Man of Steel fans are basking in the glow of a $125M opening weekend, achieved in spite of a 57% “Rotten” rating from critics, while John Carter fans are shaking their heads and wondering how a similar film with similar elements and equivalent marketing challenges could achieve such success in spite of critics backlash. Let’s break it down a bit.
The Marketing Challenge
Both films faced an uphill battle. John Carter (of Mars, dammit) faced lack of awareness among most of tbe target audience of the underlying source material. Man of Steel faced apathy and a sense that Superman just wasn’t relevant in 2013. The two challenges are different …. are they equivalent? I would argue that Superman had enough going for it that the realistic worst case opening, even with bad marketing, would have been in the $50M range, whereas John Carter’s “bottom” was . . . well, it’s hard to imagine it doing worse than the $31M it did on opening weekend. So the point would be that a performance by Man of Steel in the 50M opening weekend range would have been an equivalent disaster to John Carter’s $31M. But that didn’t happen, did it.
The Marketing Approach
Aside from spending more money ($150M, reportedly, versus $100M for John Carter), what did Warner Brothers do that Disney didn’t? As Scott Mendlesson notes: “Obviously credit goes to Warner Bros’ marketing department, which cut a series of emotionally potent trailers that actually hid most of the big action beats …” Indeed — it’s hard to argue that the WB trailers were infinitely better than the Disney trailers. The decision to find the emotional core of the film was a wise one — and when you contemplate the fact that Disney had, after all, Andrew Stanton directing–it just highlights the strangeness of the decision to make trailers that featured endless battles with a white ape in an arena and virtually zero emotional content.
Of course there is more to the marketing than the trailers — but the trailers and TV spots are the backbone and WB made a series of great decisions, and Disney stubbornly made bad decision after bad decision in their tone deaf promotion of John Carter.
Let’s move on from the marketing to the films themselves.
How Similar was the Critics Response?
Pretty similar, it turns out. John Carter was at 54% “Rotten” on opening weekend before eventually drifting own to 51%. Man of Steel is at 57% “Rotten”. This is close enough that neither film can say that the critics were a positive factor. In each case, success had to be achieved in spite of the critics, not because of them.
What About Audience Response?
Man os Steel had an A- Cinemascore; John Carter was a B+. Other indicators seem to suggest that the audience response to Man of Steel has been slightly better on opening weekend than was the case with John Carter. But chances are, we will see a dropoff next week that is fairly “in pattern” with the dropoff that John Carter experienced in the second weeks.
What About Studio Decisions?
WB made a series of decisions that turned out to be very smart, and Disney made a series of decisions that turned out to be not so smart. WB got Christopher Nolan, architect of the immensely successful Dark Knight series, on board as producer and with that single decision, insured that the film would have a “cool” factor that was vitally needed, given audience apathy and the sense that Superman was a little too bland (too “vanilla?”) for modern audiences. Nolan brought David Goyer with him for the screenplay — another “cool factor” move that made good sense, and thus the hiring of Zack Snyder as director came with a context to it — that context being that the director of 300 (good) and Sucker Punch (not so good) would be part of a strong team and have strong oversight. The team then went forward and made a series of smart casting decisions. They picked an unknown in Henry Cavill to play Superman . . . . and they made a pick that has been universally lauded. Then they supported that choice with an iconic supporting cast — Russel Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane — and for Lois Lane, they went with Amy Adams. Compare that to the John Carter choices — Taylor Kitsch as John Carter was a rough equivalent to Henry Cavill in terms of market appeal (not much going in), and thus the supporting cast decisions become critical. Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, and Willem Dafoe just don’t register in the marketing the way that Crowe, Costner, and Lane did. And then you have Amy Adams on the one hand, and Lynn Collins on the other. This is not meant as criticism of the actors themselves or their performances — it is an observation regarding the “cast design” as envisioned by the producers and director. One has great appeal in the marketplace — the other has limited appeal.
You can feel the same forces that were at play in Andrew Stanton’s mind as they play out on the screen in Man of Steel. Is Superman “mopey”, to use a favorite word heard often around these parts? Answer: Pretty much. But other than that . . . . well, I haven’t seen the movie yet so I’ll save that for a followup post.
In closing I’ll just say this. It’s not possible to hold up Man of Steel and its $125M opening weekend and say that John Carter, with a few better decisions and better marketing, could have done the same. But it didn’t have to do the same. Even half of that opening would have been enough to generate a sequel and keep John Carter on movie screens for years to come. That didn’t happen, and the reasons for it, which have always been somehwhat obvious, became somewhat more obvious this weekend.