Three marketing lessons from notorious box office flops

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Hollywood films often boast marketing budgets into the tens (or even hundreds) of millions of dollars, yet as box office flops like John Carter, The Lone Ranger and 47 Ronin show, a massive marketing budget isn’t always a good predictor of success.

In fact, as marketers we can learn a lot from the marketing woes of these big budget movies. In many cases, marketing fails with a million dollar budget are similar to those experienced by marketing campaigns at a scale more of us can relate to!

Let’s look at some of the most infamous box office failures and what marketing lessons we can learn from them.

(Note: The film’s marketing budget is typically excluded from the production budget, and usually amounts to around the same as the production budget.)

John Carter (2012)

Production budget: $250-300 million

Box office takings: $284 million

Disney’s sci-fi fantasy action movie received mixed reviews, but the critics weren’t solely to blame for the estimated $200 million loss from John Carter.

First, the movie didn’t stand much of a chance with its chosen title – it was shortened from John Carter of Mars. Execs dropped ‘of Mars’ because films with Mars in the title hadn’t performed well in recent history. Sadly, the name John Carter is instantly forgettable.

Most significantly, the marketing material for the film wasn’t consistent. One trailer marketed the film as an offbeat sci-fi action movie, while another tried to paint it as a serious epic. In the end, the film didn’t really appeal to anyone.

The lesson? Decide your target market early, and fit your strategy around it.

Treasure Planet (2002)

Production budget: $140 million

Box office takings: $110 million

Treasure Planet is by no means a bad film, but that didn’t stop Disney’s animation from flopping at the box office.

Experts suggest a handful of reasons for the films failure:

  • Unexpectedly strong competition from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which released a few weeks earlier.
  • The use of traditional hand-drawn animation in an era where computer-generated animation (Shrek etc.) had become the new norm.
  • The movie was good, but not great – it didn’t stand out in the crowded field.

The marketing lessons here are simple: in a competitive field, you need to produce something different (and exceptional) to get noticed.

Ben-Hur (2016)

Production budget: $100 million

Box office takings: $94 million

Ben-Hur was the remake that nobody wanted. The film was panned by critics upon its release, and the studio expected a $100 million loss.

Bad movies don’t necessarily turn into box office bombs (see: Spider-Man 3, the Star Wars prequels), but Ben-Hur did – and poor marketing may have been partially responsible. Again, with plenty of competition from other films, Ben-Hur wasn’t marketed much beyond its key Christian audience; analysis shows that Ben-Hur performed well in more religious areas of the states.

This relatively small target market wasn’t enough for the movie to recoup its budget. The lesson here? Don’t plan expensive marketing campaigns if your target market is too small to justify them.

Conclusion

These films failed at the box office for different reasons, but poor marketing let all three down. Treasure Planet shows that a good product doesn’t necessarily equal success, while Ben Hur and John Carter’s poor marketing efforts show that target market counts for everything.

Even if your budget is only one-thousandth or one-millionth of these gargantuan Hollywood marketing budgets, you still need a smart marketing strategy to use it effectively.

Speak to our marketing experts today if your marketing campaigns aren’t performing as you’d hoped.