Today we are 57 days out from the release of Legend of Tarzan. And it was on the 57th day before the release of John Carter that I had my epic fail or a meeting with Disney marketing executives in which I did my best to warn them away from the abyss they were about to plunge over. Ouch. Painful moment indeed. Here is the chapter from John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood that deals with this. In the few days, after reliving this disaster, I will start taking a look at WB’s Marketing of Legend of Tarzan at the equivalent point in the countdown — i.e. 57 days out. But let’s start by reliving where Disney was with John Carter marketing at this point.
The Disney Meeting
Over the weekend of January 7-8, as Disney Chairman Rich Ross scrambled his executives to prepare the announcement for MT Carney’s departure, and as Rebecca Baeder Garland entertained questions about John Carter on the IMDB Message Board, I was finalizing a “white paper” briefing document which I sent to Ryan Stankevich early Saturday morning, January 7. The paper was something that I had hammered out with Jack Scanlan over the previous week, and was intended to lay out an agenda for the Disney meeting that included possible fan liaison initiatives, but also allowed for strategic discussion of the overall campaign. It was thirteen pages and represented the best work I could do. Sections included an overview of the “messaging points” that were guiding my work on The John Carter Files; an overview of the fan organizations; an overview of the “buzz” to date with charts and figures showing ‘Carter’s position relative to the competition; and finally suggestions for how I might be able to work with Disney to mobilize fan support to counter the negativity of the narrative that was unfolding in mainstream and social media.
Later that same Saturday, I checked the IMDB John Carter message board. There are dozens of movie message boards across the internet — but none with the prominence or intensity of IMDB, and many fans, when contemplating an upcoming film, will check out the IMDB board for that film to see how the buzz is running. In the case of John Carter, it was a caustic, brutal place where proponents of the film (mostly ERB fans but also Stanton fans and other sci-fi fans) were constantly fighting what amounted to a pitched battle with the “John Carter will flop” brigade, who were scornful of the movie, the marketing, or both.
I came across the thread started by Rebecca Baeder Garland and read it, intrigued. Clearly she had truly seen the movie, and I knew from studying search terms that “John Carter review” and “john carter advance review” were already among the highest searched terms relating to John Carter. I was certain that getting a favorable review up on the internet would result in substantial views and commentary. This might be, it seemed to me, the first opportunity for The John Carter Files to make a strategic level contribution to the narrative, and so I published: “John Carter Advance Review: Test screening reviewer posts “I saw John Carter at a Nielsen screening and I loved it!”
A few hours later (and a few hours after Deadline Hollywood had posted the story that MT Carney had been fired), I received a reply from Ryan Stankevich at Disney to my email, sent Saturday morning, containing my briefing:
Thank you very much for this – you are definitely an expert on the subject and we’re excited to meet fellow fans of Burroughs and JOHN CARTER! I did coincidentally see your post today regarding the preview screening feedback and having been at that screening I can tell you that the report is dead on. It played extremely well, which we were all really excited to witness on Friday.
We’re looking forward to the meeting and hearing more about how Disney and the ERBophiles can work together on this campaign. Thanks so much for reaching out.
My reaction came in several waves.
First — good, at least someone at Disney is reading The John Carter Files.
Next — good thing that my Rebecca Baeder Garland’s report is “spot on”….. But the third level of the reaction was the one that stuck — “We’re looking forward to the meeting and hearing more about how Disney and the ERBophiles can work together on this campaign.”
That one was not so good. She was clearly positioning the meeting not as a strategic discussion of the campaign, but rather as a fan liaison meeting, and she was making sure I understood that. It wasn’t a brush off, exactly, but it was gently putting me in my place.
Stankevich clearly saw it as a “courtesy call” with the fans, which she was willing to do as a gesture of respect to fellow publicist Scanlan, and because, if I was a channel to the fan groups, it was important to show respect even if the fan community wasn’t large.
Anyway — that was her attitude going into the meeting, so it was good to know that was the starting point. Perhaps. with Jack Scanlan’s help, I could turn it around in the meeting.
January 11, 2012
Stankevich’s offices were on the lot at Disney Studios in the building closest to the corner of Alameda and Hollywood Way, the “Seven Dwarfs Building” with statues of Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, Doc, Happy, Bashful, and Grumpy.
The meeting took place in a modern, casual meeting room with a couch and comfortable chairs in modern design surrounding a low coffee table. Stankevich’s assistant Janna Bettencourt showed us to the room, and a few minutes later Stankevich arrived with Samantha Garry, whom she introduced as Director of Digital Marketing.
The one hour meeting that ensued was polite, cordial, and — in my view — a bust as far as the “seat at the table” concept was concerned. It did, however, move the needle slightly in terms of enthusiast group coordination.
At the outset, Stankevich and Garry both acknowledged the advance briefing, claimed to have read it, and Garry in particular offered comments agreeing with the analysis of John Carter’s position among the March releases. Garry confirmed that Disney’s own tracking of the buzz, and the positive/negative sentiment tracked with what I had presented.
But they both repeatedly steered the conversation back to the fans.
