Disney’s Savvy Marketing of Jungle Book Adds to the Mystery of Its Inexplicably Lame Marketing of John Carter

Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter (The Disney Movie)

When Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. licensed A Princess of Mars to Disney, you can be sure they thought that when the movie John Carter (of Mars, Dammit) came out, they would be getting a full dose of Disney marketing. But of course, as we all found out, that didn’t happen.  The marketing that John Carter got from Disney was, well, somewhere between lame and pathetic.

Now, on the heels of Jungle Book’s $103M opening weekend,    Brook Barnes at The New York Times has issued a lengthy analysis of Disney’s Savvy Marketing of The Jungle Book in which all of the carefully designed interlocking elements of the Jungle Book marketing campaign are identified and examined.   It’s a fascinating read, because it shows what Disney is capable of when there is a mandate from the top to properly and thoroughly market a film.  Interestingly and not surprisingly, Disney declined to comment for the article — but that didn’t stop the analysis, since the elements are all there for anyone who’s paying attention to take note of.  All of these items are things that go on top of the basic package of theatrical trailer, TV spots, print ads, billboards, etc. —

  • Major push to have bloggers write on the theme that Favreau had used sophisticated, hi-tech filmmaking techniques to create the animal characters  and make them compelling — this to overcome any resistance to the “talking animals” concept.
  • Recognizing that there was a need to keep the film from looking too childish in order to appeal to the finicky high school crowd— older siblings tend to influence younger brothers and sisters — Disney consciously filled the first trailer with scary moments (pouncing panther, snarling tiger, stampeding buffalo) while hiding the musical numbers and keeping Baloo’s goofier moments to a minimum.
  • To elevate “The Jungle Book” in the minds of grown-ups, Disney in March circulated dramatic photographs that paired voice actors with their onscreen characters — Idris Elba with the tiger Shere Khan, Ben Kingsley with the panther Bagheera, Lupita Nyong’o with the wolf Raksha.
  • Recognizing that the Disney Magic Castle logo is not an automatic plus for the male demo, Disney aggressively and repeatedly pitched “The Jungle Book” to male audiences on ESPN and elsewhere  as coming not from the studio that made “Cinderella” but “from the studio that brought you ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’An extended 3-D trailer for “The Jungle Book” was attached to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which had an audience that was 58 percent male. And Disney rolled out an action-oriented trailer during the Super Bowl.

  • Aiming at the Hispanic market, Disney teamed with Univision for a five-week stunt that brought “Jungle Book” characters and clips to telenovelas, talk shows and sports coverage. Disney even built a tool to allow Univision personalities to appear in scenes.
  • To emphasize the “immersive world” (think Avatar) Disney introduced a mazelike Law of the Jungle website in partnership with the female-leaning Tumblr; ran special promos at IMAX theaters focusing on the snake Kaa; and created a touring virtual-reality experience and 360-degree Facebook video emphasizing the “Avatar”-like world of its jungle.
  • Various corners of the Disney empire pitched in to promote “The Jungle Book.” A New Year’s Day stunt on the Disney Channel, for instance, was used to portray the film as one of the year’s first blockbuster offerings for families and children.
  • But the synergistic heavy lifting was done by Disney theme parks. During the jam-packed spring break weeks, park theaters in Florida and California offered sneak-peek footage of the movie, with Mr. Favreau providing introductions.The many (many) theme park stores that sell Disney merchandise had “Jungle Book” sections. And Disney built photogenic “Jungle Book” sand sculptures at its Animal Kingdom and Epcot parks in Florida.

The foregoing is what anyone licensing intellectual property to Disney has a reasonable right to expect, and yet in the case of John Carter . . . . .well, I won’t beat a dead thoat about it, I’ll just sigh a little and think about what might have been if Disney had genuinely gotten behind the franchise.

Now . . . I know that there will be those here who will argue good riddance to Stanton’s John Carter but I will counter in advance by simply saying that from the perspective of acquiring new fans and perpetuating the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs, having a thriving Disney  John Carter franchise with all the elements described above for Jungle Book (instead of the ruin and wreckage we were left with)  would have been a good thing — it would have burnished ERB’s legacy and brought in new fans, some of whom (not a high percentage, but still . . .) would have discovered the books, and the possibility of other studios taking on other ERB properties woudl have been enhanced, etc, etc. etc.



