Film Fanatic: What's in a name?

Did mishandled marketing doom sci-fi flop John Carter before it arrived on cinema screens?

What’s in a name? As Juliet states in Shakespeare’s best-known play, ‘That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet’. Indeed it would. But when it comes to cinema it’s a whole different board game – something I believe was ably demonstrated earlier this year by the performance of Disney’s sci-fi epic John Carter.

Rumoured to have cost around $250m to produce, John Carter fared spectacularly badly at the box office (domestically at least – the movie actually did quite well in several territories outside of the US). The poor returns even led Disney to blame John Carter for the $84m loss incurred by its Studio Entertainment division in the financial quarter ending March 2012, and the subsequent resignation of Rich Ross, head of Walt Disney Studios.

Some commentators have put the film’s dismal performance down to the mixed critical reaction it received from the press. As much as I’d love to believe that critics really have that much sway over the cinema audience, I don’t. After all, millions of people still hand over piles of cash to watch blockbusters that have received much more of a drubbing than John Carter ever did (Battleship, for example). And there’s also the fact that it’s not a bad film. It’s not a great one, either, but that’s a subject for discussion in my review of the 3D Blu-ray release.

Pulp fiction

For those of you unfamiliar with the source material, John Carter is based on the ‘Barsoom’ series of classic pulp sci-fi serials written by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. Collected into a series of eleven novels, published between 1917 and 1964, the stories have developed a giant fanbase and their inspiration can clearly be seen in many subsequent sci-fi landmarks, including the Star Wars saga, Avatar, Flash Gordon and Dune. So what went wrong with the film adaptation?

Well, as far as I’m concerned the real blame for the film’s box office failure can be placed at the feet of Disney’s marketing department and the changes made to the movie’s title.

John Carter is a terrible name for a film, because it doesn’t tell you anything about it, nor generate any sense of excitement or curiosity. It’s just a person’s name – and not a very exciting one at that. Would audiences have made Die Hard a hit if it had been called John McClane instead? I doubt it.

Director Andrew Stanton has spoken about the change of title on several occasions, with the story seeming to alter a little each time. Essentially, it appears that nobody had much faith in naming the movie after the first novel – A Princess of Mars – due to worries that the word ‘Princess’ would put boys off going to see it. Because of this it was re-christened John Carter of Mars instead.

But, as we all know, the fun didn’t stop there. The marketing department then got cold feet about the ‘…of Mars’ thing. Thanks to the films Ghosts of Mars, Mission to Mars, Mars Attacks! and Mars Needs Moms there’s a school of thought which believes any reference to Mars in a title is box office poison (which ignores the fact that most of those movies were stinkers...).

So what Disney ended up with was a self-fulfilling prophesy. John Carter flopped at the box office, and it was all down to the fact that it was set on Mars. And the fact it just happened to be saddled with the most inane and uninteresting title possible played absolutely no part in its epic failure whatsoever...

What other films were doomed to failure by poor marketing?
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This column first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Home Cinema Choice