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Winners and Losers: A Tale of Two Disney Executives

Of particular interest to me is how one can view Disney’s colossal flop John Carter almost side by side with Disney’s colossal success The Avengers.  Released just a couple months apart and given comparable production budgets the two films will both go down in history but for different reasons.

The story of big budget film projects John Carter and The Avengers which ran in parallel production through the same company, is really the tale of two different Disney executives: Rich Ross, Chief of the Disney Film-Making Studio and Kevin Feige Chief of Disney Marvel Entertainment.  They both had the same goal (hit movie) yet followed completely  different paths – one to overwhelming success and one to ignominious defeat.  The strategies employed by the two in reaching the goal could not have been more stark.

The slow motion train wreck which was Disney’s John Carter has been fascinating me for several months.  Long before the film landed with a thud in front of the domestic audience there were news and comments coming from inside the production which were just bizarre.

Looking at John Carter, the ingredients brewed into this particular disaster would seem to consist of:

  1. An outlandish $250 Million Production budget.
  2. An untested Director on his first Live Action film project.
  3. A relatively unknown actor cast to carry the film.
  4. Archaic source material generally unknown to the public.
  5. A deeply confused and misdirected marketing strategy.

While the marketing fiasco of John Carter could not have been foreseen up front, the other four items should have given Disney Film-Making Studio CEO Rich Ross some pause.  However they did not, and so the John Carter disaster was given a green light to move forward.   Astonishingly, the John Carter project actually had a bigger budget ($250 Million) to work with than the Avengers project did ($220 Million).   To put it in better perspective, the first Pirates of the Caribbean film which enjoyed both a solid director and star power beloved by audiences (Johnny Depp) had a budget of $140 Million – or about half that of John Carter.  And that film was considered a risk for Disney to make.

One can only wonder how Rich Ross calculated the business risks out on John Carter.  Clearly the goal was to build a franchise on it, however profitable franchises do not grow on trees and the opener is going to be a financial risk for the studio.  Usually a franchise opener is going to be produced on a more modest budget to test the waters.  It is not at all surprising that a studio would make a movie based on Edgar Rice Burroughs classic and pulpy “John Carter Warlord of Mars” novels – what’s astonishing here is the way Rich Ross went after it, as though the audience was already built in and the franchise was already sailing along.  His calculus could only have been made in a fever dream of wildly optimistic returns.  If you are going to try and pull an Avatar then you had damn well better have James Cameron on-board … and the John Carter project had no such talent involved.

The first whiffs of desperation coming off John Carter came long before the film was ever released to the public.  Strange marketing decisions made by the studio began to leak out months before release.  Movie journalists speculated mightily about controversies inside the production and what they might portend.   At some point, long before the release, Rich Ross must have concluded that the studio had overreached.  They thrashed about for a marketing strategy but were completely unable to connect with the public.  In the end Disney would take a $200 Million Dollar write-down (loss) on the film.  One month after the release of John Carter, a film which may be Disney’s greatest financial failure, Rich Ross resigned.

So what was the Rich Ross movie franchise strategy, exactly?  I’m calling it the Ashley Revell StrategyAshley Revell famously sold everything he owned in the world, walked into a Las Vegas casino and bet it all on one spin of the roulette wheel.  The difference between Rich Ross and Ashley Revell, however, is that Ashley Revell won.

In stark contrast to the business plan attempted on John Carter, a different Disney executive took a different road and wound up with the biggest movie opening weekend in history.  Marvel Entertainment CEO Kevin Feige perused a six year strategy to bring The Avengers project to audiences using single character introduction films and build-up.

In South Park episode #8 an appetizer is defined as “something you eat to make you more hungry”.  What Kevin Feige did was to whet the appetite of audiences for The Avengers by introducing each character as the lead in smaller budgeted  films.   Captain America ($140 Million), Iron Man ($140 Million), The Hulk ($150 Million), Thor ($150 Million).  By the time audiences had finished sampling this fare they were ravenous for the main course team-up: The Avengers.

While the majority of the public is probably not overly familiar with the comic history of, say, The Hulk or Captain America most people could still probably pick those two characters out of a line-up.  And that, right there, is more than could be said for John Carter as a character.  In marketing each individual Marvel character’s smaller budgeted film the  Studio simply needed to remind people that they knew who these characters were and that they should come see them doing all the cool stuff on screen which people remembered.  The tortured marketing campaign for John Carter could not simply remind people who the character was – because the public at large didn’t know.  They had to try and introduce the character to a public which couldn’t be bothered to care.

Marvel Chief Kevin Feige properly balanced risk with reward.  His Studio put out two modestly successful films Captain America ($140 Million) and Iron Man ($140 Million) with combined production budgets of about one John Carter ($250 Million).  Each Marvel character film, while a distinct experience in their own right, served as an appetizer towards the main course: The Avengers.  The business risks on each individual film were smaller and easier to mitigate – if any had flopped themselves then the business plan for The Avengers could be re-evaluated prior to wagering a $220 Million production budget.  In following the Appetizer Strategy (as I’ve dubbed it) the chances of a smashing success with a large budget production were greatly increased by priming the public for a main course.

Naturally, The Avengers also did some other things John Carter did not like having a really talented crew on board: a solid director, star power and amazing writers.  And with all that The Avengers still cost less to make than John Carter!  Kevin Feige can be credited for the stellar production values in The Avengers and everything which led up to it.

It is hard to fathom, really, how John Carter came to be as it was.  Would that I had some inside gouge on that because I would dearly love to know what the calculus was behind that risk.  John Carter should have started where Iron Man did: $140 Million production budget, brisk writing, solid director, a well known lead and then worked its way up.  Who knows… maybe then the John Carter character could have been the opening for a later John Carter / Tarzan / Doc Savage team-up movie.

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