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Special Report: John Carter, the Flop that Wasn’t a Turkey (Part 3)

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This is Part 3 of the Series: John Carter, the Flop that Wasn’t a Turkey.  If you missed them, here are links to Part One and Part Two.

January 2011: The Re-shoots Take Shape

The December 2010   screening of a 170 minute John Carter rough cut to Stanton’s Pixar “Braintrust” headed by John Lasseter and Joe Docter, plus Disney Execs Sean Bailey and Brigham Taylor, did not generate rave reviews — but Stanton and his team had not expected that.  They had worked together before and gone through the long road to a successful movie, and for the Braintrust to react with unqualified raves would have been distinctly out of character; moreover, the entire purpose of the exercise was to get feedback that could help improve the movie — not simply to get affirmation that it was good.

Importantly, the consensus was that there was wholeheartedly endorsement of Stanton’s transformation of John Carter’s character from the Galahad-like “perfect knight” of the Burroughs books, to a conflicted, war-damaged  widower who is lost and who eventually finds purpose on Barsoom — but only after rejecting the opportunity to fight for a cause for 3/4 of the movie.  This was a change that would prove highly controversial among the small but intense group of lifetime Edgar Rice Burroughs fans who would ultimately react to the film with passion, but whose views. while considered worthy of respectful consideration,  were ultimately deemed largely irrelevant by both Stanton and Disney.  Said one production professional with a front row seat to the creative decision-making: “It was a $250m gamble to get modern audiences who have no knowledge of the source material to buy into it; pleasing a few thousand lingering fans  from the sixties who are passionate advocates of the original material in all its specificity just couldn’t be a major consideration.  Be respectful, yes. Let them dictate the treatment of the story, no.”

While the Braintrust group critique found John Carter’s character to be on track, there was concern about Lynn Collin’s portrayal of Martian Princess Dejah Thoris.  Stanton had been adamant from the beginning that he wanted to strengthen Collin’s character, including presentation of her as a warrior capable of holding her own in hand to hand combat, and Collins, who was both a Julliard trained actress and a lifelong martial arts student, had “the right stuff” to fulfill the more aggressive side of her character.  But Dejah Thoris is also intended to be the “incomparable” princess — the most desirable woman on two worlds — and the calibration of feistiness on the one hand, and feminine allure on the other, had skewed too much toward the former.

Another area that came in for criticism included the opening Barsoom scene, which centered on Dejah Thoris displaying her 9th ray machine and included what the Braintrust collectively felt was too much exposition for the audience to absorb — Barsoomian politics and science, mostly.  It was suggested that this be simplified or even cut — with the latter suggestion being that Stanton consider following Edgar Rice Burroughs’ lead and have the view experience Barsoom only through John Carter — traveling there with him, and learning about it as he learns about it.  Stanton was strongly against this:  “That’s lazy thinking, guys,” Stanton replied. “If I do that, then thirty minutes in I’m going to have to stop the film to explain the war, and Dejah, and who everyone is, and we’re going to have even bigger problems.”

But while Stanton resisted changing the opening in such a major way, he proved generally responsive to the other suggestions  as to how to “plus” the film — “plus” being the Pixar term for the process by which a film is relentlessly improved as it moves from stage to stage in the journey from development to a finished film.

After the holidays Stanton went back to work.  Each morning there was a teleconference with the UK based VFX team, with Stanton’s animation background coming into play as he issue extremely detailed instructions and suggestions to ‘plus’ the animation and effects.    Afternoons were spent with the editing team headed by Eric Zumbrunnen, working out the shots and scenes that would be included in the reshoot.

The Marketing Wars Begin

It was at this point, in the early months of 2011, that the marketing for John Carter moved to the front burner and serious interaction between the Disney marketing and the production began to occur.   With less than a year to go until the March 9, 2012 release, and with the basic film in the can — albeit with virtually all of the VFX shots still in “work-in-progress” state, it was time for the marketing team to start moving into high gear.

Unbeknownst to Stanton and his team, a strategic decision had already been made at the highest level of Disney Studios that John Carter between studio chief Rich Ross and marketing head MT Carney that John Carter, despite its $250M budget, would not get the benefit of high-octane, highly creative,  merchandising, licensing, and shared-interest cross promotions that typically accompany films at the highest budget level.   The decision reflected the prominence of the Marvel portfolio, acquired after John Carter had been greenlit by former studio chief Dick Cook, and in particular the expected mega-blockbuster release of The Avengers in May, two months after John Carter.   More than anything else, this decision dealt a death blow to John Carter’s prospects in the market place.  It left John Carter — the potential franchise that was in need of all the marketing help it could get, because it was not “pre-sold” in the way that other franchises, including The Avengers, come with a built-in audience.  And yet the decision was to deny it the full force of Disney’s marketing capability.

So John Carter was in line for a reasonably muscular marketing spend of $100M worldwide; but that spend would address only the basics — trailers, TV spots, billboards, radio, print ads, and publicity, plus a basic package of online elements: nothing fancy, nothing special, nothing innovative.  Just the basic stripped down model of a movie marketing campaign.  The decision to authorize a production investment of the highest level at $250m, then not support it with the kind of all-out marketing effort needed to make such an investment pay off, is one of the central mysteries in the Disney John Carter saga — and is the blow that doomed the film to almost certain failure at the box office.  It reflected that as early as the fall of 2010, without having yet seen any of Stanton’s material, Disney was prepared to allow John Carter to fail unless Stanton could come up with such a gem that it would somehow succeed, in spite of the budget, on the strength not of marketing, but critical acclaim and word of mouth endorsements.

The first major marketing salvo would be the release of the first trailer in July 2011, around the time of Comic-con, the summertime geekfest that experts consider an essential platform for the promotion of a sci-fi tentpole like John Carter.  The initiative for the trailers came from Disney, as, beginning in January 2011, marketers from Burbank began to make the trek to Emeryville with draft versions of the trailer for Stanton and his team to review and comment on.

Stanton, like any director of a film of this scale, had his hands full solving the riddle of the actual movie itself.   With Lasseter and Pixar at his back, however, it was a given that Disney marketing would seek his concurrence on the way the film was dropped into the marketplace.  That concurrence did not come easily, or quickly.

“The first trailers were just typical ‘in world where…..’ kind of approaches, and Andrew was adamant that the first trailer needed to create an impression of uniqueness that the early drafts simply didn’t convey,” says a member of the Emeryville team who witnessed the rejections by Stanton, who  was very clear about his reasons for sending the Burbank team back to the drawing board repeatedly:

 We were not nice citizens—we kept saying it wasn’t good enough. It felt like other trailers; it felt like other movies. Steve Jobs told me a great thing once: “You only make a first impression once.”  

According to a Disney marketing insider, MT Carney, who did not have a great deal of direct contact with Stanton at this early stage, grew frustrated with the rejections came to regard Stanton as an impediment to her team’s efforts, rather than an enabler.    She lamented the lack of completed “money shots” for the first trailer.   A member of the production team observed: “But they had access to everything and could order any shot fast-tracked and we would try to accommodate them.  It never surfaced as a big issue — tho is just normal production coordination.  If the study needs this or that shot for a trailer, they ask, the production gets it to them.”

Aside from the trailer, a curious decision that emerged during the early months of 2011 was that John Carter would not make a presentation at Comic-con, but rather would attend the Disney D-23 convention.  Comic-con brings together 125,000 geeks who blog and comment throughout the internet and can go a long way towards establishing either positive or negative buzz for a project.  John Carter was 16 months into production, and 9 months from release, when Comic-con happened and it was incomprehensible to most in the geek-genre community why Disney would skip such an important touchstone.

Missing Comic-con was a decision that emanated from Disney, but Stanton did not fight it.  Stanton has long been concerned about “spoilers” and giving away too much before a film comes out, and he accepted Disney’s judgment to ditch Comic-con without making it an issue.

By February a decision had been made at Disney to shorten the title from John Carter of Mars, to simply John Carter.  The argument for this was reportedly based upon testing results that showed female audiences were repelled by the reference to Mars.  But there was a larger issue.  MT Carney came from the world of marketing packaged goods, and the concept of “brand marketing” with a concentration on name, image, logo, was a key component to the directive begin given to the marketing team.   John Carter of Mars became “John Carter”, and then, not insignificantly, “Disney John Carter” as resources were marshaled to begin  “selling the brand”, even though at that point, Stanton didn’t even know about the name change and Disney knew that without his acquiescence the change would be difficult to implement.

And so the relationship between Stanton and MT Carney– and the production team and marketing department — got off to a  sputtering start in the first quarter of 2011 even as Stanton and company focused on all the ways they could hope to “plus” the movie within the limited confines of a reshoot originally scheduled for 6 days, and expanded to 12 — with that reshoot scheduled for March on the Playa Vista stage near LAX, where Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose had been constructed.

