The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Well here’s someone who puts up a good fight to restore the honour of John Carter

with 18 comments

JohnCarterbook
Two years ago I gave John Carter a two star rating. Compared to other reviewers I was kind – many gave it a 1/5. It had been appointed to be the laughing stock of the year and there was an ongoing competition in who could write the most scathing post about it.

I hate mob mentality for many good reasons. As much as I can I try to stay away from the crowd when I do my movie writing. I don’t want to be infected by other people’s thoughts. I want to think for myself, trust my own judgement.

The question is: did I give John Carter a fair chance when it came out? Would I have been as critical as I was if there had been a thousand headed choir singing its praise instead of bitching about it?

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood
This nagging thought has been with me for a while, but it became even more urgent when I recently read Michael Sellers’ book John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood.

This is not exactly a behind-the-scenes book; Sellers had no personal part in the making of the film. But it’s a book about the making of the 2012 movie, starting with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp stories, going through previous attempts to make film of this franchise, explaining in depth what went wrong with this film, and finally sharing some thoughts about what the future looks like.

It’s written with the perspective of a true fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books, but unlike most fans Sellers also works professionally in the film industry. He’s not rich or famous but it’s clear that he knows what he’s talking about. When he criticizes Disney for their missteps, it’s not the clueless rant by some random fan boy. It’s all well-argued and gives a new and much more nuanced picture of Disney’s actions.

JCATGOHBad usage of social media
While some ill-judged decisions were taken during the production, the biggest problem according to Sellers was in the marketing. Compared to other movies there was very little effort put into it.

It was said that social media would be used to great extent and a supposed expert in the field was hired for this purpose. But in reality, the activity level on Facebook and Twitter was a joke. A comparison with The Hunger Games, which came out around the same time and competed for the public attention, makes it very clear. Lionsgate used several Twitter accounts, which were used actively. For instance they tweeted stories, warnings and encouragement in character. This helped to build a cool factor, and The Hunger Games ended up with over 400 000 followers on Twitter, compared to 9 400 for John Carter. Only on the opening day, The Hunger Games account put out over 40 tweets. Three weeks in to its release the John Carter account had managed a total of 240 tweets, all “largely uninspiring”, such as “John Carter is now in theatres; are you going?” And it hardly retweeted anything at all, which Sellers points out is essential to generate buzz.

The Facebook marketing was, if possible, even worse. All the updates consisted of canned “spam” announcements that could have been written months earlier. Examples of lacklustre updates are given: “In the film, Edgar Rice Burroughs is the nephew of John Carter. He inherits his uncle’s journal, which details Carter’s journey to a strange, new world”. “Bring Barsoom home with these John Carter items from the Disney Store.”

Meanwhile The Hunger Games had “daily updates with all kind of special offers, free downloaded games that were actually fun and inside activities with plenty of “cool factor”” For example there were 13 Facebook pages for the film, representing each of the districts. Fans could become virtual citizens of each district, and since there was a large novel fan base, familiar with the context, it worked. The John Carter books don’t have that size of audience nowadays, but there is a fan base that could have helped out to build a community and spread the word. However Disney didn’t bother to reach out and cooperate with them. And the social media marketing ended up being close to non-existent.

I go into a lot of detail here as I refer the part about this particular aspect, but it’s because I find it so interesting. Anyone who is interested in PR can learn from it; you don’t need to be a John Carter fan.

The alternative trailer
I also loved to read about the efforts that the fan community made to “save” the film when they realized that the marketing was poor and that Disney had given up on it even before it opened. The official trailer was so bad that Sellers put together an alternative trailer by material he found online, cut and presented in a different manner, which made more sense and caught the essence of John Carter to an audience that wasn’t familiar with the franchise. He put it on YouTube and within short the link had spread all over the net, through forums, blog posts and tweets. It was an instant success. If this had been a Hollywood film, it would have been the turning point that ultimately saved the doomed film, but alas that didn’t happen. It was far too late at that point to turn the ship. It was a nice try though.

Campaign for a sequel
In the final chapter the author argues why it’s totally doable to make a sequel to John Carter and why this even could be profitable. There is a way forward, he says, and reminds us that the literary property is good (or actually “exceptional” – yes, I told you, he’s a true fan) and that there is a substantial fan base in place and ready to support future films. He also points out that John Carter didn’t do quite as bad in the box office as the rumours have led us to believe. It did far better outside of US, particularly in Russia and China, yielding close to 300 million dollars in global sales. There is no reason to believe that a sequel has to be a loss, says Sellers, and explains how it could be done way cheaper than the first movie.

The Burroughs fan community is campaigning for a continuation of the John Carter franchise on the movie screen. They know that it may take some time before this can happen.

“Before there can be continuation, there must be a gradual rehabilitation of the image and reputation of the film and the underlying property it depicts”.[…] “Continue to use your voices; you will be heard”

3D, 2D or b/w?
I hear you loud and clear and once again I’m asking myself what role the mediocre 3D played for my assessment. There’s no way around it; it looked truly horrendous in my theatre, as if I had been watching it through a Viewmaster toy from the 60s, all characters looking like paper dolls, which was so distracting that I hardly could think of anything else. There was no 2D alternative in my city. What if there had been? Would I have liked it more? There is a way to find out. It’s currently available on Netflix. Perhaps I should give it another chance while I’m still under influence of the enthusiasm of a hard core fan?

Still: like I suggested last time, I think it would be very cool to make a black and white silent film based on John Carter, a piece of fan love, similar to the one that the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has made of Call of Cthulhu. If the Edgar Rice Burroughs fans ever run out of steam trying to convince Disney to make another film, I hope they consider this as an option.

Written by Jessica

June 24, 2014 at 12:36 am

Posted in John Carter

18 Responses

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  1. I very much enjoyed John Carter when I saw it in theaters. I was sad to see that there weren’t all that many other people with me, either physically or in the spirit of my enjoyment. There gets to be a curious thing where people take a perverse glee in a big movie failing to make money. People start to discuss just how little money JC made (though, as you rightly point out, it made a fair bit overseas) with a crooked smile on their faces. That’ll show them, they think, without really understanding who “they” are, or what exactly they’re being shown. This year’s Godzilla was supposed to be the big failure, there was a giant article in Forbes which asked, “Is Godzilla the ‘John Carter’ of 2014?” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/siliconangle/2014/01/23/hollywood-is-godzilla-the-john-carter-of-2014/) No. It turns out the answer is emphatically no (mostly because it was really great, and treated as such), but that didn’t stop the vultures from circling well before the film even debuted. I don’t know what I’m trying to say here, other than that maybe we should all go a little easy on the business side of film making. It’s more complicated than we think, and it also doesn’t mean all that much.

    Alex Thompson

    June 24, 2014 at 12:52 am

    • Vultures is the word for them. I really don’t like that kind of gloating and speculation over the possible misfortune of movies you dislike for some reason. The more I think about it the less I like it and if I’ve ever said anything along those lines, I’ll avoid doing it in the future, unless the movie in question is truly rasist, sexist and in every possible way an abomination. Under those circimstances it might be ok to rejoice at it’s failure at the box office. Might.

      Jessica

      July 20, 2014 at 11:52 pm

  2. Hehe, I’m not sure I would call the John Carter-literature “exceptional”… All this is naturally interesting, but does it make any difference if the movie still sucks? John Carter would perhaps have made a better profit with better marketing but then it would still have become one of those movies where you wonder “how could anyone spend so much money making this crap?!”

    Sofia

    June 24, 2014 at 10:31 am

    • It’s not exceptional perhaps, but it has a certain charm. Regarding the movie I think the 3D was a big part of the problem to me. I would probably have been more favourable to it had I been able to see it in 2D.

      Jessica

      July 20, 2014 at 11:54 pm

  3. I didn’t see John Carter until DVD and had low expectations, and I enjoyed it. There are issues with too much plot within what’s essentially an old-school adventure story, but there are fun sequences. That book sounds really interesting, especially with the marketing side of it. Disney did a terrible job in marketing John Carter, starting with the name and just going from there. It was ugly.

    Dan Heaton

    June 24, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    • I really recommend you to read the book if you’re interested in seeing the film industry from the inside perspective. It’s an easy read and you don’t need to be a John Carter fanatic to appreciate it.

      Jessica

      July 20, 2014 at 11:56 pm

  4. Like the previous commenter I didn’t see this until it came to DVD and I had low expectations. I watched it because I had read all the books when I was younger. I ended up liking the film quite a bit. It didn’t dumb things down for the audience like most films of its genre do. For instance, it just assumed you should know that Mars has 1/3 the gravity of Earth, which is why Carter could leap like he did and why he was so much stronger than the natives. I couldn’t count how many comments I’ve read and heard about all the “silly” “ridiculous” “unexplained” etc. physical feats in the film.

    And I completely agree that the marketing for the film was horrible. Forget Twitter and Facebook; plain old fashioned movie trailers and TV sneak peeks were so far off base that I was wondering if the movie would bear any resemblance to the books other than the title. As it turns out it was pretty close to the plot elements and general tone of the novels, but you would never know it from the advertising. So the people that did go knowing nothing more about the story than what they saw from the advertising got a completely different movie than what they were expecting. That’s almost guaranteed to generate bad word of mouth.

    Chip Lary

    June 25, 2014 at 12:56 am

    • Yeah, it was so strange how they for instance put all that emphasis on the arena fight, making it look like some kind of gladiator movie but at Mars. Which it really isn’t.
      But Disney really didn’t believe in it. And how could you possibly convince anyone to watch your film if you’ve got that attitude from the beginning?

      Jessica

      July 20, 2014 at 11:58 pm

  5. He makes a great point about the viral and social media marketing, but in my case, that wasn’t the problem at all. I just didn’t like the movie. Thought it was boring, poorly written and poorly acted.

    fernandorafael

    June 25, 2014 at 8:36 am

    • Fair enough. Again: I gave it a pretty bad rating myself. Still – the book about the failed marketing is definitely worth a read – even if you didn’t like the film.

      Jessica

      July 20, 2014 at 11:59 pm

  6. I enjoyed John Carter a lot – it would’ve been a total home run if it had a bit more sense of fun and whimsy, instead of succumbing to serious movie syndrome, but even as it is, I still think it had a lot going for it. But the marketing was HORRIBLE. If I hadn’t already read the book (I’ve still only read the first one), the marketing would’ve given me absolutely no idea what the movie was about or like. It’s like, if the studio believed in it enough to spend $200 million dollars on it, why didn’t they believe in it enough to market what it actually is?

    Jandy

    June 25, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    • It’s really odd. I think Disney would have stopped the film altogether actually if it hadn’t been for that things were kind of messy at the time. Somehow it passed and then they regretted it and didn’t give it full support. And that’s not the way to market a film, really.

      Jessica

      July 21, 2014 at 12:00 am

  7. I’m another who didn’t see the movie ’til DVD and who ended up liking it very much indeed. What it succeeded brilliantly in doing was putting Edgar Rice Burroughs up there on the screen. I think the critics who dissed it were, whether they were aware of this or not, in reality dissing the Edgar Rice Burroughs originals, which presumably most of them hadn’t read.

    realthog

    June 27, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    • Yeah, many of the problems in the film come from the original source, which perhaps doesn’t transfer all that well for a modern mainstream audience. But sadly those books are quite forgotten these days, at least where I come from. I had read it a couple of times since my husband was a fan ever since he was young. But we’re not that many.

      Jessica

      July 21, 2014 at 12:03 am

  8. It seems to me that there was a culture of failure surrounding John Carter before it was even released. It’s almost as if Disney wanted to burst Andrew Stanton’s bubble, or something. I consider it to be a good film, one that well expresses the pulp fiction source without pandering to it. But everyone was expecting it to fail, so when the old-fashioned storytelling reached us, it seemed silly. It certainly was no less silly than the original Star Wars or Avatar. I’d love to hear why it got such a poor treatment by marketing. Did the marketing department really make an error, or was it on purpose?

    Steve Kimes

    June 29, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    • Well, there are a lot of factors here at play, which are explained in the book.But you could say that it was a combination. They put their effort into other projects, but there was also a great deal of incompetence involved. They had little idea of what they were doing and when you compare it to how The Hunger Games was marketed, it’s a striking difference.

      I don’t think they necessarily were trying to take down Stanton. But there was a LOT of inriiguing going on, people getting fired and so on. And too many people caring more about their own position in the company than about the actual movie. Sadly.

      Jessica

      July 21, 2014 at 12:06 am

  9. I never had an issue with the movie and it is a shame it is considered such a flop. Would be interested in seeing more set in that universe. Sounds like an interesting book.

    Nostra

    August 2, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    • It’s absolutly worth reading since it gives such an interesting perspective on marketing of movies.

      Jessica

      August 31, 2014 at 11:22 pm


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