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