The First Round of Reshoots

By the time the reshoots began,   Stanton and the editorial team had worked and reworked many of the scenes, and identified not just scenes to be reshot – but new scenes that needed to be mounted, and numerous spots within individual scenes where individual shots were needed to subtly adjust performances, change dialogue, and in some places provide alternate actions for the characters.

An example of subtly re-working a scene: In the Brain Trust screening, a scene where John Carter discovers that Dejah Thoris is leading him not to the River Iss and passage back to Earth, but rather to Helium, where she hopes to enlist his support for her cause, Carter calls Dejah Thoris out, ejecting her from the thoat she is riding.  Reactions to the scene centered on Carter appearing callous — and Dejah Thoris appearing willfully manipulative, neither of which were helpful reactions.  In attempting to recalibrate the scene, Stanton and the editors came to the conclusion that making it clear that Carter was “conning” her into cooperation, rather than truly dumping her in the desert, would be helpful — and so they inserted the line “just play along”.  Then, to soften Dejah Thoris and provide a moment that would arguably help sell that Carter was beginning to fall for Dejah Thoris, they added a line for Dejah who, after explaining that the could not accept an arranged marriage to Sab Than, and run, and now might regret it: “I was afraid, weak—maybe I should have married, but I so feared it would somehow be the end of Barsoom.”

Similar tweaks were implemented at various junctures throughout the film, plus  the opening was re-imagined as, instead of a fully mounted scene introducing Dejah Thoris, more of a documentary style prologue with Willem Dafoe narrating as Tars Tarkas, the Thark Warlord.   Strategies were implemented to force the pace in the middle section of the movie.

A Eureka Moment for the First Trailer

Throughout the spring, Disney marketers from Burbank continued to present revised cuts of the trailer, first in Emeryville, and then at Playa Vista as the reshoots were under way.  It was in a presentation at Playa Vist when what a breakthrough occurred.  Someone at Disney, after hearing Stanton and company repeatedly say that they felt the film had to have a unique feel and not feel like another “In a world where….” genre pice, came up with the idea of using a mournful Peter Gabriel song, ‘My Body is a Cage”, and the backdrop for the first trailer.  Stanton and his close-in crew all liked it immediately and felt that it gave the film a kind of mysterious, soulful quality that would create intrigue. “It was a clear break-through moment and everyone felt it would work — and Andrew clearly felt justified in having been hard-headed about it,” explained one of those present on the production side.

Much later, after the release of the film, a much cited article  by Claude Brodesser-Akner would come out under the title: “The Inside Story of How John Carter Was Doomed By Its First Trailer“, laying virtually all of the blame for the John Carter marketing woes at the feet of Andrew Stanton based on the statements from an alleged “Disney marketing mole”.  The credibility of “mole”, whose comments are uniformly self-serving in that each comment, without exception, shifts responsibility from Disney marketing to Andrew Stanton for all of the marketing failures.

The reality was much more complicated.

To be continued.

ANNOUNCEMENT

In large part due to the many encouraging comments on this series, and in part because it’s just something that needs to be done, I am now writing a book on this subject matter which will incorporate these special reports, and a great deal more.  I’ve decided to call it:  “Hollywood vs Mars”, with the subtitle:  “How Hollywood Hubris wrecked John Carter …and how an unlikely alliance of fans and filmmakers are fighting back.”  Publication date for the eBook is May 30th.  It will trace the entire 100 year history of John  Carter, from the fall of 1911 when Edgar Rice Burroughs started to surreptitiously write what he would entitle: “Dejah Thoris, A Princess of Mars”,  to the release and aftermath of Disney’s “epic flop”.  It will also document the emergence of the fan movement, and the support from the film-makers.

This means I won’t immediately be finishing this series  — it will first be finished in the book.  Shortly after the book is released, I will publish the final segments of the “Special Report” series here (translation: no one who’s invested time in reading these reports will be forced to by the book to read the conclusion — it will be available here.)

Here is the work in progress book cover, featuring Fan Art by Bryan Bustard.  (There will be lots of other fan art and fan creations included in the eBook.)

