Friday, March 2, 2012

Déjà vu all over again. Warner Bros hides Tim Burton's Dark Shadows just as they hid Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!. And why it's a good thing...

There's a new Tim Burton coming out from Warner Bros. in just over two months.  Aside from a couple stills and some half-hearted interview statements from the cast and Mr. Burton, we haven't heard or seen a thing from it.  No posters, no trailers, no TV spots, nothing.  It's October of 1996, and I'm of course referring to Mars Attacks!.  Many of my readers are too young to remember way-back-when, but the near-absence of marketing materials for Tim Burton's $80 million private-joke (which today plays like half-blockbuster deconstruction and half-right wing political fantasy) was a source of frustration for a 16-year old Tim Burton fan who was eagerly awaiting that first preview.  Today we stand in the same boat with another Warner Bros-funded Tim Burton 'comedy'.  But just over fifteen years later, what was a source of frustration is now a pleasant surprise.  Nine weeks to go, and I really don't need to see an onslaught of spoiler-filled marketing materials for the upcoming Dark Shadows.  Ten weeks to go, and I have absolutely no idea what kind of film Tim Burton and his merry band have delivered.  I don't know what it looks like, what the tone is, or all-that much about the plot.  And in this era of 'spoil the movie a year in advance', that's a special thing indeed.

Whether because Warner Bros. didn't know how to sell the sci-fi horror/comedy or because they saw the writing on the wall and tried to limit their financial losses, the studio waited until 4 weeks prior to release to unleash that first Mars Attacks! trailer.  Attached to Space Jam, the 2.5-minute trailer was pretty much all we saw of the film in America, aside from a TV spot or two until Thanksgiving weekend, when Warner Bros. held a national sneak preview.  I attended that sneak preview, loved the hell out of the movie, and spent the next two weeks trying (in vain) to convince friends and peers that it was absolutely worth checking out.  But, in retrospect, it was a pretty stupid idea for Warner Bros to sneak a genuine cult film so that the few die-hards could see it two weeks early and not contribute one dime to the box office (all ticket sales went to Space Jam, which played for free afterward).  But come what may, the ad campaign only got serious the week before release, with a single TV spot playing in heavy rotation before it (not surprisingly in hindsight) crashed and burned with just under $9 million on opening weekend.

Point being, in this day-and-age of long-lead marketing campaigns, where a film that doesn't have a trailer six months before release is considered 'in trouble', it's not a little refreshing to see Warner Bros. holding back, for whatever reason, on the usual onslaught of press materials.  As I've long said, the 6-12 month advance build-up is generally a waste of money, spending time and ad dollars chasing the hardcore fans and movie nerds who were already going to see the movie anyway.  The general moviegoers, the ones who don't read film blogs and don't memorize the summer release schedule, don't really need to be interested until two weeks before the film comes out anyway.  At the end of the day, general moviegoers will still make the choice to see 'that movie that comes out today that we saw a commercial for on last night's Grey's Anatomy' (this is why Thursday ad space on television has always been so valuable).  The rest of the long-lead stuff, the bare-bones teasers, the cryptic posters, the trailer six months out, is a glorified cock-tease for those of us who are already committed to checking out the latest would-be blockbuster.

You could make the same analogy to political elections, but I can only wonder how much money would be saved/less money required if film marketing campaigns didn't feel the need to work up a frenzy among the nerds months-and-months in advance, long before 95% of the country started paying attention.  For that reason alone, I hope Dark Shadows drops a terrific trailer on March 30th, attached to Wrath of the Titans and then doesn't do a damn thing outside of nuggets in the usual Summer Movie Preview pieces until the last weekend or so in April.  I hope the film opens huge and plays well during the summer, justifying the hide-and-seek marketing strategy.  If Dark Shadows is a bit hit, it will be a promising sign that you don't have to blow your wad months in advance while no one is looking.  After all, it can only be a good thing if studios feel confident enough to spend less of their overall capital on marketing and more on the movies they make.

Scott Mendelson  


Magali said...

I obviously do not have to tell you that this is brilliantly written. And I agree with every point you made. In fact I tend to love films more when the promotions weren't in your face. And I'm definitely excited for this movie.

Maxwell H said...

It didn't even occur to me that the film was so close to release before reading this. Part of me feels like you are exactly right as to the marketing plan. I'm sure once the masses are aware that Depp has a new film with Burton in which he plays a vampire it will be a big hit anyways. I'm definitely curious to see what sort of tone this film cultivates. I kind of hope it's a comedy.


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