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"Transcendence" & "Rise of the Guardians" illustrate the fine art of how NOT to promote a motion picture

"Transcendence" & "Rise of the Guardians" illustrate the fine art of how NOT to promote a motion picture

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When something is transcendent, it's supposed to " ... be far better or greater than what is usual." Well, that's clearly not what happened with "Transcendence" this past weekend. At least when it comes to this Warner Bros. release reaching its true box office potential.

That's all anyone in Hollywood can talk about right now (Other than that other story, of course). Whether "Transcendence" 's under-performance at the box office -- coupled with "The Lone Ranger " crashing & burning last summer -- means that Johnny Depp has now lost his movie mojo. That moviegoers are no longer interested in seeing this performer unless he's appearing in a "Pirates of the Caribbean" film or -- to a lesser extent -- working with Tim Burton.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, based on what I've heard from people who've actually worked with Johnny, the one person who'd be most amused by all this frantic Hollywood hand-wringing would be Depp himself. You see, Johnny doesn't really consider himself to be a leading man but more of a character actor. More to the point, Depp doesn't agree to take on parts because he hopes that movie will then make beaucoup bucks. But -- rather -- because the role being offered interests him and/or looks challenging.

That's why Johnny will be in Massachusetts next month shooting "Black Mass," which details the FBI's complicated relationship with notorious Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger. Then after that, because he so enjoyed playing the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland ," Depp has agreed to reprise that role in its 2016 sequel, "Through the Looking Glass." And once production of that big budget fantasy film wraps, Johnny will be trading his top hat for some dreadlocks as the fifth installment of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" series -- which is tentatively titled "Dead Men Tell No Tales" -- sets sail.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And given that "Alice in Wonderland" sold $1.025 billion worth of tickets worldwide back in 2010 and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides " sold $1.045 billion worth of tickets worldwide back in 2011, it's assumed (at least within the corridors of power at Disney) that these two highly anticipated follow-up films will do just as well as the originals. Which is why -- come 2016 / 2017 -- I seriously doubt that you'll be hearing anyone in Hollywood whining about Johnny Depp's waning box office appeal.

But that said ... One has to wonder if "Transcendence" would have done at least a little better at the box office if Warner Bros. had opted to go with a far different marketing campaign for this Alcon Entertainment production. As one Hollywood wag put it yesterday: "They took one of the most attractive men in Hollywood and then put together a promotional campaign that made Depp look like crap. No wonder nobody went to see this movie."


Copyright 2014 Warner Bros. All rights reserved

But that's the thing about motion picture promotion. It's kind of an inexact science. And if you have a film like "Transcendence" that's kind of hard to sell / explain to begin with, putting the wrong trailer out there, the wrong poster or even the wrong series of television commercials will sink you.

Case in point: DreamWorks Animation's "Rise of the Guardians ." This Peter Ramsey film is arguably one of the best films that DWA has ever produced. It's got memorable characters, terrific action sequences, tons of humor & heart. Which is why many animation fans -- myself among them -- tend to group "Rise of the Guardians" right in there with DWA's best. And by that I mean: The original "Shrek ," the original "Kung Fu Panda " and the original "How to Train Your Dragon ." (The jury's still out on "How to Train Your Dragon 2." But based on what people have told me about the hour-long chunk of this Dean DeBlois film that aired at WonderCon this past weekend, "Dragons 2" may be DreamWorks Animation's first sequel that equals. Anyway ...)


Copyright 2014 Fox / DreamWorks Animation. All rights reserved

And yet when "Rise of the Guardians" opened in theaters back on November 21, 2012, it seriously under-performed. This DWA production (which cost an estimated $145 million to produce) stumbled so badly at the box office that this animation studio was forced to take a $87 million write-down on the film. Not only that, but in a tightening-its-belt gesture that came right on the heels for "Guardians" not being able to launch DWA's next big franchise ("Rise" was originally supposed to have been the first installment in a trilogy of films built around Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman and Jack Frost), 350 members of DreamWorks Animation's staff of 2,200 were let go.

So how it is that a film that had supposedly been testing through the roof prior to its release to theaters crashed & burned so badly? Some will tell you that it was "Rise of the Guardians" 's rather generic title. Which didn't exactly fire the imagination of would-be moviegoers.


Copyright 2012 Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks
Animation. All rights reserved

There's also been some talk that American movie-goers were somewhat put off by "Guardians" 's take on Santa Claus. Which -- according to the mythology that William Joyce had cooked up for this character -- was originally supposed to have been a Russian Cossack. Which is why -- in this DreamWorks Animation film -- dear old Santa wielded swords and had "Naughty" tattooed on one arm & "Nice" tattooed on the other.

Me personally, I don't know if I buy into that whole America-wasn't-ready-for-a-burly-Russian-Santa idea. Though I have heard another, more interesting theory as to why "Guardians" under-performed in North America. Which -- according to the stories that I've been told by industry insiders -- supposedly had a lot to do with "Wreck-It Ralph ."


Copyright 2012 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

That Walt Disney Animation Studios production opened on November 2, 2012. And Paramount Pictures executives (who were handling the distribution of all DreamWorks Animation films at that time. In fact, "Rise of the Guardians" was the very last film released under this pact before Fox then began distributing DWA's movies in 2013) supposedly freaked when they saw the exit polling on "Wreck-It Ralph." Which reportedly suggested that moviegoers  -- as they were exiting opening weekend screenings of this Rich Moore movie -- had praised this WDAS production for being especially funny.

