Influencer Media

Influencing the Influencers: Is Warner Bros Falling Behind with the Promotion of David Yates’s Tarzan 2016?

A1, John Carter (The Disney Movie), John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood, Tarzan, Tarzan and Hollywood

There’s a  cable TV news host out there who does a segment “Talk Me Down” in which the commentator does a rant about something that’s bothering her, and has a knowledgable guest come on the show to “talk me down” from the ledge before she jumps.  I’m starting to feel a little that way about WB’s epic silence on the matter of Tarzan 2016.  Yes, I know that WB seems to have a strategy of remaining fairly quiet about their films until six months out.  On the other hand, they’ve been anything but silent about Suicide Squad, which comes out a month after Tarzan.   Meanwhile, those in the “influencer media” (more about who that is later) are left with absolutely nothing to talk about regarding Tarzan 2016.  This in turn leaves message boards silent…..case in point, as of this moment, there has not been a single post on the IMDB message board for Tarzan since August 26.  That’s an astonishing 11 days on the internet’s biggest movie site without a single post.  By contrast, during the same period, the Suicide Squad IMDB Message Board has hundreds of posts in the same period.  On the other hand, Guy Ritchie’s Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur, a WB pic slated for release a few weeks after Tarzan, is about as moribund as Tarzan is, both in terms of no news in the influence media world, and no buzz on the message boards. 

Is the great silence from WB strategic?  If so, what is the strategy?  I can definitely understand and appreciate the whole concept of orchestrating the promotion to that it comes to a boil at just the right moment; and I can grasp the concept of peaking too soon.  And I think that’s probably a greater concern with a “problem promotion” which is clearly what WB has on their hands with both Tarzan and King Arthur — tried and true (translation: tired) concepts that are going to be in need of some special attention to make them seem fresh and compelling.

But still . . ..

What were some of the lessons learned from John Carter’s marketing disaster?  One big lesson was that Disney did not seem to grasp the power and signficance of the “influencer media” and treated them with a cavalier attitude that backfired.  Who are the influencer media?  For movies, they are the two or three dozen outlets franging fro traditional trade mags like Variety and Hollywood reporter to digital outlets like Cinemablend, Collider, HitFix and others who track every upcoming movie from the moment it is first announced until it is out of theaters.    Each time the studio releases any information whatsoever about the movie, they’re there. Each time a star from the movie makes any utterance whatsoever about the movie; they’re there.  They reach more than 50 million readers collectively.  That’s how they influence … they’re the first ones to be talking about a movie; and they drive the conversation — both in terms of what is being talked about, and more importantly, what the tone is —  hope, excitement, enthusiasm on the one hand — or questioning, skepticism, even outright rejection on the other.

In the case of John Carter, it was the influencers who were responsible for the earlies grumblings that caused the tone of the John Carter promotion to begin to go sour — grumblings which Disney ignored at its peril.  The original trailer; the original poster; both of these evoked concern that, had Disney listened, might have caused them to address the tonal deficiencies in the promotion that were causing it to fail to connect.  Instead, Disney took the attitude (and I have this on first hand knowledge based on discussions with senior disney marketing people) that these influencers weren’t really that important to them, and to John Carter, because the Disney brand was strong enough on their own, and in any event they were focusing on reaching 10-14 year old boys who weren’t reading the influencers anyway.  Was this a reasonable or responsible attitude?  In hindsight, I would say no.

So what are we to make of WB’s “strategic silence?”  …. I’m not sure. For me, it’s not so alarming as to have me climb out on a ledge and threaten to jump …. but it feels like a missed opportunity.  All WB would have to do at this point is just have someone relatively minor in the equation — a writer, for example — dribble out a few paragraphs about how they used real historical context about the congo atrocities to set the framework for the Tarzan story.  Honestly — something as simple as that would get picked up by a hundred sites and would stimulate conversation — and it would sow a very important seed, that this Tarzan is a movie with a brain, which people aren’t expecting.   Secondly, just something short from David Yates would provoke conversation and inspire confidence.  Finally an image or two — concept art from the production designer, not even real images from the movie……

The thing is, once it gets a lot closer and the trailer has been released, these kind of small prods will be lost in the overall noise of the campaign, so there would be minimal benefit. Whereas, dribbling things like this out now would fan interest, keep a respectable amount of chatter going on the message boards, and begin the process of building buzz.

