I’m getting to the home stretch of the first draft of John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood, which means I’ve been drilling down into the day by day events of the promotional campaign as the release of the movie drew near. The examination of the day-by-day rollout has revealed some interesting insights and “cause and effect” moments that shed light on what happened. Here are some brief snippets outlining some of the highlights. Before I get into them, I want to make the point–especially to my contrarian pals–that the book does not put forward as its thesis that the failure is wholly and completely a marketing failure. Aside from tracking the marketing decisions and the cause and effect of that — it also analyzes Stanton’s whole process of adapting Burroughs’ original story and looks at key decisions that Stanton made and correlates those decisions with the critical response — basically examining which decisions worked well, and which seem to have misfired with the critics. This is somewhat different than personally reviewing the adaptation — it’s an effort to see how Stanton, who had scored 90%++ with the critics in Finding Nemo and Wall-E — could get so out of synch with them with this material.
Hopefully you’ll trust me when I say that the book does NOT present an overly simplistic fanboy “blame the studio” reaction. It drills more deeply than that. I am probably more sympathetic to Stanton (and would be to any film-maker who put heart and soul into something like this) than the contrarians would like me to be. But his choices are examined critically, as are his statements made during the promotion, some of which affected the outcome–particularly the “out of control production” narrative that sprang up and damaged the film’s performance.
Also — the book tries to get beyond simply documenting that certain parties screwed up. It’s important that the documentation is achieved, but this is a first step ….. why did it happen? Were the blunders a result of policy decisions at the highest level? Sloppiness at the midlevel? And what do the factors that added up to “epic misfire” say about how things get decided and implemented at Disney and in Hollywood more generally? I’m not saying I’ll be able to provide definitive answers to all these questions, but it will certainly try to do so.
That said, here are some of the recent “finds”.
Gaps in the Promotional Activitiy
There are some intriguing and hard-to-explain gaps in promotional activity in support of John Carter that , when held up for analysis against other Disney films, and other films John Carter competed with, raise serious questions about what was going on. The most egregious example is the period from late August 2011 (post D23 convention) up to late November, when the final phase of the campaign was launched. During this period Disney’s publicity output on behalf of John Carter was approximately 3% of the output for Avengers, and 8% of the output for Hunger Games. There was another period, longer than this, in 2010 when Disney went completely silent. I’m examining this in comparison to a number of other films, Disney and others, to see if such long period of “radio silence” are unique to John Carter. So far, I have not found any other “tentpole” release that has these periods of promotional silence; and certainly none that are silent as late in the game as John Carter was during the fall of 2011. These long periods of promotional inactivity seem to be unique to John Carter, and thus unprecedented, with all that that implies. When I have completed the analysis and have all the facts and statistics in front of me, I do intend to see if I can get Disney publicity to comment on the strategy and why the gaps exist — or alternatively, show examples of how this is “normal” in some fashion. I am not holding my breath expecting a substantive response, but I definitely want to provide that opportunity.
The other thing I’m doing is a historical analysis of the correlation between these periods of silence and the absence of “buzz” in social media for the movie. In other words, the analysis will show that there is a direct correlation between the amount of publicity activity by the studio, and the amount of corresponding social media buzz (which in turn has been shown to be an essential element in box office success). So it not only tracks the lack of publicity output — it shows how this impacts the generation (or non-generation) of “buzz”.
How The Negative Chatter About the Budget Began, and How it Rolled Out
The negative chatter about the budget didn’t start until the summer of 2011. Up until then, the only mention of budget was $150m which was included in some of the announcements about Taylor Kitsch being cast in 2009. The elements that added up to the “out of control budget” narrative were:
- Andrew Stanton’s comment in his June 15, 2011 LA Times interview that he had done a “month of reshoots”, which seemed like a lot and caused questions to be asked.
- Stanton’s answers to questions about the re-shoots…his discussion of the “Pixar process” and his efforts to apply the Pixar model to live action film-making–explanations that ruffled some feathers and led to speculation about his inexperience, etc.
- Ross pulling the plug on The Lone Ranger was really the moment that triggered it all. In that moment, (August 10, 2011), Ross shut down the Long Ranger over budgetary concerns and then Disney execs deployed talking points including initially telling Nikki Finke that John Carter’s budget had gone as high as $300m. They subsequently walked it back to $250m, but it was the whole flare-up of reporting over the Lone Ranger shut-down that flushed out the JC budget into the public consciousness.
- The final nail was the October 15 New Yorker interview with Stanton which put forward the notion that it would take $700m in Box Office Gross to justify a sequel — a statement that was picked up and replayed and got the narrative fully up on its feet.
An interesting subcomponent to all this was that Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins were extremely careful to NOT say anything that would suggest the reshoots were extensive. As actors, they were savvy enough to understand how “reshoots” is perceived as “mayhem” and they worked hard to make sure that they weren’t the source of the “out of control” narrative. Stanton was the one who, because he was confident in the process he was following, was less cautious about this.
