Tough love for Disney: Chicago blogger serves up a devastating critique of John Carter marketing deficiencies

John Carter News

Four weeks from today John Carter will be in theaters and no one is a bigger or more passionate supporter of this movie than I am.  I am not in the habit of creating or running fan sites–The John Carter Files exists because of my lifetime appreciation of Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars series, and my passionate hope that Disney and Stanton will get it right.  Tonight, four weeks out, I will go on record as saying that from everything I’ve seen and read, the movie itself is going to be all right.  Stanton earned my respect as a storyteller with Wall-E and Finding Nemo; he has devoted four years of his life and a major career pivot to this film.  He hasn’t followed every Burroughsian detail but I’m not obsessed with that; Barsoom is intact, the main characters are all there, and the changes Stanton has made are defensible.  So — the movie itself? Check.  It will “play”, as they say in the industry.

But there are two parts to the success equation.  One is the film itself-the other is the marketing of the film.  With a movie, you just get one shot; there is one opening day.  A movie is more like an election campaign than any other form of marketing — everything builds to opening day and if you don’t get enough warm bodies in seats on opening day, no amount of “word of mouth” will save you.  This is particularly true of a tentpole franchise picture with promotion and marketing costs that mean it must be in the top 10 films released all year, box office wise, to be reasonably assured of turning a profit.

And how has the marketing been?

Here comes some “tough love” for Disney and if anybody there is listening, I hope they will take it that way.

I have been worried about the marketing ever since the day the first “real” trailer came out on December 1.  But I’ve held back on voicing a critique in the hope that as Disney puts the trailers and the rest of the marketing out there, and as feedback comes in, the ship would get righted.  I felt that certainly, by the time the Super Bowl ad came out, the marketing team would know what’s working, what’s not working, and  the promotion would move into the home stretch with some wind in its sails.

Then came the Super Bowl spot — and I’m referring to the 30 second spot that actually played during the Super Bowl and during which 18 seconds were consumed by a slow zoom out on a mosaic of the name ‘John Carter’, not the 60 second version that was released to the internet.  I watched in horror and the results were almost instantaneous.  In the next 24 hours, John Carter was in last place among all Super Bowl trailers in terms of twitter “buzz” (a hard measurement, not an impression); it was ranked 50th our of 54 commercials on the USA today poll; it was roundly criticized as ineffective by everyone from MTV to the Hollywood Reporter, and on Tuesday Wall Street analysts issued earnings warnings for Disney tied to the “blood in the water” surrounding John Carter.  These are all the assessments of others — not my own personal soap box.

Today, with four weeks to go and the urgency of this reaching a boiling point,  I decided I must speak out in the hope that somebody in a posit of responsibility might be listening and might have an “aha” moment.  I know that’s a long shot — but what’s the alternative? Remain silent and watch John Carter sail into an iceberg?

Fortunately, at a moment when I was gathering myself to write a “critique from a friend of the project” — someone has done it for me.  A blogger who goes by “BrianTT” has offered up a clearheaded and well intentioned analysis.  Like me, BrianTT wants the film to do well; his criticism comes from a place of genuine concern.  Here is his critique, which comes in the context of an article tracking and assessing all of the films which had trailers play in the Super Bowl.  This will not be the last word on this — but it’s a very articulate first word.

Movie: “John Carter”

Best Part of the Trailer: There are some fantastic visual landscapes on display.

Worst Part of the Trailer: While fantastic, those landscapes just aren’t that interesting.

OUR TAKE: I’ve been holding off on this, but here goes – I have finally reached the moment where I’m comfortable admitting that I am very, very nervous about “John Carter”.

But how did we get here? “John Carter” should be a slam-dunk. It’s, essentially, the first live-action Pixar film (yes, I know it’s “technically” under the Disney banner, but c’mon); it’s an epic space adventure based on a classic work of pulp fiction; and it’s directed by Andrew Stanton, the card-carrying genius behind “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E.” Andrew Stanton directing a “John Carter” movie should be as much of a no-brainer as Brad Bird directing a “Mission: Impossible” movie. It should be as close to a sure thing as Hollywood can get.

So, with all that in mind, why does it feel like the world just doesn’t really give a damn about “John Carter”? Who is to blame for this growing sense of apathy about what, in theory, should be a very cool movie?

