‘John Carter’ and the Line Between Vision and Delusion

Vulture has a blockbuster read on what went wrong in the campaign to market John Carter, and this strikes me as particularly illuminating:

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.”

Ultimately, if you want to make movies in the commercial system, with all the support systems and resources that entails, you probably have to acknowledge the basic realities of that system: among them, that not everyone in the universe feels the same way as you about your source material. It’s one thing if you’re tweaking Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to make a difficult book adaptable. It’s another if you’re absolutely deluded about the market penetration of the book you want to adapt, and of what parts of it will seem fresh and powerful to your audience. I absolutely support the idea that we should have greater innovation in commercial film. But there’s a difference between that and belittling the people around you who are trying to make your movie a success and maximizing the financial risk your employer is taking on you in pursuit of a private vision you’re not willing to examine with any sort of clarity.