The Botched Release of the Main Trailer
My own close tracking of the movie really began on November 30, with the “World Premiere” of the trailer on Good Morning America. I had been disappointed with what I saw (which, as it turned out, was a 42 second cut-down of the trailer with the first 10 seconds being telecast by a camera filming it off of the Times Square billboard) and this was the beginning of my close tracking of the movie. What I hadn’t realized was how many other commentators had really jumped on Disney for what was considered the “botched” handling of the trailer release ….. everything from “why premiere it on GMA, which is not the movie’s demographic”, to “why say it’s the premiere of the trailer and then not show the full trailer”. The full trailer was released that night at 9pm via IGN and a little later via iTunes and on Jimmy Kimmel. But the amount of negativity that flared up between GMA’s morning show, and those shows 15 hours later, really points out the speed with which negative buzz can happen and how damaging it can be.
The next sections I will be looking at:
- Reaction to the TV spots which began on December 15. How much buzz was generated? What was the positive/negative sentiment ratio? When/how did Disney react?
- Disney’s assessment of its promotional position with JC as of January 10, three weeks after the TV spots started airing.
- Favorable test screening results through December, and how this affected Disney’s approach to the release.
- Analysis of the critics’ response, correlated with adaptation decisions — did decisions made in the adaptation process come back to bite Stanton and the film? How damaging were these?
- The fan trailers and fan activism — did it have any effect? Could it have had an effect?
- The case for a sequel — can there be one? Should there be one? If so, what is the path that could actually lead to a sequel at Disney? Elsewhere?
One new thought that kind of crystallized yesterday as I was idly watching Journey 2 on an airplane is that Disney really approached the promotion of John Carter as if they thought it was a movie like Journey 2. In other words, they made the decision go go for “tween boys” as the key demographic even though it was a 250m tentpole that needed to be a 4 quadrant success (males, females, over 25, under 25) to have a chance at success. This in spite of the fact that the film has nothing but adult characters — no teens or tweens in the cast — and simply does not have the “DNA” of a movie that looks to Disney moms/dads (who have to organize the cinema outing for tweens, who aren’t old enough to go on their own) like it’s really for kids. Yes, there was Woola, but there was mayhem and no young characters appeared in the trailers.
I found this commentary by Scott Mendelsson to be interesting and I’m “chewing on it”:
Going broke chasing boys: Why Disney ditched princesses and spent $300 million on John Carter, and what it means for the Mouse House’s core demo.
If you’ve seen the trailer for the upcoming John Carter, you know that not only does it not look like it cost $300 million, but it so painfully feels like a Mad Libs male-driven fantasy blockbuster that it borders on parody. It’s no secret that Disney thinks it has a boy problem. One of the reasons it bought Marvel two years ago was to build up a slate of boy-friendly franchises. And the last two years have seen an almost embarrassing attempt to fashion boy-friendly franchises (Prince of Persia, Tron: Legacy, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I Am Number Four, Fright Night, and Real Steel), only half of which were even as successful as their alleged flop The Princess and the Frog (which obviously grossed ‘just’ $267 million on a $105 million budget because it starred a character with a vagina). We can only ponder the reasons why Disney decided to outright state that they were never going to make another fairy-tale princess cartoon again, even after Tangled became their most successful non-Pixar toon since The Lion King, but I’m pretty sure Disney won’t be making such statements about boy-centric fantasy franchises anytime soon.
Now we have John Carter, which allegedly cost $300 million (if not more). It’s being released in March, where only one film (to be fair, Disney’s Alice In Wonderland) has ever even grossed $300 million. Hell, in all of January-through April, there have been just five $200 million grossers (The Passion of the Christ,Alice In Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, 300, and Fast Five). So you have yet another film that basically has to shatter all records regarding its release date in order to merely break even. But that’s okay, thinks Disney, because John Carter is a manly science fiction spectacle so it is surely worth risking the bank. Disney is so desperate to not only chase the young male demos that is willing to risk alienating the young female demos that has netted it billions of dollars over the many decades. What they fail to realize is that the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (especially the first three films) was rooted in telling a story that crossed gender lines. All-told, the original trilogy actually revolved around Keira Knightley’s character, and her journey from daughter of privilege to outlaw pirate. I Am Number Four is a perfect example of this clear misunderstanding. Disney and Dreamworks decided to cash in onTwilight by making a variation told from the point of view of the super-powered teen boy, a story which turned the ‘Bella’ character into just another stock love interest to be sidelined for the third act.
If you look at Disney’s future slate, with the arguable exception of Pixar’s Brave (the first Pixar film to feature a girl, a warrior princess no less), they have almost no female-driven movies between now and 2014. Oh wait, I’m sorry… they ARE releasing Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid in 3D over the next two years. My mistake. I may complain about the frenzy of upcoming live-action fairy tale adaptations, but at least those are big-budget movies centering around a female protagonist. It would seem that Disney, as a corporation, genuinely places less value on the female audience than the male audience. Money is money, and sweaty bills from girls should be just as green as bills from boys. Yet Disney apparently so disdains its core audience (young girls) that it not only has stopped chasing them (in the knowledge that they will buy princess merchandise anyway) but has risked untold millions on the most generic possible new franchise, with no star power and little to distinguish itself from a hundred other such films, purely because ‘it’s a boy movie’. In a way, Disney has become just like the Democratic Party, risking alienation of their base because they know that the young girls (and their parents) won’t really ever jump ship.
Anyway — that’s where I am at the moment with this. Word count just crossed 100,000, which is what I thought would be the finish line but it looks like 120,000 is more likely the finish line, which after editing should probably bring it back to 100,000 (about 350 pages in normal book format).