“You take out ‘of Mars,’ you don’t tell where he came from? That’s what makes it unique!” a former Disney executive said. “They choose to ignore that, and the whole campaign ends up meaning nothing. It’s boiled down to something no one wants to see. – ‘John Carter’: Disney’s Quarter-Billion-Dollar Movie Fiasco”
So in a couple of weeks we’re going to see the long awaited (and I mean long awaited!) debut of both the first big-screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs “John Carter of Mars” books, and the first live-action film from noted Pixar director Andrew Stanton. Sadly, most of the people who might be the target audience for this film probably have zero awareness of either of those two facts. And that is unfortunately only a very small part of the utter failure of Disney to market this movie.
But before I talk about the marketing muddle, first I need to address a few issues with the movie itself that did the marketing team no favors in my eyes. Let me preface all of this by saying that I haven’t seen any of the film past the trailers and featurettes released, and that I’m assuming that it is a good solid film based on Stanton’s track record. Word trickling out so far has been good to great, from the journalists who have seen it so far. I’m not really a fan of the character, having never read any of the books. However, it has permeated pop culture enough that I am fairly aware of the popular image of John Carter & co. And although Taylor Kitsch may be a great actor, he just doesn’t seem right for the part of a Civil War veteran described as being a 6’2″, steel-eyed, clean shaven, man in his 30s. Kitsch is just too “current”, he seems every bit a boyish young man of the 21st century. This part needs a Sean Connery, a Harrison Ford, a Gregory Peck. A “man”. And a man who not only has a steely resolve, but a sense of humor. A swashbuckler. That is not Kitsch.
His female counterpart, Dejah Thoris, needs to be the opposite. Tough, but sensuous. Voluptuous. Striking. I’ve heard good things about Lynn Collins’ performance, but like Kitsch she seems eminently forgettable. Good casting for Dejah would have been Angelina Jolie, circa 2003. Not because Jolie is necessarily perfect for the role, but that combination of allure and otherworldlyness that she exuded is what the role needs. Both parts should be an alpha male and an alpha female. But we didn’t get that, regrettably. How Disney bankrolled such a huge budget with no stars is puzzling, but maybe they expected the same luck they had with Pirates of the Caribbean to strike again.
The other thing that really bugs me are the design choices for nearly everything. Stanton seems to have fallen into that very modern trap of needed to make everything in the film “real” and grounded in some sort of explainable reality. So the Tharks (four-armed green men) are equated to the thin, sinewy Masai warriors, both being desert-dwelling societies. And the Martian landscape itself is a slightly modified version of Utah’s Monument Valley, with no red vistas to be found. Since Burroughs described Dejah’s people as “red-skinned”, and they found that actually coloring the skin looked problematic, Stanton chose to cover them in red tattoos to explain away the reference (which is odd that he picked that to be so literal about but ignore the descriptions of Tharks or John Carter himself).
The creature design falls prey to nearly all creature design cliches that we’ve seen since the advent of CGI; either animals that are made to look as if they could actually exist, or ones so fantastic that they couldn’t be made without CGI (see nearly everything ever designed by Neville Page). Hey, even the Star Wars prequels fell into this trap. As a kid I was fascinated by the Tauntauns and dewbacks, and Wampas and Rancors of the original trilogy. I don’t think there is a single creature in the prequels that inspires any love (much less countless toys). I look at the banner shown below and at first glance it looks like a guy riding an elephant, with a giant frog next to him. You can barely tell the middle figure is an alien, and almost assuredly can’t tell it has four arms. And the “hot chick” is so far back she may as well be just another guy. With the uninspired costumes, creatures, and landscapes, this may as well be Prince of Persia 2 instead of a timeless space fantasy.
Sidenote: Paramount Studios tried to get their version of John Carter off the ground for about a decade being letting the rights lapse, first with director Kerry Conran (the failure of his “Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow” probably killed his chances) and later Robert Rodriguez and John Favreau, who went straight to Iron Man after it all fell through. Conran’s version, at least, would have shared similar designs as Stanton’s does, but really amped up the fantasy element instead of grounding it in “realism”. Check out the presentation reel he made:
And that right there nails what this movie is not being promoted as, but should be: space fantasy. It is NOT science fiction…but the marketing team seems to think it is. The books that the film is based on were written 100 years ago, literally! Countless movies have stolen generously from them, and audiences have seen these concepts many times before. So even though the stories may be somewhat well known to a small readership, the general public has no idea who these characters are, what they should look like, and the context of what was “fantastic” in 1912. Why on Earth would anyone try and make this thing “realistic”?!? Why wouldn’t you reimagine those parts that were stolen and give us a version we aren’t expecting? Tarzan has never been faithful to those (outdated) stories, so why does this need to be? Before I go into the terrible promotion of John Carter, just move your mouse over the image below. That’s the difference of how the publisher sold the books (with seminal art by Frank Frazetta) vs how Disney is selling the movie.