Anyway … that’s my rant.

Here’s the chapter from JCGOH that talks about this.

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Influencing the Influencers – Was Disney Sleeping?

Excerpt from John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood

With a major theatrical release motion picture, some degree of marketing is present from the moment the picture is approved to go into production. Typically this early activity takes the form of press releases announcing the green-lighting of the project; announcements of the signing of director and stars, the beginning of principal photography, and other milestones. This is also the period in which decisions are made regarding what level of cross-promotional tie-ins, and which merchandising deals, and licensing arrangements will be pursued. If these are to be pursued, the effort to identify partners and develop deals — which can often require substantial lead time–is launched.

Increasingly, studios also use this period to get an early head start on building ‘buzz’ for the film through social media platforms like Twitter, and Facebook, and through outreach and reputation/relationship management with key “influencers” who track movies and write about them from the time they are announced until well after they are released. Effective management of the pool of influencers and the key social media platforms is significant to a studio both as a means of generating buzz — and equally important, as a way of monitoring reactions to the marketing materials and messages that are released. Notes Pete Blackshaw, Executive VP of the Nielsen Online digital strategic services:

The name of the game for the studios is to take full advantage of all early signals. The downside for them is a movie can be damaged really quickly — the flow of information on these platforms, and degree to which influencers are tapping into those signals is quite profound.

Thus there are two functions for the influencer media and social media platforms — one, to “spread the word” and generate buzz, and two, to provide a feedback loop that allows the studio to monitor what Blackshaw calls “all early signals” and right the ship when it needs to be righted, early in the game when the audience is small and mistakes, if corrected, can be minimized.

For John Carter of Mars, mechanisms of influence that were available and relevant at the early stage of the John Carter campaign were:

1) Traditional Trade Publications: Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, plus Hollywood pulse-o-meter Deadline Hollywood. These are the “traditional” source of influence from the mainstream trade media, and remain important. Not widely read by the public, they are nevertheless monitored closely by key blogs and entertainment outlets (“2” below) who replay information derived from the trades.

2) Key Entertainment Bloggers and Websites: About 40 key blogs and entertainment sites collectively reach as much as 80% of the audience for early reporting on movies-in-progress. Among the most active influencer media outlets with the largest audiences are Movies.com, Hit Fix, MovieWeb, MTV Movies Blog, Slashfilm, i09, Ain’t It Cool News, (whose founder Harry Knowles had been attached as a producer on Paramount’s John Carter of Mars), ComingSoon.net, Filmsite.com, Collider.com, Badass Digest, Joblo.com, Empire Online, Total Film, ScreenRant, Hollywood.com, MovieWeb, Movieline, Indiewire/The Playlist, Dark Horizons,ToplessRobot, Fused Film,Den of Geek,Film School Rejects, HeyUGuys.com,FirstShowing.net, Cinema Spy, Digital Spy, The Geek Files, GeekTyrant, Comic Book Movie, Reelz Channel, Cinema Blend, WhatCulture.com, and as many as a dozen others.

3) Key Social Media Platforms Twitter and Facebook: These two social media platforms are of strategic importance and building a strong list of followers on each is important, keeping in mind that the early followers on these platforms are most likely to themselves be “mini- influencers” likely to tweet and comment about a film they are excited about. Many have their own personal blogs and/or have extensive networks of their own on Facebook and Twitter and thus one follower on Twitter or Facebook equals many hundreds or even thousands of “followers of the follower”, who in turn have their own networks. Disney had available both the official John Carter Twitter and Facebook presence; and the official Walt Disney Pictures Twitter and Facebook presence.

4) Disney Bloggers: In addition to the other outlets that apply to all movies, Disney maintains a “Disney Blogger” network which has as many as 500 blogs devoted to all things Disney. With names like Disney For Life, Mouse Dreaming, Babes in Disneyland, The Disney Dork Blog, Disney Fan Ramblings, Stitch Kingdom, and Adventures By Daddy, Everything Walt Disney World, the Disney bloggers are positioned to exert influence on Disney enthusiasts, but are generally not “in the same league” as the top entertainment blogsites in terms of audience reach and relevance to the potential John Carter audience.