At the moment, it’s easiest to blame whoever has been handling the marketing for “John Carter” so far, particularly whoever was responsible for the first trailers. The initial trailers and even this new “extended Superbowl teaser” are just ridiculously inert. They’re just not exciting at all. And, granted, lots of exciting things are apparently happening in these trailers – battles and gladiatorial contests and a whole lot of jumping, jumping, jumping – and yet, when you watch them, it’s like drinking a glass of warm milk. My pace barely quickens and I quickly realize that not even the most rock-opera-ed version of Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” around is enough to get me into a movie theatre these days.

So what’s wrong with these “John Carter” trailers? First off, they all seem to place this huge value on the import and power of the name “John Carter”, which… is a huge mistake. 90% of the viewing public has no awareness of literary pulp heroes of the 1910s, so announcing that “hey, everyone, they finally made a John Carter movie!” means almost nothing to a large bulk of the world. The Superbowl trailer spends half its running time pulling back into this huge mosaic of images spelling out “John Carter”, as if they’re revealing a secret or announcing something shocking, and it’s just not the case. When the title is revealed, I think most people are just sitting back and giving the most natural response imaginable – “Well, who’s John Carter?” And what REALLY annoys me about the Disney marketing team is that they’re COMPLETELY FAILING to address that question.

WHO IS John Carter? THAT is what the trailers should be telling us at this point. The “JC” trailers have been extremely focused on showing us scenes of rich visual lushness and… I hate to say it, but they’re not landing. People aren’t that impressed. They look GREAT, but they’re nothing groundbreaking and more than one person has commented to me about how much the gladiator scenes remind them of the Geonosis gladiator scenes in “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones”. (This Superbowl teaser also includes a moment of Carter hijacking a huge gun to shoot down a spaceship with huge sails that looks remarkably like Luke Skywalker blowing up Jabba’s sail barge in “Return of the Jedi”.) I hate admitting this, but the imagery in “John Carter”, so far, is not convincing audiences that this is an event movie worth seeing. So, why – why, why, why – has Disney not changed tactics and begun promoting the STORY of “John Carter”? Why are they not answering that question – “Who is John Carter?”

Because I think they could get some traction there. Taking a quick poll of my non-fanboy-ish friends and family, I’ve found that a big portion of them are just stymied about what the heck the movie is about. All they’ve seen are a big helping of very expensive, very disparate images and a gladiator fight right out of “Attack of the Clones”. The word “confusing” came up more than once. Heck, maybe if you actually explained why Carter can jump around like a Mario Brother – I’ve heard it’s a reaction to Mars’ lighter gravitational forces… not that they’ve said anything about it in the trailers – you might draw some more people in or convince them that, in theory, this movie is a much, much grander and more thoughtful production than something like “The Chronicles of Riddick”. Or maybe, since the movie is named after its lead character, if you ever gave Taylor Kitsch more than two lines of dialogue per trailer, you might even get some people interested in why this John guy was considered charismatic enough to warrant his own movie in the first place.

Put the albino ape away, Disney. If you don’t start forcibly TELLING people why they should give a damn about who John Carter is and why his story is worth seeing, I have a bad feeling that “John Carter” is going to be Disney’s biggest sci-fi misfire since “The Black Hole”.

TRAILER OUTLOOK: Not great. Lots of expensive toys on display, but I don’t really want to play with any of them.

Read more:

One last note:  On Tuesday Disney put out a 60 second spot on “The River” that , perhaps because things had gotten so bad that anything reasonable would look great — was welcomed by fans who were concerned.   A new 30 second spot on Wednesday entitled “Battle” was also marginally better.  But neither is remotely enough to turn the tide of apathy and Disney must recognize this.  Both feature that damned albino ape as if watching John Carter leap over a white gorilla is so cool that it just HAS to be featured in every trailer.  Enough with the albino gorilla already….give people a reason to care about John Carter, and that starts with letting them know who he is.

There’s still time.

UPDATE:  Some emails have come in asking that I put up the link to our trailer survey, as it is relevant to this article.  Here is the link. 


  • Agreed. This seems like a no-brainer:

    1. The first LIVE ACTION movie from the beloved geniuses at Pixar, y’know, those people you really love & trust!! This was one of the last things Steve Jobs would have been working on!!

