that Hunger Games social media marketing was on a completely different level from the social media marketing that Disney put forward with John Carter. With Hunger Games, there were for example 13 Facebook pages representing each of the districts in the film. It was set up so that fans could become virtual citizens of each district – and because the large novel fan base was familiar with the context – and because of various other “cool factors”, it worked.

There was no equivalent for John Carter even though Barsoom boasted the same kind of opportunity. The problem: Disney would need to educate first, in order for audiences to know. And it never did.

For Hunger Games Lions Gate created both the official @TheHungerGames account as well as a Twitter account for The Capitol, the central city in the story. The account @TheCapitolPN acted as a “welcoming site to Panem, the Capitol, and its 12 Districts”, often tweeting stories, warnings and encouragement in character. Lions Gates efforts in this regard again resonated with fans, and this amplified the buzz.  Between the two Twitter Accounts, Hunger Games had over 400,000 by opening day.

Meanwhile, the single John Carter twitter account, @JohnCarter, topped out at an anemic 9,400 followers and today, three weeks into the release, has managed a total of only largely uninspiring 240 tweets – such as: “Which John Carter character was the most exciting to see on the big screen?”, or “John Carter is now in theaters; are you going?”. Yawn.  And not only did the account put out very few tweets (something it can do via automation, meaning no one has to “mind the store” to simply put out tweets), it hardly did any retweeting at all — and retweeting is an essential tool to generate buzz.  For the entire 7 day period prior to opening day, John Carter put out 23 tweets, of which 5 were retweets.

By contrast, the official twitter account @TheHungerGames with 380,000 followers put out over 40 tweets just on opening day, and over 100 in the final week; while the secondary @theCapitolPN account put out an equivalent number and an unofficial account @Hungergames put out even more.    Collectively, the output of the Hunger Games Twitter accounts  generate numerous real interactions with fans and a real sense of an event.  Disney’s far lower output appear to be a series of tweets that were programmed into a computer in December and just allowed to broadcast at specified times up to the release. Spam, essentially. Going through the motions?

As a result — “Hunger Games” mentions on Twitter reached 1 million in the last month while John Carter mentions never reached a tenth of that.

The Facebook comparison is even more disturbing.  As with Twitter, the John Carter Facebook page confined itself to putting out occasional (not even daily — less than that) canned vollies that could have been written month earlier, and probably were.   For examples, I will just take all of the updates of the John Carter Facebook Page for the period March 16-23, a week:

  • In the film, Edgar Rice Burroughs is the nephew of John Carter. He inherits his uncle’s journal, which details Carter’s journey to a strange, new world.
  • “Leave a Thark his head and one hand and he may yet conquer.” -Tars Tarkas
  • The actors playing the nine-foot tall, green Tharks had to learn to walk on stilts to film the scenes with John Carter, giving the correct eye-line for the dialogue.
  • “Did I not tell you he could jump?” -Tars Tarkas
  • Bring Barsoom home with these John Carter items from the Disney Store.
Are you kidding me?  And it was not any better before the release — it was the same “spam-like” stuff, interchangeable with whatever was being tweeted, all feeling as if it had been written months earlier by a single intern in some Burbank Starbucks.
Hunger Games, by contrast managed at least daily updates; had all kind of special offers, free downloaded games that were actually fun, inside activities with plenty of “cool factor”
The unmistakable “takeaway” for anyone visiting the two Facebook pages was that John Carter  Facebook was a joke, and hence the movie was for dummies, and Hunger Games Facebook was hip, run by cool people, and so the movie must be cool and worth seeing.

Is there a silver lining for the now long-suffering (and likely to be much longer suffering) John Carter fans?
As disappointing as the John Carter box office results were – a factor which made them seem even worse was the particularly weak opening in the US ($30.6m) which was about as far as most media outlets looked – even though on the same weekend it brought in $70M from 55 foreign territories – a tally that actually beats the Hunger Games opening foreign total of $59.3M from 67 territories. The John Carter opening weekend total did not include China or Japan – major markets – which is another indication that globally, John Carter was not the dud that it was in the US.

