John Carter (formerly of Mars) may face a battle at the box office

Deadline is reporting that just-released figures tracking awareness of Disney’s science fiction epic John Carter are ‘shockingly soft’, with one rival exec speculating that it could be the ‘biggest write-off of all time’.

The release date is still three weeks away, and a marketing blitzkrieg could turn this around, assuming the prognosis is accurate. But the way Disney have marketed the film is clearly flawed, and speaks to the difficulties of adapting a classic property for a modern audience.

John Carter is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of Barsoom novels. Burroughs, who also created Tarzan, wrote ten Barsoom novels beginning with A Princess of Mars in 1917. They follow a Civil War veteran who is transported to Mars and swept up into a conflict between the two Martian races. He ends up fighting for one side and falling in love.

The Barsoom stories have been immensely influential on print and screen science fiction, pioneering the epic adventure rather than idea-based approach to the genre. Star Wars and Avatar are indebted to Burroughs. Jake Sully’s journey in Avatar is strikingly similar to John Carter’s (some would say it’s identical). Dune‘s Fremen also resemble the Tharks in their ability to survive an incredibly harsh alien environment, and Carter is an outsider who comes to lead them just as Paul Atreides does, albeit without the messianic stuff.

So the problem with a John Carter movie being released in 2012 is that the casual moviegoer unfamiliar with Burroughs will naturally assume that this heretofore unknown property is just ripping off Star Wars and Avatar. This was inevitable and Disney needed to think of a way to market around it. But they haven’t, and that’s just one of many marketing blunders.

Foremost is retitling the film from John Carter of Mars to just John Carter. The rationale is that women will be turned off by a title that screams ‘space romp’, and men will assume that A Princess of Mars (if the book title was retained) was not the SF action epic they would want to see in a film set on Mars.

So Disney, afraid of communicating to its audience that the film offers something for everyone, falls back on a generic title that means nothing. On its own, John Carter is not a name that inspires intrigue. Although a good name for a protagonist, it sucks as a movie title, particularly because it communicates nothing about the film’s science fiction or romance. ER viewers will think straight away of Noah Wyle’s character and be puzzled why this Martian warrior was named after a handsome doctor. Every trailer and TV spot has been instantly deflated by offering this title at the end, which is positioned as grandiose but instead baffles.

Disney and director Andrew Stanton should have just come up with a brand-new title that appealed broadly and portrayed the film accurately. Avatar was a pretty good title because it’s an enigmatic word that sounds futuristic, but not blunt and pulpy enough to put off SF haters. How about using Barsoom in the title? Nearly a century on, it’s still an unusual name for a planet and connotes history and grandeur, despite sounding a little pompous. Or don’t worry about brand-recognition at all – these stories are hardly in the lexicon in the way the Burroughs’ Tarzan is.

The second big problem is not telling the audience what the film is about. Most trailers have had some fight scenes that look like Attack of the Clones, a battle speech, and Lynn Collins saying ‘you are John Carter of Earth?’ That’s it. No implication of plot, threat, or character dynamics. When your setting and visual design aren’t dynamic and fresh (and fair enough, since this is a century-old property), you need to give the audience a hook to get them curious enough to look past that. Especially when they may be convinced that this is a rip-off.

Which leads to the third problem: the pioneering nature of the Barsoom property could have been an asset. Instead of trying to promote the film as brand-new by virtue of not acknowledging its roots, Disney could have taken a ‘see where all your favourite stories came from’ approach. I don’t know whether they could have legally or ethically named Star Wars, Avatar, and other properties, but they could nonetheless have suggested that John Carter was taking a new generation back to where it all began, or somesuch. Pulling that off without suggesting that the property was musty and old-fashioned would have been difficult, but that’s where the CGI and modern action sequences would come into play. To younger audiences, seeing cutting edge technology used for this comparatively ancient tale would suggest a lost treasure to be discovered. That’s a lot more enticing than another generic SF alien rebellion movie that seems suspiciously timed after Avatar.

And the final problem (or the last that we’ll discuss here, because this film has a lot of problems): not promoting the Pixar connection. Pixar is one of the few consistent creative and critical successes in film, and audiences can’t get enough of them. They know that Pixar means a good time at the movies, and also a smart time at the movies. They’ll even faithfully show up to a movie starring an old man and his house. John Carter is directed by Andrew Stanton, following up Finding Nemo and Wall-E with his live-action debut. Disney aren’t denying their own presence by slapping their name above the title, despite its childish connotations, so why not say ‘from the director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E‘, or ‘the director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E takes you into the real world of another world’ or whatever.

And show us some dialogue! Show us that great HBO cast of Dominic West, Ciaran Hinds, and James Purefoy. Show us how accomplished actors like Willem Dafoe and Samantha Norton have turned the performance-captured Tharks into real characters. Don’t just show us CGI monsters, low-gravity jumping, and Tim Riggins saying ‘yes Ma’am’. No wonder potential audiences are rejecting this movie.

I’m a third of the way through A Princess of Mars at the moment, and the lineage to later Hollywood successes like Avatar is already clear. Hopefully Stanton has figured out how to justify adapting this material ‘again’ and that it feels fresh and vital. Storytelling is his most valuable weapon, and that’s what can triumph over Avatar. That film dazzled us to the tune of way over a billion dollars, but it’s not terribly rewatchable and certainly felt a little empty even on first viewing. With a great cast, Stanton could make this archetypal story truly resonate this time.

And maybe he’s done just that, but Disney aren’t telling us. Hopefully word-of-mouth will bring new audiences in on subsequent weekends, as it did for Avatar. That may be what this film needs to pin its hopes on, because based on Disney’s marketing so far, I can understand why anyone would be ambivalent about boring old John Carter.

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