    2. This is the baby who started it all, the original original, it’s from another era, don’t be fooled by the computer fx, this is warm, human, down n dirty, and a little on the crazy side! You WANT to see this!!

    3. John Carter’s a combat vet, he’s a noble man, he loves adventure, he’s the last thing these Martians are expecting, he’s gonna open a can of good ol’ fashioned American whup-ass on this f’d up world!!

    4. See that hot girl? She’s the most *important* person on Mars, and this scrappy soldier from earth’s gonna try & win her heart!

    Seems soooooo blindingly simple & yet…they’ve missed by miles and miles and miles…

  • This represents my thoughts EXACTLY! The white ape sequence is kick ass… but enough with it already. Its obviously not working for the trailer since people just think of Attack of the clone. They seem really against changing their marketing attack.

    If theyre really convinced word of mouth is going to sell this… where are the reviews??? Get Empire/Total film to see THE WHOLE THING (not just 5 seqeuences) and get them excited enough about it to put John Carter on their covers… the reason why people are getting confused is because the trailer tells you fuck all and they are revealing fuck all about the story!

    The difference between the first teaser and the first trailer…. they could be 2 completely different movies. If you didnt know about John Carter you would have no idea how they are linked!

  • The marketing team should concentrate on promoting the character of John Carter and the actor Taylor Kitsch together by creating 5 mins trailer focusing on John Carter‘s dialogues with fewer actions and a brief interview of Taylor Kitsch explaining his character altogether. And then they should advertise it globally. The people wants to feel the character of John Carter and not just the movie. The people are excited and intrigued to see what FNL kid Taylor Kitsch has to portrait in the movie. And if proper advert is not given out, then the movie might actually end up as a flaw. God forbid. This is Disney for crying out loud, people love disney. That‘s all.

  • I know. today was the day I sort of snapped but there’s no backing away from this. I’ve had this movie in my mind for my whole life and also felt a kinship with the author…..I’ll go down with the ship if I have to. But I’ll also be yammering in the Captain’s ear … LOL

    It may not be as bad as it seems in that there’s still time and as we get closer there will be more than just the trailer. The “set visit” articles started coming out today. There will be interviews; and actual clips from the movie (not the Great White Ape coliseum scene, please!)

    Don’t give up..just take a short break. Read some ERB. It always rejuvenates me…..

  • I read that article earlier today. He expressed my feelings pretty much exactly. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting weary. Can I keep talking this film up for another month? I feel like I’m on tour flapping my jaws to a bunch of blank stares.

    My family thinks I’m crazy. We were at Barnes and Noble today and I saw a hard-cover “classic” edition of The mars Trilogy and it was by the classics and not the John Carter table. I took a few of them and put them on the table and then a few more by the Lovecraft and Verne classic editions.

    My husband was like, Becky, you don’t work here, calm down.

    All I want is for people to find out what the story is about. The best way to do that imo is to get them to read the book, then they will want to see the film.

    The trailers aren’t working for people. They are not memorable. I explained the whole reading project to a bunch of high school seniors today and one or two said they saw the trailer. Their teacher left virtually no plans so I had the trailer running on the computer where kids could check it out if they wanted using headphones. One girl finally remembered, “Oh yeah, I saw that! I remember the line, “you are ugly but you are beautiful”

    Well that’s good at least. But none of them know the story. None of them seemed excited unless I spent time talking to them individually and in small groups, book in hand (the new one with the pictures) and then they got a little glimmer.

  • Yeah, I know. Did you check out the fan trailer we made? Sounds like you might find it an improvement.

  • I completely agree that “make the characters matter” is exactly what they need to do. I hope they are listening. I really do. I don’t want to become Mr. Negative — I’m cheering this film on with every bit of energy I’ve got.

  • Wow, this articulates what i’ve been feeling as i see the trailers and clips roll out. i’ve been excited for this film for years but that’s me.

    personally, if they focused on the beginning footage of ERB (which is non-existant now) to setup the story, and hold off on the spectacle a bit more it might ground it in something people can relate to.

    under promise, over deliver. i think that’s what JCM needs. i’m quite positive it will over deliver. i think word of mouth will be enough to help it out on it’s second weekend. this is what happened with Mission Impossible: GP. lots of uncertainty before it’s release, then it went gangbusters. i’m sure the dark knight clip helped get the geeks in there but the word of mouth gave the film legs. i think the box office certainly confirms this.

    lets hope the goes too for John Carter.

