LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- M.T. Carney is perhaps the most closely watched marketer right now in Hollywood, a town that loves to watch outsiders stumble. It's been nearly four months since Ms. Carney, a founding partner of U.K.-based Naked Communications' U.S. outpost, joined Walt Disney Pictures as president-marketing, and she's already been skewered for flubbing one of the first major releases she oversaw, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," which has grossed a disappointing $62 million domestically after its July 14 release, earning her the skepticism of one of Disney's biggest producers in the process.
But like a thriller-movie plotline, the question is whether there were actually missteps, or whether it's a case of the industry rushing to judgment before the marketing model she is trying to put in place has taken hold.
Ms. Carney made headlines recently after a Sept. 7 story in The Hollywood Reporter announced her appointment of an outside marketing consultant (Sony's former marketing co-president, Valerie Van Galder) to run the campaign for the third sequel in the supremely profitable "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Mr. Bruckheimer, who produced "Apprentice" as well as May's "Prince of Persia," both of which were seen as box-office disappointments, told the trade that Ms. Carney "came to the party late" and that he felt the "movies suffered" for being caught in between regime changes. A spokesman for Mr. Bruckheimer declined to comment further, referring to the previous article.
"She kind of had the cards stacked against her," said one marketing exec at a rival studio. "Any time you have an inherited slate, and producers breathing down your neck, no amount of paid tweets or flashy social-media campaign can make you look like a rock star unless the first movies are really good. And she had a challenging [lineup]."
She's also trying to bring a more agency-like approach to marketing at Disney, which will soon release the first slate of films from new studio Chairman Rich Ross, who joined last October from the Disney Channel. She has appointed "brand leads" for each of the studio's releases across its Disney, Touchstone Pictures, Pixar and DreamWorks divisions. In June, she tapped former Fox and Universal exec Kevin Campbell as her exec VP-marketing, overseeing all the DreamWorks Studios titles released under the Touchstone banner. She also appointed marketing leads for the studio's live-action and animation divisions. And Ms. Carney contends she invited Ms. Van Galder on her own accord, despite Mr. Bruckheimer's comments to the Hollywood Reporter.
"Building a marketing team is like putting together a soccer team -- you're only as good as the people you're playing with," Ms. Carney told Ad Age.
Multiple executives from other studios told Ad Age that the practice of hiring an outside consultant to lead the strategy for a tent-pole film is fairly uncommon, though it's not unheard of to outsource an awards-season strategy to a third party or ask for an extra pair of eyes on a franchise property. "It may send a signal to some that Carney needs some guidance, but marketing any film has many credited and uncredited heroes," said one executive at a rival studio. "Are the myriad of creative vendors that studios hire consultants?"
A key priority for Mr. Ross as he prepares to greenlight his first full slate as chairman (not to mention oversee the studio's recently completed $4 billion acquisition of Marvel Studios) is to find films and create franchises that play well internationally. Mr. Ross told Ad Age in May that Ms. Carney's background was ideal to help him realize this strategy.
"She's Scottish, so you know that she's somebody that comes from another world," he said. "We're in a global business, so you need someone that knows how to create ideas that go all over the world."
Being an innovative marketer has also been at the top of Ms. Carney's list. Disney was a launch sponsor of Apple's iAd platform, and Ms. Carney oversaw the company's launch sponsorship of Twitter's Promoted Tweets platform, an experiment she said was overhyped in the trade press for having a profound impact on the success of this summer's "Toy Story 3."
"We will continue to try to do things in a new way if they're appropriate to our audience and there is an opportunity to test. The Twitter test was only 50,000 people -- the fact that it created such a stir is a testament to the power of Twitter, at least within the marketing community," she said.
But one perspective Ms. Carney said she won't be changing any time soon is the studio's media agency. Despite late-summer rumblings that Disney was looking to place its account in review, plans are for the $399 million account to stay with Publicis Groupe's Starcom.
As each release for Disney becomes more and more like the launch of a package good from Procter & Gamble, Ms. Carney would also like to see an agency-like use of longer lead times, strategizing a film's campaign eight to nine months out. "A lot of what I've been doing is about breaking down silos," she said. "In the marketing department, it's a micro level of what Rich has been doing across the whole company. I don't know the agency practice vs. the Hollywood way, but this is how I've always worked," she said. "The priority is to make sure teams have the tools and the time they need to get the thinking right. We don't want to get into rapid course adjustment three-fourths of the way through the film. "
This fall sees the release of three more major releases for the studio, "Secretariat," a "Seabiscuit"-esque horse drama starring Diane Lane; "Tangled," a CGI-animated take on the "Rapunzel" story featuring the voices of Zachary Levi and Mandy Moore; and "Tron Legacy," the long-awaited sequel to the '80s cult movie. (Mr. Ross did not greenlight any of these films, so the beginnings of his soup-to-nuts imprint are still months away.) Next spring tentatively brings an adaptation of the Kathryn Stockett novel "The Help" starring Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard, while the summer brings a sequel to Pixar's "Cars" in addition to the next "Pirates" film.
As she enters her fourth month at Disney, Ms. Carney takes the criticism around her new role in stride -- but she's also prepared to take the fall for any of her future moves, including the hire of Ms. Van Galder.
"I feel it's important to have accountability as well as authority," she said. "I believe if the things don't work I'm the first person to put my hands up for good and for bad." In Hollywood, that tends to work the other way around, as she's quickly finding out.