John Carter Musings: What, exactly, is Disney’s marketing strategy?

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Disney-bashing over the marketing of John Carter has become fashionable over the last few weeks as the tracking figures for John Carter have come in and it is apparent that the core promotional campaign has failed to ignite the kind of interest that Disney clearly had hoped for when they invested $250m in the production of this film.  What, one wonders, is the actual strategy behind the campaign as we have seen it thus far?  What was Disney thinking at the outset?  What are they thinking now?

Here is my best attempt to “reverse engineer” the thought process and strategy that is driving what we have seen.  This is not based on any inside information — just on analysis and logical review of what we have seen to date.

We Have Dazzling Spectacle That Will “Shock and Awe”
It seems that at the core of Disney’s approach is a decision that the film contains dazzling CGI-driven production value that –especially in IMAX and 3D–will inspire such “shock and awe” that if we lead with that, success will follow.  This would seem to be the decision that led to the decision that, in the main trailer for the movie, it begins with the white ape/coliseum sequence, and why virtually every TV spot either opens or closes with that sequence.  Taylor Kitsch in his behind the scenes interview says “the white ape sequence along is worth the price of admission”, and it seems likely that this is a talking point from Disney marketing.

Our Core Market is ‘Tween” Boys and Let’s Pitch to Them
There has been a relentless focus on action/adventure/creatures and it seems that Disney marketing is most sure-footed on  kiddie oriented Disney Channel and Disney Go spots and featurettes.  Disney may feel that it’s ability to attract “Disney families” through the Disney Channel, its various lists and membership groups, is the cornerstone of the marketing a program and attracting adults and other demographics is a secondary consideration.

Andrew Stanton is a great Director but he’s not a brand and not a marketing asset
Stanton is trusted by the production people at Disney and he is clearly a serious force as a film-maker, but is he a marketing asset?  Not, in Disney marketing’s view, for this type of film.  There seems to be a decision that promoting the film as an Andrew Stanton film, or “from the director of Wall-E and Finding Nemo”, somehow creates “cognitive dissonance”.  Thus, it’s better to let Andrew make a good movie, but don’t deploy him as a marketing asset because he isn’t one.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, God Bless the old Geezer, is not a marketing asset
Burroughs has his followers among the Baby Boomer generation and certain geeks, but his work is a century old and he is not an asset in the way that authors of currently “hot” novels (Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter come to mind) and there is a danger that if you reference him too much, it will make the film seem musty, old, creaky.  Better to be respectful of him, mention him in all the formal recitations of the source material and major credits, but don’t make a big deal about him because to do so could backfire.

Now….when I started writing this I thought I might be able to come up with more marketing points than that, but as I write — that seems to be about it.  Four main points: 1) Shock and awe, 2) Tween Boys, c) Don’t make a big deal of Stanton, and d) Burroughs is liability.  To that I will add one further tenet of the campaign which would seem to be — “Don’t pay too much attention to online chatter as that is just a vocal minority and does not give a true indication of the broad public response.

Assuming that this was the mindset going in, one then wonders — what has been learned over the course of the promotion and what course corrections have been evident?

This is the part that is truly baffling.  The indications that the initial approach was foundering were evident  pretty early on.  The main trailer was released on December 1 and 30 second spots started appearing on December 15th.  It’s easy to imagine that not a lot of critical review was happening during the holidays, but certainly by early January when everyone was back to work there was a body of evidence available to Disney that the initial thrust was meeting with lackluster response.

In early January, for example, by all social media tracking measures (and we track them here so this is based on actual recorded observations), John Carter was lagging light years behind Hunger Games and barely holding even with other March releases like Mirror Mirror (who subsequently moved their release date) and 21 Jump Street.  At that point, 9 weeks from release date, it was too early to have the old school studio tracking polls but not too soon to realize that the promotional brew was not right.

Did anything change?

I remember thinking during that period in December and early January that — okay, Disney’s strategy is to secure the hardcore sci-fi/geek audience first, that’s why they’re promoting it this way early on, but it will change as the release date approaches and we will see a more nuanced campaign that reaches out to key demographics that the initial campaign was not reaching.   What key demographics?

