Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Look at Movie Marketing and JOHN CARTER

This originally began as a review for the semi-recent mega-blockbusting flop John Carter.  However, it quickly derailed into an essay on effective marketing.  Therefore, I’ve decided to split my posts.  I’ll write this as an essay on the marketing of John Carter and why I think it failed, and then I’ll write up a review at another time and post it.


Movie marketing is a tricky and incredibly difficult business.  Whenever you market a movie, you’re making a promise to the audience that the movie will be a certain way.  People like to see the same thing in a new way—we’re weird like that.  We like to be told what we’re getting into.  The less sure people are of what to expect, the less they’re willing to take a chance and drop $20 - $50 at the movies.  If you advertise a movie one way and it’s actually a completely different type of movie, you may have a large opening weekend, but your movie will quickly tank as word of mouth spreads that your movie is a stinker.

Many movies have suffered the wrath of flawed marketing.  One of the most notable comes from the horror genre.  The “slasher” film April Fool’s Day.  In April Fool’s Day, a group of teenagers go stay on an island with one of their friends.  The advertisements for this movie were a bunch of teens dying gruesomely, which was just what the horror-going audience at the time wanted—this was at the height of the slasher movie craze of the 80’s.  What happened?  Well, at the end, we learn that nobody died and that it was all just a series of pranks played on their friend.  And at the very end, they throw in one last kill…that also turns out to be a prank as well.  As you can imagine, people were pissed.

April Fool’s Day represents exactly what movie advertisements do wrong.  By misrepresenting your movie and showing things out of context, you can potentially alienate your target audience and create a strong sense of lack of confidence for the movie, as if it can’t stand on its own and needs to resort to cheap tricks to succeed. 

The rationale behind movie advertisements is to stick the best moments of the movie (or at least, some of the best) into the trailer to get us to want to see it.  However, if, like in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Paranormal Activity 3, you put some scenes into the trailer that aren’t actually in the freakin’ movie, then we’re likely to get really angry over being lied to.  It violates the trust that the product you’re marketing to us is actually something we want.

[Imagine, corporate America selling us things we don’t need or want.]
Other products have standards they have to meet when they market them.  You can’t market a deodorant as “cancer fighting” unless it actually fights cancer.  Back in the 50’s, while filming commercials for soup, they’d put marbles in the bottoms of the bowls of soup to make the soup look like it had more noodles, but nowadays?  You’ve got to be at least partially truthful.  That’s why, even though in commercials we have guys sliding down snowy mountainsides in their trucks, we also have a disclaimer saying that it’s not actually capable of that.  Stupid?  Yes.  But at least they’re being truthful.

All of this discussion of movie marketing leads me to the actual point for this article, which is to discuss the movie John Carter, an action-adventure sci-fi, space opera movie that did rather poorly (at least, in American markets) largely, I feel, due to its bizarre treatment in marketing the movie to the public.

John Carter was a mess of marketing issues.  The movie is sort of disadvantaged because science-fiction movies don’t have the best track record in cinematic history.  Sure, Alien, The Terminator, etc., but John Carter’s story is based on a golden-age science fiction novel series—which are often very cheesy, and would appeal to a very niche audience these days.  Like B-movies.

[And that niche audience is obviously teenage girls.]
This movie was expensive, and they needed to make a lot of money to justify how much they spent.  So when marketing the movie, you try to appeal to the broadest audience out there, which is why, I assume, the advertisements look like a Michael Bay flick…because he’s incredibly popular right now for providing big, dumb action movies with lots of epic action scenes but very little in the way of depth or substance or characterization.  People love big dumb action movies—including me.  But marketing a movie as a big dumb action movie when it’s not is a huge mistake.

 For example, if people go into a movie expecting gigantic visual spectacles and wall-to-wall action…well they’re not going to get that from John Carter.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s action.  Lots of it.  It’s really cool, too.  But there aren’t a lot of scenes just for the sake of scenes. Most of the scenes in John Carter move the story forward and develop the plot.  In addition to plot, however, the movie takes time to develop its characters, creating three-dimensional people instead of cookie cutter “good-guy” and “bad-guy” stand-ins

Now, I’m not saying John Carter is a perfect movie.  But it’s much better than it’s been getting credit for.

Another issue that people probably had with the movie, at least whether they’ll go see it or not, is the “what is it?” issue.  You often know where you stand with a movie based on the title and the advertisements.

