When I began seeing online trailers for Disney’s fantasy science-fiction film John Carter a several months back, two thoughts immediately leapt to mind: wow, how unabashedly derivative; and I have no idea what this movie is about.
The feature film is now in theaters, and the meh opening weekend box office confirms that many would-be moviegoers shared my initial, underwhelmed reaction. But to hear professional critics and general public movie enthusiasts alike tell it, the movie itself is actually pretty enjoyable. Nonetheless, analysts have said Disney may have to take a $150 million write-down. If that indeed happens, it wouldn’t be the first time a good product or service fell on the sword of its own misguided marketing.
To be sure, keeping a $250-million-plus production from becoming completely unhinged is a big job – Disney’s behind-the-scenes woes with the movie have been well-documented. And hey, studio politics aren’t anything new. But it was quite surprising the House of Mouse took the less-than-coherent marketing approach it did, given the quarter-billion dollars it had on the line. Hollywood scuttlebutt has it that director-studio conflict was to blame for the muddled marketing. Whatever its cause, we marketers and business owners can all take a few lessons from this moment the New York Times has less charitably labeled “Ishtar Lands on Mars.”
1. Don’t get too artsy or abstract with the trailer (pre-launch buzz)
Do use it to actually tell a story and to build anticipation. The movie Avatar’s trailers did this exceptionally well. Also, make the story (product) seem fresh, even if it isn’t. Even though Avatar turned out to be “Dances With Wolves … in Space,” the trailers led you to believe you would enjoy a unique movie-going experience.
By comparison, many people found the John Carter trailers (and other marketing, such as billboards) at once cliched yet puzzling, based on most peoples’ lack of familiarity with the source material. Many noted the seeming pastiche of sci-fi iconography that composed the John Carter trailers: the floating desert barge, the gladiatorial arena filled with fantastic beasts, the sand-swept battlefield … were they rip-offs of Dune, Star Wars, Gladiator, even?
Turns out just the opposite was true. All of those sci-fi masters of the twentieth century cribbed their concepts from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 story A Princess of Mars, in which John Carter is a main character. The work of Burroughs (a man perhaps better known as the creator of Tarzan), is worshipped and rampantly “re-imagined and re-purposed” in the science fiction community. But you never would have guessed it had you relied on Disney’s cryptic, non-referential marketing of the film adapation. Which leads us to Point Number 2 …
2. Know and pitch the strengths of your movie, (or product, or widget).
John Carter was directed by Andrew Stanton, who helmed well-regarded animated films Finding Nemo and Wall-E. And as mentioned, the imagery spawned from the mind of Burroughs is stamped indelibly upon the modern science fiction genre (Disney also missed the chance to appeal directly to the original books’ enormous, built-in fan base). The director, reportedly, did not want his previous films mentioned in promos lest the new movie attract young kiddies. Many Internet posters considered that a mistake, since those animated movies’ greatest strength was their powerful storytelling.
Rather than making trailer watchers scratch their heads and wonder, “who or what is a John Carter — and why do I care?” the film’s makers could have used that valuable 120 seconds to supply some interest-stoking context.
Instead, in one TV spot, Disney pointed out not-so-helpfully that its film was “The First Blockbuster of the Year.”
3. Choose titles (or product names) that help create mental snapshots.
Punchy titles can be both brief and descriptive. Take, for instance, *Coach* Carter, Panic Room, The Help. But they can also backfire. Much to-do has been made about the choice of using the concise but vague (to most people) John Carter as the movie title instead of, say, John Carter of Mars. Note that there’s no need for Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood-descriptive. Just enough to create a cognitive spark of connection – a positive one –about the subject.
A Fan-Made Trailer that Actually Makes You Want to See the Movie
End of Disney’s Mars Experiment?
Some have already predicted that talked-about sequels for John Carter are DOA. Disney execs, in sullenly worded statements, sound almost resigned to let the bloated and embattled project suffocate under its own weight.
And yet, I wouldn’t lower Captain Carter’s casket into that arid Martian soil so soon.
Many well-known and popular brands and franchises have bounced back from their earlier marketing missteps. Look at the Apple Computer of the 1990s compared to the transformed company in the aughts and today. Or how about Korean automaker Hyundai? Shrewd marketing, backed by an outstanding product, has taken it from entry-level laughing stock to laughing all the way to the bank.
Likewise, there’s a fair chance the John Carter franchise can escape the gravitational pull of its corporate parent’s lackluster release efforts, through the redeeming power of word-of-mouth marketing.
But clearly it’s best to simply get these things right from the start.
None of the tips mentioned above are revolutionary. And that’s the point – marketing fundamentals including storytelling, credibility, and establishing connection still apply … even when the setting is the reduced-gravity surface of Mars.
What are some other big pre-launch marketing boo-boos you’ve observed? What could the people responsible have done better?