Was John Carter’s relatively better performance overseas simply because overseas audiences are more disposed to this kind of film? Or was there something else? Was there better work being done by the overseas divisions?

Examples:

  • The Domestic official John Carter website, buried on the second layer of Disney Go, was probably not even in the top five of official John Carter websites.  The UK Site, the Austrailian Site, the Singaporean Site, and the German site were all better in terms of accessibility, features, and overall impact.
  • The Japanese Trailer was widely considered to be far better than any of the official Disney trailers put out by the US marketing team.
  • Individual country-specific promotions in a variety of countries all had stronger impact and appeal than anything Disney US did.

In other words — did the other Disney divisions, far from home and outside the specter of what was g0ing on in Burbank, manage to do a better job?

And what, exactly, was going on in Burbank?

There has been much speculation that internal politics may have played a role in Disney’s lackluster marketing efforts, with John Carter having been greenlit under the previous regime of Dick Cook, and with the current regime of Rich Ross never warming to the picture or perhaps even understanding it. Adding fuel to this interpretation was the January 2012 departure of  controversial Disney marketing chief MT Carney, just two months before the release of the film.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to drill down too far into that.  If indeed politics, egos, and hubris are what caused Disney to turn in such a lackluster performance, then that is a subject for another day.

Those factors aside, one thing is clear: Lions Gate today is reaping the rewards of a well planned, well executed marketing campaign while Disney is busy trying to erase the stigma of its John Carter debacle and hope that its stock prices continue to hold firm in spite of what is being called the greatest flop in cinema history, but what will ultimately be more remembered as the “Greatest Studio Blunder in Cinema History”.

14 comments

  • Thanks for your answer. I have just worked a little more on my introduction dialogue including Tars Tarkas and spinning it further. It is much closer to the novel now and I think that it would have worked better than any of Carter’s CGI-generated mega-leaps.

    TT (introducing): Your savior, Princess, our prisoner Dotar Sojat!
    DT: I’m Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium!
    JC: Helium? You mean the gas … for balloons?
    DT: Helium is a CITY: Barsoom’s TOP nation!!!
    JC: Never heard of …
    DT: Holy ignorance! Where did you go to school? I mean, even if your teachers were from Zodanga …
    JC: No, from Virginia, though I wish I’d had you, Miss … Mam … my Princess …
    DT (lips only): How dare …
    JC: Oh, I’m sorry! … My most sincere … excuses, Mylady! … Actually, I wasn’t aware, … Your Highness! … Please, teach me all about your world, Dejah Thoris!
    DT (to Tars Tarkas): You said, Dotar Sojat? Your prisoner?
    JC: No, my name is John Carter from Virginia, my … Mylady.
    DT: So, first you should learn, Dotar Sojat or John Carter from Virginia, that nobody has the right to call me “my Princess” … unless he has offered his sword and his life to fight for me.
    JC: But, … I have fought …
    DT (to Tars Tarkas): I’m afraid, you gave me a hard labor of love, Jeddak, to teach your prisoner how to behave. But since he has saved the daughter of Tardos Mors and his line of thousand Jeddaks from Helium, I just have to try my very best.

  • @ Peter – great comment. I’ll just address one little piece of it now:

    Marketing is certainly important, but numbers in your graphic show that The Lorax had even less promotion and followers on Twitter. Yet the movie fared much better at national box offices.

    Lorax is a little bit of an anomaly because it had weak Twitter but huge Facebook (900,000 on 1 Jan). The logic, I think, is that little kids aren’t tweeting but that doesn’t explain the huge Facebook number.

    It could be that Disney, accustomed to doing kiddie movies, treats Twitter the way Lorax did — as a throwaway. But for the target demographic that Disney was going after with John Carter, that would be a mistake.

  • Marketing is certainly important, but numbers in your graphic show that The Lorax had even less promotion and followers on Twitter. Yet the movie fared much better at national box offices.