Advertisements have actually been too good at explaining “what is it?” lately, to the point that they basically summarize the entire movie for you before you go see it.  Letters to Juliet, Youth in Revolt, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and Cast Away are just a few examples of movie trailers that suffer from that particular affliction.  Strangely enough, John Carter has the opposite problem. 

Most of the John Carter trailers were so vague you had no idea what was going on.  Who is John Carter?  Why can he do these awesome things?  What are those weird aliens?  What’s this movie about, anyway?  All they showed were some big actioney looking scenes with dramatic, swelling music with no indication to what the movie was supposed to be about.  The trailers left me thoroughly unimpressed.

Not to mention, the name itself is incredibly bland.  John Carter.  It’s the name of the main character.  When I first saw a movie poster for it, I thought it was a new Terminator movie.

What the hell kind of name is “John Carter” for a movie?  Let’s try an experiment.  It’s called guess what this movie is about.

Chuck Noland

Jake Sully

Edward Lewis

Sam Baldwin

John Ferguson

I’m going to give you a moment to guess what these movies are about.

Done?  Do you have anything?  Here.  Let me help.  We’ll make it into a matching game.  I’ll provide summaries and you just match the name to the plot.  No cheating by using Professor Google.

a.   Chuck Noland

b.   Jake Sully

c.   Edward Lewis

d.   Sam Baldwin

e.   John Ferguson

______A man in a legal but hurtful business needs an escort for some social events, and hires a beautiful prostitute he meets... only to fall in love.

______A San Francisco detective suffering from acrophobia investigates the strange activities of an old friend's wife, all the while becoming dangerously obsessed with her.

______A recently-widowed man's son calls a radio talk show in an attempt to find his father a partner.

______A FedEx executive must transform himself physically and emotionally to survive a crash landing on a deserted island.

______A paraplegic Marine dispatched to the moon Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home.

And the answers are:

Edward Lewis – the main character from Pretty Woman 

John "Scottie" Ferguson – the main character from Vertigo

Sam Baldwin – the main character from Sleepless in Seattle 

Chuck Noland – the main character from Cast Away 

Jake Sully - the main character from Avatar, and probably the only one you might have guessed.

People very rarely name their movies and/or books after the main character…at least initially.  For example, we just had a movie come out about the famous Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey, Jr.  There’s also a BBC reimagining of the show that’s awesome simply called Sherlock.  However, it’s not like when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the story he thought, “Ha!  Everyone will know this character!”  Nope.  His first book about Sherlock is called A Study in Scarlett.  Intriguing, interesting, and tells you a little bit more about the story than just naming it “Sherlock Holmes”, who would have been a no-one at the time.

Bill Murray’s modern-ish version of A Christmas Carol, entitled Scrooged, wouldn’t have worked if Scrooge hadn’t become such a large, famous name, and synonymous in our culture for a stingy, skin-flint.

I understand that they’re shooting for branding.  I mean, when we say “Harry Potter,” everyone knows what we’re talking about.  But even Harry Potter didn’t market itself solely as “Harry Potter.”  It marketed itself first as “Harry Potter and the Subtitle that Explains a Bit of What THIS Movie Will Be About.”

It’s really bizarre and frustrating to me that the original working title, John Carter of Mars wasn’t used.  At least then you have a little more of an inkling of what this movie will be about.  Most people that I talked to when I said I went to see it…had no idea what to think of it.  When I said I went to go see John Carter, their reaction was, “So…can you tell me what that was about?”

Even more frustrating is that the title of the book the movie was based on would have been an even better name for a movie.  The Princess of Mars.  I mean…c’mon!  How awesome is that??  Or, if they were still reaching for branding, why not John Carter and the Princess of Mars.  Much like the Harry Potter movies, now you have a sense of what the movie is about beyond the incredibly vague and boring name “John Carter.”

Let me show you what one of the movie posters for John Carter looked like placed next to the same poster that I’ve photoshopped with my suggested title.


Now, I’m no graphic designer, but I think the other title explains a lot more about what you’ll be getting into.

This could have been a very well received movie, possibly even a Star Wars for this generation.  Instead…it flopped.  Big time.  Instead of embracing this movie for what it is—a fun, slightly campy space opera set on mars during political turmoil between the natives—Disney tried to make this movie appeal as broadly as possible by taking out all of the potentially alienating information, and because of that, nobody knew what to think and this movie failed to find any audience at all.  I hope it does well enough in theaters—and on DVD—to warrant a sequel.  If it doesn’t, I feel this will become a cult classic and sink into the under-appreciated sci-fi movies hall of fame with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie.

Did you see John Carter?  What did you think of it?  Do you think it deserves all of the negativity, or did you enjoy it?  If you DID enjoy it, why do you think it failed?


  1. I don't get why they wouldn't want to repeat the naming style of Harry Potter? Were they afraid they'd see too much success? Isn't that the kind of thing you want to mimic?

    1. You would think so, but apparently not. I don't get it.

  2. Great write up and I love your drawings too! Totally agree with you. And on top of what you said, it baffles me why they didn't use the most obvious marketing speak like, "Based on the novels by the Creator of Tarzan" and "From the Academy Award Winning Director, Andrew Stanton". NONE of the ads had used those or anything remotely like them. That just blows my mind! It seems almost like they wanted to sink John Carter and use it as some kind of write off or something. But that would be ridiculous, right? Well. It's that or sheer stupidity from the "legendary" and long-experienced Disney.

  3. Thank you, Thank you, someone who really gets what happened to John Carter. It was a great movie that could have been successful if Disney would have cared one iota that it succeed. Love the cartoons and the name game in the middle. Very effective way to make a point. Great write up.

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  5. Thank you for this post. You are spot-on about the marketing. This is one of my all-time favorite movies and it's a shame it wasn't as well-received as it deserved to be. I sure hope we get to see a seqsuel or two someday.

  6. This is by far the best movie of the year (The Avengers included). Why? Because it had heart and a great story and was FUN! Pick it up on DVD/blu-ray and support the sequel campaign.

  7. @Khanada I hear that Andrew Stanton started working on the sequel before the original released, so if it has a solid DVD/Bluray release, in addition to be being piggybacked with The Avengers in a lot of drive-in theaters, it actually could get a sequel. But I totally agree; I had no idea the director of John Carter was also the director of Wall-E--one of my favorite movies ever--until I did my own research.

    @diegomom50 I'm glad you enjoyed the name game. I was sort of disturbingly proud of that. Thanks for visiting!

    @Maegan Langer - I'm sort of used to having the movies I really enjoy do well. My wife and I have decided we must be hipsters, it's the only way to explain how our favorite movies do so poorly.

    @Chris Farley - I think comparing John Carter to The Avengers is sort of like comparing apples to oranges. Honestly, I liked them both for the same reason--they were both a lot of fun, and both tried to be different. But I think another issue is that John Carter had a bit more of a learning curve to it than The Avengers. The latter had several years and 5 movies of build up. JC...quite a few more foreign names and things to learn. Still, it all comes back to the marketing. (Also, totally plan to snatch up the Blu-Ray when I get the chance. The wife and I both loved it.)

  8. What I want to know is why Edgar Rice Burroughs name failed to appear on any of the advertising? Aside from all the other ridiculous omissions, you would think the creator of the source material would warrant a mention on the poster.

    1. I think that might be because to most of the American-Movie-Going-Public Edgar Rice Burroughs is not really a household name. To the people who know about him and/or the John Carter novels, this information wouldn't be necessary, and to everyone else it would be worthless. However, if they'd said something like Khanada suggested--"From the creator of Tarzan"--it might have done a lot better. Tarzan IS a household name, and that might have drawn more attention.

      Another thing that might have been a cool tie-in? Why not get the Science Channel and the History Channel in on promoting the movie? I mean, using the History Channel to tie in the Civil War era stuff, and the Science Channel to talk about the history of Mars or space travel or any number of other things could have garnered some interest as well, particularly among the geek crowd. It's done wonders for Firefly.

  9. I have also been thinking that if they had used the original title "A Princess of Mars" and said "based on a novel by the creator of Tarzan" on the poster, then everyone would have known what the film was about.

    This is an excellent film. It lacks the major plot holes that plague most of the Star Trek films. It has interesting, well-developed characters. And it shows respect for the original source material. I will definitely but the DVD when it comes out. I ordered the book of film art, but my order was canceled and then the book started showing up on web sites for $150 or more, so I doubt I'll get that.

    If anywhere near as many people buy the video disks as are currently pirating the film, we may actually get a sequel.

    1. One can only hope, Anon. One can only hope.

      Also, if you're affiliated with that hacker group I hear so much for Vendetta is one of my favorite movies.


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