Painfully Reliving the Disaster that was the John Carter Super Bowl Ad a Year Ago

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AUTHOR’S WARNING: I don’t usually rant — but this  post is a rant.  I couldn’t help myself.  Reliving this makes my blood boil.

A year ago today, for the first time in my life I was more interested in the commercials on the Super Bowl than the game itself — more particularly, I was more interested in one commercial on the Super Bowl — the John Carter spot.  Everything about the promotion up to that point had been a disappointment, but I still had hope.  Ryan Stankevich at Disney had assured me that they were going to have a blockbuster new spot for the Super Bowl — and everyone who was following the movie felt that it was do-or-die, because the Super Bowl spot would be by far the single most important moment of the campaign — a campaign that had, until then, failed to catch fire and instead was catching flak from virtually all observers everywhere.

So — with so much at stake, what happened?

First of all …. this is the ad as it appeared on television during the Superbowl.

Watch it and weep.

Now if you only saw the ad online, you’re probably saying — waitaminute, wasn’t there more to it than that?

Yes, if you are one of the hundreds of thousands who saw it online.   You see, they released an extended version online that made a good bit more sense and was at least tolerable.

But  if you are one of the hundreds of millions who saw it on TV — what you saw was what is embedded above.

That was what was seen by 200M viewers in the US.  17 seconds of a pullout from a mosaic title — and 8 seconds of ape jumping.

I remember watching it in disbelief.

With $350M invested in the production and marketing — and with everyone in the movie universe aware that the overall promotional campaign was in deep, deep trouble — this was the best Disney could come up with?

Where did it rank among the movie ads shown during the Super Bowl? (There were 7 of them.)

Dead last.

Where did it rank overall among the 40 ++ ads that aired during the Superbowl?

34th our of 41 in terms of tweets generated, and dead last in terms of sentiment (i.e. tweets were few and most were negative).

It gets my blood boiling just thinking about it.

And it got my blood boiling on the day.

I can’t even remember what happened during the game after I saw the trailer, which appeared in the second quarter.   I literally cannot tell you who won the game.  Because all I could think about at the time was that this was Game Over for John Carter.  This was the moment when I really came to realize that Disney wasn’t going to get it done — that after forty years of waiting for this movie to get made, instead of celebrating its success, I would be mourning its demise.

As I was sitting there, fuming about what I’d seen, and idea that had been marinating for a few days came into focus.  I was just furious at the obtuseness of Disney’s promotion and their inability to grasp the essential appeal of the material they had just invested $350M in.

John Carter (of Mars, dammit) was NOT about a guy jumping over an ape, and it was NOT about dry dusty desert vistas . . . . I knew there was much more to the movie that would appeal if Disney would just highlight the right things. . . .

So I decided to make my own damned trailer, not necessarily for anyone else to see (I didn’t think that far in advance).   My filmmaking partner Mark Linthicum was watching the Super Bowl with me and even though he wasn’t a huge Edgar Rice Burroughs fan like I was, he too couldn’t believe how lame the ad was and agree to grind out a fan trailer with me.

The thing was — we didn’t have any material other than what ha already appeared in the Disney trailers and TV spots, and we didn’t have any ability to separate the music and dialoge/effects, so that meant the best we could do would be a mashup that simply laid out the appealing aspects of the movie better and more sensibly than Disney had.

The game plan:

  • Act 1: Take 30 seconds to get John Carter to Mars – let the audience get oriented.
  • Act 2: Lay out the basics of the story setup with special attention to:
    • Show imagery of Helium and Zodanga at the beginning, not just desert Thark stuff.
    • Reference Edgar Rice Burroughs and Andrew Stanton
    • Sell the romance/love story
  • Act 3: Action tease
  • Epilogue: Something soulful, evocative as an epilogue at the end.

That was it.  Not exactly brain surgery but it just seemed to us that you couldn’t go wrong if you did something straightforward and let the story’s sweep, and grandeur, and romance shine through.

We hammered on it from late afternoon until close to midnight.  When we reached the finish, this is what we had.

I thought it was pretty good.  Not great — it was largely a rearrangement of what was already out there, but I felt like it might resonate better for people than what was there.

We didn’t post it publicly at first.  We posted it privately to YouTube, and then for one day embedded it on John Carter Files alongside the official trailer and, without saying where it came from, asked people to vote on which trailer they liked better — the official one or this one.  The results were 86%-14% in favor of our trailer.

