5 Lessons from the Hit “Hunger Games” and the Flop “John Carter”

Hey, folks: sick of me talking about John Carter and The Hunger Games? Too bad! I’m going to talk about them again this week!

Why? Because the two of them are in fact perfect bookends of science fiction film success: On the one hand, you’ve got The Hunger Games, which racked up $150+ million in its opening weekend, becoming the biggest non-sequel film opening ever — it’s on track to earn its studio, Lionsgate, $300 million in profit when all is said and done. On the other hand you’ve got John Carter, which cost $250 million to make and has performed poorly enough that its studio, Disney, has already declared that it expects it will take a $200 million writedown on the film. That makes it officially one of the biggest flops in movie history.

Is there anything we can learn from the divergent paths of these two films? Here are a few things that occurred to me.

1. A Film That Flops Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Film
I know quite a few science fiction writers and professionals, and many of them are flummoxed by how poorly John Carter was
received; the general line among the scifi cognoscenti is that it’s a
fun adventure film that doesn’t deserve the abuse it’s gotten. And
they’re correct: John Carter is not the best science fiction film you’ll ever see, but it’s fun and enjoyable and worth catching on the big screen.

But
in Hollywood — and this has always been the case — it’s not just
whether a movie is good. It’s everything else around the movie as well:
The marketing and gossip and even the reviews. John Carter wasn’t a bad film, but neither was it good enough to get in front of everything else about it.

The flip side of this is the terrible movie that everything else makes a hit: See any Transformers film for this. The Hunger Games
could have been lackluster as a film and still have done very well;
fortunately for it, it’s also generally considered a good film, which
will extend its box office reach.

2. When Making a Literary Adaptation, It Helps if Audiences Are Familiar with the Source
To go back to my scifi professional friends, a lot of them knew about
John Carter as a literary figure because they are generally fairly well
steeped in the history of the science fiction genre; they can also tell
you about Odd John and Gully Foyle and Lazarus Long, which are three
other names from classic science fiction literature that will draw a
complete blank in the general population. In a very interesting article on the failure of John Carter, New York magazine’s
Vulture column notes that John Carter director Andrew Stanton
apparently believed John Carter was a household name. In the Stanton
household and in the households of science fiction nerds? Yes. Everyone
else’s? Not so much.

Contrast this with The Hunger Games. The books have sold millions — and more importantly, have sold millions in the last decade,
so that even if folks in the audience hadn’t read the books, they knew
someone who had, and had loved them. This was the same advantage that
the Harry Potter and Twilight series had going into film adaptations.
Sales and familiarity alone are not enough to make a hit — see the film
of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as evidence of this — but in terms of generating excitement for a film adaptation, it’s better than not.

3. Know Who Your Audience Is (and Know How Big It Is)
The Hunger Games had an enviable core audience: teenagers, and
specifically teenage girls. This is an enviable audience because it is
already engaged with the story through the books, is highly motivated to
talk about the film prior to the film’s release, is liable to bring other
people (parents, dates, friends) to the film, and is likely to see the film
more than once. The film’s PR team, knowing all of this, crafted
its marketing message to whip up the potential audience to a fever
pitch.

Who was the John Carter audience? It’s a Disney
film, so was it a family audience? It’s a science fiction film, so is it
a nerdy audience? It’s an action film, so is it a male audience? None
of the trailers and marketing of the film suggested that anyone involved
with the film had much of an idea who the film was really for (or
primarily for). Without that core marketing message, the public perception
of it foundered.

4. Let Your Pros Do Their Work
Going back to the Vulture article, it’s said that one of the problems John Carter had
was that director Andrew Stanton had final say on marketing for the
film, which led to a number of clashes with the Disney team. Stanton had final say because his financial track record with
Pixar (he directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E, which between them made more than a billion dollars worldwide), but on the other hand John Carter
was his first live-action film. In retrospect, he probably would have
been better off listening to the people whose full-time job it is to
sell movies to audiences. Especially when his film cost $250 million.
Which brings up a final point …

5. Budgets Still Count
John Carter: $250 million to make. The Hunger Games:
$75 million. If the two films had swapped their first weekend box
offices, they could have both been successful in the long run. Alas,
that’s not how it went. 

Those are some lessons; there are others. But now I’m out of space for the week.

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