The task before Disney at this early stage was to manage their Twitter and Facebook profiles effectively, and to maintain a flow of good information and materials to this manageable “ecosystem” of “influencer” bloggers and journalists and “mini-influencers” who are the early adopters on Facebook and Twitter.

Breaking Down the Influencer Media

At the top of the Influencer ecosystem are corporate owned megasites like the Internet Movie Data Base (estimated 80M unique monthly visitors), Yahoo Movies (estimated 27M unique monthly visitors), Rotten Tomatoes (estimated 7M unique monthly visitors), and Fandango (estimated 6.8M unique monthly visitors).99

However, when it comes to tracking movies a year or more in advance of their release, the influencers tend to be a more independent and colorful group, none moreso than Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News. In 1997, the second year that AICN was in existence, Bernard Weinraub wrote in the New York Times:

Harry Jay Knowles is Hollywood’s worst nightmare. In an industry whose executives, agents and producers ferociously seek total control — over information, over the media, over one another — this 25-year-old college dropout and confirmed film geek is driving them crazy. His power comes from the bits and bytes of information and gossip spread over his rapidly growing Web site (http://www.aint-it-cool-news.com), which is averaging two million hits a month. He works out of his father’s ramshackle home in Austin, Tex., but his impact in Hollywood is extraordinary–and instantaneous.

Of the influencers who focus on upcoming movies, ComingSoon.net is one of the largest, with an estimated 1.6M unique monthly visitors, while MovieWeb, Movies.com, and Hollywood.com each have an estimated 500,000 unique monthly visitors.101 Slashfilm,started by Peter Sciretta in 2005, has  an estimated 510,000 unique monthly visitors counts 74,000 Facebook fans, carries a Google Page Rank of 7, and has won more than a dozen major awards.  Collider.com, with 32,000 Facebook Fans and a Google Page Rank of 7, is self-described by editor-in-chief Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub, as “an uncalled for, online barrage of breaking news, incisive commentary and irreverent attitude that will do for the internet what Art Modell did for the Cleveland Browns; i.e.move it to Baltimore.”   Sci-fi site iO9 under editor-in-chief Annalee Newitz boasts 161,000 Facebook fans and a Google Rank of 7, and defines its beat as “science, science fiction, and the future.”   UK based Total Film, with 125,000 Facebook fans, touts itself as “The Modern Guide to Movies” while ScreenRant, which was started in 2003 by Vic Holtreman “as a place to rant about some of the dumber stuff related to the movie industry,” sports 140,000 Facebook Fans and a 7 GoogleRanking. Other top influencers include Hit Fix (54,000 Facebook Fans and a 6 ranking), and Digital Spy ( 47,000 Facebook Fans and a 6 ranking). (Note: All Facebook Fan references refer to the number of “Likes” on the publication’s Facebook page as of 11 Sep 2012. Google Page Rank index refers to the Google Page Rank as accessed on 11 Sep 2012 at http://www.prchecker.info/

These, plus a few dozen others, represent a critical mechanism through which a studio can lay a buzz foundation and, equally importantly, keep an ear to the ground for feedback on what is working, and what is not working, as they roll out a film.

Disney: The View From the Outside Looking In

For an outsider following the JCOM story, this “Preliminaries” phase was unusually long and characterized by sporadic press releases that began in January 2007 with the announcement that Disney was pursuing the Edgar Rice Burroughs Property “A PrincessofMars.” There were then announcements that Andrew Stanton had been signed to direct the film, and that Michael Chabon had been hired to do a rewrite. Then came the announcement, on June 15, 2009 that Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins had been cast as the leads in the film. Some of the articles announcing the cast signing include reference to a budget of $150M:

Canadian film actor Taylor “Friday Night Lights” Kitsch has been cast as the lead in Disney’s upcoming adaptation of author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter Of Mars, to be directed by Andrew “Wall-e” Stanton in 2010. Stanton confirmed that the $150 million budgeted sci fi production, will be live-action. “There are so many creatures and characters that half of it’s going to be CG,” he said. “but it will feel real. The whole thing will feel very, very believable.”