  • Fans of Avatar, particularly those who are not generally sci-fi fans but who got caught up in the Avatar excitement and have gone two years without anything like Avatar to watch.  Turn the “it seems a lot like Avatar” reaction into a plus.  The easiest way to do this would be to strongly make the point that the source material for JC is what inspired Cameron (he’s said that John Carter was his inspiration in no less than 5 interviews).
  • Fans of Wall-e, Nemo, Pixar, and Stanton:  Even though Stanton is not a brand in the way that Cameron is, there is a very substantial audience who would convert from aware to definitely interested upon learning that JC is directed by Andrew Stanton.  Make sure this information is driven home.
  • Women.  The John Carter books were called “interplanetary romance” for a reason.  Dejah Thoris is a strong character.  Play up both the strength of Dejah Thoris and the relationship angle in order to draw women – get it classified as a date movie, not just a guys’ movie.

But as the promotion moved forward, there didn’t seem to be any movement and in fact it seemed rather static and one-note.  The same image of John Carter in the desert screaming and jumping over the charging Warhoons was played over and over again (could it be that they thought it was NFL playoff time and this looks like a football kickoff?)  The alternate to the Warhoon/desert spot was the “He Arrives” spot which had a good teaser feel to it and seemed like a reasonable approach in the early days of the campaign — but with it’s lack of information and lack of any emotional content it gradually seemed less and less appropriate and, indeed, in recent weeks we haen’t seen too much of it but we continue to see the Warhoon charge and the great white ape in almost all the spots.

Strangely, something missing almost entirely from the promotion is any sense of “emotion” in any of the clips.  The music seems to have consciously been chosen to de-emphasize any emotion; the John Carter – Dejah Thoris romance has hardly been touched upon.  What is striking about this is the fact that both Burroughs and Stanton — the two creators that are the underpinnings of this film–both know how to evoke an emotional response in readers/viewers and indeed many if not most of the early reviews use the word “emotional” in describing the film.  If this is a genuine asset of the film – -why ignore it in the promotion?

Then came what amounted to a watershed moment — the Super Bowl ad. Now let’s ponder that one for a moment.  What was Disney thinking?  Apparently, the thought process went something like this:  Let’s do a sweepstakes that football fans will get excited about– a “journey to the Super Bowl” one where the winners get tickets to next year’s Super Bowl.  To make sure people watch the Super Bowl ad, let’s put a coded something in the ad — that way they have to watch and extract the code in order to qualify for the sweepstakes.

I can imagine senior marketing execs buying into this on a broad concept level and don’t have a huge quarrel with it.  Okay — I get it, sort of.

But then came the ad itself.  Rule one of Super Bowl advertising is that even if you sign up for a 60 second spot, there are circumstances where you might get cut to 30 seconds (injury timeouts being one of them) and so you have to make sure you have a 30 second version.  But Disney’s ad, because of the “clue” (or not, I’m not 100% sure) involved an 18 second slow pull out on the title treatment which meant that in the 30 second version…..well, at $120,000 per second, let’s just say that there is some money being wasted if you get stripped down to a 30 second version. And that’s precisely what happened ….. in arguably the most important moment of the campaign, the ad that Disney put up created such a “meh” reaction that it ranked lowest of all movie spots in the Super Bowl and 49th of 54 overall in terms of audience ratings.

Now, surely — one would think — at that point, which was still 5 plus weeks out, there would be a reassessment of the campaign and new directions.  There were some signs that this was the case. The 60 second spot on the premiere of “The River” was better received and seemed like it might have been cut by a different team, or under different marching orders — although the difference was not so great as to change much.  The ads still emphasized action and spectacle and lacked emotional connection with the audience.

So let’s get back to the original premise, which clearly had to be under reconsideration:

Shock and Awe isn’t working
It had to be clear that hammering away on the CGI Spectacle of it all just wasn’t working.  People were turning up their noses and going “meh”, so what?   People were saying in essence: we’ve seen that before and it’s just not going to be enough to draw us in.

Now, since Shock and Awe was the cornerstone of the campaign – the next thought is, what other assets can be emphasized or brought into play?

Maybe We Should Play up the Wall-E, Nemo Connection?

