In case you hadn’t noticed, the summer movie season is now upon us and so is the annual onslaught of movie marketing. According to a recent article in the L.A. Times, the studios are about to embark on the costliest summer for marketing ever. At least a dozen big-budget pictures are about to be unleashed upon moviegoers, most with worldwide marketing budgets that will top $100 million. I’m guessing these costly campaigns are based on the fact that ticket sales are actually up 17.3 % this year as people, worried about losing their jobs and homes, are crowding into movie theatres to watch something big and expensive explode. Makes sense to me. Movies reassure us. And there’s nothing more reassuring than massive destruction (on screen).
As we all know, making movies is an expensive and risky business. You can assemble an A-List team, hand them 200 million dollars and still wind up with a piece of shit. Once a studio has sunk a gigantic piece of change into producing a movie, it’s understandable that they would want to make their money back. Since I try to avoid reading reviews, I have (over time) gotten pretty good at assessing the quality of an upcoming movie based solely on the marketing. Here are few things that (if I spot in a preview) almost always make me suspicious that the film might not be so hot.
If it’s a big action movie, I tend to be wary if the preview features a lot of automobiles leaving the ground and flying through the air. God knows, I enjoy twisted metal and breaking glass as much as the next person, but usually if the trailer is light on plot and heavy on fireballs, it’s not a good sign. If it’s a sci-fi film, too many fake-looking CGI effects signal that what’s supposed to feel exciting or dangerous, probably won’t be. CGI, although a remarkable tool, still looks like CGI and it’s hard to get excited about something you can clearly see was created on a computer. And as for comedies, if the trailer features more than one shot of somebody vomiting (or falling down) I usually wait for the DVD.
Since summer movies have to be delivered on a strict schedule, sometimes certain details (like an original cohesive script) can often fall by the wayside. Once $200,000,000 has been spent, well, somebody's got to pay for it - and the studios would like that to be you and I. I’ve even heard unsubstantiated rumors that the marketing departments around town (when faced with competing turkeys) place bets with each other, and on Monday morning, somebody is declared the winner for having made the most money promoting a movie that everybody knew was crap to begin with.
Marketing is the brainchild of corporate America and the corporatization of the entertainment business has (in my humble opinion) not been such a great idea. Yes, more money has been made, but the quality of the product has suffered and audiences have (rightfully) become more suspicious of us. Plus, the whole system has made it tougher for truly talented filmmakers to score a greenlight for their projects. I’ve even heard stories of established pros requesting to pitch their films directly to the marketing department first since that’s apparently where the real power seems to lie these days.
That said, you have to hand it to the folks who sell movies. When marketing works, it’s almost unstoppable. I remember when I first saw the trailer for “Independence Day” in ’96. It was fantastically stylish and funny and ended with an alien spacecraft utterly obliterating the White House. This was, of course, back in the innocent “pre-9/11” days when such an event seemed so absurd it was hilarious. Every time I saw the preview, the audience cheered. I couldn’t wait to see that film. But when it came out, the reviews were tepid and everybody I knew who saw advanced screenings expressed disappointment. I refused to believe them! The preview had made such an imprint on my brain that I was resolved to see it. So, I did. Hence my “marketing cherry” was popped.
I’m always a little stumped as to why the movie business (unlike other industries) doesn’t strive to solve their problems by producing a better and more reliable product. In my experience that would mean having fewer people involved in the decision-making process, not more. Successful screen stories are not created by market research and trends are impossible to predict using surveys conducted in malls. What makes any piece of entertainment work is its ability to connect with people’s untapped imaginations. When you ask somebody “what do they want?” they will tell you what they enjoyed last – which will have very little bearing on what they’ll be interested in by next summer. The greatest successes in this business come when you surprise the public; and not by presenting them with a product that's been strip-mined from last year's ideas. The great showmen who once ran the studios understood that and depended on their instincts and on the inherent talent of the people they employed. Maybe someday, we’ll see a return to more creative approach, but in the meantime, tickets still need to be sold. Hence, marketing.
Happily, not everybody has cow-towed to the system. Some filmmakers still strive to control how their films are sold to the public. There is a great story about a successful female director who was so incensed when she was shown the poster and accompanying marketing campaign for her upcoming film, that she supposedly stormed up to the marketing department and confronted the head “marketeer.” Poster in hand, she went off on how misleading and downright dishonest the campaign was and how it, in no way represented the movie she’d just sacrificed the last year of her life to make. The story goes that the exec listened patiently to her tirade and then calmly replied, “I’m sorry, this is the marketing department. Were you looking for the integrity department? Because that’s now in the basement.”
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv