Building on Clint’s post from yesterday, I’d like to talk a bit more about John Carter. I find the situation around this movie quite fascinating as it should be a movie specifically made and marketed to me.
A.) It’s the live action debut of WALL-E director Andrew Stanton, who is profoundly good at his job.
B.) It features actors like Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, Polly Walker (all of HBO’s “Rome”), Dominic West (of HBO’s “The Wire”), fabulous movie-heavy Mark Strong (Kick-Ass, Sherlock Holmes), ex-Spider-Man villains Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church, and at least an appearance by everyone’s favorite science teacher, Bryan Cranston.
C.) It’s based on the pulp novel series by Edgar Rice Burroughs and features aliens, crazy ships, swords, vast deserts, impossible cities, lovely alien women, and big battles.
I should be really, really excited for this movie. I’m not and it has a lot to do with the way Disney has failed to build any confidence toward this movie. The trailers make it look like the scenes George Lucas removed from Attack of the Clones and the posters tend to be stark examples of what not to do in Photoshop.
All of this stems from the marketing department’s lack of confidence in the whole enterprise. While Clint mentioned the novel’s original name, it tends to be known as “A Princess of Mars.” Disney never considered releasing the film under that title as they feared boys would not want to see a movie about a princess.
Seeing as then studio chief Dick Cook planned to use the film as launch pad for a series of “John Carter” features, calling it “John Carter of Mars” seemed sensible enough. Clint pointed out why this title also has problems, but Disney seemed happy with it. Early posters even had a stylized “JCM” monogram to get the point across. Around this time, Dick Cook, a company man of nearly thirty years (he began his career as Monorail operator at Disneyland), was pushed out of the studio and replaced by Rich Ross. Having built successful brands in the TV division, Ross was brought in to overhaul the feature film operation, but his relative inexperience with that arm of the industry has ruffled a few feathers.
As with any change in top-level management, projects can suddenly find themselves orphaned as their success could be credited to the previous regime. John Carter appears to be an orphan, but no studio wants to write-off a $200 million project just because of petty inside baseball politics. No, the real culprit behind this movie’s problems is one particular curious marketing belief:
The thinking within Disney’s corporate buildings in Burbank is that women — a “surprising” half of the potential audience — won’t go see a film called “John Carter of Mars” because they don’t like science fiction or fantasy movies. Particularly, movies that take place on Mars.
This led to the studio’s choice to drop “of Mars” from the title and the marketing decision to bury the fact that this movie takes place on said planet. To me, this was a gigantic mistake because, well, look at this:
Holy shit! Don’t you want to see a movie that takes place on that planet? You could call it anything at that point, “A Man on Barsoom” for instance, and get a lot more interest in the movie than the current strategy. And, trust me, I’m surrounded by women that would watch a movie based on the above poster. It comes from Mondo prints, the Austin-based t-shirt and poster company that can make Star Trek: The Motion Picture look fucking cool. (Why yes, I do have a copy of that Trek poster. Thanks for asking.)
The film is a victim of the overarching misunderstanding of what women want to see in movies that don’t feature the song “You’re Beautiful” or Kate Hudson. It might be shocking to know, but women can like movies where dudes punch one another or fight wars.
My point: Women don’t hate Mars. Nervous marketing execs believe women hate Mars. Nervous marketing execs believe a lot of odd things about women, even when the nervous marketing execs are women. I’m sure I could be shown numbers and graphs that support their claims, but on the ground, it’s a little hard to believe. After all, the spread sheets would never allow for a movie like Avatar to exist, let alone project its eventual profits. But studio people are a cowardly and superstitious lot … that’s why they’re always afraid of the Batman.
Every so often, Hollywood shouldn’t be afraid to sell a world. Look at The Hobbit, its story isn’t the easiest thing to market, but people love Middle-earth (now), so they’re focusing on those amazing New Zealand vistas and the warm feelings people have for that world. Even before the general public knew they would love the land of Hobbits, Elves, and a disembodied flaming eye, that aspect of the films played heavily in the marketing of The Lord of the Rings. It works sometimes, and maybe it would’ve be useful in this case.
Unless, of course, the world looks like shit.