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John Carter: A movie title that doesn't exactly say 'watch me!'

"What's in a name?" Shakespeare asked. Take, for example, John Carter, which immediately brings to mind, I don't know, maybe a stub name on a credit-card commercial? Do any other John Carters come to mind? The journeyman NHLer who played for the San Jose Sharks? The late jazz clarinetist? The 19th-century paraplegic English "mouth artist" John Carter? Didn't think so.

Here's what's in a name – a potential faceplant for a major Disney movie. For the past few weeks, there has been a great deal of fuss in the movie trades and in online forums about the marketing of Disney's new $250-million (U.S.) blockbuster (with another $100-million in advertising). The movie hasn't been tracking well with audiences and Disney is looking at a domestic opening weekend with sales estimated in the $25-$30-million range. Though director Andrew Stanton ( Wall-E) is reportedly starting to write the next of two proposed sequels, the film may well be a one-off unless there's a huge turnaround.

The most obvious problem is what must be the dullest title in movie history. Even Tim Robbins's utterly boring title Bob Roberts had some internal rhyme. Even Meet John Doe promised an introduction (and a recognizable star in Gary Cooper). You know what kind of name John Carter is? It's the kind of name that caused aspiring actor John Carter to change his name to Charlton Heston, so he would be recognized in the movies.

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Chances are remote that moviegoers will associate the name with the century-old fantasy story from Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, about a Confederate soldier on Mars. Unless, you know, you called the movie John Carter of Mars, which was the film's original title. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the decision to truncate the original title John Carter of Mars to just John Carter was "hotly debated" by Disney executives who had been spooked by the recent failure of Mars Needs Moms. History suggested that red-planet movies usually ended up in the red, from Mars Attacks! to Mission to Mars. Specifically, Disney did a survey that confirmed that women don't like movies about Mars.

According to Andrew Stanton, the truncating of the title happened this way:

"I was in the middle of reshoots, and marketing came to me and said, 'Look we've done all these focus groups and not a single woman is gonna come see a movie called John Carter of Mars.' I was a little bummed about that [but]… I changed the Princess of Mars to John Carter of Mars because I thought no boy would go to the film."

Apart from cleverly picking a title that avoided either girl or boy interest, critics have jumped on other dubious Disney decisions, from using a novice live-action director, to failing to promote the movie at Comic-Con International conference, and a $3.5-million, chopped-up action segment on a Super Bowl ad ranked poorly by TV viewers. The Los Angeles Times has cited industry insiders who estimate the movie needs to earn $700-million in worldwide ticket sales to break even (studios and theatres divide box-office earnings) which seems unlikely, given lukewarm early reviews and patchy global interest. While interest in Russia, South Korea and Mexico is strong, key territories including Europe, Brazil and Australia aren't awash in Carter-mania.

In the short term, it's a bit of a rude shock that reflects consumers' impatience, not with the film, but with Disney's botched hype job. At the premiere of John Carter last month, Disney's studio chairman Rich Ross, who inherited John Carter from a previous administration, expressed surprise at the negativity toward the film at the premiere last month: ("I've never had something healthy get treated like a corpse," he said) but if the movie fails, it won't be a game changer, at least if Marvel Comics' The Avengers, which is due out in June, comes to the rescue.

John Carter, by any name, is still the kind of franchise movie the studio wants to make. Disney used to release 20 or more live-action movies a year. This year, there will only be two: John Carter and the fantasy family drama, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, along with the Pixar and Disney animated films, and The Avengers. (For grown-ups, DreamWorks will release Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (starring Daniel Day-Lewis) and Welcome to People, the directorial debut of writer-producer Alex Kurtzman.) In late February, Disney's chief financial officer Jay Rasulo told a conference that movies that can be spun into television shows, games, consumer products and theme-park rides are the industry's new future because of the "melting ice cube of the DVD business."

Before the theme park comes the movie and before the movie comes the marketing campaign and the title, which is the point where fans begin to form a consensus around a movie. Frankly, even The Melting Ice-Cube of the DVD Business sounds more intriguing than John Carter.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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