  • Well, it’s encouraging to know that when the time comes for a Barsoom reboot, the new project would (hopefully) have three things going for it that Stanton’s film didn’t:

    (1) Better marketing – the author, the legacy (cornerstone of science fiction and superheroes as we know them), the alluring world of Barsoom, the ensemble of characters with plenty of big and small stories (both external/war and internal/emotional conflicts), with the tone of a historical science-fantasy epic

    (2) Better “franchise” awareness of the property (with the BO underperformance reputation of DJC offset by the widespread opinion that the film was decent, just poorly marketed)

    (3) Better reviews, if the film is of higher quality. This would infuse the opening weekend with that much more life.

    And one could add
    (4) Name recognition for whoever works both behind and in front of the camera, depending on who signs on. A little extra incentive for audiences to “trust” a reboot can only help.

    Whether or not Disney intentionally threw John Carter under the bus in order to sour the property’s future prospects with other studios, the truth remains that the results at the BO will increase skepticism among anyone who might put up the money for a reboot. I don’t really mind that situation, as it puts things roughly back where they were before anything started happening at Disney. Before Stanton, the property had a reputation of extraordinary potential, but had proven notoriously difficult to bring to production (80 years in development), with a great many “names” having bruised themselves trying to roll the boulder up the hill, so to speak.

    Having followed the industry activity surrounding the property since 2000 (when the freshest info available was reflections by Ted Elliot and Terry Rosio on their Wordplayer site about their adaptation attempt in the late 90’s), the current situation feels something like it did back in 2005 or 2006 when Paramount pulled the resources for Jon Favreau’s John Carter film and rerouted the money to JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. The difference now is the cloud over the project isn’t one of “obscure (though deeply influential), and notoriously challenging”, but rather “BO underperformance, and challenging”.

    The good news is that the reasons for the underperformance are now widely understood. A whole lot of lessons about the nature of the adaptation and its marketing are there for the learning. If the four things above were remedied, and Barsoom were allowed to be its ferocious and bittersweet self, the improvement in BO results could very well be exponentially better for a reboot.

    The soured reputation is, in a sense, illusory, or at least transitory. There ARE people in the industry who have the perception and clout to see past the smoke of DJC and decide to take us to the Barsoom that still awaits – a uniquely promising cinematic world that holds the keys to many of the dreams of the creators of science fiction and superheroes over the last century.

  • Thank you. You do that much better than I do when I try to paraphrase it. Steve Davidson — there ya go.

  • “basically says, if I can paraphrase, that my personal animus towards Star Wars is causing me to “blame Star Wars” for John Carter’s failure”

    Uh maybe because you still KEEP BRINGING IT UP! You’re still using Star Wars as the main excuse for your “theory” that Disney threw John Carter under the bus despite the fact that Stanton began working on this film years before Disney announced the Lucasfilm deal and was in post-production (probably doing his fourth or fifth round of reshooting since he had begun to develop Kubrick or Malick-itis and had to rework everything over and over) when talks began. Also you seem to ignore the huge budget, lack of big stars, etc that meant this film was going to be an uphill struggle even if the marketing wasn’t a disaster.

    And why? Because you have stated over and over a dislike for Star Wars and how a rival John Carter of Mars franchise at Disney would have encroached on SW’s box office. I guess you conveniently forgot Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a scifi flick with a heavy Star Wars influence, yet there was no word from Lucas to throw that one away. Why didn’t it get some of the blame, along with the rest of Marvel for solving the boy film problem Disney had for years? Then again we don’t know how you feel about Marvel and their output since you’ve been busy venting over Star Wars and how you didn’t like it. It’s tunnel vision, only you can’t see it.

