Yes, there is a path to success for John Carter

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This was the week where the hard cold reality of what many are saying are the deficiencies of the John Carter promotional campaign were brought into stark focus.  Industry standard tracking figures came out and they were “soft”:     “2 unaided, 53 aware, 27 definitely interested, 3 first choice”.  A number of people have asked what these numbers mean, exactly.  I will take a crack at explaining, and offer some thoughts on a “path to success” for the film.  And yes, there is a path to success.

First of all, let’s do away with one misconception:   “tracking” in this context does not refer to  social media buzz — that’s another kind of tracking, and its valuable too, in which things like the number of tweets, positive/negative sentiment, etc are tracked.   But that’s a different discipline than what’s being talked about here.

The kind of “tracking” that’s being talked about this week with John Carter is good old fashioned brand tracking in which a company, in this case National Research Group, conducts phone interviews (not just home phones any more — they’ve figured that out) of pre-selected demographics.  They do it weekly for all wide release films and provide a weekly report.  Films typically enter the report based on data collected in the fourth week ahead of release.  The tracking numbers that came out this past Wednesday would have been collected a few days earlier.  This cycle repeats each week until a film is released.

  • “Unaided” refers to “Unaided  Awareness”.   This is listed first because it is the first question asked –has to be, for reasons that will become apparent.  For this category The question might be — are you aware of any big blockbuster type movies being advertised lately?  In other words — there is no mention of the movie’s title (hence “unaided”).  In this case, only 2% of respondents came up with “John Carter” when asked.  That’s pretty low — in fact very low.
  • “Aware” is short for  “Aided  Awareness”.  The question would be–have you seen or heard any advertising for a movie called “John Carter”.   This number is much higher and 53, while not good, is not devastatingly bad four weeks out.  What is of more concern is the huge gap between an “unaided” of 2, and “aware” of 53.   One interpretation of this is that there’s a good bit of advertising being put out there by Disney, but it’s not “sticking” all that well.    It’s background noise to most people, not reaching them — but when prompted, they remember seeing or hearing something.  One way of thinking about it is that “Aware” is a foundation of awareness that must be built first, then converted into “definitely interested” and “first choice”.
  • “Definitely Interested” are those among the “Aware” group who are, well — definitely interested in seeing the movie, at least on DVD if not in theaters.   JC scored a 27.
  • “First choice” is what it sounds like — people who consider this their first choice among the movies polled.  JC got a 3.

Aside from these basic numbers, the data collected also is broken-down demographically so that it is possible to determine what demography segments are responding to the promotional campaign – -and what segments are not.  The fact that women are not responding well to John Carter shouldn’t be a big surprise, although on one level–the Taylor Kitsch fangirl level–I suppose something better was expected.  But the promotional campaign to date has been nothing if not testosterone drenched, male oriented.

What is the Context?

If you’re reading this you probably don’t follow every movie’s tracking and so it’s hard to place those numbers in context, which places you at the mercy of some entertainment writer saying “shockingly soft” and making it sound like DOOMSDAY is upon us and the film is destined to become “the biggest write-off in history”.  Not quite accurate.  Here is some context.  Remember JC’s numbers 4 weeks out: 2% Unaided Awareness, 53% Aided Awareness 27%  Definitely interested and 3% first choice.

Let’s take a somewhat similar movie — Super 8 —  similar because it was an attempt at a  Sci Fi Blockbuster with no big stars but some kind of  credibility based on the participation of director JJ Abrams and Producer Steven Spielberg. It’s budget was a lot less than John Carter which means the bar was lower — but for the purposes of tracking comparison that doesn’t really matter as tracking is not indexed by the film’s budget.  Remember — the JC numbers just released were four weeks out which means that up to 70% of the ad budget has yet to be spent.  Well,  four days out from opening day, Super 8 was at 64% “Aware” and 36% “Definitely Interested”, and opened at $35m en route to a total Domestic Gross of $127m and lifetime Worldwide Gross of $250m.   Right in about the same time frame , X-Men: First Class had  an “Aware” of 90% and “Definitely Interested” of 49% en route to opening at $55.1m.

