PROLOGUE -- "Something Was Seriously Amiss"
On November 30, 2011, the day that Walt Disney Studios was set to debut the trailer for the Andrew Stanton film John Carter
on Good Morning America, I was eagerly waiting. It would be the best glimpse yet of a film that I'd been anticipating since my childhood.
I had discovered the Martian tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs at the library at Patch Barracks in Stuttgart Germany during a rainy Little League summer when I was 12, and by the time I reached adulthood I had read all the Burroughs books multiple times, and been inspired by them. I could sketch from memory an accurate map of Barsoom, recite the full history of the Tharks and John Carter's relationship with them, and draw accurate renderings of all the creatures and cultures of that mystical planet.
Now, decades later, the movie that had existed only in my mind all these years was finally about to become a reality on cinema screens worldwide. The release date was March 9, 2012, exactly 100 days from the November unveiling, and I was looking forward to watching the climax of the campaign unfold over the coming twelve weeks.
Finally the trailer played, and the campaign was launched.
But ... what had been hyped in advance as debut of the full theatrical trailer didn't turn out to be that at all. Rather, it was a 45 second TV spot, with the first 11 seconds consisting of having the camera zoom in slowly on the Times Square giant screen, only cutting to the actual spot ten seconds into it.
The spot itself seemed disjointed and unfocused. The full trailer finally did premiere sixteen hours later on Jimmy Kimmel and thankfully it was better than the cut-down version shown that morning, but it still seemed to miss the mark. Who was John Carter? Why was he leaping hundreds of feet into the air and battling apes in an arena? And where was all this taking place? Of course I knew the answers to all these questions, but I had read the books. What would I think if I just came across this trailer without knowing any of the history?
I wonder what people are saying about it?
I checked online and saw that the trailer, and Disney marketing, were taking a shellacking. The Film Stage
wrote: After Disney botched the trailer release of the one film that needs all the good buzz it can get, by releasing just 49 [sic] seconds of it early this morning on GMA, we now have the full thing thanks to IGN.... I held some hope after the disappointing first trailer, and the latest one is definitely an improvement, but still not what I hoped for coming from such a great storyteller (also visually speaking) as Stanton....Collider.com
, a top entertainment outlet, offered the following: Good Morning America had a sneak peek of the new John Carter trailer earlier today, which probably wasn't the best way to present a hard sell to an unfamiliar audience, not to mention a critical group of fans ready to tear into the film adaptation that dropped the most interesting half of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars . . .
Troubled, I decided to do a little more checking. Until this point I had only been paying intermittent casual attention to the campaign -- what had I missed? Was I witnessing a one-time stumble, or an ongoing problem?
On IMDB Pro, I checked John Carter's "MovieMeter" ranking. It was ranked 986 as of November 27, the most recent ranking, meaning 985 movies were receiving more hits and IMDB message board activity than John Carter. This seemed low for a $250M tentpole film 100 days out from its release date. It should be higher, I thought. A lot higher.
I decided to compare John Carter
to two comparable upcoming "tentpole" films -- Lionsgate'sThe Hunger Games
, slated for release two weeks after John Carter
on March 23, and Disney'sThe Avengers
slated for release two months after John Carter
on May 4. John Carter
didn't need to be ranked higher or even as high as either of these two -- but it should be in the same general vicinity and seeing how these films rank would give an "order of magnitude" indication of where the other high profile films slated for a spring release were ranked.
The results? The Hunger Games
was ranked 17,
while The Avengers
was ranked 26.
I pulled up the IMDB Pro Data Table View for each film, which includes a week by week summary of ranking and links to each article on the film that appeared in entertainment media outlets for the week. These articles don't just happen - they are seeded by the publicity team who release to the media stills, concept art, interviews, etc, all according to a predetermined plan and schedule.
I picked a random week, October 9, and compared John Carter
, The Hunger Games, and The Avengers
side by side. The Hunger Games
publicity team had generated 72 articles placed for the week; The Avengers
had placed 149 articles; the John Carter
team had generated a total of 9 article placements.
I then looked at the entire month of October and compared the article output as monitored by IMDB Pro. The score for October? Avengers
640, Hunger Games
224, John Carter
Taking the entire period from the end of August until the end of November, the disparity remained the same -- both Avengers and Hunger Games were well over 1,000 articles, and John Carter?
A whopping 45 articles.
Or, stated differently: IMDB was monitoring a little over four articles per week about John Carter
, versus well over 100 per week for the other two.
What did it mean?
Unless there was something I was missing -- it seemed clear that the John Carter promotional campaign was being severely and inexplicably out-hustled and outworked by each of the other two films. If there were a ten point scale for ranking effort expended to promote, The Avengers would rate a 9.4, The Hunger Games would rate an 8.9 for its promotional effort, and John Carter would be lucky to rate a 3.0.
Because of its $250M price tag, the "bar" that John Carter had to get over was higher than the bar for either The Avengers
, which had a reported cost of $220M, or The Hunger Games
, with a budget of $80M. Plus John Carter
was closer to its release date than either of the other two -- meaning it was deeper into its promotional campaign and should be operating with a greater sense of urgency than either of the other two, not lesser.
I tried to imagine any scenario under which it would make sense for John Carte
r, during a critical period just months before its release, to go silent like this. Could there be some artful "lie low" rationale that would explain John Carter
being silent while other "tentpole" releases were grinding out the "buzz fodder"?
I couldn't think of any.
It made no sense.
No sense at all.
Clearly something was seriously amiss.