Later in the summer of 2009 there were more cast announcements.106 There was silence in September (the month that studio chief Dick Cook was fired) and in October (the month that Rich Ross was hired as the incoming studio chief). In November, evidence that Ross was reviewing all projects came in the form of a press release that Disney had halted production on Captain Nemo: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — a press release that included assurances that this did not mean that Disney was abandoning major event films under Ross, stressing “big event films like 20,000 Leagues, John Carter of Mars, and Tron are still a priority.”

In the social media arena, on November 28, 2009, Disney created a Facebook page for John Carter of Mars, although no entries were posted until January 2010.   Then as JCOM began principal photography in January 2010, more releases came, announcing additional cast acquisitions and eventually, on January 16, 2010, came the official announcement that principal photography had begun in London.

OnFacebook, January2010 saw Disney make its first socialmedia efforts, posting four articles with links and posting the official synopsis for the first time:

From Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), John Carter of Mars brings this captivating hero to the big screen in a stunning adventure epic set on the wounded planet of Mars, a world inhabited by warrior tribes and exotic desert beings. Based on the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom Series,” the film chronicles the journey of Civil-War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who finds himself battling a new and mysterious war amidst a host of strange Martian inhabitants, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). [Footnote: Interestingly, this synopsis was changed after the arrival of MT Carney to:  “From Academy Award®–winning filmmaker Andrew Stanton comes “John Carter”—a sweeping action-adventure set on the mysterious and exotic planet of Barsoom (Mars). “John Carter” is based on a classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose highly imaginative adventures served as inspiration for many filmmakers, both past and present. The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands. The screenplay was written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon.]

Then, from February 2010 onward, with the film in Principal Photography, Disney publicity and the still leaderless marketing department went silent. Aside from a brief announcement on March 12, 2010, that Michael Giacchino would score JCOM, no visible publicity or marketing efforts were logged by IMDB Pro publicity monitoring. (The IMDB Pro Publicity Monitoring of John Carter is also available as a PDF Download here.)  The Facebook page was not updated. (Note: Note: Facebook’s “Timeline” function chronicles the date the page was created, and includes each post by the page owner throughout the history of the page.) The Twitter account did not exist and would not be created until June 15, 2011; there were no announcements, including no official announcement of the completion of principal photography in July — a milestone that traditionally receives an announcement in the media.

This period of “media silence” coincided with MT Carney taking over as President of Marketing in April 2010, as JCOM was in its 52nd day of a 100 day shooting schedule. The silence continued until finally on August 15, 2010, a few weeks after the completion of principal photography, came the first mention of JCOM during Carney’s tenure — an announcement that John Carter of Mars would be released on June 8, 2012. [Footnote: The IMDB Pro Data Table publicity log for John Carter note 22 mentions of John Carter from February 2010 through August 8 2010. Other than the announcement of Giacchino being brought on board to score, all mentions appear to be unrelated to any Disney marketing efforts; for example Bryan Cranston mentioned John Carter during an interview about his appearance in Red Tails; John Carter was mentioned by Universal in its announcements that Taylor Kitsch had been cast for that movie, etc.]

Again, “media silence” ensued after the release date announcement — a silence which continued until the end of the year. Thus in all of 2010 the total output from Disney consisted of four Facebook updates in January 2010 followed by silence on Facebook; plus(as monitored by Internet Movie Data Base) the announcement of Giacchino’s signing in April 2010, and the August announcement of the release date being June 8, 2012.

In reviewing the publicity and marketing output of Disney during 2010, the obvious inference to draw is that attention to JCOM was sporadic at best, with long periods of silence and no sign of any major engagement by Disney marketing. Such an inference would be consistent with the notion that JCOM suffered from Dick Cook’s departure; the firing of the entire Cook executive team, and the instability that followed and continued until at least the hiring of MT Carney in April 2010.