    One problem of John Carter is that Stanton & Co. didn’t manage to relate to young people of the 21st century. They tried hard and they had some excellent ideas, but they didn’t really work, because they remained half-baken and not very original. Their main ideas to give the movie a more relevant plot were basically three:
    1. Carter is a weary veteran, which is a rip-off from Avatar (and many others), though I admit that Stanton did it it much better than Cameron. I really appreciated the quite subtle way this sub-plot was interwoven, while I never really managed to relate to the protagonist of Avatar.
    2. Carter, with Dejah’s help, has to find a secret device to allow his return to Earth. A not very original relic hunter mission that forces them to chase all the time after the secret of the Therns.
    3. Opposing the Therns, Carter non only saves Barsoom, but also the Earth. This is the usual James-Bond-plot since 1962, though quite weak and never turning into a focal point. Neither Barsoom appears very much doomed (if not in the words of Matai Shang), though it should, since Burroughs conceived it as a dying planet. Tow half-heartedly threatened planets add to almost no threat at all.

    In a similar way Stanton’s movie missed on several other central themes in Burroughs’ novels, most of all the human core of friendship beyond all racial, cultural, religious and other interplanetary divides (a theme much better developed in Dances with Wolves, which turns out to a large degree as a rip-off from the first half of Princess of Mars) and second Burroughs’ most modern theme, the eternal conflict between religious beliefs and scientific knowledge (suffering most of all the absence of a scientific adversary for Matai Shang among the Heliumites, where Dejah Thoris is left to do all the science alone without even one assistant).

    Coming back to the problem, how to meet the younger fans with your product, I am convinced that narration matters. Stanton’s movie relied too much on fantastic creatures and bold leaps and didn’t focus enough on relating its protagonists to each other and to the audience.

    A hero needs obstacles as a chance to grow, even in his human relations. So he needs to fight to convince his love and the public. In Stanton’s movie however it felt, as if Carter was already beloved by everyone who counts (even Matai Shang/Prof. Snape?). An orphan of ten like Harry Potter may get away with that, but a thirty-year old war veteran?

    The love story between Carter and Dejah is treated in a similar way. From the first moment they have no choice than falling in love, while this should be a process full of misunderstandings and other accidents, in other words: a conquest from planet to planet, that can’t rely only on your earth-trained muscles.

    So could it have been done better? Certainly it could, but the movie must do its part. So please, take away that awful Wikipedia-style introduction on Barsoom and imagine that John Carter and Dejah Thoris met maybe in the following way:

    DT: I’m Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium!
    JC: Helium? You mean the gas … for balloons?
    DT: Helium is a CITY: Barsoom’s TOP nation!!!
    JC: Never heard of …
    DT: Holy ignorance! Where did you go to school? I mean, even if your teachers were from Zodanga …
    JC: No, from Virginia, though I wish I’d had you, Miss … Mam … my Princess …
    DT (lips only): How dare …
    JC: Oh, I’m sorry! … My most sincere … excuses, Mylady! … Actually, I wasn’t aware, … Your Highness! … Please, teach me all about your world, Dejah Thoris!

    The effect of the dialogue might have been further enhanced by smart camera-work, showing short glimpses of Dejah’s growing irritation during his pauses and having Carter subsequently dwarved by moving the camera up and away from his face while he utters “Mam … my Princess” (they did great jump cuts in the fort, so they know how to do it).

    Such an introduction would have given their relationship not only a bit more sex-appeal, but even a quite different dynamic: the sensation of a huge distance that needs to be bridged, and more precisely from an uncomfortable position of disadvantage, since she’s a proud princess and a skeptic scientist, while he’s only an odd and ignorant prisoner of the Tharks who has yet a lot to learn (same as the audience).

    Being also a good start for a more comprehensible TRAILER, this little dialogue would have helped to relate the subject and the protagonists to the audience: schoolboys, American patriots, ignorants in geography, timid guys, girls suffering from mindless macho advances, people who never heard of Burroughs’ Barsoom (definitely the majority) and many more.

    So the answer is yes: Disney should have tried harder to teach Barsoom, but make it fun with John Carter as a companion!

