Why Names Matter: John Carter Tanks (Updated)

Disney’s $250 million epic John Carter earned a measly $30 domestic box office its first weekend. Would anyone like to know why?

Because it’s name is John Carter.

You can’t give a sci-fi fantasy epic a prosaic name like that. People assume that it’s ironic, that you’re not really doing a real epic, but some kind of light fish-out-of-water comedy with swords. It might as well have been named Scott Pilgrim.

Did anyone know that this movie was based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series? Did anyone know that the Barsoom series is 100 years old this year? Of course not, because the ads didn’t tell us. Because Disney wanted to name the movie after its protagonist, without explaining anything to the prospective audience. There was one ad that suggested that this story was “older than Star Wars” but nothing to flesh that notion out.

Just to underline the Fail, the names of the first three books of the Barsoom series, which feature John Carter, are as follows:

  • Princess of Mars
  • Gods of Mars
  • Warlord of Mars

You can’t tell me that a better title, one which conveyed actual information about the intent and tone of the picture, could not have been pulled together from that raw material. Hell, if the flick had been named Princess of Mars and the ads had said “Based on the 100-year-old saga by Edgar Rice Burroughs,” I might have considered checking it out.

But John Carter? Who gives a moldy crap about John Carter?

UPDATE: And Still I Persist steals concurs with my argument:

Those idiots at Disney apparently were so paranoid over the word “Mars” that they passed over the perfect title: “A Princess of Mars”, the actual title of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Barsoom novel. The immediate disjunction between “princess” — which suggests knights and chivalry and fantasy — and “Mars” — which suggests space and rockets and science fiction — provides a compelling hook. Princesses on Mars? Really? How can that be? It immediately tells you to expect the unexpected — as opposed to the title “John Carter”, which tells you nothing at all.

Names matter. It’s your first and perhaps most important piece of branding.

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