And given that "Wreck-It Ralph" now looked like it was going to have strong word-of-mouth and could potentially still be a box office contender over the long Thanksgiving Weekend (which was when "Rise of the Guardians" was going to be released to theaters) ... Well, Paramount & DWA execs supposedly ditched the television promotional campaign that they had originally mapped out for "Guardians" (which allegedly stressed the magic & the wonder of this new animated feature. Not to mention its terrific cast of characters) and opted instead to go with an expensive new set of TV commercials. Ones that would then play up the humor of this motion picture by focusing almost exclusively on Santa's dim-witted elves.

Which -- the way I hear it -- did more harm than good to "Guardians." For when people saw this series of TV commercials hyping DreamWorks Animation's next big feature, they supposedly said / thought: "Hey, those elves look & behave just like the minions in 'Despicable Me .' I've already seen that movie. So why should I pay to see something that I've already seen? I think I'll pass on seeing 'Rise of the Guardians.' "

As I said earlier, promoting motion pictures is kind of an inexact science. But even taking that into account, swapping out the television ad campaign that you've previously mapped out for your new animated feature just two weeks prior to its arrival in theaters is a very, very bad idea. And in the end, "Rise of the Guardians" wound up paying the price for that late-in-the-game change in its advertising strategy.


Copyright 1999 Warner Bros. All rights reserved

Which is why a lot of us animation fans out there who keep hoping that "Rise" will eventually see an "Iron Giant " or "A Christmas Story " -like revival. Both of those movies initially bombed at the box office but eventually found huge & enthusiastic audiences. Thanks in large part to Cartoon Network's decision to begin presenting "Iron Giant" marathons (which is when this Brad Bird film would then be run continuously on that cable channel for 24 hours straight) on Thanksgiving Day in the early 2000s. Which had supposedly been inspired by TBS's holiday tradition of running "A Christmas Story" for 24 hours straight starting on Christmas Eve.

One can only imagine that -- if some cable channel were to stage a similar stunt with "Rise of the Guardians" around Easter -- that this DreamWorks Animation film would finally then be able to shake off its bombed-during-its-theatrical-stigma reputation and then begin being seen as the extraordinary piece of family entertainment that it actually is.


Copyright Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks Animation. All rights reserved

In fact, if you're looking for something fun to watch with the family, tonight would be the perfect night to toss "Rise of the Guardians" into your DVD or Blu-ray player. After all, Pitch's epic final battle with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sand Man and Jack Frost supposedly happens just a day or so after Easter.

Besides, it's not like you were planning on going out tonight to see " Transcendence" ...


Copyright 2014 Warner Bros. All rights reserved

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  • I have to say that I wasn't a fan of Rise of the Guardians. The story was fine, but I didn't like the animation, it looks rough around the edges. That said, I cannot remember the last good marketing campaign carried out by Disney, you mentioned that Guardians suffered from trailers that concentrated on the wrong thing (in this case, the elves for comedy which felt Minion-ish which they were), that is exactly the same mistake Disney made with Frozen where the trailer was Olaf Olaf Olaf rather than let the true movie speak for itself which is what it finally did when they released the Let It Go scene and the movie went from strength to strength from that point on. My first comment about the Frozen trailer was that it seemed like it was advertising a Dreamworks movie which is all about the gags than a Disney animated princess musical classic. Opposed to that, the Despicable Me 2 marketing was flawless, the movie did FAR better at the box office than the film itself deserved and I have no doubt it is because Minions were everywhere and generated an audience. I hope that one day the Disney marketing department will get its act back together and do a decent job; I have a feeling that Big Hero 6 is going to need good marketing.

  • jimhillmedia.com/.../what-happened-to-warner-bros-this-summer-or-quot-the-cold-streak-that-just-wouldn-t-end-quot.aspx

    Sounds like nothing new from the folks at Warmer Bros promotional teams...

  • Is "Transcendence" a sci-fi movie? The print ad made it look like a horror movie. The commercials made it look like Matrix crossed with Terminator and I've seen them already. Johnny Depp is hard to categorize as an actor. He takes chances with off-beat characters, which is fine, but sometimes movies like Transcendence are not perceived to be box office blockbusters. Thus, this movie should have had lesser expectations; however, the budget was reported to be $100 million. The situaion is the same with "The Lone Ranger" when the budget is ridiculous for the box office expectation.

    You say that with Pirates and Alice completed by 2017, Johnny's box office past failures might be buried. I say the public won't forget that Johnny Depp makes unappealing movies in the off years. I will also say Johnny isn't the lead for Alice although he is marketed as one.

    The problem with "Rise of the Guardians" is the movie's title doesn't tell us anything about it. With such a wrongly named film, it has no where to go, but down. They should have titled the movie for what the episode is about. If that is difficult, the movie is probably not very good anyways.

  • I had been wanting to see Transcendance since I knew it was Wally Pfister's first directorial attempt.  The reviews dampened my enthusiasm, and I haven't seen it.

    It is a crying shame that The Iron Giant lacked the promotional campaign to find it's audience.  I loved that movie in the theater, and while crying my eyes out at the end (I still do), I was frustrated and angry there weren't more people in the theater with me.

    ROTG? Could be marketing.  Could be the fact that DreamWorks films for the most part have been underwhelming at best.  I will go see each and every Pixar film in the theater, but I haven't seen every DreamWorks film, and when I do it tends to be on home video.  My favorite one, "Over the Hedge" is the one I'd most like to see a sequel for, but that's likely to never happen.

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