  • “The problem: Disney would need to educate first, in order for audiences to know. And it never did.”

    This could be the epitaph for JC. The terrible truth is that it could have been avoided if anyone at Disney had really been emotionally invested in the project. Time may prove that internal politics at the studio caused this debacle, and not the film itself. Personally, I find it virtually impossible to believe that Disney spent 100 million dollars marketing JC. This would be a worthy subject for a book, if anyone had the heart to write it.

    Even if the film that Andrew Stanton made was not necessarily the film that I would liked to have seen, the final product deserved a better fate than it has received. As someone who grew up reading ERB, the whole thing really hurts.

  • @Pulp Hero — That’s a really good point and an ARG for John Carter would have been a no-brainer and a way to generate a “cool” factor which just never came to be. Now here’s an idea — maybe we create a fan generated ARG for John Carter now, as part of the fan buzz to keep the franchise alive. An ARG is the kind of thing you can spend millions on — or not. It depends on what the developer talent pool is among the fans and whether anybody can pull something together on a shoestring. The websites, etc, cost peanuts. Maybe I’m fantasizing …..and I know the argument would be that if the fans can just do it then it must not be that big a component of a marketing campaign, monetarily. But so much of the cost of these things is just the time of the employees or contractors, so if you have a “volunteer army”….who knows.

  • Kulan … you’re right. I’ve made the correction. The thing is — just comparing the official sites i the last week, JC put out 23 tweets of which 18 were pre-programmed marketing spam while @TheHungerGames put out 40, half re-tweets, on opening day alone. Retweets show that somebody is actually sitting there paying attention to what’s coming through and amplifying buzz by re-tweeting. And you’re right that some of the official HG tweets are bland — but not all — and there are the secondary @TheCapitolPN and @HungerGames account — the latter being unofficial but apparently connected, probably a contractor. Anyway, thanks for the correction.

  • Are you certain @hungergames is official? @thehungergames is definitely official, and many of its 1200 tweets are as bland as @johncarter’s.

  • Seeing how well done and effective the marketing campaign for THE HUNGER GAMES was it does cause one to wonder if Disney really did spend $100 million in marketing JOHN CARTER.

    I point to TRON LEGACY, a quick search on Google, search was “marketing cost for tron legacy”, brings up several articles. The first was one from Deadline.com which lists and estimated $120 million worldwide marketing costs, and a New York Times article that has an estimate of $150 million. I can believe that TRON LEGACY had a $100 million or greater marketing cost. Largely because Disney ran a fantastic ARG, Alternate Reality Game, to promote the movie over the 2010 — there were a lot of websites created just for the ARG for people to track down.

    I participated in the ARG for TRON LEGACY, called Flynn Lives, and earned a some great free swag — an Encom employee I.D., some collectible pins, a poster using an image from one of the ARG’s puzzles, some postcards with retro-style game art based on Encom games. Others were able to get Flynn’s Arcade tokens, Flynn Lives T-Shirts (lots of t-shirts given out), some folks were awarded bundles early on with cell phones, that were originally were going to be used in the ARG but later dropped, along with some other assorted swag. And a few lucky participants received a 3D printed yes, no, or neutral state but.

    And that was all on top of all the standard promotion stuff like trailers, commercials, posters, and sending actors out on the interview circuit armed with clips to run on talk shows, both daytime and late variety.

    JOHN CARTER certainly didn’t have an ARG, and I was keeping my eyes out for word of one, and there were very few interviews on the promo circuit for the movie — I certainly didn’t see or hear about any on the TONIGHT SHOW, GOOD MORNING AMERICA, and other such shows. So if Disney really spent $100 million promoting JOHN CARTER worldwide it certainly doesn’t look like it — particularly with everything done for THE HUNGER GAMES with just $50 million for marketing.

  • @Paladin …. not at all. That’s exactly the kind of scenario that could prevail in the end. But there are the “stages of grief” we have to go through and this is part of it.

