Disney’s John Carter gets released in 16 days. If tracking numbers are to believed, John Carter may be in some serious trouble at the box office. Much of that trouble can be blamed on the bad marketing campaign. As you’ve probably heard before, hindsight does not require corrective lenses or Lasik surgery, or whatever, but, while sixteen days isn’t a ton of time, it just may be enough to salvage opening weekend.
Two points that I should make: (A) Yes, I’ve seen John Carter, but this piece is not a breakdown of the merits of the film itself (we’ll save that for another day) and (B) I do not possess a marketing degree. So, if your response is going to be, “Well, what do you know about marketing?” my answer will be, “Other than getting a B- in Marketing 101 at a Big 12 state school, not a lot.” But I do have a general sense of the vibe of what a potential moviegoer is looking for. Based on that, if I were put in charge, here’s what I would do. Immediately.
(I’m prefacing all of this with, “If humanly possible with the short amount of time remaining.”)
1.) It’s too late to change the title back to John Carter of Mars, but in the television spots from here on out, just call it that anyway. Honestly, if I went outside the office and polled 100 people walking down Broadway here in New York City — well, at least the people who didn’t spit on me — I’d bet good money that a greater number of people are still slightly more familiar with Noah Wyle’s John Carter (which he played for 11 seasons on one of the most popular television shows in the country at that time, ER) than they are Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter. Most of the movie takes place on Mars — let people know that.
2.) But, not all of the movie takes place on Mars. The film starts with a pretty interesting sequence about John Carter’s military service in the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Yes, John Carter fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. I guess Disney doesn’t want to promote that its hero fought for the army that was trying to defend, ahem, “states’ rights,” but, it is interesting, it is gritty, and it brings a deeper level to the background of the character than what most people would expect from the CGI heavy scenes they’ve seen in the trailers. Plus, these scenes involve the always-great Bryan Cranston as a Union officer. Plaster clips from these scenes during the commercial breaks of Survivor.
3.) That fan made trailer: pay the guy who made this a few thousand dollars for editing Disney’s footage together better than Disney did and get it out there. Everywhere.
Good grief, that second John Carter trailer released in November is terrible. I wonder what it was like in the Disney marketing offices on the day that this trailer came out. “So, I have good news and bad news. The good news: people are comparing the new trailer to Star Wars! The bad news: it’s Attack of the Clones.”
I guess I understand the impulse to show a big battle scene, but, really, these work best when there’s a buildup of some kind. To just declare, “behold!,” is really no different than walking in on someone playing a video game. The first trailer that debuted way back in July, which alluded, partially, to some of John Carter’s back story, is the much better trailer.
4.) This movie needs one last focused media blitz — and I’m sure that’s coming — but, as alluded to earlier, in the right way with a different strategy. Last week, Disney hosted a three-day John Carter junket in Arizona. If I’m in the Disney marketing department, I guess I’m thinking, Well, if we get all of these journalists in one secluded place for three days, maybe we can influence them into giving us good coverage. This doesn’t work for two reasons: (A) It’s a lot harder than you think to influence journalists that care about their credibility and (B) even if you do somehow get wall-to-wall positive coverage, this guarantees absolutely nothing. Hey, ask Universal how that all worked out with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a film that was universally loved coming out of Comic-Con, but also suffered from poor marketing. As we know, it tanked in its initial release.
5.) Focus on the characters. Look, there are a lot of characters in John Carter. Not that Transformers: Dark of the Moon needed much help, but I did like how they plastered New York City with banners focusing on individual characters. Before I saw the movie, I had a sense of who these people/robots were. And in an action movie that doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining itself, it does help. I mean, look at the poster for John Carter, they might as well call the movie Attack of the Shirtless Shadow Man.
Actually, to be honest, I may be more apt to see a movie called Attack of the Shirtless Shadow Man than I would of a movie that’s just someone’s fairly common name. Taylor Kitsch is a good-looking guy and, as stated, he doesn’t wear a shirt for most of the movie. I dunno: promote him! Also: Mark Strong plays a huge role in this movie. Mark Strong is a scary looking guy — get his image out there, too! Having said that…
6.) Own the fact that the movie is complicated. (And it is complicated.) Maybe start adding voiceovers that ask, “Can you solve the mystery of … John Carter of Mars?” Or downright challenge people, “Are you brave enough to enter the complex world of … John Carter of Mars?” Because, when all you know about a film is the big CGI arena battle that you saw in a trailer, it doesn’t relay a sense of, “This movie looks complicated, I should pay attention.” But, it is: characters come and go with surprisingly little exposition. For better or worse: the film takes you into this world and expects you to be able to keep up. And since that’s the case, well, you might as well own it, son.
Mike Ryan is the senior writer for Moviefone. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter