Disney, the horror of marketing, and Michael Sellers’ “John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood”

In my life I often come late to things. I struggled in my early years in school. I was forty before I became a father. And sometimes some great controversy rages in the blogosphere for months or years, with battle-lines drawn and rhetorical blood shed, unnoticed by yours truly, until one day I stumble over it, as if it were a footstool left out of place in a darkened room.

So it is with the movie John Carter. My last post reviewed the movie, and expressed my pleasant surprise at finding a good (not perfect, but good) movie that deserved a better fate, in my opinion, than it got at the box-office.

In my scramble to catch up with the rest of Barsoomian fandom and understand what happened to this movie, it was recommended to me that I read John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood by Michael Sellers. The book details the corporate missteps and follies that led to John Carter under-performing at the box office. What it outlines is a lethal “perfect storm” of factors in which no one intended for the movie to fail to make money, but which still combined to produce a flop.

Essentially, John Carter, despite being based on a proven sci-fi property, and directed by an Academy Award winner, became an orphan project at Disney because of the departure of Dick Cook as head of Disney Studios in 2009, while the movie was in pre-production. More musical chairs around that time among Disney management types not only meant the advent of a new studio head with no commitment to the movie, but also a new head of marketing, a person with no experience in movie marketing. According to Sellers, John Carter was perceived as a film that did not fit into the Disney “brands” (Disney– princess films aimed at girls/Pixar– animation/Marvel– superhero films). As such, it was given a minimal marketing commitment and basically left to twist in the wind. Sellers outlines the failure of the film’s marketing efforts in painful detail. Only days after its opening the head of Disney was publicly talking about the significant loss the company would incur from the film, which only cemented the public perception that it was a poor movie, and killed any chance that word-of-mouth might have led to an improved domestic box-office– a move, as Sellers is at some pains to point out, almost unprecedented in the film industry. Sellers suggests that this was all colored by Disney’s impending acquisition of LucasFilms, which promised to give the company a ready-made “brand” appealing to young males (the supposed audience for John Carter).

Sellers’ book is recommended, although, on the whole, it makes for nauseating reading. Hollywood has always been a place where dreams meet harsh, jagged reality, and usually get shredded in the process, but in this case the collision is nearly incomprehensible. How do you spend $250 million on a film and then decide it’s not worth a decent marketing effort? Are the corporate heads of Disney so far above it all that the failure of an expensive movie is just one pawn in an elaborate corporate chess-game, and not a particularly critical pawn, at that? Sellers suggests this, pointing out that the Disney Studio is only one small cog in a huge entertainment/travel/leisure conglomerate. Even so, that sort of disconnect is disturbing, especially because it has a profound impact on the careers of the people involved.

This story makes me tired, and sad, and rather relieved to be a little self-published author who has to own his own failures and successes. There may be lessons in this tale I can apply to my own work. But that is a topic for another blog-post, sometime down the line.

Meanwhile, there is hope for a new John Carter of Mars movie, whether a reboot or a sequel. Whichever it is, I will be quite ready to return to Barsoom.

A few thoughts on “John Carter” and the horror of marketing

When I first saw the trailer for the movie John Carter in 2011, and realized it was an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, I was seriously jazzed–

The trailers for the movie have been severely criticized (more about that later) as not really conveying the fact that the movie is an adaptation of APoM, but personally (perhaps because I knew the story) it gave me the shivers. I looked forward to seeing it.

While waiting for the movie’s debut, though, I began to hear rumors that the production was troubled. Among other things, the budget appeared to be out of control, coming in at $250 million. A movie generally has to make double its production cost to achieve profitability, so that goal was frighteningly difficult for John Carter to reach from the start. And then there was the puzzling fact of the name, which does not mention ‘Mars’ or ‘Barsoom’ or anything else to clue people into the fact that this is an adaptation of A Princess of Mars.

Then the movie came out, and many critics savaged it. That, and the thumbs-down the movie received from a couple of trusted friends, caused me to give the movie a pass, with regrets. I filed it away as yet another failed adaptation of a beloved book, and moved on.

Years passed. A week ago I happened to be in my local library, perusing DVD’s, when I spotted John Carter on the shelf and decided What the heck, I’m not paying for it. (Public libraries are one of humanity’s greatest inventions, right up there with fire and dark chocolate malted milk balls).

