With just two weeks to go until its March 9 premiere, Disney’s $250 million John Carter is in trouble. Tracking shows low interest and little awareness, trailers don’t make much sense to people who don’t already know the story, and time is running out. But Disney isn’t about to just let all that money and talent go down the drain, so how can they rescue their Martian epic?
If you know the source material, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic A Princess of Mars, you’ve probably already made up your mind about whether you’re seeing the flick. That means you’re not Disney’s problem. Disney’s problem is the millions of up-for-grabs moviegoers who either don’t know what the flick is or just don’t care. This late in the game, the flick needs much more buzz than it has, and Disney’s trying to make up some serious ground.
But how did things get this bad in this first place? How does a film this massive get in such a marketing mess?
A lot of critics of Disney’s marketing on the flick point to the removal of the words “of Mars” from the title. It annoyed fans no end, but it also made it much harder to get the gist of the flick across to people unaware of the source material. So why do it? Well, “insiders” tell The Hollywood Reporter that the decision was made, in part, because Disney’s animated sci-fi feature Mars Needs Moms wound up being the biggest flop of 2011. This—along with previous Martian flops like Mission to Mars and Mars Attacks!—was enough to convince Disney that audiences don’t like Mars, so the word that firmly declares the flick’s setting was let go.
“You lose any kind of scope the movie has,” another insider said. “John Carter of Mars gave the movie context.”
Adding to the audience confusion is the fact that most of the John Carter trailers we’ve seen thus far are little more than montages of star Taylor Kitsch bounding shirtlessly across a desert landscape surrounded by CGI aliens. Most of the footage gives little or no indication that the film is about a Civil War veteran who finds his way to Mars and joins a conflict there. Why is Disney leaving that out? Well, further insider reports seem to indicate that they were hoping we wouldn’t notice it’s technically a period film.
Many of these poor marketing calls have been pinned on former head of Disney marketing M.T. Carney, and now it’s up to new marketing bigwig Ricky Strauss to stop the John Carter tailspin. Critics point out that Disney should be pushing to make the flick look more like the event they’re hoping it will be through the addition of action figures and other family-friendly merchandise. That won’t happen this late, though.
What’s Disney doing instead? Well, they do seem to be taking the “No one knows what the hell the flick’s about” criticism to heart, and they’ll be releasing more plot-heavy trailers in the coming days (hopefully some that take their cues from this bit of fan-edited awesomeness). Other than that, the John Carter marketing machine seems to be the usual mass of premieres, junkets, talk show appearances and the like.
But the fight isn’t over. For proof, just look at Andrew Stanton. He’s appearing at the TED Conference next week to promote the flick, and he’s taking to his Twitter page daily to answer fan questions and share positive reactions to early screenings. “This is the guy who made a movie about a fish and turned it into a hit,” a rival marketing chief told THR in reference to Stanton’s Pixar masterpiece Finding Nemo. So, if anyone can save John Carter, it’s the film’s enthusiastic and optimistic director.