After 'John Carter' Flop, Disney Looks Forward to 'Avengers' Rescue

'Carter' Failure Shows Risk in Studio's Turn Toward Fewer Films

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After losing $200 million on the sci-fi film "John Carter," Walt Disney Co. is mounting a superhero-style marketing campaign to ensure "The Avengers" is a blockbuster.

Disney hopes 'The Avengers' will help rescue the studio's year.
Disney hopes 'The Avengers' will help rescue the studio's year. Credit: Marvel

The company's interactive unit designed an online game, the parks division covered a Florida monorail in ads and the Disney XD cable network is running an "Avengers" cartoon, all to help boost awareness of the film, which opens May 4 to kick off Hollywood's summer box-office season.

"It's quite a contrast to another recent Disney effort," said Jeff Gomez, founder of Starlight Runner Entertainment, an internet consultant that works with studios. "There are a number of elements that are unprecedented."

A lot is riding on "The Avengers," the first Marvel film Disney has marketed since buying the comic-book company for $4 billion in 2009. Under Rich Ross, the TV executive who became studio chairman in October of that year, Disney has cut its slate in half, betting on fewer films to boost profits.

But that plan's risk was underscored by "John Carter," which will drag the unit to a second-quarter loss of as much as $120 million.

"The Avengers" may generate domestic ticket sales of $155 million its opening weekend and $370 million in U.S. and Canadian theaters, estimates Phil Contrino, editor of BoxOffice.com.

That would be more than five times the domestic tally of "John Carter" and a bigger opening than Lionsgate Entertainment's "The Hunger Games" last month, itself the third-largest debut of all-time at $152.5 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

"I don't think there's any need to worry about this one," Mr. Contrino said in an e-mail. "It's a sure thing."

Disney spent an estimated $220 million producing "The Avengers," $30 million less than on "John Carter," according to IMDB.

Disney's upcoming release has several built-in advantages that its recent flop did not.

"The Avengers," about a team of superheroes battling to save Earth, stars Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, reprising their roles as Iron Man and the Black Widow from 2010's "Iron Man 2." That film posted $624 million in worldwide ticket sales for distributor Paramount Pictures on a budget of $200 million, according to IMDB. The team also includes Captain America, a character that got the big-budget treatment last summer with "Captain America: The First Avenger," and Thor, who also hit big screens last year.

But Disney is also avoiding mistakes it made with "John Carter," said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures executive who is now a consultant. He cited a "Carter" trailer that didn't excite viewers, a change in the studio's top marketing officer two months before the release and the removal of the identifying words "of Mars" from the title.

"It was a huge marketing failure," Mr. Sealey said, adding Disney will "get the train back on the track."

Disney has been stoking interest in "The Avengers'' since at least July 2010, when the stars and director Joss Whedon appeared at the annual Comic-Con International convention in San Diego. The film premieres today at the Disney-run El Capitan theater in Los Angeles, before going into wide release on May 4.

The company gave away free screenings in 10 cities where the most Facebook users signaled they liked the film. More than 1 million did so, according to the site. The trailers have broken records for downloads on Apple's iTunes.

Playdom, acquired by Disney in 2010 and part of the interactive unit, created its first social game for a Disney product for the movie. Introduced on Facebook Inc.'s site last month, "Marvel: Avengers Alliance" has 640,000 daily users, according to researcher AppData.

Disney also lined up an estimated $100 million in "Avengers"-related marketing by partners including Hershey, hotelier Wyndham Worldwide and Honda Motor's Acura.

David Funk, senior VP of sales and marketing at Land O' Frost Inc., a Lansing, Illinois-based luncheon meat maker, began discussing sponsorship packages with Marvel a year ago. He declined to put a dollar figure on his company's efforts, which include a sweepstakes for an "Avengers"-themed trip to New York, supermarket displays, trading card giveaways and a TV commercial with a superhero mom making a sandwich.

"They told us this was going to be the biggest movie in their entire portfolio," Mr. Funk said in an interview. "We figure: They're going all out, we'll go all out, too."

Harley-Davidson, the largest U.S.-based motorcycle maker, produced a website where fans can design cartoon characters and virtual motorcycles. In July, Harley and Marvel will pick their five favorites, publishing them in online comic books and giving the winners custom-made Harleys, according to Dino Bernacchi, director of North American marketing communications at Harley Davidson.

"This is experiential marketing and that 's what we're looking to do more of ," Mr. Bernacchi said in an interview. "Who doesn't want to be a part of comic history and what cooler way to do it than riding in on a Harley?"

-- Bloomberg News --

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