Let me say this about myself– while I am often willing to give a film the benefit of the doubt, particularly adaptations of well-known books, I have pretty good turkey-detection capabilities, honed by decades of watching a lot of bad science-fiction, such as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Starship Invasions (yes, I sat through Starship Invasions. Give me a break, I was a kid). When I watch a film I usually get a sense about its quality fairly quickly.

(spoilers, spoilers, I mean it, SPOILERS!)

When I sat down to watch John Carter, I quickly realized that to me it didn’t look or feel like a turkey– at no point did it set off my alarms. On the contrary, I found myself quickly enjoying the story. Perhaps it helped that my initial expectations were low, and that I had a willingness to allow the movie to be its own thing. But a lot of John Carter just seemed to work for me.

The production values were excellent– more than that, director Andrew Stanton (a Pixar stalwart associated with Finding Nemo and WALL-E) really managed to convey a powerful sense of Barsoom (Mars) as a dying world, with civilizations in their final decadence. While the story varies from the source material in many ways, in other ways it seemed faithful– the aerial vessels of Helium and Zodanga powerfully evoke the books, as does the character design for the green-skinned, six-limbed Tharks. In fact, in at least one respect, the movie is too faithful for my taste (more about that later).

Lynn Collins is superb as Dejah Thoris (in so many ways, and I’m just gonna leave it at that), and if there were an Oscar category for Best Performance Behind a CGI Animation, Willem Dafoe would have won for Tars Tarkas. Collins and Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) seem to have good chemistry– some fans complained the romance between them was rushed, but it did not overly impress me as such. There is a nice balance of humor and drama through most of the film. Personally, I know I enjoyed a film when parts of it stay with me afterwards, and such is the case with John Carter.

The film is not perfect– the expositional prologue is clunky, some of the emotional notes the movie hits are heavy-handed, and the climatic battle, where the Tharks and Helium unite to defeat the Zodangans and their Thern masters, seems a bit formulaic. Worst of all (for me, anyway), there is a Earth-side framing story that was completely distracting and unnecessary.

This is where the movie was too faithful to the book. Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was neither a scientist nor an engineer, writing for serialization in 1911, apparently could not think of any way to get John Carter to Barsoom other than by a sort of lame astral projection in which he appears to die on Earth and lives on Mars. That story element irritated me when I was thirteen, and it irritates me now– although I suppose I should give ERB a small break, since in 1911 even scientists and engineers would have been pretty fuzzy on how to travel to Mars. But for a kid who grew up watching Saturn 5 launches and cut his teeth on fictional warp-drives and star-gates, Burroughs’ means of interplanetary transportation left a lot to be desired.

In John Carter Stanton remained faithful to this feature of the original story, and in fact works pretty hard at rationalizing it– the story posits the existence of an advanced interplanetary transporter, which creates a living copy of a being on the destination world, while leaving the original in suspended animation at the point of origin. John Carter’s consciousness is active in his Barsoom copy, while his Earth-bound body lies in a cave in Arizona– and if one body dies, the other dies. As a rationalization it’s pretty clever.

I still hate it. In my opinion it would have been simpler to just put in interplanetary gates, and lose the framing story, which would have saved fifteen to twenty minutes of film time and remove an unnecessary plot complication.

Having said that, the interplanetary transporter is tied to a nifty sub-plot Stanton introduces (I know, one complication out, another in), which I do not recall from the original books. The Therns, who are manipulating the leader of Zodanga to do their bidding, are apparently immortal interplanetary parasites, who ‘feed’ off the dying of worlds. It is established early on that they are perfectly capable of moving between worlds, including Barsoom and Earth, and that they have their own nefarious designs on our ocean-gifted world. This creates a deeper sense of peril for John Carter– in a sense he’s not just fighting for Dejah Thoris, but for humanity. Personally I found this added element really appealing from a story standpoint, and it would provide a dandy unifying plot element, should there ever be any sequels.

On the whole, the movie impressed me. Sadly, however, it appears unlikely that there will be other films in the near future. In the final analysis, for whatever reason, the film badly under-performed on it’s initial release, not coming close to clearing the $500 to $600 million it needed to be called profitable. Nearly three years later there appear to be no plans to launch a John Carter 2, and most of the principals, especially Andrew Stanton, appear to have moved on– all of which I find regrettable.

