Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Secret of Success

The relative fortunes of John Carter and The Hunger Games mark a blow for cynical Hollywood campaigns and a triumph for story-telling

Two sci-fi epics. Two opposing box office trajectories. The comparative fortunes of The Hunger Games and John Carter have been notable.

The former has just smashed records at the US box office, taking $155mn on its opening weekend, the biggest ever opening for a film which was not a sequel. The latter is going to be a mega-flop, having returned the sort of figures which make Cleopatra look like a commercial success. It will lose Disney around $200mn.

The funny thing is that, as commercial prospects, the two are not dissimilar. True, The Hunger Games has a dedicated teen fan base, but the books, written by Suzanne Collins, have 2.9 million copies in print worldwide. This is no Twilight or Harry Potter, despite its phenomenal success on e-book formats.

Teen fanaticism aside, both are sci-fi adaptations of popular novels and both are aimed at family/teenager audiences. Yet one has been a horrific disaster, and the other has led to the popping of champagne corks in certain Hollywood offices.

The irony was that, if one of them was to flop, it was meant to be the other way around. Lionsgate, not being one of the biggest studios, was only able to stump up an $80mn budget for The Hunger Games, a nevertheless tentative amount for a big blockbuster, perhaps based on fears that this would not replicate the success of recent teen franchises. Disney, meanwhile, was confident enough to bet big bucks on John Carter, putting $250mn into the production budget alone.

So, how has this happened? The story can be viewed in many ways. Hunger Games fans are more fervent than their John Carter counterparts perhaps. There is certainly weight behind that argument, but it does not explain the staggering scale of The Hunger Games’ success. The real secret is that The Hunger Games has led an excellent marketing campaign, whilst John Carter’s was a debacle.

Firstly, there was the matter of the titles. John Carter was originally entitled A Princess of Mars, and then John Carter of Mars, but focus-grouping lead to the revelation that a lot of people don’t much care for sci-fi, a fact which surely accounts for why Star Wars was such a flop. The upshot of all of this was the removal of “of Mars” from the title, so that we were left with the main character’s name. No longer did we have a film with the prospect of action and adventure. Now we had a film which could be about anything. Let’s face it, John Carter sounds like a film about an accountant.

The Hunger Games, on the other hand, has a relatively intriguing title, and also had a trailer which  worked. It showed the story of teenagers being forced to compete in a free-for-all, fight-to-the-death TV show. The trailer of John Carter may have dismissed fears about scenes of high-tension filling out of tax returns, but still left us none the wiser about what the plot actually was, who this Carter fellow was, and which species was which on Mars. Yes, it has Mark Strong and fleeting glimpses of Dominic West and Ciaran Hinds, but the film itself came across as a big sprawling mess.

Later posters for JC focussed on his fights with enormous creatures, but the damage was done. The film critic, Mark Kermode, reported that his son was bored stiff by the trailer and had no desire to see it. The Hunger Games however was building something of a juggernaut behind it. Finally, a film with a genuinely strong heroine, but this has cross-gender appeal. There’s no analytic reason for that other than both genders like good stories.

Hunger Games had more star power. Jennifer Lawrence is a rising star with a proven track record, and looks to match. All that John Carter’s cast managed to engender was the great question, “Who the hell is Taylor Kitsch?” Though he may be well known to fans of Friday Night Lights, he is not a big enough star to carry this movie.

The reason why these events are important is because neither film was a sure thing and both needed successful ad campaigns. In other words, the success and failure of their campaigns served to show how audiences respond to campaigns for blockbusters when there isn't great foreknowledge of the franchise: how we respond to the commercially unknown.

The campaign for Hunger Games relied simply on the quality of its story and its actors as it tried to move beyond the sphere of its dedicated fan base. The campaign for John Carter relied on endless testing, over-used big money shots featuring huge CGI monsters and had a total disregard for narrative. The end result was that The Hunger Games has engaged me as a prospect, and John Carter inspired nothing but derision. I thought that one would be good and the other would be a confused mess. The reviews seem to have borne this out.

So, to all the ad men, studio heads and accountants (one of whom is probably called John Carter), let me show you the moral of this story: the secret to a successful ad campaign for an unknown quantity is to have a good film with a good story to advertise. That will be the basis of success, not cynical testing and filmmaking by numbers.

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