  • What are you basing “terrible movie with a terrible story and terrible characters” on? Have you read the books?

    Maybe that’s a principal marketing problem? I think that we’ve got a pretty good glimpse of who John Carter is in terms of the film – even if the studio has dictated that he be “damaged”. Hopefully the more chivalric hero will become apparent as the film unfolds.

    The real questions now are, Who is Dejah Thoris? Who is Woola? Who is Tars Tarkas? Part of the appeal of Alien is that the monster is so damned cool – look at all the sequels and spinoffs to see evidence of how people respond to gigantic space monsters… and in this case, Tars Tarkas is a monster who is on our side. I’ve no doubt that Willem Dafoe will perform excellently, but I have to add the word “perhaps”; ould the marketing make use of this aspect of his appeal beyond being the mere “noble savage”?

    Also, there’s a split second in a recent spot where Dejah Thoris smiles at John Carter as he sweeps her away from her arranged wedding with Sab Than and that makes it for me. We need more of that to show that these characters matter.

  • I think that they’re having trouble with finding out who their market is without many saying, “Avatar/Star Wars clone!”

    Also, I’m not sure what age group they are aiming at. It all seems confused.

    From what glimpses I have seen, and rumours I have heard, Woola will almost steal the film and perhaps he should be given more prominence? Then again, the relationship between John Carter and Dejah Thoris, which should be at the core, is not sufficiently shown. The very brief glimpses that I’ve seen of John Carter and Dejah Thoris interacting as human beings beyond the more portentious “You must fight for us” stuff are promising.

    Now, none of this points at John Carter being a bad film. Indeed, it might suggest that it’s a great film, because it has many appealing aspects – a man and his dog, action, love, epic, planetary romance (and we can thank ERB for having that instinctive grasp on what makes a good adventure). Perhaps if the trailers had each in their own turn had highlighted those aspects in there own terms? Instead, each trailer/spot seems to be more of the same, which is confusing.

    Perhaps that desire to show everything at once is in itself is indicative of the problem of modern marketing – every film has to be crammed into a narrow definition of genre. A Princess of Mars is a great story because it has such a wide scope as a story and yet has a human immediacy about it as its principle focus.

    There are cinematic decisions that I accept – the nudity of the books will never be marketable now, the fact that the Tharks are nine feet tall rather than fifteen makes sense in terms of frame composition – the eyelines of a six foot man interacting with fifteen-foot Tharks are unreasonable (he’s be speaking to their crotches at best) .

    I do look forward to the film and I do believe that it will be good as a film – I just hope that word of mouth will support it, and perhaps Disney should be doing their best now to ensure that?

  • Personally I am very excited about this movie, and I am telling people about it because I think if people know what its about they will go see it. I do think that some of the suggestions about maybe ways to change the marketing in the trailer have some merit, but I think there is enough visuals of the characters and the action that people are getting interested. Also Hollywood in general needs to remember that there are alot of really good movies out there but the economy is hurting and people are not making it to the theaters to see every film they might like to. I for one am expecting John Carter to be very successful, and not counting them out yet! Especially once opening weekend comes and word of mouth gets out in the public. I remember when Star Wars originally hit the theaters in 1977, nobody knew anything about it and a few critics even said it would tank. Just goes to show, you never know!

  • What are you basing “terrible movie with a terrible story and terrible characters” on? Have you read the books?

  • My take:

    It’s going to be a terrible movie with a terrible story and terrible characters (but great effects.) This is Disney’s cheap cash-in on Avatar, and they are banking on the fact that a Pixar demigod is directing it.

  • Ha I thought u were a fan but now i get it. UR a fan of the books. Not a studio plant from Disney. That’s interesting.

  • Disney must be counting on their ability to get kiddies and moms to see it because they are missing the mark with the general audience. Their Super Bowl ad was a disgrace. They’ve got a new guy heading marketing — heads should roll.

  • LOL that albino ape thing is kewl but that’s not enuf reason to see this movie. When are they gonna show some story?

Leave a Reply