In case you hadn’t noticed, Warner Bros’ marketing of Legend of Tarzan as of 55 days prior to release is a LOT quieter than Disney’s marketing of John Carter was at the equivalent date. Is WB laying back too much? Or are they being sneaky smart about it? It’s time to take a look at what WB is doing and compare it to the marketing disaster that was John Carter.
Where We Are With Legend of Tarzan 55 Days PTR (Prior to Release)
The Legend of Tarzan campaign has been pretty minimalist so far and consists of the following main elements:
- 194 days PTR: Teaser Trailer released Dec 9, 2015. Also Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumbler accounts initiated. FB has 280,000 likes thus far. And first poster released.
- 105 days PTR: Second Trailer released Mar 17, 2016.
- 90 days PTR: Trailer begins appearing in theaters.
- 80 days PTR: London preview of 20 minutes, generating a mini-surge of articles, followed by first interviews of Yates, Jackson, etc.
Where We Were at this Point with John Carter
- 180 days PTR: Teaser Trailer released on July 11, 2011, and social media accounts launched — Facebook, Twitter, Official Site.
- 180 days PTR: Edit bay interview of Andrew Stanton to key media journalists, generating a wave of articles.
- 150 days PTR: Footage previewed and cast interviewed at Disney D23 convention on Aug 22, 2011
- 100 days PTR: On Nov 30, second trailer debuts on Goodmorning America and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Another round of interviews for cast/crew, especially Taylor Kitsch.
- 90 days PTR: Trailer begins getting play in theaters; Lobby Displays appear.
- 82 days PTR: IMAX poster released.
- 80 days PTR: TV spots begin to air on Dec 16. First two spots are “Warhoon” and “Awakening.” The two 30 second spots air steadily for he remainder of December and TV spots will air without major pause for the remainder of the campaign.
- 73 days PTR: Japanese trailer released with substantial differences in content.
- 60 days PTR: Disney announces it has bought a Super Bowl Ad on Jan 10, 2012
What the Foregoing Means in $$ Spent
The main takeaway from the foregoing is that as of this point, 55 days out, WB has spent only a very small amount of marketing money — basically, the cost of the trailers, the posters, the London press screening, the Germany press screening, plus the social media accounts — that’s it. Even at bloated studio costs, it’s hard for that to add up to more than a few hundred thousand dollars.
Meanwhile, at this point, Disney had spent substantially more. The main difference would be that by this point, Disney had been airing TV spots for a full thirty days. TV ads eat up budget faster than anything else. How much had been spent? Maybe $10m. And of course of that was going from one Disney pocket (BV Distribution advancing $$ for Disney Studios) to another Disney Pocket (ABC, the Disney Channel, ESPN).
But aside from the media spend on TV ads, Disney was also pushing the movie out there more aggressively. There were the edit bay interviews of Stanton in July, timed to coincide with the release of the first trailer, which gave rise to a flurry of coverage in the influencer media; there were periodic releases of concept art; there were interviews of cast.
So by this time — Disney had spent maybe 10x what WB has spent thus far.
How Effective is Each Ad Spend in Positioning the Movie
This is, of course, where we have to acknowledge all of the horrendous decisions in the Disney marketing of John Carter. Before I get revved up on that — let’s just measure the buzz in the simplest but probably most meaningful way possible.
The Disney John Carter teaser trailer, released on July 11, 2011, 180 days PTR, had by this time acquired a total of 1.8M views.
The WB Legend of Tarzan teaser trailer, released on Dec 9, 2015, 194 days PTR, has at this time acquired a total of 22.4M views
That’s a 12-1 advantage for WB’s LOT — and that is without any TV ads or any major media spend to drive the trailer views.
Based on that metric alone — it is relatively safe to say that, while by this time Disney had achieved greater market awareness through its expensive TV spots — what they were showing was not being well accepted; the trailer wasn’t getting viewed online; and so in marketing terms, there was very little conversion of that awareness–that was being drummed into people by the TV ads–into any kind of action. There were of course many, many more problems that JC was facing at this point. The teaser trailer not only did not draw a lot of views–it drew a lot of fire from media writers who didn’t like it much. The Like/Dislike ratio of people who did bother to view it wasn’t good. The main poster was also drawing fire, and then when the second (and main) theatrical trailer came out on November 30, there was another round of negativity in the media from reviewers who thought it was disjointed and failed to sell the movie in any coherent way. Adding to all these woes, there was also the mounting chorus of contempt for the decision-making that had led to Disney making John Carter as THE MOST EXPENSIVE MOVIE EVER MADE . . . which put a giant target on its back and just fueled the negativity that was running rampant. That negativity could be traced back to August 2011, about 150 days PTR, when Disney Studio Chief Rich Ross put The Lone Ranger on hold due to budgetary concerns. In the aftermath of that stoppage, an unnamed Disney executive went on what amounted to a rant about too many expensive tentpole films, and cited John Carter, claiming a budget of “at least $250M”. That was the shot heard round the world that took JC from “struggling” to “in big trouble.”
Let’s contrast that with Legend of Tarzan.
First of all — LOT was not without its negativity. In fact on October 14, 2015, two months before the trailer was released and 180 days PTR, Kim Masters at The Hollywood Reporter wrote Warner Bros Faces ‘Tarzan’ Trouble as Director is Double-Booked — and that unleashed a flood of negativity. It was in that article (and only that article) that the budget was said to be $180m (another unnamed studio source), and while $180M in late 2015 had none of the “are you kidding me?” dimension that $250m for JC did in 2011, it still was a pretty big number which, combined with the issue of the director working post on two movies and a big question-mark about whether Tarzan would feel relevant to 2016 audiences, left LOT with a lot of question-marks coming into the first trailer release. There was reference to “Pan-sized flop” – and to a John Carter-like disaster.
But then the teaser trailer came out on Dec 9 and quieted a lot (but not all ) of that kind of talk. Unlike the JC teaser trailer which did not catch on (1.8m views by this time) — the LOT trailer was a genuine hit and after starting off a lot slower than it’s main competition, it has since surpassed it, with LOT logging 22.3m views to IDR’s 21.6m trailer views on the studio official YouTube channel. How significant is that? Well, it can’t be a bad thing.
Since then, Legend of Tarzan has been, for the most part, treated with a reasonable degree of respect, which is significantly different from the scorn that was being heaped on John Carter by this stage of the rollout. Gone are the “it will be a pan-sized flop” articles, but it is still not being touted as a likely winner.
Just yesterday, Box Office Pro came out with a prediction of an opening weekend of $23.5M and total US gross of $50m. More typical are projetions in the range of a $40m opening and $100m total US gross, which would project out to a $300m global gross — and realistically, for the film to be rated a success and have a chance at a sequel, the global gross needs to be t least $450m.
WB’s Thought Process Seems to Be . . .
It’s impossible to know exactly what WB is thinking, but I’m going to try.
First, they have been following a policy of “do no harm” — in other words, don’t do things that attract negativity. They put out a good trailer, they have a quality poster (the second one more than the first), and they haven’t made any obvious miss-steps. Believe me, with John Carter, by this time the list of miss-steps (starting with the name change from John Carter of Mars to John Carter) was too long to get on one sheet of paper.
Second, they seem to be content to lie low and not shoot all their bullets too soon. This relates to first of all, a strategic plan to promote the film adequately without overspending, and second, to lessen the likelihood of negative backlash. There is nothing like doing an excessively loud, over the top hype job to cause the movie press to turn on you. In the case of John Carter, the combination of the BIGGEST BUDGET EVER and a tone-deaf series of TV spots played over and over again clearly contributed to the negativity. And that was true not just with the movie press–also the public. During the final three weeks of the promotion, in the tracking numbers awareness went up, while “definitely interested” went down. In other words, the promotion was so loud and tone deaf that as more and more people became aware, the effect was to turn people off, not turn them on, to the movie.
WB seems intent on avoiding that.
Finally, WB has clearly figured out that it’s assets are an attractive cast starting with it girl Margot Robbie and Alexanders “Look at those Abs” Skarsgard — and they are playing that card carefully. Secondly, they have clearly determined that they have to get the message out that this is not a rehash of same old same old Tarzan, but is a new take that picks up ten years after all the Tarzan movies you ever saw or heard about, with Tarzan living in London, drinking tea and meeting with the prime minister. They clearly hope this makes it seem fresh — and seeming fresh and not worn out is a concern.
All of this seems to add up to a strategy in which they are trying for “sleeper hit” as opposed to “mega-blockbuster”. It doesn’t look like they are going to spend more for promotion than just “average summer release” level of dollars, and they are holding their fire with the major spend until closer to release date.
Will this strategy pay off?
The number one piece of wisdom in the movie business is — “nobody knows nuthin'” — and the WB Tarzan promotional rollout is an example. If it works, WB will be considered a genius. If it doesn’t work, they’ll be criticized. My sense of it is that they have generally been pretty shrewd thus far. They’ve turned around a negative situation that existed before the first trailer came out, and they’ve almost (not quite) gotten the film into territory where it is considered to be cool and promising, rather than dumb and destined to flop. Just avoiding that “massive flop” narrative is an accomplishment.
But when they finally to ramp it up — will it be heard above the din of all the other summer releases vying for attention? There is a very real danger that it will just get swallowed up in the crowd of films.
I hope that doesn’t happen. I’m moderately optimistic it won’t happen.
But as we’re about to hit 50 days until release — I’d like to see them start making a little more noise.