So then, thinking that maybe there was an outside chance someone at Disney would pay attention to the “focus group” reaction, I forwarded the trailer and the results of the focus group to senior people at Disney (not Ryan Stankevich . . . . I had a fan liaison relationship going with her and I felt that pushing a trailer on her might seem pushy and could damage the fan liaison aspect of the relationship) . . . and asked them to consider the trailer and the results of the focus group.

Of course there was never any response.

We waited more than two weeks — then said to hell with it and made it public.

Not much happened for a few days.

Then Andrew Stanton saw it and tweeted about it.

After that people started noticing it.

The next day, Ain’t It Cool News posted an article and embed of the trailer with headline: A Fan-Made Trailer Sells JOHN CARTER better than any other trailer so far. A few hours later similar stories and embeds appeared on ColliderSlashfilmBadass DigestFilm School Rejects and others. It then spread to more blogs — a total of more than 200 — as well as mainstream media publications including Wired (Fan Trailer for John Carter Tops Studios Best Efforts) , Entertainment Weekly (John Carter Fan Trailer: Okay, this has to get you excited!) , The Hollywood Reporter, (Fan Made Trailer for John Carter could be better than studio original) nd the Los Angeles Times (Fans Create unofficial new trailer for John Carter).   CNN also ran a story (Fans Create their own John Carter Trailer).   In the first three days after Stanton’s tweet, the trailer received 100,000 views on YouTube and became a significant part of the conversation about the movie.

But of course none of that really made a dent in the horrible negativity that was engulfing the film.  Our contribution got talked about a little bit, but it was like trying to stop a tsunami with a teacup.  Just wasn’t going to happen.

I don’t want to end this on a terribly negative note . . . but I’m having trouble finding an optimistic way out this.  I have never in my life seen anything as perversely obtuse as the John Carter marketing campaign by Disney.  I subsequently investigated it in great detail and became convinced that there was no intentional sabotage, and I don’t want my rant today to make people think that I’m a conspiracy theorist.  I’m not.

But my God did they screw this up.


  • I remember being at a super bowl party and just being so totally disappointed with the trailer. Everyone at the party was like “well that movie looks dumb” and I just was so sad. If your going to spend so much money on a super bowl trailer why not make something that’s, you know, actually a good trailer?

    Seriously, the Phantom Menance 3D trailer got better responses from people than the JC trailer did at the party. And these weren’t nerds, these were jocks, which proves that its not the subject matter but the quality (or lack thereof) which hurt John Carter’s box office performance.

  • It still hurts to be reminded of it. Ultimately, it seems that no one at Disney in a position of power really cared by JOHN CARTER. In some cases, apathy can be just a deadly as malice.

  • Tell Quentin Tarantino that pulpy romance doesn’t translate to the big screen.

    I think he’d shove a fair number of successful filns in front of you.

    Unlike the Stanton vision of manipulating the audience, he’s one director that respects it – believes thst audiences are intelligent (well….) and plays ‘with’ them rather than trying to manipulate them with speedy plush toys.

    funny – never have seen anything that woud make an adorable plush toy in any Tarantino film.

  • To add – then as today I was too busy getting my daughter’s birthday party off to a good start.

    As a lifelong fan — I’m one who’d watch the Clampett animation with Bob at SDCC — the lack of Disney support immediately made me think of “Return to Oz” and “The Rocketeer” … to the ERB ‘purist’ above — the pulpy romance belongs in the book, it doesn’t translate to film. We have a fantastic film, it needs re-editing to punch it up and a re-release to drum up interest for the sequels. Because, you’re missing what overseas audiences caught.

  • I had seen sneak peaks. I knew the trailer was going to suck. What really struck me as appalling was the local crappy metro buses had the white apes too.

  • Take the following from someone who has never read the books or watched the movie:

    Your trailer was great. Had I seen that during the SuperBowl last year, I may have been more interested. When I played the Superbowl trailer you have here just now, my initial reaction last year came flooding back: John Carter? Who’s he? 2. Leading man seemed dull, at least from the trailer. 3. The Rancor fight from Stars Wars 6? Again? I couldn’t figure out why they were making such a derivative movie. Your trailer explained what came first in the history of literature and made it way more exciting.
    Also, as someone else has posted, in all seriousness, Disney projects what they expect to earn from everything, right down to a single t-shirt. I’ve seen the forms: they figure out that t-shirt with W character has X appeal, will generate Y amount of revenue thus spend Z on generating and placing it into outlets. If they do this every day with single t-shirts, they certainly do this with a multi-million dollar product investment. Best bet to get sequel made is to convince whomever that it will cost them X and they will make Y.
    Don’t waste time convincing them of the romance of your mission or story.