In sum, based purely on the public record of the output of the campaign from inception in 2007 through the end of 2010, it is possible only to conclude that Disney did nothing special to draw attention to the film, and limited itself to the basic output of a very few media releases, with no other visible marketing efforts taking place.

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And here’s the plug for the whole book!!!!

JCGOH Ad

“A fair, factual, and enlightening assessment of what went wrong . . . the best corporate history I’ve read since Disney War.” Daniel Butcher, Between Disney.

“A winning book . . . . I have no reservations in recommending John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood. Even if you only remotely hold an interest in the film or the moviemaking method, do yourself a favor and purchase this book. I cannot remember an instance when I read 350 pages of anything in 24 hours, but my level of captivation in how methodically and interestingly the content was presented should substantiate why John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood is a must-read. Grade A.” Brett Nachman, Geeks of Doom.

“A must read for every fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter and every film buff intrigued by the ‘inside baseball’ aspects of modern Hollywood.” Richard A. Lupoff, Author of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Master of Adventure

“Extensively researched . . . fascinating . . . an engrossing experience, kind of like watching the Titanic headed for the fateful iceberg. Josh Whalen, AmazingStoriesMag.com

3 comments

  • I follow AICN. Harry Knowles is a great Burroughs fan (didn’t he suggest in a recent article that Vin Diesel should read The Mucker and make that as a his next movie?), and yet no news about Tarzan since February of 2014, to announce the release date. There’s the occasional reference to Margot Robbie playing Jane in articles unrelated to Tarzan, or a Djimon Hounsou mention of Tarzan in an interview, but nothing only about the movie itself. I don’t think they relayed the few Alexander Skarsgard interviews mentioning Tarzan, nor the photos leaked, nor the two test screenings.

    On Imdb, Tarzan is only mentioned through biases in articles referenced there, through Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad articles, through Alexander Skarsgard and Diary of a Teenage Girl, through Casper Crump and his Vandal Savage part in DC’s Legend of Tomorrow tv show, and unfortunately through Jerry Weintraub’s death, and John Hurt’s cancer.

    The silence about Tarzan from official sources seems just deafening right now…

  • MCR wrote:

    There’s a difference. Tarzan is a stand alone film while Suicide Squad is part of Warner’s big “DC Cinematic Universe” that they’re trying to build to compete with Marvel and if that fails then they’re back to square one in the lucrative superhero market race. They have more riding on Squad since if it fails (and Batman V Superman isn’t an improvement over the awful Man of Steel) then there is no major moneymaking universe to milk to death.

    Yeah, I get that. What bothers me is that the kind of thing they can and in my opinion should be doing right now (releasing some concept art; having the writer do an interview) costs zero and takes a monthly meeting of the marketing people, and then two or three hours of work, per month, by one person in the marketing department. So when you take that into consideration — the silence has to be either a) strategic, or b) neglectful. I hope it’s the former. Just getting edgy.

  • ” Yes, I know that WB seems to have a strategy of remaining fairly quiet about their films until six months out. On the other hand, they’ve been anything but silent about Suicide Squad, which comes out a month after Tarzan. ”

    There’s a difference. Tarzan is a stand alone film while Suicide Squad is part of Warner’s big “DC Cinematic Universe” that they’re trying to build to compete with Marvel and if that fails then they’re back to square one in the lucrative superhero market race. They have more riding on Squad since if it fails (and Batman V Superman isn’t an improvement over the awful Man of Steel) then there is no major moneymaking universe to milk to death. Hopefully they will give Tarzan the promotion it needs to help turn it into a hit and a potential franchise, if it’s a good movie. My major concern is that Warner Bros has a bad habit of delaying movies and then those movies either flopping (Jupiter Ascending was moved from summer 2014 to this past February and even Man from UNCLE was moved from January to August, neither of which are prime months for blockbusters) or moving them into questionable release periods (their upcoming Peter Pan reboot “Pan” was moved from June to October and has little buzz). Granted there isn’t much coming out the same day as Tarzan except for Spielberg’s The BFG but I wonder if the radio silence on Tarzan doesn’t signify they’re thinking of moving or delaying it.

    So just be patient and wait. Or hope that Warners decides to make Batman in a Loin Cloth :-)

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