After watching the film I did some belated research and found that there is a sharp division among fans about the value of John Carter, with some reviling it as unfaithful to the book and others declaring their undying allegiance (a division rather reminiscent of the Man of Steel controversy). I also found that there has been a considerable amount of discussion of the film as a failure of marketing rather than production. As Michael Sellers, author of John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood put it, this movie was “a box-office flop, but not a turkey” (his book is now on my short list for future reading). The question of the film’s title alone raises issues about what was going on in the marketing department at Disney.

This thought has a certain resonance with me. Marketing, it seems, is emerging as the new choke-point for all kinds of creative endeavors. Getting the film-goer/viewer/reader’s attention seems to be increasingly difficult in a world that is flooded with entertainment and informational options. Certainly my own failure marketing my novels on Kindle has brought this point home. In the case of John Carter, it appears (although I need to do more reading on this subject) that many fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs did not know the film existed until after its run, while people unfamiliar with the Barsoom stories thought John Carter was a derivative rip-off of Star Wars(!), when in fact it’s the other way around.

The depressing thought for me in this is that if Disney, with millions of dollars available to market their product, can blow it, what chance do I have? On the other hand, if my marketing fails– and it has– I know where the problem lies. The fault is mine. There is no circular firing squad at Doug Daniel Productions. And it’s up to me to find a remedy.

I am also belatedly sad about this movie. When I thought it was a turkey it was just a missed opportunity. Now that I see that some good work went into realizing a believable world with some genuine entertainment value, it is a sadly missed opportunity. I know how hard it is to write a novel– producing a major film is orders of magnitude more difficult, and it is heartbreaking when it fails to win an audience, apparently for reasons that have little to do with its quality. Perhaps, in time, the movie will get the recognition it deserves.

Meanwhile, I will definitely read John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood. Perhaps I can learn a thing or two about what to avoid in marketing a story. Failure, yours or others’, is a powerful teacher.

Oh, and I will be buying the DVD. I want this movie in my library. ‘Nuff said.

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PS– no sooner did I post this, than I came across this announcement–

http://barsoomia.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/john-carter-has-been-released/

Whoa– I don’t usually experience this level of synchronicity. A very interesting development….

Movies that inspire me– “Stagecoach”

This weekend I re-watched John Ford’s 1939 film, Stagecoach

I grew up on Westerns, both TV shows and movies. This isn’t really surprising in a household proud of its Western roots (and with a father who thought John Wayne was the bee’s-knees). If we went to the drive-in (five kids and two adults in a Ford Falcon), odds were we were there to see a Western. My earliest imaginary friend was an invisible horse inspired by Roy Roger’s Trigger (yes, I was a lonely child).

As with most over-exposure, inevitably a reaction set in– in my teen years I turned more and more toward sci-fi and fantasy for my dream-fulfillment, and less to Westerns. I had seen too many Westerns– more than that, I had seen too many bad Westerns. Hollywood, in its history, has produced thousands upon thousands of Western films and TV episodes, many of them mediocre at best, some of them positively dreadful. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, it seemed as if every other show on TV was a Western. This massive over-production peaked just before a mood of severe historical revisionism set in in the late Sixties, in which the mythology of the West was questioned and overturned, resulting in films like Little Big Man and Buffalo Bill and the Indians. If you make a Western nowadays, you have to make it with very different premises than a film from the Thirties or Forties.

Having said that, I have long known that Western tropes and themes are deeply buried in my psyche– and that they strongly inform my writing, in whatever the genre. In particular, my fantasy writing has far more of a Western sensibility than sword and sorcery or high fantasy– there’s far, far more of Shane or Josey Wales in my character Mankin than there is of Aragorn.

In my possibly jaundiced view, there are a mere handful of really great Western movies– Shane, The Searchers, possibly the 1969 True Grit (but, unfortunately, not the 2010 version), and a few others. One of those others is Stagecoach.

(DANGER: huge and hairy spoilers lurk below)

The film is definitely a product of its time, and it rings all the typical changes you would expect from a Thirties Western– gunfights, hookers with hearts-of-gold, perfidious Native Americans looking to massacre white folk, the inevitable rescue of said white folk by the cavalry at the last moment, as well as a dose or two of racism. Within that framework, though, John Ford created a timeless film that constitutes nothing less than an advanced primer on how to tell a story.