Based on those numbers — the argument would go that if JC opened on the day those numbers were taken, it would open at $20m or less but it’s not opening then, it’s opening on March 9, four weeks after the poll was taken.   To be tracking like Super 8 was tracking 4 days out, JC needs to increase  from 53 aware to 64, and from 27 definitely interested to 36.  Is that do-able?  Absolutely, and in fact it would really be shocking if Disney can’t move the needle that far with the huge push that is inevitably coming.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that getting to “Super 8” like numbers is a realistic worst case for John Carter, meaning that with everything that Disney is going to throw into over the next three weeks, there is no way that John Carter opens without having tracking at least on the level that Super 8 had — and it opened to $35m.

Can it go higher than that–say, to the level of X-Men: First Class? (90 Aware, 49 Definitely Interested).

I doubt it.  That was a sequel which is a big advantage and getting from 52/27 to 90/49 is a pretty big mountain to climb.  But I do think getting the “aware” up into the 70’s and maybe the 80’s is a realistic goal; and getting the definitely interested up over 40 is not out of the question, particularly if there are some improvements to the pitch for key demographics.

The Path to Success

For the purposes of discussion I’m going to just say that the “path to success” for Disney in this situation, being realistic, is to get from 52/27 to 70/40, which would put it a bit higher than Super 8 was tracking coming into opening weekend.   Disney can get to this “Aware” number pretty much by brute force — just keep advertising with greater and greater intensity; turn on the publicity machine that will flood the media with articles, interviews, etc and Awareness should go to 70.  Definitely interested will increase but likely only to 35 or so (i.e. the same ratio as now, roughly 2/1, Aware/Definitely Interested) unless the quality of the advertising and promotion improves.   But another way of looking at it is that to get to 40 definitely interested, Disney only needs to pick up 5 “quality points” with better advertising — that being the five points between 35 Definitely interested (where they will land if they get aware to 70 and nothing changes in the quality of the advertising) and 40, if they do better and convert from Aware to Definitely Interested at a better rate than they are now.

So – let’s agree that it’s realistic to get to 70/40 and, using the “Super 8” model, that means that if it’s tracking at 70/40 four days out, a realistic expectation would be $40m.

Can it go higher than that with tracking at 70/40?

Now there are other factors to consider, all of them favorable to John Carter:

1. The Disney “Boost” Factor:  There are lots of families out there who watch the Disney channel, have kids in the right age bracket, and who look upon Disney as a great brand and one they will patronize.  These people are not the ones writing about “shockingly soft tracking” and they may not be fully captured by the tracking polls.  There are plenty examples of Disney films (Tangled comes to mind) that tracked like they were going to do X, and opened at 150% of X.  So there’s that.

2. The film is actually good, by all accounts so far.  Disney’s embargo on reviews ends March 2 (and if they are smart they will selectively end it sooner than that) and a flood of good reviews over the last 7 days would be very helpful, as would new trailers with pull quotes from the reviews….plus social media buzz from the dozen or so free advance screenings that Disney is doing.

3. There may be an “Army of Barsoom” out there that’s not getting picked up by the tracking, and that would be Boomer generation fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs who have waited 50 years for this film to get made and who will go see it and drag their kids and grandkids along.  This is like a second group of “Disney Moms” — an under-tracked wildcard that may be out there.  No one can say how big this group is, but remember — ERB may have diminished in popularity now, but back when today’s boomers were in their tweens and teens, the market was flooded with Ace and Ballantine paperbacks and ERB was truly popular — that’s where Cameron and Lucas and people like Carl Sagan and most of the JPL scientists became fans.  These people don’t go to a lot of movies, but the argument can be made that they will go to this one.

So if you put all this together, even in spite of the “shockingly soft tracking”, there is still a path that gets John Carter to an opening weekend in the mid 40’s up to the low 50’s if Disney just stays the course and gets a little bit more artful in its presentation of the movie.

And with a good movie and good word of mouth — $50m opening weekend gets a $200m Domestic total and $500m worldwide total and that, my friends is not exactly the “biggest write-off in movie history” — it’s not a writeoff at all, it’s success and it’s the beginning of a franchise.