    I actually think that it’s important that Disney acknowledge they blew the marketing as part of their process of gradually, maybe, coming around to a realization that a scenario like you describe could work. They need some tough love from some of us (if they’re listening, and they might be) who all a spade a spade but also maybe give some sense of what might happen if they get it right next time.

    And that’s the other part of the equation — how much money did they leave on the table this time? I don’ t think any real analyst would say that the film would have done less than $150m in the US with just adequate marketing…….So, n the belief they would get it right next time, there is some more money to factor into the equation — Disney’s share of the additional US BOG beyond the $70 or so they will get — call it 1/2 of 80m (diff between 70 and 150), then add in bigger DVD sales, bigger TV revenues, etc. There’s at least another 50m in revenue they would be more or less assured of capturing ith a sequel.

    Plus … the value of the original would improve — longterm values would be better.

    Plus they would get to amortize one-time costs over the series, so that brings the budget o the first film down (Avatar came down from 279 to 229 or something like that) when the amortization was applied.

    So no …. we still live and there may be a sequel, In our lifetime even.

  • Alright, let me admit up front that I’m a glass-half-full type guy. I just cant help it — it’s in my DNA — I dont know the word ‘quit.’ I’m guilty.

    So… there is no end to bummer stories about this movie if we want to find them — bad marketing, bad gross, on and on. But in all the doom and gloom — we cant forget that theres still this fantastic, beautiful, wonderful movie out there. If it’s as good as I think it is, its reputation will grow with time. For crying out tears — Citizen Kane was a flop!

    Okay…. maybe we finish the entire run of this film with a net loss for Disney of $150 mill. I get to this figure with a final BOG of $260, of which Disney gets 50% = $130. Add to that $130 another $70 in DVD, tv, cable, etc, and they take home $200 mill. If production and marketing cost them $350, then they lost about $150 on the deal.

    Well, how’s about this idea then: if their take-home on JC is $200 million, then next time couldnt they figure that a sequel with cut-down production costs of $150, with marketing of $50 but done better, then it would at least break even, but with a chance to actually make them money?

    Am I just being unrealistic, in denial, just wishful?

  • Well, glad to say I did my bit. In the end I directly managed to get 7 people to see the film _and_ saw it twice myself. All loved it or at the very least enjoyed it very much. Disney had a good movie for people to watch. But, as the article points out, they simply did very little to ensure average folks knew it.

  • Ha …. well for starters we can now say that John Carter is the “Highest Grossing Flop in Cinema History”. Better than “Biggest Flop in Cinema History” and makes you think for a second about what makes a flop a flop.

  • You’re right, it is COOL to like the Hunger Games… it is NOT COOL to like John Carter. The Hunger Games is all anyone talks about. My older friends (talking senior-citizens here) are even making plans to see it.

    My same-age friend who rarely takes her kids to the movies took them yesterday to see the Hunger Games. Although she knew all about the John Carter reading project and all I was doing, she never took them to see John Carter. If fact, she barely remembered me talking to her about it.

    People are clamoring to get a copy of the book. The more we look into John Carter’s marketing, the more we are not going to like what we find. One of our first conversations on IMDB had to do with what Disney could have done to make JOhn Carter seem cool and get people excited about it. We were talking about Wall-E’s Big and Large (or was it Buy and Large?) page that introduced people to Wall-E’s world. So we know they have an idea about what to do.

    The crazy part is that social media is FREE!!!!! How hard is it to get a smart person to think of cool stuff to write on a twitter or facebook page?

    It would be fun to have a fan-brainstorm of all the stuff we could do and then have it ready for when the next one (if ever) comes out. People on that Facebook page already have such good ideas.

    Or it could even be a campaign to get people to buy/rent the DVD.

    I’m sure someone could come up with a silver-lining on the word ‘flop’… do a little word-play and get this train rolling in the right direction. The excellent thing about our time in history is that people will have pretty much constant access to the film. There will be a slight lag until DVD release, but it will playing in some dollar theater somewhere until then. People can still see the movie. Like Taylor K said… box office is not important to him…. but we can still get people to see the film!

    We’ve just got to figure out how to make it cool.

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