Based on a short story, “Stage to Lordsburg”, the film has a motley crew of characters boarding an eastbound stagecoach in one dusty town in Arizona to go to another dusty town in New Mexico. There’s a prostitute being run out of town by the local morality league, a drunken sawbones in the same boat, the snooty, aristocratic young wife of a US Cavalry officer looking to join her husband, a pompous banker, a whiskey drummer, and a card-sharping gunslinger. Before the stage departs, the local marshal learns from the stage driver that Luke Plummer is in Lordsburg, the stage’s destination. The marshal has been hunting the Ringo Kid, a local man whose father and brother were murdered by Plummer and his brothers, and who was sent to prison on the Plummers’ perjured testimony. Ringo has escaped, though, and the marshal realizes that he will be headed to Lordsburg for revenge. The marshal joins the stagecoach as a guard, intending to arrest Ringo.

Just before the stage leaves, a cavalry officer informs the passengers that the Apaches under Geronimo are on the warpath, and that they will have a cavalry escort– but, as it turns out, only part of the way. On the first leg of the trip, the stage is stopped by Ringo (John Wayne), who is, indeed, trying to get to Lordsburg. The marshal places him under a sort of loose arrest, and the stage resumes its journey.

Most or all of the characters in the coach, in one way or another, have agendas, or secrets– the banker is actually absconding with a payroll, the officer’s wife is stubbornly insistent on joining her husband, despite the fact that she is about to give birth, the gunslinger joins the party out of a Southern sense of chivalry, intending to protect the officer’s wife (while giving off serious sexual vibes toward her), Dallas (the prostitute) wants to keep her employment history from Ringo, who has taken an immediate shine to her, and Ringo just wants to get to Lordsburg to take care of the Plummer boys. The mix of characters and agendas keeps the story rolling (no pun intended), with plenty of both conflict and humor in the coach, quite apart from the overarching danger that they may all be massacred by the Apaches. These people squabble and argue and display the full range of human courage and stupidity under stress. At different points they make the decision to keep going, despite the danger, always because of their own agendas.

At each stage of the journey, Ford ratchets up the hovering danger– the next expected cavalry escort is a no-show, the officer’s wife goes into labor and the doctor has to redeem himself by delivering the baby and saving the mother, war smoke-signals are seen, the next stage station is a burned out wreck with its operators massacred. The stage is floated across a deep river, whereupon everybody thinks they’re in the clear– until the whiskey salesman takes an arrow in the chest and one of the greatest action scenes ever filmed takes off, as the Apaches chase the stage. Not until the passengers are out of ammunition and all looks lost– the gunslinger is prevented from shooting the officer’s wife, to keep her from being captured, only when he himself is shot– does the cavalry show up and save the day.

In most films this is where we would get the end-credits, but there is still the unfinished business between Ringo and the Plummers, not to mention the unfinished business between Ringo and Dallas. As the stage pulls into Lordsburg, the word gets to the Plummers that Ringo is in town. At this point the film very nearly reverts to a silent picture– there is almost as much acting with faces and body language as with words, as the Plummers gather and contemplate facing Ringo (summary: they’re scared out of their boots). The silence and the faces remind me, personally, of Kurosawa. Ringo wins the gunfight, and he and Dallas escape (with the marshal’s connivance) to a better life.

One of the tremendous things about the film is how Ford created the smaller conflicts that snarl and tangle among the passengers as they try to escape the greater danger. If this were a film simply about a stagecoach being chased by Indians it would very quickly grow boring. Instead we quickly get invested in these people, even the ones who aren’t particularly likable. It is perhaps the mark of a genius that, despite being largely cliches we’ve seen before, none of the characters seem dull. Certainly the 1966 remake did not replicate the magic of this film, despite the presence of Ann-Margaret.

It absolutely does not hurt that the acting is all first-class, and the cinematography is nothing short of epic. Altogether the mix produces a piece of world-class cinema.

Here I want to note a detail regarding the background of the movie that says something about the artifice that story-telling sometimes requires. The climatic chase has been criticized for unrealism– spoil-sports have pointed out that all the Apaches had to do was shoot the lead horse of the coach’s team, and the coach would have come to a very sudden halt. When someone suggested that to John Ford, the director is famously reported to have said, “Then you wouldn’t have a story!” Sometimes suspension of disbelief must be stretched to cover such points– however, the great strength of the scene, as Ford shot it, is that you’re generally too busy hanging on to the edge of your seat to worry about details like why the lead horse isn’t dead yet.

Ever-increasing danger…characters you root for…action that conveys a sense of immediacy and realism, whether or not it actually is realistic… these are essential story-telling elements all too many movies ignore, or handle in a formulaic manner. When a filmmaker gets it right, though, you get pure gold.