Anatomy of a Trailer: John Carter vs. Prometheus
by Matt Sills
Right now, somewhere in the bowels of the Walt Disney Pictures marketing department, executives are sweating bullets, waiting for their heads to roll while trying to figure out how John Carter failed so spectacularly. Disney sunk a lot of money into this film, somewhere around $250 million, and pushed it as aggressively as any movie I can remember. You couldn’t escape a billboard or poster if you spent any time outside in the last few months, and the trailers were everywhere, including coveted spots during the Super Bowl. Yet, no amount of excessive hype could stop the film from becoming one of the biggest bombs in Hollywood history. So, what went wrong? Why did this film, which looked like a combination of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Avatar, two blockbusters in their own right that should have , fail to bring in an audience? The reviews were mixed, but no worse than other, more successful films. How could things go so horribly wrong?
It’s easy to understand, and Disney should have known it a long time ago, if you go back and look at how the film was marketed. Let’s start with the title. Gone was the original John Carter of Mars title and replaced with the generic John Carter, which brings us to Matt’s Bad Marketing Rule #1: Never, EVER name your movie after the main character. 9 times out of 10, the title is going to tell us nothing about the film. Can you tell me what Larry Crowne or Michael Clayton or Salt were about, or even the kind of movie they were, just from the name? No, you can’t. The title needs to convey something about the movie we’re going to watch, and John Carter falls into the long tradition of badly named films that tell us zilch. Then, there was the trailer, which is our first glimpse of the film. Yeah, we see posters and billboards and quick ads on TV, but it’s the trailer that shows us a snippet of what will see in the theater, the 2 minute synopsis of the movie that gives us enough of the story to get us intrigued, but hides enough not to give everything away. The teaser trailer for John Carter gave nothing, and I mean NOTHING, away. If you don’t remember, watch it again:
If you didn’t know the story of John Carter, Civil War soldier who mysteriously finds his way to Mars and becomes a hero in a different type of civil war, you certainly weren’t going to have any idea what it was about from the teaser. The trailer is a mishmash of images and scenes that pointed to the confusion most audiences and critics felt when the film was released. What kind of movie was this? Sci-fi, romance, historical adventure? If this is Mars, why are there some many humans? Or are they humans? There were just too many questions that went unanswered, even in a two minute teaser trailer. Subsequent trailers answered a few of these questions, but by then, it was too late. Audiences are fickle these days, and if they don’t know what they’re getting into early on, you’ve lost them, and Disney had lost them, to the tune of a $200 million write-off.
The folks at Disney could learn a thing or two from the people responsible for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. The trailer was released a few weeks ago, and was so buzzed about that it was linked on gossip sites more known for pictures of Kim Kardashian’s behind than they were for movie trailers. You can check out that trailer here:
Why does the trailer for Prometheus work where John Carter failed? Simply put, Prometheus lays out its story without giving too much away. Scientists on an expedition to make contact with what they believe is a friendly alien civilization. Instead, they find something that could end up destroying humanity itself. That’s it. I didn’t need to read a synopsis or script. I got that from a 2 minute trailer. I know the exact kind of movie I’m getting into from the editing of the clips and the dark, loud music over it. Even the title works well. Prometheus is mysterious and interesting enough for those who don’t care about its deeper meaning, but for those who look deeper, who learn the story of Prometheus, the Titan who gave fire to mortals and was punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle on a daily basis, the title adds a new layer to the story in the film. Add to this the visual hints that this is a prequel to the Alien franchise, and you’ve got one of the most well marketed films I’ve seen in a while.
I’m not saying that Prometheus is going to be a box office hit, or that it will even out perform John Carter (though I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t). But sometimes, more than how good a film is, it’s the marketing that brings people into the theater. It’s the title you see and the trailer you watch. Prometheus is already doing it right. We know what we’re in for, but there’s enough mystery that we want to go on that journey. It’s got a solid vibe throughout the entire 2 minute trailer. I don’t know if it’s going to be good, but I want to see it. John Carter got it wrong, because it didn’t know what kind of movie it was trying to sell to us. They couldn’t make up their minds, and in the end, that made up the audience’s mind. It’s surprising that a studio as well run as Disney could ever have this issue, but it just proves an important point: Sometimes it’s how the movie is sold that’s more important than the movie itself.