  • Yes, good points. I agree completely that JC could have had a $50m opening weekend with the kind of reviews and audience reaction that Jungle Book got. I think the Disney marketing machine had it figured just that way — hey, if Stanton delivers what he delivered with Wall-E and Finding Nemo (90%++ critic an audience rating), then our marketing will have been enough. And if he doens’t deliver that, well, then the film didn’t deliver. (Not “the marketing didn’t deliver”.)

    But . . if you look at it, here’s Jungle Book tracking at 60-65m BEFORE the good reviews. Suppose the reviews had only been the same as JC, and the audience numbers had been the same as JC. Do you think JB would have done 31m? No, it would have done 60-65m. Tracking and performance would have matched. But because the film was excellent, it outperformed tracking.

    So I would summarize it like this:

    JC — tracked at 30m (crappy marketing), and performed at 31m with B- audience score and 50% critics (so-so) and with opening weekend 40% of final BOG (so-so legs)

    JB — tracked at 65m, (good marketing) and performed at 103m, with A audience and 95% critics (great scores) and with opening weekend probably 25-30% of final BOG (great legs)

    Ergo, it still boils down to — crappy marketing contributed to the demise of John Carter. A better film could have pulled it out of the muck, but the bad marketing put it in the muck to begin with.

  • MCR has castigated me soundly many times on this topic — basically says, if I can paraphrase, that my personal animus towards Star Wars is causing me to “blame Star Wars” for John Carter’s failure. Here’s one link … http://thejohncarterfiles.com/2015/12/lucasfilms-starwars-com-website-shows-some-love-for-john-carter/ I think if you google “John Carter files mcr star wars lucas” you’ll probably come up with some others. Or maybe this exchange will lure him out of his den . . . . 😉

  • The main reason Jungle Book opened to over $100 million were the reviews. 95% on rotten tomatoes. The tracking for Jungle Book was initially only at $60 to $65 million but when the reviews started coming in the tracking for the opening weekend kept on going higher. The same thing happened with Disney other big hit this year Zootopia with its 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating which drove it to a $75 million opening weekend from initial estimates of $50 million.

    John Carter could have had a $50 million opening weekend rather than a $30 million opening if Stanton had made a better movie which received better reviews. It’s legs at the box office would have been better as well. Zootopia just crossed $300 million domestic off a $75 million opening weekend (that’s a 4X multiplier and its not done yet). John Carter finished with $73 million off a $30 million a multiplier of barely over 2X.

    Critical reviews have far more impact on the opening box office than advertising for films like John Carter, Zootopia etc because they are unknown qualities. They are not sequels to already popular franchises which are review proof like Batman vs Superman, Twilight, the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels etc which already have huge fan bases. Even something like BvS was eventually hurt by reviews and word of mouth as it had huge drops after its initially opening and will fail to reach a billion worldwide despite the 6th highest opening weekend ever worldwide.

  • I think that in broad strokes that’s pretty much it. Remember that from the beginning, though, John Carter was an outlier at Disney in that Dick Cook got the rights specifically in reaction to Stanton suggesting it — in part, perhaps, because Cook thought it was at least an okay idea, and in part because he wanted to support Stanton/Pixar and give him a way to make a live action movie without leaving the lot, so to speak. So it never had real “political” support at Disney, (meaning it didn’t come in through the usual development process, but rather was just grabbed by the studio head) and I don’t think it was ever viewed there as a strategic acquisition on its own. Yes, if Stanton/Pixar could make magic with it — fine, they would take it. But if not, then so what — Stanton would have been given a chance to make a live action film and “get it out of his system” without Disney losing control of him, and the studio would have demonstrated that it was supportive of the creative vision of Stanton/Pixar etc.

    I think this framework for how it all got started permeated the entire project — they basically bought the property, gave Stanton the money to make it, and let him and Pixar run with it, and when the time came to promote it — didn’t put a lot of thought or strategy into it because it had never been a strategic priority, and by the time the release was on the horizon so too was the Lucasfilm acquisition, which feeds into your theory (hotly disputed by MCR by the way) that Lucasfilm and Star Wars became a priority that engulfed any imperative to make a success out of John Carter. I don’t think that they actively sabotaged John Carter — they didn’t have to. They just did a robotic promotion — made uninspired materials (poster, trailer, etc) that didn’t reflect any actual deep thought or effort; bought the tv spots; bought the billboards; and went through the motionso on the theory that if Stanton somehow had made a magical hit, then they would have given it enough promotion for it to succeed — but if it was anything less than a clear hit with audiences, it would disappear beneath the waves. In the end Stanton did not make a movie with the kind of critic or audience rating that he had previously achieved with Wall-E or Finding Nemo….end of story.