While it’s easy to imagine decisions being made last fall to not deploy Stanton’s track record as a marketing hook, it’s harder to understand holding on to that idea in the fact of indifference to your core campaign theme and mounting evidence that the campaign is just not working as well as it should.  But there has been no evidence that there is any intention to bring “from the director of Wall-e and Finding Nemo into the campaign.  Surely the concern about cognitive dissonance was understandable, sort of, when the promotion stretched ahead and Disney thought that by following their original plan they would be tracking toward a $65m opening — but now?  Does it make sense to leave this on the shelf?  Evidently Disney thinks so.

Maybe we should dust off old ERB and use him to give the film a pedigree?

Like the decision with Stanton, the decision to not trumpet Edgar Rice Burroughs as an asset was one which could be defended when the campaign was stretching ahead with great potential.  But it’s harder to see why ERB doesn’t get deployed now that the campaign is coming to the home stretch and it just hasn’t caught fire.  But there seems to be no movement in this direction.

Final Thoughts

And so,  two weeks later, here we are.  Has much changed?  The white ape still seems to be given as much prominence as if this were King Kong or something, when in fact the white ape/coliseum scene is a relatively minor beat in the overall story.

Is John Carter sailing over a cliff, or into an iceberg? I’m hoping the answer is no, fearing the answer is yes.

Here’s the best case:

As soft as the tracking has been, most analysts have it in the $25-30m range which is disastrous if the film’s opening weekend ends up being a typical 35% of the domestic total — that would leave it under $100m domestic gross and it would be a certified failure.  However early reviews are virtually all positive and Stanton’s other films have done an average of 24% of their total on opening weekend, with his personal best being 20% (lower % meaning better “legs”).   So … 30m opening at 20% of the total gives you $150m.  And if foreign could go to to 250m, that would yield $400m worldwide.  Because of the budget being as high as it is, this would cause it to be regarded as a failure but it is beginning to get the film into respectable territory.

Then there are the “x factors” which could be causing the tracking to be underestimating where JC really is: 1) Disney moms who may not be showing up on tracking but who are a force that causes Disney to often exceed tracking estimates, 2) Overall market strength with US Box Office running well ahead of last year – meaning more pie to be shared, 3) Lack of competition – JC has its opening weekend all to itself and two weeks before Hunger Games starts sucking the air out of the universe, and 4) Boomer Burroughs fans who grew up reading the Ace and Ballantine paperbacks in the sixties and who probably aren’t adequately captured on tracking, 5) A highly motivated core grassroots fan base is emerging and generating a bit of a ‘counter buzz’ via things like the recent “Fan Trailer” and through organized and systematic retweeting of positive reviews a they come out, all of which is creating a “John Carter is better than you think” undercurrent that is not part of the official campaign but may help the outcome.

In truth — it seems like Disney’s main strategy at this point is to keep pounding away with the same advertising to at least create awareness, and then use advance screenings to mobilize positive word of mouth and hope that changes the dynamic by opening day.  I do think that the advance screenings are the right thing to be doing, given that the film itself seems to be good.  It’s just too bad that the official marketing materials continue to be as tone deaf as they were at the beginning.

Like the execs at Disney who are responsible for the film —  I’m praying to the Gods of box office that all those x factors are working in the film’s  favor because if they do, the $25-30m advance estimate ends up being an actual opening weekend of $45-50m and if it opens that high, and has the kind of legs that Stanton’s other films have had, then Disney marketing will have extricated from as tough a spot as John Carter himself ever found himself in.

And finally, in closing this longwinded piece — I offer up my mantra which is this: In spite of questions about the marketing — thank you, Disney, for taking the risk with this film.  You are the only ones to get it done, and by all accounts it’s a fine film. Comments about the marketing need to proceed from an acknowledgment that you stepped up and took the risk, and as fans we appreciate that.



  • I’m not saying Frazetta or D’Achille were definitive, [I don’t think any artist can claim that over Barsoom], just that many I know who saw it that way are turned off by how friendly-looking everything seems in the film. No one I know is over the moon about this Dejah Thoris, either, which I consider to be a related issue.

    The issue of drawing purist fans into supporting this film is a tough one, especially since I tend to agree with their resistance. I’ll be there, even though I actively despise most of the choices this adaptation has made, and can hardly believe they hired a writer/director who admits to never even liking the character.

