Ah, John Carter. The pain. What a difference a year makes.
One year ago this weekend, Disney released Andrew Stanton’s John Carter to a disappointing $31M US Opening Weekend, with the critics decidedly mixed and audiences giving it a B+ rating.
Meanwhile, today, Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful is going to open somewhere in the $80M++ range with the critics decidedly mixed and audiences giving it a B+ rating.
So here we have two fantasy adventure films with very similar profiles in terms of critics and audience response — one, John Carter, The Greatest Flop in Cinema History, and the other, Oz, about to become a certified blockbuster, likely earning in excess of $1B worldwide.
Let’s go through a “Tale of the Tape” comparison. We’ll use two broad categories — THE ACTUAL FILMS, which refers to the complete film and how audiences and critics respond to it, and THE IDEA OF THE FILM, which refers to the market image of the film going into opening weekend.
We’ll start with THE ACTUAL FILMS. A disclaimer — this is NOT an attempt to rate the artistic merit of the two films, rather it’s a look at how audiences and critics responded to the two films. That’s all. Discussion of artistic merit is for another post, after I’ve seen Oz.
THE ACTUAL FILMS
1. Top Critics Response: Slight Advantage, John Carter at 36% to 30%, according to Rotten Tomatoes.
2. Overall Critics Response: Statistically even at 59% to Oz (and dropping) and John Carter (57% on opening day.)
3. Audience Response: Statistically even. Both are at 7.1 on IMDB ratings as of opening day. Oz is currently at 80% on Rotten Tomatoes while John Carter was at 77% on opening day. Not a lot of daylight between them on this one.
OVERALL — Call it a tie.
(Note: These are opening day figures vs opening day figures. John Carter slipped downward on the critics charts, as do most films in this range, as the bandwagon effect was felt, ending up at 51% overall. Oz will likely do the same and in any event, the purpose here is to compare them as of opening day.)
THE IDEA OF THE FILM
The following only touches on the biggest elements of the “idea” factor. I did not follow the Oz promotion the way I followed John Carter, so I am limiting it to things that are either obvious or can be quantified.
1. Branding: Oz vs Barsoom. Oz is better known and so there is immediate identification. And it’s in the title, so there is a branding advantage derived from that. Both are kind of quaint and classic feeling in a steampunk kind of way. Advantage is clearly to Oz — an advantage that is greater than it might otherwise have been because of the exceptionally bland and confusing “John Carter” title. And any negatives associated with Oz being kind of old-fashioned are offset by the “cool factor” that the cast (read on) gives it.
2. The Cast. Remember we are talking specifically about the idea of the film in the minds of potential moviegoers–not the actual merit of the performances. Oz has James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams . John Carter has Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, and Mark Strong. (Or maybe after you get past Kitsch and Collins you select two others.) Any way you slice it, Oz wins big on this one. It is configured to be attractive to moviegoers, particularly the critical 15-24 set, in ways that far outdistance John Carter. Is this a failure on the John Carter side? Remember, we’re talking about the idea of the film here, not the film itself. This is not about whether Taylor Kitsch or Lynn Collins did a good job, it’s about whether they are a marketing asset in the way that the cast of Oz is a marketing asset. And if John Carter is at a disadvantage, why? Is it just because Andrew Stanton didn’t manage the cast design issue as adroitly as Sam Raimi did? Or is it because Andrew Stanton didn’t have the benefit of a savvy senior producer or strong studio head? Casting decisions normally involve concurrence between the director, the producer, and the studio. In the case of John Carter, it appears to have been left more or less entirely to the discretion of a director who had achieved success in his previous films without any cast at all (Wall-E in particular). Anyway — big advantage to Oz, not in terms of actual performance — but in terms of market appeal of the cast.
3. The Trailer. The trailer is the single most important piece of the “Idea” puzzle. And the trailer filters down into the TV spots, etc. The main trailer for Oz has the following Like/Dislike ratio on Youtube. 6,453/226 or 28/1. That ratio of 28/1 compares favorably to other hit movies like The Hunger Games and The Avengers. Trailer 2 is 4,645/162, which is also 28/1. By contrast, the John Carter Trailer 1 has a Like/Dislike ratio of 1981/165 for a 12/1 ratio, which is very low (bad). The second trailer which was the main theatrical trailer (the ape jumping extravaganza) is 3,956/310, for a ratio of 13/1, which is very low (bad). So it would be safe to say that the trailers for Oz have been substantially more effective. Also — and not to pat ourselves on the back, but just to point out that the material was there to create more popular trailers, our John Carter Fan Trailer 1 is 1,344/15 for a ratio of 90/1, and our John Carter Fan Trailer 2 (Heritage) is 864/26 for a ratio of 33/1. So I would argue that it’s not as if the John Carter material didn’t have the potential to yield a popular trailer. Advantage (big one) Oz.
4. The Poster: It’s interesting in that both of these movies represent a bit of a steampunk vibe, and thus the Oz poster, which embraces that, is a bit old-fashioned in a way that seems to work pretty well. The John Carter poster, which avoids showing much at all, is generally regarded to have been a disaster. I haven’t had a chance to go searching for actual poster reviews, so I’ll just put them both here and let them speak for themselves.
Well, which poster intrigues? John Carter is meant to be intriguing with the silhouette not showing much, but that’s a big part of the problem — it doesn’t show enough to generate much of a reaction at all. The Oz poster, by contrast, shows adventure; it shows romance (three beautiful women and a guy? Duh), it shows danger, threat — and is lush and filled with atmospher eye candy in the way that the John Carter Mondo poster did up to a point — although in a “teaser” way only. Anyway, advantage (a big one) to Oz.
4. Perception of Budget: I’m putting this in here because in the case of John Carter, so much was written about the budget that it became a big part of the “Idea of the Film” . . . . and not in a good way. The budget of $250m was so high that it translated into “WTF Were They Thinking” and fed a lot of press hostility that influenced the narrative in a huge way. Oz, with an “average” blockbuster budget of $200M, has not been burdened with any of this — budget is not seen as an issue. The budget of John Carter positioned the film for failure both in an absolute financial sense, by raising the bar of how high it had to perform to be successful, and in the the promotion as well because of the “what were they thinking” factor it created. Advantage, Oz.
Other factors that could be talked about would include Sam Raimi (experienced, studio savvy, live action director) vs Andrew Stanton (Pixar genius on his first live action outing). . . . .and the brand synchonicity (Disney and Oz) vs brand misalignment (Disney and Barsoom). . . . . and more, but I’m not trying to be encyclopedic here, just hitting the high points.
The point is, in terms of the films themselves they are pretty close by every objective measure of critical and audience response. But in terms of the idea of the film, every advantage goes to Oz, and that is how you get from a 30M opening weekend to an $80M opening weekend. (Some are saying $90M.)
Ah, John Carter — what might have been.