teaser tragedy

The Inside Story of How John Carter Was Doomed by Its First Trailer

Taylor Kitsch in John Carter. Photo: Disney

This weekend, eight months of indifferent and often confused chatter culminated in Disney’s John Carter — which cost just shy of $250 million to make — grossing only $30.6 million domestically. (Insiders tell Vulture that for the film to break even, it would have had to have opened at nearly twice that amount.) The reviews were the very definition of middling, with a 53 rating on Metacritic.com, and yet critics rarely doom a family-targeting blockbuster this big: Just a week earlier The Lorax got a 47 Metacritic rating and grossed $70.2 million in its debut weekend, and another $39.1 million this weekend. No, this high-leaping hero was grounded from the moment the movie’s first disastrously impotent, muddled, and largely action-and-effects-free teaser trailer debuted last July and left audiences saying, “What was that?” By the time its not-much-better Super Bowl ad played, the film had become a punch line — to those on whom it managed to make any impression at all. Even the star, Taylor Kitsch, seemed pained by the campaign, telling Metro last week that “there’s things, yeah, that I would love to have seen different.” While this kind of implosion usually ends in a director simmering in rage at the studio marketing department that doomed his or her movie, Vulture has learned that it was in fact John Carter director Andrew Stanton — powerful enough from his Pixar hits that he could demand creative control over trailers — who commandeered the early campaign, overriding the Disney marketing execs who begged him to go in a different direction. “This is one of the worst marketing campaigns in the history of movies,” a former studio marketing chief told Vulture before the film opened. “It’s almost as if they went out of their way to not make us care.” If that was the goal, it worked.

There have been so many revamped trailers and ads for John Carter in the last couple of months (as Disney desperately tried to sway the stagnantly indifferent audience tracking) that it bears a refresher of just how flat the first trailer fell. When the studio gave moviegoers its first glimpse of the world of John Carter in July, they had so many great touchstones to highlight: It was directed by Stanton, the Pixar potentate who’d written and directed both WALL-E (worldwide gross: $521 million) and Finding Nemo ($867 million), and was based on a 95-year-old Edgar Rice Burroughs novel that was a huge influence on cinema’s biggest sci-fi directors, informing such sci-fi classics as Superman, Avatar, and Stars both Wars and Trek.

Unfortunately, this teaser trailer made all the wrong connections: There was no mention of Stanton’s Pixar pedigree. No effort was made to mention that the story came from the mind behind Tarzan. Though great directors may fondly remember the first 1917 John Carter novel, A Princess of Mars, and his subsequent adventures in the Barsoom series, the protagonist has little pop-culture currency among most moviegoers; they were more likely to hear the title and wonder why Disney set a movie about Noah Wyle’s ER character in space. And all the visuals did was bring back unhappy memories of recent failed blockbusters: The brown desert palette and Taylor Kitsch’s long locks evoked Disney’s largely ignored dud, Prince of Persia. The old-timey Western hero facing off against strange, birdlike spacecraft was reminiscent of last summer’s biggest bomb, Cowboys & Aliens. And, most strangely for an action movie, the John Carter teaser was largely devoid of action. There were only few glimpses of its costly special effects, mostly dwelling on the budding romance between Carter and someone who seemed to be … Princess Leia’s imperiled second cousin? And it was all set to Peter Gabriel’s morose cover of Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage.”

It was ironic that a movie about a man who could leap so high would land with such a thud with moviegoers. But to Stanton, who since he was a teen had worshiped Burroughs’s John Carter books, this teaser was the perfect introduction for his beloved hero, a Civil War veteran transported to the red planet.

Stanton had been waiting 30 years for someone to make a movie about his favorite character, and when he was given carte blanche to make his first live-action film, this was what he picked. But he had very specific and faithful ideas of how it had to be done. John Lasseter, the head of the Disney-owned Pixar, had convinced then-Disney studio chairman Dick Cook to buy the Burroughs series for Stanton, and also successfully made the case that the enormous past profits of the director’s animated work earned him the right to full creative control. As a Burroughs purist, Stanton was determined to make the film in a way that completely honored the source material. In an interview with the aptly titled online movie site Badass Digest late last month, Stanton said he “felt like if anybody had a chance of making this without it being fucked up by the studio, it might be me. They’re too afraid of me – they want me happy at Pixar. So I thought, ‘I should use this for good, and make the movie the way I always thought it should be made.’ If at any one of these points [Disney] were going to push back, I would have pulled out. It’s the best way to buy a car — I don’t mind walking away.”

