Hunger Games and John Carter – A Tale of Two Trajectories

Michael Sellers

hunger games john carterThe news is in – Lion’s Gate’s Hunger Games brought in a whopping $155m at the domestic box office in this, its debut weekend, making it the third highest opening weekend ever, just behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 ($168M), and The Dark Knight (158M).  Hunger Games is clearly every bit the huge hit that analysts and fans have been predicting.  Hunger Games’ global total was $214M, including $59.3m from 67 foreign countries, suggesting its strength in the US may not be matched in foreign territories.

By contrast, “battered” John Carter, struggling under the burden of Disney’s announced $200m write-down (making it the biggest flop in cinema history if magnitude of loss is the measure), brought in $5m bringing its domestic total to $65m after three weekends, and a slightly better global total of $234m.

Worse yet for Disney, Hunger Games cost $100m to make and $50m to market, while John Carter cost $250m to make and $100m to market.

How does such disparity occur?

Both are based on literary properties, both feature spectacle and adventure – so how does one do so well and the other so poorly?

First, a reality check; Hunger Games is arguably the most popular current book series for readers in the target demographic and that alone fueled a level of interest akin to Twilight or Harry Potter.  Meanwhile, venerable old Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series, while constantly in print for 100 years and popular enough in its heyday, is not a property that brings with it any pre-existing buzz.  So, while Hunger Games had a ferociously enthused current readership to work with, Disney had at best a pedigree which, if promoted wisely, could turn into an asset but which could not be counted on by itself to deliver an audience.

But a look at how the two movies used (or in the case of John Carter), didn’t use, social media gives an indication that the marketers behind the Hunger Games “get it”, and Disney’s marketers don’t.  Consider the following:

A full 12 weeks prior to Hunger Games release it had 2 million Facebook Fans who were burning up the movie message boards with their chatter about the film.  John Carter at the equivalent point before its release had approximately 40,000 Facebook fans.  The same general percentages hold true for Twitter Followers and other social media measures.  Did this just happen because Hunger Games was a current literary phenomenon?  Or was there some artfulness involved in the Hunger Games social media marketing that was lacking in the case of Disney and John Carter?

Even a quick perusal of the two campaigns shows that Hunger Games social media marketing was on a completely different level from the social media marketing that Disney put forward with John Carter.  With Hunger Games, there were for example 13 Facebook pages representing each of the districts in the film.   It was set up so that fans could become virtual citizens of each district – and because the large novel fan base was familiar with the context – and because of various other “cool factors”, it worked.

There was no equivalent for John Carter even though Barsoom boasted the same kind of opportunity.  The problem: Disney would need to educate first, in order for audiences to know.  And it never did.

For Hunger Games Lions Gate created both the official @HungerGames account as well as a Twitter account for The Capitol, the central city in the story.  The account @TheCapitolPN  acted as a “welcoming site to Panem, the Capitol, and its 12 Districts”, often tweeting stories, warnings and encouragement in character.  Lions Gates efforts in this regard again resonated with fans, and this amplified the buzz.

Meanwhile, the single John Carter twitter account, @JohnCarter, topped out at an anemic 9,400 followers and today, three weeks into the release, has managed a total of only largely uninspiring 240 tweets – such as:  “Which John Carter character was the most exciting to see on the big screen?”, or “John Carter is now in theaters; are you going?”. Yawn.

By contrast, the official Hunger Games twitter account @HungerGames has put out 3,453 tweets to date, and its tweets, rather than being bland “uncool” entreaties like the John Carter tweets – are filled with insider references, and appear to come from an actual human being rather than a marketing robot.

As a result — “Hunger Games” mentions on Twitter reached 1 million in the last month while John Carter mentions never reached a tenth of that.

As disappointing as the John Carter box office results were – a factor which made them seem even worse was the particularly weak opening in the US ($30.6m) which was about as far as most media outlets looked – even though on the same weekend it brought in $70M from 55 foreign territories – a tally that actually beats the Hunger Games opening foreign total of  $59.3M from 67 territories.   The John Carter opening weekend total did not include China or Japan – major markets – which is another indication that globally, John Carter was not the dud that it was in the US.

There has been much speculation that internal politics may have played a role in Disney’s lackluster marketing efforts, with John Carter having been greenlit under the previous regime of Dick Cook, with the current regime of Rich Ross never warming to the picture or perhaps even understanding it, and with controversial Disney marketing chief MT Carney leaving in January, just two months before the release of the film.

Those factors aside, one thing is clear: Lions Gate today is reaping the rewards of a well planned, well executed release campaign while Disney is busy trying to erase the stigma of its John Carter debacle and hope that its stock prices continue to hold firm in spite of one of the greatest blunders in cinema history.

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7 Responses to Hunger Games and John Carter – A Tale of Two Trajectories

  1. Michelle Valladolid on March 26, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    The biggest shame is that John Carter is actually a really fun film…well, popcorn movie. I cared about the characters and I had a good time. Never read the books.

  2. dominatr37 on March 26, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Okay here’s the difference: You’re comparing a little kiddie movie (Hunger Games) with a movie aimed at adults that todays illiterate youths know nothing of. They read books like Hunger games and twilight and if you said the name ‘Edgar Rice Burroughs’ to them most would NOT have any idea who you were talking about. If Disney had marketed John Carter correctly it would have been a huge hit for them. For some unknown reason they shied away from calling it ‘John Carter of Mars’ Or even ‘A princess of Mars’ as the first book was called. Disney screwed this all up. with their terrible marketing of what could have been the next ‘Star Wars’ For the record, John Carter was an incredible movie.

    • Frank DeMartini on March 26, 2012 at 5:26 pm

      I agree with most of the points in the article, but I must say you are really missing it. I saw “Hunger Games” yesterday and this is no kiddie movie. In fact, I would not bring kids to see it at all. It is very adult and very political even though it involves children. Plus, it is a masterpiece as can be seen from its Rotten Tomatoes score and its Cinema Exit Rating of A-. Don’t be surprised if “Hunger Games’ is still around come Oscar Time.

  3. Rick Tucker on March 27, 2012 at 11:26 am

    I doubt Hunger Games will be in print a hundred years from now, it’s a pop phenomenon benefiting from very savvy marketing from book to big screen. The John Carter tales despite being remarkably dated by our current, culturally cynical standards has been luring new readers for a hundred years and THAT was not expounded on in the least by Disney Studios. No, Disney actually endeavored to sabotage this from the day the first trailer was released. They’ve lost me as a customer, period. The last thing I plan on spending on from the company’s fare is John Carter on DVD. From then on they can eat it. They’ve been doing exactly the same thing to Studio Ghibli (actually in spite of those films nominations to Academy awards and winning them) and it amazes me that they still release those films considering the chintzy “efforts” they make to market them. It’s like they’re entire marketing dept. is yawning and saying, “..oh yeah… here’s one, that is, IF you want to see it”. This is no way to run a movie studio.

  4. [...] See Also: “Hunger Games and John Carter – A Tale of Two Trajectories” [...]

  5. Josh on March 29, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    The second well done article involving John Carter from this site. So many small mistakes made on behalf of a marketing department and executives of Disney did ruin what could have been the new Star Wars. John Carter was the most enjoyable movie I’ve ever seen, the negativity in critics and fans alike on such a well done filk like JC, has me dissapointed in our “worn race and I want nothing to do with them”(as John Carter says it).

    I will continue to support the movie even if theres never a sequel, which the chance for one is probably uner 2%, and that’s only with earnings 1-2 years down the line from DvD sales, merchandise, and Tv spots.

  6. [...] comparison, Hunger Games cost $100 million to make and $50 million to [...]

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