    The only idea that makes me reconsider this is the one you make about replenishing the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs for that new generation, regardless of the quality of the interpretation. So I suppose there’s your answer, because it’s the argument that works best on me.

    I certainly respect your POV on the matter, and appreciate the conversation.

  • Hey Henreid — pls share this with your Dad. I just saw the movie and it’s definitely NOT the kiddie version he thinks it is. Disney has “Disneyfied” the trailers but the film itself is MUCH more adult. I feel like I’ve been transported to Barsoom — it was amazing. And Dejah was Dejah and John was John and Tars was Tars and Sola was Sola…..but there are changes and it didn’t feel completely like I was getting my “ERB Fix” But it was very satisfying and almost profound. Much to think about. It’s a mistake to chalk it off as a “kiddie version”.

  • As a Burroughs fan, I would want this film to do well even if it was a cartoon — anything to reintroduce Burroughs to a new generation of viewers. But by all accounts the notion that this is “kiddie” is a mistake — “kid-friendly” maybe, but….not a kiddie version.

    I would also argue that the Frazette and Dachille art was something of a deviation from the original art of Schoonover and St. John, which was much more classic in feel. Burroughs liked St. John the best …. so I’m not so sure that Frazetta is any more “the real deal” than what we’re seeing in the movie. I dunno — not being argumentative, just wondering what you could say to people who should be supporting the movie for what it means to Burroughs legacy……hope they will come around.

  • I don’t know. Your well-cut fan trailer is of the most use to the uninitiated, since the official trailers are so afraid of the premise. It’s not the editing of the Disney promos that turn off the other hardcore Burroughs fans I know — it’s the bland cast, cartoonish Tharks, embarrassingly goofy Woola, and the fact that most of the scenes shown bear no resemblance to the novel [blue glowing energy in wicker temples, etc]. More than this, it’s the memory of being burned by so many other Hollywood adaptations that have butchered so many beloved books. What can I say, I roll with purists.

    My dad is in full boycott mode, and will be one of the toughest. He’s definitely on the younger end of that x-factor #4 group you mention, and something you should take into account is that these are the guys who grew up with the Frazetta and D’Achille covers and the handful of them I’ve talked to have little interest in seeing what looks like a kids’ version to them.

    My pitch is that their curiosity will eventually overcome their revulsion of how lame the film looks, so they might as well see it in the optimal setting (the theater, now, rather than on netflix some idle night).
    I’ll be dragging a few friends with me so we can at least commiserate and dream of a faithful version someday down the line. Maybe it’ll turn out better than that, who knows.

  • Yeah — we noticed that too. They were the last spot in the pre-show, but it was still just the pre-show.

  • Disney should probably go ahead and lift the embargo of full reviews. I think getting positive critical reviews out there as soon as possible might help. They’ve already put together a commercial with some critical blurbs, but it would probably help for people to read full reviews. (Also, why didn’t Disney air a spot during the Academy Awards rather than just during the pre-show?)

  • Well — our “Fan Trailer” is the best medicine we’ve been able to come up with to cure that. Can you think of anything else that can be done to motivate those kind of “we love the book but aren’t impressed by the movie” fans?

  • Respectful and insightful. Well researched and well put.

    A note on my end: I’m finding it difficult to convince some of the other devout fans of the novels to even join me for the midnight show, as they are so turned off by the trailers they don’t even want to see it at all.

  • I work with someone who had heard nothing of John Carter but is a huge Avatar fan. And just like you said, once I told him all about John Carter and it being the original inspiration for Avatar, he was hooked. He is so stoaked about watching John Carter now, and promised me he would watch it opening weekend. Shout out to Ed!!

  • All right, now that I’ve figured out the hoops I need to jump through to post …

    My two cents on one demographic:

    My wife’s go-to action film is “The Phantom.” (Don’t laugh, please.) She likes it because it has 1) Billy Zane in a purple suit (and sometimes without); 2) a strong female protagonist; add in an appealing bad girl and it’s double-plus good; 3) a horse and a wolf (that talk to each other!).

    “John Carter” has the appropriate male eye candy (I’m comforted that women are just as shallow as men), a strong woman, and an animal sidekick. So when will Disney emphasize these in a commercial?

  • The music accompanying the sizzle reel is quite nice. Is it from the film or another source?

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