“What, specifically, can we do for the fans?” Stankevich asked no less than three times during the meeting.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] I attempted to engage Garry . . . on ways to improve the performance of the ‘Carter social media component to the campaign. I got nowhere. [/pullquote]
Each time I tried to get across the idea that it wasn’t so much Disney doing something for the fans — it was Disney empowering the fans by giving them a role to play and a sense of connection to the campaign. I emphasized that the fans are in essence awaiting their instructions — and while it was one thing for me and JCF to give them instructions, if they understood that Disney was actually calling upon them to do something that could help the campaign — they would feel that they were a part of it and would respond very favorably.
I eventually gave up on moving the conversation into the “fellow professionals” discussing the campaign zone. But Scanlan didn’t give up so easily; he bravely tried to steer the conversation back to that zone, emphasizing what I could do for the campaign on a strategic level, bringing up the “seat at the table” concept, which was met each time with a polite, “Well, we’ll have to see about that,” which I mentally translated as, “Not in a million years.”
Even when it came to fan initiatives, it was difficult for me to get any real traction. Stankevich evinced respect for the fans, but also noted: “The fans of the books are always the hardest to please,” which was, I knew, a true statement but one which did not preclude the ability to mobilize the fans of the books, a mobilization that had already happened at the behest of The John Carter Files, but which could be greatly amplified if Disney would get behind specific programs for fan engagement that had been outlined in the briefing.
Of the programs that had been offered in the briefing, one seemed to be more interesting than the rest to Stankevich, and that was the “home town story” program — a publicity project wherein Burroughs experts could be interviewed by their hometown newspapers and/or TV stations with a story that basically ran: “While Disney’s John Carter is just another Hollywood epic sci-fi film to most, to one local resident [insert name of ERBophile expert] it is the culmination of a lifetime of waiting for this particular sci-fi classic to make it to the silver screen.” I offered to provide a list and contact information for potential interviewees, some of whom were suitable for national publications, others for regional value.
On the digital marketing and social media side, I attempted to engage Garry, who was responsible for Facebook, Twitter, and all “digital” marketing, on ways to improve the performance of the ‘Carter social media component to the campaign. I got nowhere. Garry graciously and politely assured me that they had everything well in hand; that a big push was coming soon, possibly by the first week of February, and that while the shortcomings identified in the briefing were accurate, all were being addressed and there was nothing I, The John Carter Files, or the fans could do, or needed to worry about.
I wondered aloud, politely and diplomatically, why simple thing like John Carter digital wallpapers for computer desktops had not been made available; or other simple digital promotional giveaways such as a countdown calendar, had been made available — noting that I had the capacity to create such things and could do so on short order if that would help. Don’t worry, was the repeated response — we have it all under control. Big things are coming.
Eventually, realizing that the meeting, while cordial, was going nowhere, I shifted gears and did what I could to simply obtain useful information. Yes, Stankevich confirmed, John Carter would have a Super Bowl ad and this would signal the beginning of the truly big push over the last month of the campaign. Other points made by Stankevich and Garry included the fact that although John Carter only had 2000 Twitter followers this didn’t mean that much, since Disney Pictures had over a million followers and no one but Disney had that kind of studio-wide following; after all Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides only had 10,000 followers, and look what it did. Stankevich also talked about the Disney moms and dads who were being reached by the promotions on the Disney channel, and confirmed that “‘tween boys” were indeed considered the key demographic, and they were reaching them through the Disney Channel.
The most important point made by Stankevich was that Disney had conducted a number of test screenings in December and that the test screenings had gone extremely well. “We know we’ve got a great movie,” Stankevich said, and indicated that decisions had already been made to do advance “word-of-mouth” screenings in the final week before the release of the film, based on the confidence in the film. In fact, it seemed to me that the subtext of much of what Stankevich was saying was — it’s a good movie, and good movies find their audience. Don’t worry. It will be okay.
But such an attitude was worrisome because even with good word of mouth and good reviews, films in release follow very predictable patterns of dropoff and decline, and if Disney marketing and publicity did not get a minimum “critical mass” of audience to see the movie opening weekend, word of mouth would not save it unless the WOM was so good (as in ‘once in a decade good’) that it completely transformed the equation. To me, it seemed like Disney was relying too much on Stanton to produce a miracle. I thought of it like a baseball analogy in which to be a success, a film has to score a run and the the marketing campaign is the first batter. The film itself is the second. If the marketing campaign does its job, the film itself comes up to bat with a runner in scoring position at second base and all that is needed is a “single” and the project is successful. But if marketing fails abysmally, the film itself is then left with the need to hit a home run all on its own to score the run. Disney seemed to be increasingly content to just send Stanton (the film itself) up to the plate with no one on base and expect the director to hit a home run.
In the end, having been politely but firmly rebuffed in all substantive areas, we said our goodbyes and headed back through the studio labyrinth to our car.
“What do you think?” Scanlan asked.
“They listened politely and showed us the door,” I replied.
“So what are you going to do?”
I thought about it.
It had been a game enough effort to get taken seriously by Disney, but in the end, it had been my Burroughsian “dream-self” who had believed it might be possible to get a seat at the table, and now the reality was here, and that reality that my quest had been a Walter Mitty fantasy, and now I had been put back in my place, gently and politely to be sure, but there was no doubt that the dream of having a strategic voice was just that, a dream.
Toldja, I said to myself. You were kidding yourself.
Deal with it.
“Oh well,” I said. “I’ll keep blogging. You never know, maybe something good will happen.”