Four weeks from opening day and it’s time to take stock of just how John Carter is tracking, and what has to happen in order for the film to be labeled a success which we are going to define as “generating a sequel”. This is not wishful thinking or “fan-centric” analysis — it’s a hard look at this from a business perspective because ultimately, with at least $300m on the line and possibly more (production and marketing investment), the business equation will dominate future decision-making at Disney about whether or not to move forward with planned sequels.
One additional disclaimer. Disney is a hero to anyone who’s been following the John Carter saga because they hung in there — and they got it made. Not only did they get it made — they put “tentpole” money into ; they assembled a first rate team; and they put a lot on the line for a property that had never quite gotten made. So my analysis comes from a place of respect and appreciation to Disney for making this film happen; as well as concern and commitment to the underlying material and the film itself. I want the film to succeed and if it doesn’t I’m going to feel it as painfully as anyone.
First of all — we need to consider both “marketability” and “playability”. The former refers to how the idea of the film, as conveyed in the marketing and promotion prior to the release, either succeeds or doesn’t succeed in generating buzz, interest, and “must see” intensity. The latter refers to the viewing experience the audience will have once they are in their seats and actually watching the movie; will they like it; will they tell their friends; will the reviewers like it.
I want to start with this, because this is the part of the equation that looks promising. Whether it is because you believe in the quality of the underlying book; or believe in Andrew Stanton’s storytelling abilities; or believe in the bits and pieces of test screening reviews that are coming out — regardless of which aspect of this seems compelling, the bottom line is that there is ample empirical evidence suggesting that the film will deliver a satisfying audience experience and generate positive word of mouth, and do at least reasonably well with reviewers (an amplified form of word of mouth) and user reviews.
Many feel the film should be marketable. A commenter on this site summed it up nicely:
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!
It does sound easy, doesn’t it? But armchair quarterbacking is always a lot easier than getting out there and actually being Tom Brady or Eli Manning.
Just as there is empirical evidence that the film itself will “play” well; there is also empirical evidence that the marketing thus far has not caught fire in the way that Disney and friends of the project would have hoped, and with four weeks to go, time is running out. This does not mean the film is in “Mars Needs Moms” territory — the “floor” is quite a bit higher than that. But the problem is that the investment being what it is, the bar is quite high — and measured against that bar, the promotional efforts thus far are not connecting at the level and intensity they need to. All standard tracking measures — social media mentions, positive negative ratio, twitter “buzz”, forum postings, IMDB rankings, Facebook followers, twitter followers — all of these measures represent irrefutable evidence that the promotional campaign has not yet caught fire, and promotional themes and approaches being used thus far are not resonating. It doesn’t mean there is no awareness, nor does it mean there is no interest. But there needs to be more interest, and more intensity.
The Numbers: How is it actually tracking?
Currently the gloom and doom trackers have it in the 20’s opening weekend; the optimists have it in the 40’s. Overall, the over/under is around 30m opening weekend and this is from industry analysts who are seasoned pros, but who for most part are not yet drilling down into any “x factors” — just looking at the social media buzz (or lack of it), the positive/negative sentiment, and throwing out a number. So, generally speaking, industry trackers have it, on average, opening around 30m.
What do optimists see that the others don’t? They are taking into account “x” factors in JC’s favor which include a) the exit of most of the immediate competition leaving JC with a free weekend on March 9 and only 21 Jump Street to worry about before the Hunger Games comes out; b) the fact that winter box office is up 11% so far compared to last year and that helps; c) – the Disney “get out the kids and moms” machine which doesn’t show up on social media tracking, and d) the Boomer Burroughs fans, of which there are many who grew up reading the novels in the Ace and Ballantine editions in the 60’s and who don’t show up on social media tracking.
How do we see it at JCF?
1) Our position here at JCF is that the film needs to make $200m domestically and $500m globally to be branded, marginally, a success. If you study the patterns of recent Disney live action, and Stanton’s previous films, the domestic/global ratio of 200/500 is right on target meaning domestic as 40% of the global total is exactly what the relevant patterns are if you study them. (And no — it doesn’t need to get to $700m. Sequels will cost less to produce and promote — $500m is the number.)
2) What does it have to do opening weekend to get to $200m domestic? Industry standard is for a tentpole action feature to do about 36% of its final domestic gross on opening weekend. Thus by industry standard numbers, it needs an opening weekend of $72m and that extremely unlikely given its current promotional posture. But Stanton’s average is 24% — meaning in his previous pix as director, opening weekend ended up being 24% of his final domestic total, a figure that speaks to the fact that his films play well; he gets good word of mouth; and thus opening weekend ends up being a lower percentage of the domestic total than is the case for an “standard” film. If we acknowledge that JC will perform like an “average” Stanton film at 24% (his best is 20%), then in order to get to a $200m total domestically, “par” for opening weekend is $48m, a more attainable goal. The equation is: 48m = 24% of $200m.
