'John Carter': Disney Scrambles to Save its $250 Million Gamble

2012-08 REP John Carter Billboard H
Courtesy of Daily Billboard Blog

A vague illustration without a tagline for the film has left many wondering what it's about.

Low interest and bad buzz prompt a last-ditch marketing effort for the big budget attempt at launching a new franchise.

This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When the tracking numbers for John Carter became public Feb. 16, it confirmed what many already knew: Interest in the big-budget sci-fi movie was soft just three weeks from its opening. With the clock ticking on the March 9 launch, Disney is now acting with renewed urgency to save the film from causing a big writedown.

"We're treating this like a global tentpole," says a studio spokesperson. "This is a huge movie. Everyone's focus right now is merely on getting as many people to see the movie as possible."

The challenge is due not only to its cosmic budget -- Disney and writer-director Andrew Stanton insist that the film came in at $250 million, but sources peg the number at above $275 million -- but also to its century-old source material, unfamiliar to many moviegoers. High-profile TV spots during the Super Bowl and the Grammys prompted online derision rather than excitement, drawing comparisons (not in a good way) to Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace, while an indistinct billboard campaign has left some unclear that the film is an Avatar-like 3D epic.

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"They are doing an extraordinary job of not selling what they think it is," snipes a rival studio marketing head.

Observers also have taken aim at the studio's decision to drop "of Mars" from the title, arguing that the property loses definition and scope without it. Insiders say the title change was hotly debated a year ago when the word "Mars" was verboten in the wake of Disney's March 2011 bomb Mars Needs Moms. According to several sources, the studio conducted a study of how the word would play with potential audiences. The results were pointed enough -- Disney's 2000 sci-fi film Mission to Mars and Warner Bros.' 1996 sci-fi comedy Mars Attacks! weren't hits, either -- that the studio stripped out mention of the red planet. ("It was the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," says one person who was privy to the research.)

"You lose any kind of scope the movie has," says another insider of the generic title. "John Carter of Mars gave the movie context."

At the same time, the trailer campaign has showcased the film's Mars setting rather than risk turning people off with shots of star Taylor Kitsch in Civil War-era garb (he's a soldier transported to a battle on Mars). Critics say the fear of Carter being labeled a period film also has muddied the property's core identity and sacrificed an opportunity to explain its narrative arc that could have hooked fans.

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Ousted Disney marketing president MT Carney has taken blame for suggesting the title change and driving the ad campaign, but insiders point out that the creative team -- Stanton and his Pixar producers -- had to sign off on everything. Stanton, hot off the mega-grossing Finding Nemo and WALL-E, was given license to adapt the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels by former Disney chairman Dick Cook, who a source says greenlighted it without the studio's production team having read the script. (Another source disputes that account.)

Former Participant Media production executive Ricky Strauss, hired Jan. 13 as head of worldwide marketing, has been working with his team to change perceptions. The studio is spending north of $100 million on a worldwide campaign, typical for a major tentpole. No outside consultants have been brought in, and much of the remaining campaign will roll out as planned. Carter's Los Angeles premiere Feb. 22 will be followed by an international premiere in Moscow and a junket with cast and crew in London, where a portion of the movie was shot. Meanwhile, stars Kitsch and Lynn Collins will work the late-night talk show circuit, and Stanton will appear at the TED conference Feb. 28.

Additionally, the marketing team is pushing out a new TV campaign loaded with storyline-heavy spots. The ads will strive to better explain how Carter makes his way to Mars and discovers superhuman powers when he joins the fight to save a Martian princess. At the same time, the studio has seen an uptick in the film's attractiveness to men in the most recent tracking data. An action-heavy trailer will go out in front of Act of Valor on Feb. 24.

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But critics point to what Disney is not doing: While some merchandise is available, there is no plan for a large toy line that might help lodge a fantasy adventure in young consumers' minds. "It needs to feel like an event, and right now it doesn't feel like an event," says one marketing expert, who notes that tentpole franchise launches typically establish a much bigger presence long before this point in the release (see: Disney's own Tron: Legacy rollout).

Meanwhile, Stanton has become a much more public advocate for the movie, vigorously tweeting messages and rebuttals to fans and using a recent media junket to deny that he went over budget or added days during production. In the end, it might be his talent and force of will that keep audiences on John Carter's side.

Notes one rival marketing chief, "This is the guy who made a movie about a fish and turned it into a hit."