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Heroes of Hope and Hype

Planet Hype from The SimpsonsImagine a world where originality is cast aside and chastised, but imitation is bolstered and ballyhooed, a world where speculation, rather than fact, determines the outcome of events through self-fulfilling prophecy. Envision a hystopian society* in which critical decisions are based on what someone projects you might think or should think, rather than your own actual thoughts and where powerful entities spend millions of dollars brainwashing you to believe that something is different than what it actually is. If this sounds like science-fiction, it’s not -– you’re living this right now.

Film studios spend fortunes trying to convince the public to go see their movies and just like with any other product a successful advertising and promotional campaign can mean the difference between financial success and failure. But we all know that just because a franchise burger joint spends millions marketing their food that it isn’t necessarily better than the Mom & Pop restaurant on the corner with no advertising budget or marketing know-how. It most cases that successfully & heavily promoted burger sucks and in a lot of instances this is the same scenario when it comes to movies.

The Hunger Games and John Carter are two recently released fantasy/science-fiction films that are both based on a series of books that were ravenously read by young adults and also crossed over into the “older” adult market. John Carter has a literary legacy that is 100 years old and as a fantasy piece it still holds-up today and is arguably one of the most influential stories of all time. The Hunger Games book series began in 2008 and is touted as one of the greatest book trilogies ever published. This is where the similarities of these two franchises end.

No one can dispute (although many do) the originality of John Carter and that his story has appealed to generations of fans. The stance that this film has been done before and that it is a rip-off of Star Wars comes from ignorance of the source material and the lack of Disney Studio’s efforts to promote the rich “Mars” history. Studio heads even decided to remove the tag “of Mars” from the title guessing that “John Carter of Mars” would alienate the female audience. The original book was titled A Princess of Mars and the same decision-makers thought that this moniker would leave the male audience estranged. So in their infinite wisdom they decided to run with just “John Carter” and successfully turned everyone off altogether. What if Lionsgate had changed the name of The Hunger Games to “Katniss Everdeen” (the name of the lead character) and all the press talked about was “what a stupid call that was” and how much it cost to make the movie? Would people still be lining up to see it?

The Hunger GamesAs original as John Carter is, The Hunger Games can be touted in the same proportion for its lack of originality. The film (and I’m assuming the book –- which I admittedly have not read) borrows from several other books and films including The Running Man, The Long Walk, The Most Dangerous Game, Lord of the Flies and Battle Royale. The debate will rage on as to whether author Suzanne Collins was inspired by this material or outright plagiarized it, but how is it that this rehash of old themes is destined to become one of the biggest moneymakers in movie history, whereas John Carter has already been written off as one of the biggest failures?

The answer is that public reaction to a film is often determined by how it is marketed and not necessarily a reflection of the product itself. Over the past couple of weeks Lionsgate Films ensured that you could not hide or get away from The Hunger Games promotional machine. The film has been trumpeted on the front pages of newspapers and magazines and in a constant barrage of television and Internet advertisements. This campaign has not only focused on what the movie/story is and who the actors are, but on how enormously successful it was going to be, in effect speaking its success into existence.

On the other hand, the pre-release “buzz” on John Carter was a relentless stream of negative commentary regarding its cost and the botched marketing of the Disney Studios, which had the same self-fulfilling effect as The Hunger Games publicity did, but in a negative way. When stories about your lack of marketing are gaining more ground than any actual marketing you are doing, you know you’re in trouble. Had Disney promoted its film as the “greatest movie ever made” and pumped-up its fan base the way that Hunger Games has, it could have enjoyed a lot of success and guaranteed the continuation of the film franchise, which is now sadly in jeopardy.

I’ve reviewed both John Carter and The Hunger Games and on their cinematic merits alone, neither of these movies is perfect and it would seem that both films have potentially wide appeal to the same base audience. I personally feel that John Carter is a superior film on every level and yet The Hunger Games did almost as much business in its midnight opening as John Carter did in its first weekend combined. I could be completely out-of-touch and spending too much time in film fantasy land, or is there something else happening here?

Publicity, be it positive or negative, feeds on itself and has a snowball effect in this society, and once that ball gains momentum it is difficult to stop it. From critics to your kid-sister, when everyone is singing the praises of a movie like The Hunger Games, before anyone even actually sees it, who wants to be the “uncool” naysayer who rains on that parade? It reaches the point to where we are just lemmings leaping from a cliff because our corporate “big brother” told us it is a great experience.

Another way that Hollywood business hypnotizes you into believing a movie is worth your time is the way it publicizes its box office revenues. As a moviegoer, why do I care if a movie makes $20.00, $20 million or $200 million? Does financial gain make the film better, or does it just mean that a large portion of the population potentially got suckered into going to the theater? I’ve seen people who are just fans as well as industry insiders equate a movie’s entertainment value with how much money it makes and although a film can be good and make money, one has nothing to do with the other.

John Carter of Mars

Big budget films are especially prone to the negative snowball effect. Waterworld, Dick Tracy, Days of Heaven, Ishtar and now John Carter are films that are not bad by any means, some are in fact really good, but because of their financial cost or off-screen drama — or both, they were deemed failures before they ever saw the light of the silver screen, and harsh pre-release publicity sealed their fates as the public stayed away from the theater and saw this adverse attention as affecting the outcome of the art, and that is not necessarily the case.

Big money and successful advertising campaigns spent on the promotion of politicians, burgers or movies does not mean that these things are good, and just because someone is elected, captures market share or camps out in front of the theater doesn’t mean that these things are worth the money that was spent on promoting them. It just means savvy marketers captured your attention and convinced you cast your vote or spend your dollar — it’s up to you to decide the actual value.

*Hystopia – A society where people, places or things are hysterically hyped and prized more for their publicized worth than for any actual value.

This fan-created trailer is the way that John Carter should have been promoted.

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