AUTHOR’S WARNING: I don’t usually rant — but this post is a rant. I couldn’t help myself. Reliving this makes my blood boil.
A year ago today, for the first time in my life I was more interested in the commercials on the Super Bowl than the game itself — more particularly, I was more interested in one commercial on the Super Bowl — the John Carter spot. Everything about the promotion up to that point had been a disappointment, but I still had hope. Ryan Stankevich at Disney had assured me that they were going to have a blockbuster new spot for the Super Bowl — and everyone who was following the movie felt that it was do-or-die, because the Super Bowl spot would be by far the single most important moment of the campaign — a campaign that had, until then, failed to catch fire and instead was catching flak from virtually all observers everywhere.
So — with so much at stake, what happened?
First of all …. this is the ad as it appeared on television during the Superbowl.
Watch it and weep.
Now if you only saw the ad online, you’re probably saying — waitaminute, wasn’t there more to it than that?
Yes, if you are one of the hundreds of thousands who saw it online. You see, they released an extended version online that made a good bit more sense and was at least tolerable.
But if you are one of the hundreds of millions who saw it on TV — what you saw was what is embedded above.
That was what was seen by 200M viewers in the US. 17 seconds of a pullout from a mosaic title — and 8 seconds of ape jumping.
I remember watching it in disbelief.
With $350M invested in the production and marketing — and with everyone in the movie universe aware that the overall promotional campaign was in deep, deep trouble — this was the best Disney could come up with?
Where did it rank among the movie ads shown during the Super Bowl? (There were 7 of them.)
Where did it rank overall among the 40 ++ ads that aired during the Superbowl?
34th our of 41 in terms of tweets generated, and dead last in terms of sentiment (i.e. tweets were few and most were negative).
It gets my blood boiling just thinking about it.
And it got my blood boiling on the day.
I can’t even remember what happened during the game after I saw the trailer, which appeared in the second quarter. I literally cannot tell you who won the game. Because all I could think about at the time was that this was Game Over for John Carter. This was the moment when I really came to realize that Disney wasn’t going to get it done — that after forty years of waiting for this movie to get made, instead of celebrating its success, I would be mourning its demise.
As I was sitting there, fuming about what I’d seen, and idea that had been marinating for a few days came into focus. I was just furious at the obtuseness of Disney’s promotion and their inability to grasp the essential appeal of the material they had just invested $350M in.
John Carter (of Mars, dammit) was NOT about a guy jumping over an ape, and it was NOT about dry dusty desert vistas . . . . I knew there was much more to the movie that would appeal if Disney would just highlight the right things. . . .
So I decided to make my own damned trailer, not necessarily for anyone else to see (I didn’t think that far in advance). My filmmaking partner Mark Linthicum was watching the Super Bowl with me and even though he wasn’t a huge Edgar Rice Burroughs fan like I was, he too couldn’t believe how lame the ad was and agree to grind out a fan trailer with me.
The thing was — we didn’t have any material other than what ha already appeared in the Disney trailers and TV spots, and we didn’t have any ability to separate the music and dialoge/effects, so that meant the best we could do would be a mashup that simply laid out the appealing aspects of the movie better and more sensibly than Disney had.
The game plan:
- Act 1: Take 30 seconds to get John Carter to Mars – let the audience get oriented.
- Act 2: Lay out the basics of the story setup with special attention to:
- Show imagery of Helium and Zodanga at the beginning, not just desert Thark stuff.
- Reference Edgar Rice Burroughs and Andrew Stanton
- Sell the romance/love story
- Act 3: Action tease
- Epilogue: Something soulful, evocative as an epilogue at the end.
That was it. Not exactly brain surgery but it just seemed to us that you couldn’t go wrong if you did something straightforward and let the story’s sweep, and grandeur, and romance shine through.
We hammered on it from late afternoon until close to midnight. When we reached the finish, this is what we had.
I thought it was pretty good. Not great — it was largely a rearrangement of what was already out there, but I felt like it might resonate better for people than what was there.
We didn’t post it publicly at first. We posted it privately to YouTube, and then for one day embedded it on John Carter Files alongside the official trailer and, without saying where it came from, asked people to vote on which trailer they liked better — the official one or this one. The results were 86%-14% in favor of our trailer.
So then, thinking that maybe there was an outside chance someone at Disney would pay attention to the “focus group” reaction, I forwarded the trailer and the results of the focus group to senior people at Disney (not Ryan Stankevich . . . . I had a fan liaison relationship going with her and I felt that pushing a trailer on her might seem pushy and could damage the fan liaison aspect of the relationship) . . . and asked them to consider the trailer and the results of the focus group.
Of course there was never any response.
We waited more than two weeks — then said to hell with it and made it public.
Not much happened for a few days.
Then Andrew Stanton saw it and tweeted about it.
— andrew stanton (@andrewstanton) February 20, 2012
After that people started noticing it.
The next day, Ain’t It Cool News posted an article and embed of the trailer with headline: A Fan-Made Trailer Sells JOHN CARTER better than any other trailer so far. A few hours later similar stories and embeds appeared on Collider, Slashfilm, Badass Digest, Film School Rejects and others. It then spread to more blogs — a total of more than 200 — as well as mainstream media publications including Wired (Fan Trailer for John Carter Tops Studios Best Efforts) , Entertainment Weekly (John Carter Fan Trailer: Okay, this has to get you excited!) , The Hollywood Reporter, (Fan Made Trailer for John Carter could be better than studio original) nd the Los Angeles Times (Fans Create unofficial new trailer for John Carter). CNN also ran a story (Fans Create their own John Carter Trailer). In the first three days after Stanton’s tweet, the trailer received 100,000 views on YouTube and became a significant part of the conversation about the movie.
But of course none of that really made a dent in the horrible negativity that was engulfing the film. Our contribution got talked about a little bit, but it was like trying to stop a tsunami with a teacup. Just wasn’t going to happen.
I don’t want to end this on a terribly negative note . . . but I’m having trouble finding an optimistic way out this. I have never in my life seen anything as perversely obtuse as the John Carter marketing campaign by Disney. I subsequently investigated it in great detail and became convinced that there was no intentional sabotage, and I don’t want my rant today to make people think that I’m a conspiracy theorist. I’m not.
But my God did they screw this up.