Saturday, July 3, 2010

Modern movie marketing campaigns that didn't know when to stop.

While any number of reasons and/or excuses have been tossed out for why Fox's The A-Team didn't perform better over the last month, one thing that sticks out is the general blandness of the theatrical trailer. As I wrote back in January, the first teaser did a remarkable job of knowing how to re-explain the concept, establish the new cast, and get out while the audience still wanted to know more. The second trailer, released in April, was a bland, overlong, and generally disappointing affair, seeming to highlight just how generic the film was outside of the inherent appeal of the original television show. Fox's campaign for The A-Team was just another example of not knowing when to leave well-enough alone. They had a fun and entertaining teaser that sold the movie perfectly, yet they had to go and blow their goodwill with a trailer that made the movie look worse than it actually was (it's a perfectly amusing, if sloppy, B-movie genre picture). For a moment, let's have a look back at some classic 'shoulda quit while you're ahead' marketing campaigns.

Cast Away (2000)
Yes, the film opened with $40 million over Christmas weekend and ended up with $220 million in the US alone (in other words, the marketing worked), but this film's marketing campaign is still infamous in the 'spoil everything' school of marketing. The film debuted with a stark and powerful teaser that merely set up the premise.

The longer trailer did that and then went about detailing the third act in its entirety, not just revealing whether or not Tom Hanks made it off the island, but laying out the narrative thrust of the finale, right down to revealing the final shot of the picture. Yes, I get that certain audiences don't want to invest 2.5 hours without knowing if the main character starves to death on an island or not, but did the preview have to reveal everything that occurred in the third act as well?

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

The first teaser for the third Matrix picture was a post-credit cookie that played at the end of The Matrix Reloaded. It is a brief, foreboding, and moody little tease, selling the idea of an epic and tragic conclusion while establishing a token amount of story and keeping the plot shrouded in mystery. The other teaser for the third film was presented at the conclusion of the video game Enter the Matrix. It sold the hard action component of the third film, promising brutal fights and impressive visuals. So far, so good. But just a month or so before the film's release, Warner Bros. went and released a new trailer.

It's an exciting, epic, and entertaining piece of marketing. There's just one problem. It completely spoils the entire narrative arc of the third picture. For a series that was so closely guarded for the prior entries of the series, to unleash a thrill-spilling trailer such as this one was a sign of clear desperation. Moreso, it did little more than invalidate what the fans of the series had predicted would spring out from the cliffhanger of The Matrix Reloaded. In movie marketing, less is usually more, but it's especially important when you're dealing with a series that has previously thrived on secrecy.

The Island (2005)

In a summer filled with sequels, prequels, and adaptations (albeit many of them quite good), Michael Bay's science-fiction action picture The Island was a seeming bright spot of originality in the summer of 2005 (never-mind that the picture is actually an unofficial remake of The Cronus Horror). This first teaser was the best sort of initial peak, offering plenty of footage with plenty of 'money shots', but refusing to even hint at what the movie was about. Well, someone at Dreamworks panicked, as the month or two prior to release was filled with various teasers, trailers, and TV spots that each revealed more and more of the film's plot while making the film seem less and less interesting. By the time the film was released in mid-July, audiences felt that they had already seen the film and decided to pass. Alas, Michael Bay's attempt to make a respectable genre picture was a failure, which led him to retreat into the world of Transformers.

Red Eye (2005)
This Wes Craven thriller offered its first glimpse in the form of a teaser that was a classic case of misdirection. For the majority of its 105-second running time, the film was sold as a light and breezy romantic comedy set in an airport. Complete with a meet cute, this seemed to be another somewhat obnoxious 'overworked modern girl finds relief in Prince Charming' tripe, as frazzled Rachel McAdams bumps into and flirts with the friendly and assertive Cillian Murphy. Only in the last thirty seconds did the film reveal itself to be... what exactly? A supernatural thriller? A real-world nail-biter with McAdams fighting to stay alive against the seemingly murderous Murphy? The teaser did just that, offering only the explicit statement that bad things were about to happen and that Wes Craven was responsible for them.

But, once again Dreamworks didn't have too much faith in audiences, and they unleashed this ghastly trailer a month prior to the film's August release. What's so bad about the trailer? Well, it literally gives away the entire film, scene-by-scene, blow-by-blow, in chronological order, right down to whether the villain's plan is or is not successful. To this day I thank heaven that I had seen the film at a test screening prior to viewing said thrill-spilling trailer. Yes the film opened with $16 million and ended its run with $57 million (Craven's highest-grossing film outside of the Scream trilogy), but apparent success is no excuse for ruining the experience for those willing to buy a ticket.

Superman Returns (2006)

Debuting in November 2005 with prints of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, this beautiful, stirring, soulful little teaser was the perfect piece of marketing to entice the new and old to go on yet another adventure with the Man of Steel. Using the most emotionally-powerful piece of music from the original Richard Donner picture (the 'Krypton theme') and sampling relevant bits of Marlon Brando's narration from the 1978 classic, this brief and silent glimpse at the new world that Bryan Singer had created was genuinely jaw-dropping, reaffirming Clark Kent as the definitive American hero of the last 100 years.

But then Warner had to go and release this inexplicably generic trailer, which was went out on May 5th attached to prints of Mission: Impossible III. There is nothing particularly wrong with the trailer, although it somewhat misleadingly sold the picture as a lighter, more playful superhero adventure than the recent Batman Begins. What the trailer failed to do was sell anything other than the idea that 'Superman was back, in another jolly adventure!'. It lacked the pathos of the first teaser and offered nothing to replace it with.

The trailer failed to hit a nerve, so Warner released yet another trailer two weeks later, attached to prints of The Da Vinci Code, that tried to convince audiences that the second trailer was a fluke, that this really was going to be a 'dark and moody' variation on the Man of Steel. Again, so many quick trailers in a row reaked of desperation from Warner Bros, and it quickly became apparent that the studio was trying to hide what the film really was, a narratively-confused tone-poem that delivered neither high-flying thrills, realistic psychology, or any sense of grand importance to justify its existence. The film was actually a pretty solid hit (it made more $395 million worldwide, or $20 million more than Batman Begins), but this was a case of the studio accidentally revealing that, artistically speaking, the emperor had no clothes.

The A-Team (2010)

Here is the initial teaser, a fun preview that sold the property purely at face-value. Fox basically said: "We've got the A-Team, our cast is cool, and this film is going to be a blast." That's all they had to sell, so they didn't overthink it.

Alas, the full trailer basically oversold the film itself, showing off too much footage and making the film look like any other generic action picture. The first teaser had people excited to see the movie. The second trailer had audiences saying that they could wait until DVD or Blu Ray.

Scott Mendelson

1 comment:

Libby said...

I love this post, and I couldn't agree more! This might be heresy to you, but Jeff and I boycott most trailers these days. Even when a trailer doesn't ruin major plot points like these do, it spoils the newness of images and jokes. I'd rather experience them firsthand during the film itself.

Now, if I've never heard of a movie, or I don't know whether I want to see it or not, a trailer can come in handy... but if it's a movie I know I want to see, why would I want to see a two-minute commercial representation of it, instead of just being patient for the real thing?


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