There is no need to panic…..

The reports of John Carter’s death have been greatly exaggerated…

Or in the words of John Carter himself: “We still live!”

Please, just one thing — stop relying so much on that damned White Ape and find a way to get some of the emotion of the film into the TV spots.  Every advance review has used the word “emotional” to describe the actual experience of watching the film; you’ve got Andrew Stanton, the director of Wall-E and Finding Nemo so it’s easy to imagine how that it’s “emotional” — so if it’s easy to hear the film is “emotional”, think about Wall-E/Stanton and “get it” — then Disney, there’s you answer — connect those dots and you’ll get people (including women, who aren’t biting on the ape-fest) to warm to this movie.  You don’t need a huge sea change in the response, but you do need to get people to open up to it and “emotional” is the key.  If people “feel” something, or at least believe that in going to the movie itself they will “feel” something, you’ll start getting conversions that are eluding you now.  I promise.


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  • I think perhaps the problem is that the marketing team knows that jc is up against the likes of star wars and avatar of previous years. Those films are known a lot for breathtaking action and they were a success. So it would seem natural to emphasize that the action in the movie is “worth seeing”, instead of focusing on the emotional feel of it. But most people are now dismissing it as another avatar like wannabe, hence lack of attention. So if Disney switches gears to the feel of the movie, a quality Andrew Stanton is known for, we can expect a lot more success, at least marketing-wise. Reviews would definitely help, but unfortunately the bulk of it is limited to march 2nd, not many people are actually looking for an article like this.

  • I’d love to say Disney are hiding a marketing ace up their sleeve but the total fiasco of their internet campaign says otherwise. Instead of a viral campaign they went for the “Real John Carter” contest, which is basically a commercial shot in the foot – it only appeals to John Carters out there, if at all. Other than that, there’s been Twitter spamming and some dubious moves which may or may not have been marketing, but in either case failed. Where’s a real viral attempt? True, perhaps it’s going to hit tomorrow, but that’s a very narrow margin – a natural viral takes about a week to get going, marketing schemes typically take longer.

    They went for the traditional media – banners, posters, trailer and TV spots, but aimed them at the wrong crowd. I had to spend this weekend at the computer anyway, so I kept a Twitter feed opened. I saw some twits from people who thought JC looked ‘dope’, but sadly, such enthusiasm was limited mostly to people who use words like ‘dope’. Additionally, many other people were often quite negative about the film, mostly basing their opinion on the campaign. It looks like Disney aimed their marketing at the lowest common denominator, and while it’s working, they may have overshot by a wide margin, since it barely appeals to anybody else. Perhaps it was a knee-jerk reaction after the rather negative reception of the first trailer?

    Whatever the case, right now it’s an uphill battle.

  • Good points, Noir. Do you think they are actually sitting over there thinking “let’s just crank up the volume?” It is pretty mystifying. Is it possible they are getting different feedback? Could they be in that much of a bubble? Or will we see some improvement in the coming weeks?

    I was struck by the latest TV spot — still emphasizing fighting, fighting, fighting, and topping it off with the white ape……no music , just sound effects, no emotion.

    Why the complete absence of emotion in the trailers? I keep thinking that will have to change………

    Cranking up the volume does increase awareness …. I don’t think that can be disputed. And it does create negatives if done in-artfully, but will the negatives be worse than the ones that are already embedded in the 53/27 number they now have?

    Hmmmmm……hard to know how this will play out. But surely they’ve got to react somehow to these numbers with something other than more volume. Hoping so.

  • You should be more careful what you wish for – Disney has a lot of negative audience out there, increasing the advertising level (as I understand it is supposed to get increased this week anyway) may in reality begin a chain reaction of negativity.

    Even if not, the marketing campaign so far has had barely any effect on the level of interest in the movie (at least going by social media) – would increasing the amount of the same really bring about the positive response? Like you suggest, Disney should change their strategy, rather than just crank up the volume.

    I would say to trust them to get it right over the next three weeks but so far the marketing has been a major let down, time after time.

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