Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Seeking a Friend* (*For Possible End of the World. Inquire Within.)

Or: Marketing in Film and the Increased Problem With Misleading Advertising (...which sounds less interesting, but is more to the point.)

OK.  I promise we're going to get back to the older stuff soon, but this was one of those moments recently that really got me thinking on film in general.  As with most of those 'get to thinking' moments, once it burrowed its way in, it was only a matter of time before I finally just caved and wrote about it.

In this case, as the title suggests, it comes from recently watching the movie Seeking a Friend For the End of the World.

This isn't a review per se, though for the record, I have to say I did find the film worth seeing.  However, one of the things that I was struck by was just how, compared to how the film was marketed, it was a rather different beast of a movie.  Yes, there was some comedic parts to it, and those were entertaining (in particular a brief appearance by Patton Oswalt leads to probably the funniest scene in the movie.)  At the same time though, I was struck by just how much of the film was more understated and, as it went on, downright sad in terms of content.  I mean, yeah, the title lets you know how that yes, by the end of this movie the world will end.  But watching the ads, you get the sense of a much more light-hearted and goofy ride to that proverbial 'Great Gig in the Sky' than the film actually delivers.  Very little is said in the promotion for the fact Carrel's Dodge spends much of the first half of the movie bordering on a despondent depression, or the fact that, by the last half hour, the film has abandoned the joking road trip entirely and takes on a much sadder feel before getting to a fairly heartbreaking ending.  Now, granted, I'll accept that that makes for a much harder sell in a film, so that may be why people were hesitant to mention it within the ads.  At the same time though, it really sells the film short as a more disposable comedy than the finished product actually is.  As a result, those who do go in based on the strength of those ads are in for a pretty harsh trapdoor opening beneath them.

Unfortunately, by this point, the film has already been subjected to a painful opening weekend, coming in #10 at the box office.  While I hold some hope that word of mouth could help it regain some wind, the fact is that, in the eyes of the distributors, it's already dead.  Thanks to the general practice of abandoning a film if it fails to perform right out of the gate, it's safe to say this won't be getting any help from the ads any more...if one could say they helped in the first place.

In thinking back at how misleading the advertising on this film was, and subsequently how it probably did have a hand in the poor box office performance (being put up against Pixar for their opening weekend wasn't doing them any favors either,) I couldn't help but realize how much of a track record there has been in recent films for ads that leave you feeling like you're in for one sort of film, only to find yourself looking at a different film entirely.

Earlier this year also saw a different example of this at work, albeit with more success for the film in question.  After being trapped on studio shelves for two years, the movie Cabin in the Woods was finally released this spring with marketing emphasizing it as a creepy horror film that turns conventions on their ear (to a degree that some felt was spoiling elements of it.)
...what those ads didn't really mention was that, for as seriously as they tried to depict the proceedings, the actual film was less of a horror film, and more a surprisingly sharp black comedy that made light of a LOT of horror movie tropes as the basis for much of its humor.
It was in that light that the word of mouth about the movie spread (well...word of mouth and some strong buzz in fan circles, partly thanks to Joss Whedon's involvement,) and arguably actually did more for the film's success than the actual marketing did, going on to make a film that was something of a dark horse into one of the more successful films of this spring.

While looking at examples of this, another curious one, that others before me have pointed out, comes from the above mentioned Pixar release of this summer, Brave.

Now, I imagine some of you are probably going "...really?  How the Hell can you say a Pixar film is mismarketed?"

Well, here's the weird part - for an interesting experiment, and one I'm sure some of you may have already done since I know I'm not the first to point this out, look up the American trailer of the film compared to the Japanese trailer.

The former is much more focused on the comedic and character elements of the movie, with emphasis on the film's female lead and her desire to break out of her role within the medieval society.  The latter, meanwhile, brings up elements of plot completely omitted from the American version (such as the fact Merida makes a deal with a witch in her quest to change her fate) and, as some have described it, feels less like a light-hearted comedy and more like Pixar's version of a Studio Ghibli story.

 (If Blogger's formatting cuts off part of the video, click here)
I have to admit, while both of these look fairly worth the watch, the Japanese take is the one that really has me interested to see it.

Finally, and in another example of how advertising can hurt box office performances, let's travel back to approximately this past winter.  Before the Oscars really helped bring the film back into the limelight, Martin Scorsese's Hugo ushered its way into theaters with probably one of the most vague ad campaigns this side of the much less fortunate John Carter.  Unless one was already familiar with the novel the film was adapting, the ads told you almost nothing about what you were in for.  Looking back, all I remember of them was "Martin Scorsese directed, and there appears to be some sort of clockwork person...also Ben Kingsley."  Even what information I could find online was a mixed bag.  From talking to others, I certainly wasn't alone in this sentiment, and it showed in its performance.  For its budget and high profile director, the movie opened #5 at the box office, and only managed to climb up to #3 by virtue of word of mouth after the fact.  It did eventually manage to regain some steam thanks to said word of mouth and the eventual push by the Oscars, but it's hard to deny the cypher that was its initial marketing likely had a hand in its rather lackluster debut.

These are, of course, just a few examples, and far from isolated incidents (again, take a look at the equally vague advertising on John Carter, as well as their decision to shorten the title in fear of 'Mars' driving away viewers, and how that lead to one of the biggest flops in recent movie history.)  They can, however, be said to be indicative of a problem that seems to have increased in recent years, as it seems like the people in charge are either uncertain of how to advertise these films, if not unwilling to mention certain elements of them for fear it will turn off general interest.

Is it my place to tell these people how to do their jobs?  Not officially, no.  However, I will say, at this point, it might do for studios to re-evaluate the role marketing has in movies,and hopefully start taking it more seriously in the future.

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