And indeed, according to Stanton, the Disney production execs were nowhere to be seen on the set of John Carter (at least until the reshoots began). However, late last spring, the studio’s marketing team did head out to the set to meet with the director. Then led by Marie “MT” Carney, a blunt Scotswoman who had come to the job in July 2010 from Madison Avenue, outside the Hollywood system (and who would resign last January, eighteen months into a more than four-year contract), the marketing department was attempting to put together the summer teaser but, frustratingly, found no footage to cut from. Determined not to lose the film’s summer moment, Carney flew to see Stanton to pry away some of the needed, Wow! Didja see that?!?–style special-effects shots that would make the movie an instant must-see.

Traditionally, a blockbuster movie will begin production with an eye towards having ready the handful of impressive and complex special effects scenes that will be essential to its marketing. Even if these scenes wind up not being in the final product, at the least they’ve wowed audiences, getting them intrigued early: It certainly worked for the nausea-inducing, boat-swallowing giant wave in A Perfect Storm and the White House exploding into matchsticks in the early trailer for Independence Day. Even though most of a movie’s effects aren’t finished until later, these Ka-BOOM! shots are prioritized because they lock in audiences early.

But Stanton hadn’t scheduled for this. Being new to live action, he was suffering under a double load: He was having to learn live-action filmmaking on the go, even as he was still essentially making an animated movie. (John Carter actually has more character animations than WALL-E or Finding Nemo.) Used to the far slower-paced, perfection-is-possible world of Pixar Animation, Stanton had nothing ready for Carney and her team when they arrived to meet him on set looking for signature shots. Certain shots had potential, but they were unfinished. “We had nothing to cut from,” laments one Disney marketing insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recounting the stand-off between Carney and Stanton over the shots, “Before we left, we’d show [a version of the teaser] to them. But it was always, ‘You can’t have that shot! It’s not color-corrected!’ Or, ‘You can’t have that one, either: The CGI’s not finished; they haven’t taken out the wires!’ It would be disingenuous to say [Stanton] refused to finish it; there was nothing to be done, because it was just the physical fact that it wasn’t ready. You can’t make it ready if it’s not ready. It wasn’t really deliberate.”

But while the lack of “wow” footage may have been the result of inexperience, the flat, uninspiring story painted by the trailer was also due to Stanton’s blind fealty to the source material. John Carter is, at heart, an action movie as much as it is a romance: Adding to the handicap of having no blowout battle footage, Stanton wanted to honor Carter’s origin and the film’s love story — it was as if he thought that to underplay the source book’s title A Princess From Mars would be to slight it. And so the resulting teaser offered a slow, ethereal peek into the film’s flirtations, with a rushed trip through Carter’s journey: At the beginning of the teaser, a man (winkingly named “Burroughs”) learns that his Civil-War-soldier uncle John Carter has vanished; we then see Kitsch wake up in the Martian desert. There were flashes of effects (a spaceship here, an alien there) and the occasional waving of a weapon, but it felt more like an old-tyme swords-and-sandals romance, with hovercrafts instead of chariots.

Stanton (who also nixed all mentions of his Pixar work in the teaser for fear that people would think this film was for little kids) was working from the belief that John Carter was still as universally iconic a figure to people as Dracula, Luke Skywalker, or Tarzan. “It was my Harry Potter,” he said during an interview at Google last week that was streamed live on YouTube. “All I ever wanted when I read that book was to believe it.” He believed that audiences would gasp in delight at John Carter’s very appearance in much the same way that a Batman teaser might only need to flash the Bat Signal. As such, he felt that the very first John Carter trailer needed only to intrigue, not explicate. “To him, it was the most important sci-fi movie of all time,” recounts one Disney marketing insider present for the pitched battles. “He could see no idea in which someone didn’t know who John Carter of Mars was. But it’s not Frankenstein; it’s not Sherlock Holmes. Nobody cares. People don’t say, ‘I know what I’ll be for Halloween! I’ll be John Carter!’”