 

59 comments

  • Thomas — thanks for that comment. It’s a great story you tell and I’m glad to meet you. Would love to hear more about your “trying to be John Carter” stories! 😉

  • My father read ERB’s books as a kid. I took over at 9. Still read Priincess of Mars at 81. Especially like that scene where Carter fights to the death with that Thark and later tells Sola to run with Dejah as the Warhoons come down on them. She says, “Fly Sola, Dejah Thoris stays to die with the man she loves.” It’s got it, Man. Spent my life searching for Dejah Thoris. That John Carter was a lucky guy. Saw the movie twice and watch it every time it’s on Cable. Taped it so I can watch it when it’s not on Cable. Only bad thing is I was almost killed a few times trying to be him. Only other hero is Gen George Armstrong Custer. Course, I’m a dreamer. Waited 60 years for that movie to show. You have to have dreams in this world to appreciate it.

  • I’m interested to see if you find out who decided the JC trailers would not fully utilize the ERB name, its 100 years of influence on other films that everyone has seen, or director Stanton’s other successful films. Who decided to disregard this wealth of history? Disney’s Marketing Dept or Andrew Stanton? Or did they both have equal input? Stanton did an awesome job on the movie, but they just didn’t make the right marketing moves to get a 21st century audience into seeing a 100 year old classic. The “Kashmir” trailer made me think Stanton was too close to this material and more focused on turning his own childhood dream into reality rather than selling the movie to a larger audience who don’t know who JC is. I can relate to being a kid in the 70s and reading sci-fi novels in your bedroom while Led Zeppelin is blasting away on the turntable, but this isn’t the best approach to connect a JC movie to a larger audience today. Selling JC as a 100 year old origin story to many other sci-fi movies could have been effective. I wasn’t a big ERB reader beforehand, but its 100 year old origin and influence over time made me want to see the film. The strategy for trailers seemed to be let the movie stand on its own and provide no background info. It’s obvious to everyone now that this strategy was a total failure. So why would Disney neglect JC’s marketing when you assume they wanted the movie to be successful? I can speculate on a couple reasons. Disney probably wants to keep Stanton in the fold for future Pixar movies. Letting his pet live action movie fail may keep his ego and his future salary at Disney in check. I can see Disney doing that in light of Stanton’s comments about studio execs being afraid of him and he’s the only director who can make a JC movie without the studio f***ing it up. Disney decided that JC was going to be a box office failure long before its release date and treated it like a money pit.

  • “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.” John Greenleaf Whittier

    The truth is that we will never really know for sure. JOHN CARTER represented a once in a lifetime opportunity to see ERB’s Barsoom on the big screen. It is virtually impossible to ever have the chance the chance again in our lifetimes.

  • “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.” John Greenleaf Whittier

    The truth is that we we never really know for sure. JOHN CARTER represented a once in a lifetime opportunity to see ERB’s Barsoom on the screen. It will not happen again in our lifetimes.

  • Don Kraar wrote:

    Regretfully, I cannot escape the perception that JOHN CARTER was just not the movie the public wanted to see.

    Well, if you mean — they were never going to get a 200m opening weekend like Avengers, I would certainly agree. But do I think they could have opened at 60m and gotten 200m out of the US, and gotten 300m out of foreign? I do. And the material grows on people — that much would have been enough to generate a sequel, regardless of whether it would actually be profitable at that level, because they would figure the second and third installments would do more with less promotional spend, given that they would then have an established audience.

  • This is a much more balanced approach to the question of, “What really happened to JOHN CARTER?” The unnamed production executive quote sounds so typical of studio opinions: “It was a $250m gamble to get modern audiences who have no knowledge of the source material to buy into it; pleasing a few thousand lingering fans from the sixties who are passionate advocates of the original material in all its specificity just couldn’t be a major consideration. Be respectful, yes. Let them dictate the treatment of the story, no.” The entire matter is appalling. Regretfully, I cannot escape the perception that JOHN CARTER was just not the movie the public wanted to see.

  • Well, there’s always that “inverted” scene where John Carter asks Dejah to flee Zodanga with him and she says no. It made more sense on John’s side of things, after all he went through to save her. That does not impact the rest of the movie.

    Can’t wait to see the movie again, by the way…

  • Bravo on that link MCR. I’m excited for that for the deleted scenes, you disgruntled fans can throw things at A. Stanton whenever his face comes on the screen. Just don’t Elvis it, could get expensive.

    I have a version of the film i’m working on where I removed the awkward openings, cut some flab which made it less long winded and more kinetic. Who knows what kind of version I might be able to come up with using the deleted scenes. Can’t do anything about T. Kitch or the way he was written here but I view him as serviceable but the movie works very well for me with Lynn Collin’s parts. Some of these missing scenes might be character beats that we wanted to see in the movie but the exposition pushed them out.

    Also noted you are the one who posted that on that site, gorgeous background that just scrolls forever. Liked that.

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