    As to whether any amount or quality of marketing support would have turned that around — I don’t think anything could have turned JC into a $100M opening weekend. Could it have achieved $50m instead of the $31m it did get — yes, probably. Would that have been enough to get a sequel — no, probably not. 50m opening, 150m domestic, 300 m foreign — 450m worldwide — that doesn’t get a sequel for a 250m film. But it wouldn’t have been THE BIGGEST FLOP IN CINEMA HISTORY . . . . .

  • At this point I’ll just always remain thankful that we got A Princess of Mars, even though Stantonized, which will stand the test of time as a classic in it’s own right, in spite of Disney’s efforts to make it go away. Seems like our dreams of a near-term sequel are probably just that… Not that I’ll ever quit hoping!

  • Here’s my “theory”:

    When Disney acquired rights to JC, they were on the cusp of buying the Star Wars franchise. JC – and potentially the rest of the ERB universe was a franchise target for Disney that quickly dropped to “back-up” when SW dropped onto the table.
    ERB, Inc., was not (probably never) going to sell outright.
    Wholly-owned already-proven franchise vs licensed, un-proven franchise. Easy to see which direction to go.
    At that point, there was no point in ramping up JC as it was never going to become a franchise at Disney; SW & Marvel were more than enough and didn’t really step on each other, while JC/Barsoom could potentially step on Marvel and SW (it has both superhero and SF elements), so the studio either actively worked to kill JC (take the write-down, negatively impact any other studio wanting to continue) or benignly neglected the once shining star in favor of the much larger, more shiny star that is/was Star Wars.

    I favor the former: JC was actively sabotaged because doing so offered the opportunity to “sour” other studios on ERB products (especially those not Tarzan), thus diminishing competition for other Disney product.

    But it could just be that the wind went out of the interest sails at the top once everyone started saying “we own Star Wars (who needs that independent licensed product?)”

    Please note: none of the foregoing in any way changes my opinion that even IF JC had received the kind of marketing support evidenced for Jungle Book, it would have been successful; it wouldn’t have been because it was a bad movie. Disney’s question might really have been very close to “do we put another five thousand into the old clunker, or do we buy a new car?”

    Besides: how much did JC cost? How much did Lucasfilm cost? There’s your answer right there.

  • Barnes left out one thing:

    –Not having to deal with a raging egotist who forced the marketing team to keep his film vague in the marketing to “preserve the mystery.”

    Sometimes that helps.

    As for ” the perspective of acquiring new fans and perpetuating the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs, having a thriving Disney John Carter franchise with all the elements described above for Jungle Book (instead of the ruin and wreckage we were left with) would have been a good thing” that seems doubtful. I saw one loser on the IMDB board diss the books but loved the movie while on the Legend of Tarzan board there’s been one guy who thought it was OK for Stanton to trash ERB and John Carter of Mars in interviews but bothersome when Zack Snyder did the same with Superman. His excuse? He liked John Carter and had one poster defend him by reminding me this guy never read the books. So instead of creating new fans all it did was create more sad Stantonites who can’t stand it when someone doesn’t bow before the great god and admit ERB was a hack and his work poor. So yeah good riddance because if that’s what we-the old ERB fans-had to look forward to then be thankful Stanton’s film failed.

  • Yes, and when you see the Legend of Tarzan marketing next to that… and Legend of Tarzan isn’t even as pushed forward as other WB properties as Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad and Fantastic Beasts… Warner does what it takes, no more, no less, and the marketing campaign is 100% more effective than what Disney did with John Carter. A shame, really, and that lingering feeling that if Disney had done what was necessary, we would perhaps have already seen Gods of Mars as of now… Sigh.

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