Carney fought strenuously with Stanton — insiders describe arguments that ended with the brash department head almost reduced to tears — and urged him to rethink this vision and tell a more personal story of the man, but he won every battle: Because of his outsized animated successes, Disney gave him final approval on everything. “They throw petals at his feet,” says our insider. And then the respectful trailer did nothing for the buzz. Adds a former Disney distribution exec, “You only get one shot at making a first impression … And that first trailer, it never jumped off, never did anything to catch that wave of anticipation that all new movies crave. That’s what so critical for a movie like this.”

(Vulture talked to Stanton a couple of weeks ago about the movie, but Disney declined to make either him or studio chairman Rich Ross available for interview on this follow-up topic. A studio spokeswoman did e-mail a statement from Ross, who insisted, “We have been and remain fully supportive of Andrew’s vision for John Carter, and he has been fully supportive of our marketing campaign for this film.”)

Unable to sell the steak with sizzle, last September, Carney set about trying to woo the highbrow press, giving The New Yorker access to Stanton for a profile that would run in October and highlight the filmmaker’s brilliance. But while convincing the cultural elite that an Oscar-winning filmmaker was a cinematic genius was all fine and well, getting the rest of America to understand who John Carter was and why they should care about him was far more pressing. And so she set to work on a new trailer that would be released in late November and would give a better sense of the movie’s sweep.

Carney’s plan was to “make it more relatable to the modern audience,” says our Disney marketing mole. It would find a way to spotlight the effects and action for men, while also stressing the love story and personal journey, which would ideally make the film appeal to women in the same way that Avatar and Titanic did: Four quadrants! At first, Stanton responded that he liked the new strategy, “but then it’d die by a thousand cuts,” recalls our spy, with Stanton dismantling each facet inserted by Carney’s team one by one. “He’d agree with the rhetoric, but he’d say, ‘I like it, but not this bit and not that bit and, uh, not this bit.’ And so we’d be like, ‘Oh, you like the plan, except for all the parts that do the things we say it needs to do?’” As a result, if the first teaser trailer suffered from an overdose of estrogen with its lack of action, the second, full-length trailer — released November 29 — was almost entirely action sequences, without so much as an explanation as to who John Carter was, or why we might care about him.

This more frantic trailer reveals the most problematic part of John Carter, and possibly why it was doomed to underperform no matter what happened: Because the Barsoom books were so influential to cinema’s greatest sci-fi auteurs, just about everything in it had already been plundered and reused by other hits. And as a result, the more that was revealed of John Carter, the more derivative it looked, even if its source had originated these ideas. Look at what George Lucas took from Burroughs for his Star Wars movies alone: In his movies, the Sith are evil Jedis; in the world of John Carter, the Sith are evil insects. Star Wars had Princess Leia; John Carter has Princess Dejah. Leia’s infamous bikini in Return of the Jedi? Worn by Princess Dejah first. That flying skiff she’s standing on next to Jabba the Hutt? Carter again. Even those banthas in the Star Wars were culled from the John Carter books, which are populated with similar-looking beasts of burden called banths. Looking beyond Lucas, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry famously pillaged the books, as did James Cameron, who in numerous interviews called Avatar “almost an Edgar Rice Burroughs kind of adventure.”

“Every great scene in the book has been reaped,” explains Don Murphy, the producer of movies like Transformers and Real Steel, who’d tried to bring John Carter to the big screen almost a decade ago, but abandoned the effort. “It’s all been done before, so you actually have to find a way to make and market it in a way that’s actually less faithful to the original material.”

Super Bowl ads and another trailer followed after Carney’s departure, but nothing moved the needle. In fact, in the last week of tracking, as awareness increased by two points, definite interest actually declined by one point, meaning that the more people learned about the film, the less they wanted to see it. During his speech at Google last week, Stanton vented some of his frustration at its poor tracking with audiences, lamenting, “The only movie I’ve worked on that was easy to sell had a ‘2’ behind it,” adding, “The truth is, [moviegoers] don’t know what they want; they only know what they last wanted.” Maybe so, but audiences also clearly seem to know what they don’t want, and John Carter was just that.

The Inside Story of How John Carter Was Doomed by Its First Trailer