FEATURE FRIDAY: Marketing, Movies and Me

You know that feeling you get in the cinema when you realise the film you're watching isn't everything you had hoped it would be? It's an uncomfortable feeling, in the pit of your stomach. You're not quite sure whether you want to continue watching the screen in front of you. If you do, it's going to turn out badly, you can feel the decline coming already, the moment where this movie loses you and you suddenly become acutely aware of your surroundings; there's a guy in front of you mindlessly crunching popcorn a little too loudly, the temperature is a couple of degrees out from where you want it to be and the chair beneath you has suddenly turned to the density of concrete. There the film is, playing out in front of you, dashing your expectations with a line or a few frames. And then it has lost you.

In the current movie marketing climate, films come with a high degree of expectation, particularly for blockbuster season and it is something that is cultivated fiercely by film-makers. J.J. Abrams is one such figure, using his now-famous mystery box to ramp up excitement and speculation for his films. He's also guilty of directing one of my biggest disappointments in recent years in Star Trek Into Darkness. Now, given that the film has largely received a positive reaction, I can't quite lay this sense of disappointment solely at the feet of the unholy trinity of Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof nor can I solely blame Abrams. I don't absolve them of responsibility completely as it is their work that forms the basis of my resentment, but I also acknowledge that I have my own part to play when it comes to this film and others that have not met my expectations.

Film as an art form will always be subjective; each audience member brings their own unique experience into the cinema with them, their own hopes for the film, their own ideas of how it should play out. As I said before, I went into STID with a very clear idea of what I wanted from it and it didn't deliver for a combination of reasons. I actively participated in the hype and speculation surrounding the Star Trek sequel; I devoured every piece of news I could find, I followed the ongoing developments, rumours, theories, straw-grasping and logic-defying conclusions that appeared online. I even came up with a few theories myself and actively selected the character that I wanted the villain to be (they totally should have gone for Gary Mitchell). I was already riding high on enthusiasm months before the film's release. In short, I was ready for a spectacular crash, which of course it turned out to be. I knew exactly when the film lost me. Though I must be fair to Abrams et.al, it happened a lot later than say, the nuclear bomb defying fridge. But how far are we all just actually victims to the afore-mentioned big movie marketing machine?

Abrams' mystery box is one of the worst culprits in this way; the speculation surrounding the movie villain has been going on for four years, pretty much since the sequel was announced. Marketing campaigns have become almost an event in themselves now with studios seizing upon the potential to capture audiences in a way that has rarely been seen before. The internet has helped hugely in this respect with trailers and news available almost instantaneously when it is released. One of the best is the campaign behind The Dark Knight which unleashed Heath Ledger's Joker on the world and slowly built up anticipation to the film's release, utilising the new trend for viral marketing. Teasing the audience in such a way as to introduce them slowly to the world of the film, rather than the film proper, has become the new way in which to capture your audiences, building in the anticipation a long way in advance.

With The Dark Knight, this was a huge success. It naturally helped that it was an excellent film. Of course, there also those campaigns that ramp up the anticipation without the film to follow it and my case in point is Prometheus. I reacted to Prometheus in a similar way to Star Trek Into Darkness; it was that same sinking feeling, that same sudden awareness that this was not going to end well for me and my expectations. Now Prometheus had an exhaustive marketing process, beginning with some really amazing viral videos before descending into trailer after trailer after trailer after trailer... Well, you get my drift. The viral videos however, were mini-triumphs, particularly Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland in his TED talk announcing his plans to colonise the stars. It was spine-tinglingly good. Once again though, the speculation, the awe-inspiring start and intense fan anticipation was not matched by the final product. That and the overwhelming amount of trailers just put people off.

But I think these disappointments are, in their own slightly torturous way, necessary to enhance our cinematic experience elsewhere. It's the lows that make the highs so good after all. Whether the film itself is objectively good or not, there is honestly nothing better for me than watching something in the cinema and having exactly the opposite reaction to the one I described in the opening paragraph. The moment you fall completely headlong into the movie in front of you, losing any awareness you have of the outside world. You don't care that the man in front is anti-socially crunching popcorn because you can't hear it, the temperature of the room doesn't matter because you're not there anymore, you're on the edge of your seat so it doesn't matter that it's not all that comfortable. It's quite simply the best feeling to be so surprised by what is unfolding in front of you, that everything else falls away.

Without the odd disappointment, slight or crushing, that feeling wouldn't be quite so special when it happens. You feel like you've just discovered the best kind of surprise, the one that no one saw coming and instead of feeling like someone wacked you over the head with a big plank of stupid, you feel elated, like you've discovered something really special. Last year, it was 21 Jump Street that shocked me in this way when I realised, halfway through the film, I was laughing like a drain and really enjoying myself.  Iron Man 3 is the most recent movie to have taken me completely by surprise and I have to say, the marketing for that film is largely responsible for this. I knew I was looking forward to it, but I wasn't so intensely wrapped up in the speculation, precisely because I didn't think there was anything else to speculate about. 

Though I wouldn't say that either of these films were under-marketed, they simply didn't play their hand too early in the advertising, particularly IM3. Likewise, a smaller hit like Cabin in the Woods benefitted from not revealing too much in the trailers beforehand - though of course this had to tread the fine line of not looking too derivative. Now there is of course the option to opt out of the marketing, to ignore whatever trailer is out there next and this is something that I do try to stick to. If I really want to go into a movie without knowing anything, as I did with Trance most recently, then I will simply avoid the marketing. It's tough but it is possible.

There are always going to be those films that grab your attention more than others for whatever reason. Star Trek got me because I loved what they did with the reboot and I'm a massive Trek fan, have been for years. I was always going to be fervently awaiting its release and I didn't temper my expectations until the very last minute when reports started appearing from people on Twitter whose opinions I value. Then again, would it have been the same if there hadn't been the general speculation cultivated by Abrams? 

That feeling of surprised glee or creeping disappointment is always going to happen in certain films; it's inevitable that something will exceed or fail to meet your expectations as its the very nature of the beast when it comes to cinema. I just think that it is important to not get too swept up in those big blockbuster marketing campaigns that are designed to do just that, let you get carried away and book your ticket months in advance. It's a delicate balance that must be struck and I think, increasingly, it becomes the responsibility of the audience member to try and achieve that. After all, the marketing behemoths just want to get you into the cinema. 

- Becky

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