  • Great article. So so sadly true! And I’ll gladly be the conspiracy theorist here with plenty of others with me…. pure utter sabotage by Disney. >:(

  • Putting together the original fan trailer was a great piece of work as you both had not seen the movie and had no idea of the sequencing or important plot points.

  • Pretty much sums it up. I have no idea what Disney was thinking. You’d think a 350 MILLION dollar investment would prompt the studio to pool together multiple opinions on how to conduct the advertising, and if the ads didn’t work after a month or so…try something DIFFERENT! Don’t just keep doing the same damn thing over and over again. Don’t have an ego…and just ask what people think. It’s 350 million dollars! It’s ok to ask for help!


  • I wonder. Did anyone win the contest promoted or did Disney welch on the deal?

    Beyond that it was a sad spot and a sign that no one knew what they were doing in the marketing department.

    That or the white apes had a hell of an agent 🙂

  • Hey – me again.

    I DID care very much about the outcome of the game since my home town Giants were going to put the shame on my adopted home town’s Patriots once again (I bet everyone around here well before the game that the Patriot’s were gonna lose “just like they did last time”. Near riots of course but that’s half the fun of being an expatriate sports team fan.

    I had another prediction on the line that day – that John Carter was gonna suck.

    Unlike you, when I saw the trailer, I saw EXACTLY what I expected to see: a ham-handed, ignorant treatment of a story that I’d loved for decades.

    Based on the information that had leaked previously – the production still shots, the words (that weren’t spoken) during interviews, the casting, all of it, I knew that Disney’s treatment of this property had started on a downhill slide from the beginning.

    The Superbowl spot just totally confirmed my prediction – and the icing on the cake was trying to emulate the Star Wars Luke/Bantha arena fight with enormously oversized white apes (remember – in the BOOKS they weren’t much bigger than the green Martians, which explains why they often took up residence in the same dead cities the green Martian tribes camped out in).

    I laughed. It was at that moment that I realized that there was no way someone who’s only real experience with the story was the Marvel comics could deliver an accurate, interesting or even half-way decent interpretation for the screen.

    You know, the only real problem I’ve got with the re-do/sequel concept is that everyone pushing for it insists on describing the film as “good”. Hey – there’s nothing wrong with wanting a sequel for a crappy-yet-cult property. Look at the Toxic Avenger from Troma. They’re on what? sequel 4, 5, 8?

    Why is that so important? Because believing that the film was actually good when pushing for a sequel means you all want more of the same bent-out-of-shape version of JC in future.

    If you all really cared about the Burroughs property, you wouldn’t be calling for a sequel – you’d be calling for a RE-MAKE, done right.

    FYI, there will be a review of Mr. Seller’s John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood up on Amazing Stories later this coming week.

    I’ll bet you will all be surprised.

  • I also anticipated that the Superbowl spot was the thing needed to re-spark the marketing campaign that up to that point I heard was generally negative. I was very disappointed when I saw the John Carter Superbowl Spot and thought “that’s it?”. The extended spot on the other hand was so much better than what was shown on tv and imo should have shown it as a one minute spot.

  • Michael, I truly wish I agreed with you on your point in the penultimate paragraph, but I know from experience how Disney kills things that are profitable, or could be more profitable, but the profits just don’t reach their very high profit margin. Case in point: the Adventurer’s Club (and the rest of Pleasure Island) formerly at Disney World, now pretty much empty and making zero profits. The studios’ bean counters can pretty much figure out what a movie is going to make, epecially on the opening weekend. Very early on, probably in 2010, they ran some numbers and realized that, if JC were a flop, the company could make more money, at least on paper, than if the movie were even a moderate success. I think that’s why there was no product licensing, no toys, very few books, and such lame marketing. This extends to the DVD release, as well. And I think it all came from Rich Ross. Disney has done this before, and they will certainly do it again. The Mouse ain’t happy wth a little cheese. They want a lot of cheese, and right now.

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