3) Currently where does JCF have the film tracking? As noted, doomsayers have it in the 20’s for opening weekend, optimists have it in the 40’s, and the average is around 30m. We have it currently tracking at around $37m — giving it a $7m boost above the “average” of 30 based on the non-trackable factors mentioned earlier — boomer Burroughs fans, Disney moms, box office up 11%, and lack of competition on opening weekend.
Finally “tracking” is called “tracking” for a reason — a promotional campaign is a fluid thing just like a football season or a political campaign. If Disney finally comes out with a good trailer or a series of good TV spots (and they’ve been getting feedback for 8 weeks now and have to be feverishly trying to figure out how to crack the code of promoting this), that can affect things substantially. Not enough to get them to $60 or $70m, but possibly enough to get them to $48m which, as I see it, is “par” for the opening weekend to be on track for $200m domestic and $500m overall.
So — to summarize. If nothing changes in the promotion, JCF sees it:
37m opening weekend
154 domestic gross
385 global gross
But if Disney figures out the promotion over the next four weeks, it has a chance to get to “par” which is
48m opening weekend
200m domestic gross
500m global gross
Can it do better than “par”? Maybe …. but we’ll take par at this point and run with it.
Put another way — John Carter at this moment is in a position akin to where the New York Giants where when they were 7-7 with two weeks to go in the regular season. They were respectable, a .500 team struggling to make the playoffs. They got their act together, won their last two games, then powered through the playoffs and ultimately won the Super Bowl.
For John Carter to be a success, it doesn’t have to win the Super Bowl, but it does need to make it into the playoffs and advance to within a game or two of the Super Bowl. In movie terms — it needs to be one of the top 10-15 movies of the year, box office wise, to be labeled a success and generate a sequel. From where it is now, to get to where it needs to go — the dynamic needs to improve in the remaining four weeks of the campaign. Disney promotion needs to get its act together in the same way the Giants did — and they can. There’s still time. But each game (i.e. each week) going forward is an elimination game — there is no room for error anymore.
How to Change the Dynamic?
What can Disney do in the final four weeks to change the dynamic? It’s important to boil it down into specific, do-able changes in theme and approach and not just come up with a lengthy laundry list. So here is what is needed:
1) Come to grips with the realization that spectacle is not enough to motivate people to see the movie. Stop featuring that damned white ape in all the promotions and give the audience reason to care about the characters and story. It’s there — Stanton and Burroughs are master storytellers who can be relied upon to have delivered it in the story , now Disney must deliver the promise of character and story in the promotion. “Make me care”. The promotion thus far has failed to do that — but it can be done.
2) Get cracking with “from the director of Wall-E and Finding Nemo”. I can understand why Disney might have not immediately jumped on this bandwagon — this is live action, they were animated films, and Disney may have feared the negatives. But now, four weeks out, they see that a lot of what they are doing isn’t working and this is an asset that has to be brought into play. There are hundreds of thousands if not millions of teens and young adults who ABSOLUTELY LOVED both Nemo and Wall-E and who, upon hearing that JC is from “that director” will convert from “not interested” to “must see”. Disney MUST leverage Stanton even if the Stanton name is not yet a brand–it just has to connect the dots from Wall-E and Nemo to JC. The fact that Brad Bird did well with Ghost Protocoal has created a receptivity to the idea that Pixar directors are successfully stepping into live action.
3) Make people believe there is substance – not just hollow spectacle — in the movie. You’ve tried selling spectacle and it’s not working. Convey the idea that this movie is “based on the epic tale that inspired 100 years of filmmaking”. Don’t be afraid of selling Burroughs. Give it the pedigree it deserves. Remind people that Avatar was inspired by John Carter (Cameron said so in 5 interviews); not vice versa. Cause the audience to look at it and think — “that could be a richly satisfying story”, rather than “that looks like a bunch of hollow CGI and stunt work”.
One good new trailer could make a big difference. On the off chance that this article makes its way to someone in an actual position of responsibility for the film, I’m going to close by including a fan trailer which JCF created last week and which, in a poll on the site, is favored 86% to 14% over the official theatrical trailer. This trailer is a composite made up entirely of bits and pieces from all of the trailers and TV spots that have been released by Disney — which means that it introduces no new elements, but rather simply re-assembles elements that are readily available into a new narrative that — if the “focus group” testing on this site is to be believed — resonates better than the existing theatrical trailer. Moving in this direction on the trailer would be a start in changing the dynamic.