The biggest marketing sin is right up front: nothing about the marketing materials (posters, trailers, title) tells you ANYTHING about this movie, other than it’s some kind of science fiction film. It doesn’t tell you it’s from the visionary directory of Finding Nemo and Wall-E, it doesn’t tell you it’s based on the groundbreaking, influential books by the creator of Tarzan. It doesn’t scream Romance! Action! Adventure! No, instead they dropped all mention of Mars from the title in favor of the lead character’s boring name. I can’t imagine being excited as an eight year old wanted to see a movie called “Luke Skywalker”. But the name thing has been hashed over enough. I’ll just say that when everybody’s first reaction to hearing the new title is some form of rebellion, it should be evident that you’ve made a mistake. As I pointed out above, the posters leave much to be desired: no custom logo for the movie, just an average looking typeface (but one that would be dead on for a cerebral sci-fi film). Horribly desaturated color palette. The lead character is tiny (this is almost worse on another big piece where Carter is upstaged by two uninspired ape/mole creatures on the set of Attack of the Clones) and bored looking. It’s sad when the two best pieces of promotion are a poster made by a niche company for a midnight giveaway and a fan made trailer that is 50 times better than any “official” one put together by Disney.
It’s funny that every film like this aspires to be Star Wars (especially in the eyes of the studio execs and accountants) but no one looks to the lessons of Star Wars when they are making these films. Star Wars (and I’m talking Episode 4: A New Hope, here, not the prequels) was a fantasy film through and through. There was no explaining how so many aliens could exist, or how they knew English, or how the space ships worked…they all just did. And the designs were iconic, with attention paid more for impact and “cool factor” than how “real” they might seem. The casting was either mainly unknowns who totally embodied the roles, or gifted veterans to lend gravitas. And every set piece was fantastic in the truest sense of the word. Nothing about Star Wars felt pedestrian. It felt earnest, and exciting, but every where you looked was something you had never seen before. Hey, Disney: I’ve seen Utah.
No, the lesson filmmakers take away is that George made everything worn and rusty as if it existed in a “found universe”. Which was a brilliant conceit on his part to ground the fantasy. It was not the ends in itself. George also understood how to sell his movie to the public, as a space serial. As wonder. As “fun”. Look at the original Star Wars posters, and you can see where George understood the power in those Frazetta illustrations. And why is this movie rated PG-13? It has DISNEY on the title! From on of the founders of Pixar! People tend to overlook something else that made Star Wars a massive hit. It was a movie for kids. Kids who turned out in droves, and brought the family along. Kids who grew up spending money on Star Wars and buying, buying, buying Star Wars toys. And boy, George knew how to sell toys. Lots and lots of toys. And I keep seeing reference to Disney making John Carter in the first place to be a licensing powerhouse tentpole for the studio. Except…where are the toys?
In fact, where is any John Carter merchandise? See, the movie opens in a few weeks and the industry rule of thumb is that most movie-based toy lines will have made 60% of their sales before the movie opens. Heck, Avengers doesn’t open until the Summer and those toys are currently on shelves everywhere. But nothing for John Carter. At all. This, I just can’t understand. Sure, sure, I get that Disney may be gun shy after the debacle of Prince of Persia, a movie that sold few tickets and almost no toys. And that was followed by an even bigger failure in their eyes, Tron:Legacy. It bombed with most audiences, and the toys were lackluster peg warmers that didn’t even make it to the planned second series. Why would Disney take another chance on these toys just sitting around?
Well, maybe because this movie is supposed to be Disney’s “Star Wars”! The stories that set the mold. And it has no toys. How are kids going to get excited about a movie that gives them no ownership after they leave the theater? What plants the idea of John Carter and his amazing world in their heads to drag Mom & Dad to opening day? How are they going to beg to go back for a second showing without having spent their afternoons playing “John Carter” with their action figures with little Ricky down the street? Well, they’re not. You know why? Because thanks to Star Wars, every license is a blockbuster waiting to happen in the eyes of the studio. George Lucas famously gave up an increase in his fee in exchange for the merchandising rights to Star Wars. No studio exec will ever let the possibility of giving away the golden goose happen again, for fear of their job.
So the licensing fees for a potential tentpole film are astronomical. If the budget is huge then it goes up even more. And when toy manufacturers, themselves burned by all the Trons and Prince of Persias and Terminator:Salvations don’t want to risk that much money on what may seem to be an iffy prospect, the studio opts for no toys to be made rather than lower their price. You know what? To sell this movie they should have given away the rights for next to nothing. They should have held back Pixar toys as a package deal with John Carter. They should have paid their existing partners to crank out John Carter toys to stand as free advertising in every toy store, Walmart, and Target months before the movie came out. But now it’s too late. I truly hope in spite of all of this that John Carter is a big hit. That Andrew Stanton hits it out of the park. That it becomes something more than a one-off, destined to be a cult favorite one day. But I remember another film based on a pulp hero that Disney mismarketed and had no toys. And I know the Rocketeer had no sequels, either.