In sight of the lackluster premiere of "John Carter" two weeks ago, Disney already projects that they will lose upwards of $200 million this quarter on the Martian epic, making it the most colossal failure in motion picture history ("Cutthroat Island" 's inflation-adjusted loss of $145 million in 1995 now ranks a distant second).
You may not have known that "John Carter" was helmed by Andrew Stanton, the two-time Oscar winning director of "WALL-E" and "Finding Nemo;" had its screenplay written by Pulitzer prize winning author Michael Chabon; and was based on "A Princess of Mars," also a primary inspiration for "Star Wars," "Star Trek," and practically every other sci-fi romp of the 20th century. You probably didn't know all that because you probably didn't go see it.
Meanwhile, Lionsgate executives are literally popping champagne in the hallways over the success of their futuristic blockbuster, "The Hunger Games," whose three-day box office total of $155 million last weekend made it the third-biggest opening ever, behind "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2" at $169 million and "The Dark Knight" at $158 million. The debut's success places the series on track to fill the preteen void left by the ends of "Twilight" and "Harry Potter."
Though their respective box office revenues could not have been more different "John Carter" and "The Hunger Games" bear many similarities when broken down. Both were based on widely read novels; attempted to establish new big-budget franchises with multiple sequel potential; starred semi-known leads with little box office draw, but had well-established and decorated writers and directors. And they opened just a few weeks apart from one another. So why did "The Hunger Games" succeed and "John Carter" fail so spectacularly? The disparity between the two provides a perfect example of the new wave of movie marketing and advertising.
This intent of this article is not to judge the success of either picture by their actual content, but rather how the way they were packaged and sold drastically shaped our desire to see them. In classic David-versus-Goliath style, Disney spent $100 million on top of its $250 million production budget to market "John Carter" while Lionsgate spent a paltry—in Hollywood terms—$45 million to market the $80 million "Hunger Games." We know how it turned out, so how did 45 beat 100?
Since the summer of 2011, Lionsgate and their media team, thismoment, slowly turned up the buzz surrounding their pic to a deafening volume coinciding with its March 23 release. Foregoing the typical print, TV, and billboard advertising scheme, thismoment, hammered social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube instead. They selectively targeted youth-oriented hotspots on the sites, like MTV's Facebook page, and provided interactive content beyond the trailer that allowed users to learn about and identify with the characters. They had sites for fans to create their own profile and even print off an ID card with their picture on it just like in the movie; over 800,000 people already have one.
And most importantly, Lionsgate made sure people read the book. The number of copies in distribution more than doubled to 23.4 million between the summer of 2011 and January of 2012; the new books also had a slick color scheme that tied in with the film's advertising. Lionsgate spent their money precisely and effectively and got us all frothing at the mouth to see the kids of Panem murder each other.
Disney, on the other hand, was hesitant from the get-go as to how to sell its pricey behemoth. It was a dangerous bargain—with its $250 million budget, the film would have to crack the top 50 grossing movies of all time to just break even. Disney was already uncomfortable with the title of the source novel, both because "princess" might alienate the young boys they desperately needed to attract and because the last movie they released with "Mars" in the title, "Mars Needs Moms," lost $70 million. So its creators went with the generic name of the protagonist, "John Carter."
In divorcing their franchise from the book, Disney lost their primary selling tool. Just like with "The Hunger Games," "Twilight," and "Harry Potter," people who have already read the source novel are almost guaranteed to pay for it onscreen. Disney could have easily re-popularized the books if that was their intention. With $100 million they could have given everyone in America between the ages of 12 and 29 a paperback of the novel and bought them a John Carter of Mars-themed Mars candy bar with the change. To those who say that a book published in 1917 is too outdated to become popular today, I'd point them to the unprecedented success of the "Lord of the Rings" films, whose first franchise book, "The Hobbit," was published in 1937. Granted, the "Princess of Mars" brand is not nearly as recognizable as "Lord of the Rings," but with proper planning Disney could have built up enough readers to make it interesting.
As for Disney's advertising campaign: "His name is John Carter"—what the hell is that and what does it mean? Most of the adverts were equally bland and uncommunicative, featuring leading man, Taylor Kitsch, staring wistfully against a red background with that same tagline. Even excluding the facts I mentioned at the opening, there were dozens of other more appealing angles Disney could have pursued. Even the trailer lent little insight into what we should be getting excited for.
Lionsgate, however, explicitly publicized the premise of "The Hunger Games"—kids in the future fight to the death as televised entertainment. I've read dozens of articles and watched multiple ads for "John Carter" and I still have no idea what the thing's about.
We have to know what the world of a film is before we pay money for it. Story-wise, "The Hunger Games" already had all of its exposition taken care of through advertising before anyone had even bought their ticket—a good portion of people had already read the books and knew exactly what would happen months before entering the theater. Those who did manage to see "John Carter" generally stumbled into it with few expectations and had a very good time. Pleasant surprises, however, don't fill seats.
This failure won't bankrupt Disney, and probably won't end Stanton's or Chabon's careers. It will, however, serve as a very expensive lesson and will shakeup Mickey Mouse's marketing department. It may also mean the end of Kitsch, whose rising stardom could easily be snuffed out if the $200 million "Battleship" adaptation he's headlining this summer also fails to tread water.
An adage I once took to heart was that a good salesman does not argue the question of whether you will buy his product or not, he instead argues how many and in which color. Lionsgate put us in the position where we never questioned if we were going to see "The Hunger Games," just if we were on team Katniss or team Peeta. Disney couldn't even explain what it was selling.