Sunday, July 15, 2012

In an age of preordained marketing and spoilers, an ode to an age of not knowing and the thrill of unexpected discovery.

As another annual San Diego Comic Con ends with another week full of preordained previews, announcements, and sizzle reels, this seems as good a time as any to talk about something that has been lost in the saturation-level media coverage that surrounds each and every remotely major studio release these days.  I am talking of course about the element of surprise.  I'm not talking about plot spoilers regarding upcoming films, or even the obsessive need for news outlets to report on every plot detail of an upcoming film so that one has to literally live in a cave to avoid knowing too much.  Those are indeed issues, but I'm talking about something even more basic.  I'm talking about the idea of discovering the very existence of a film the old fashioned way.  Be it through a trailer that you didn't expect, or a poster that you didn't see coming, something very precious has been lost over the last fifteen years as the mainstream entertainment press has turned into a full-time, year-round Comic-Con.  We don't discover films we were hoping we might see via actual pre-movie trailers, or even through movie magazines like Premiere or Starlog.  Now they are preordained, with their posters and trailers given online *premieres* that are treated as actual news by film sites the world over.  Maybe it's the cranky old man in me talking, but there is something very special about discovering these films at the theater.  Which brings me to the question: When was the last time I was truly surprised by a piece of film marketing?  

The time was December 1990, sometime around the Christmas season.  I was just ten years old, off with a friend to see Kindergarten Cop sometime between its December 22nd opening day and the end of the year.  As my friend and I walked through Montrose Movies (an eight-screen Regal cinema), we noticed the above poster.  My first thought was simply: "Holy crap, I didn't know they had even started, let alone finished!".  It was no secret that New Line Cinemas would probably make a sequel to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Just that prior March, the comic book adaptation opened with $25 million (among the top five or six debuts ever at the time) and ended its run with $135 million, good for the fifth-biggest grosser of 1990.  It took New Line Cinemas, the 'house that Freddy built' and made it into a major-league genre player.  But we had no idea that the film would be ready so quickly.  But here was a teaser poster, a rather cryptic one no less, that announced that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II would be coming sooner than we thought.  And those shadowy monsters in the background?  Those *had* to be Beebop and Rocksteady, right?  How awesome was that, Beebop and Rocksteady brought to life to kick turtle-shell on the big screen?  Of course, we didn't know that those two creatures were not Beebop and Rocksteady, but rather the much less interesting 'Tokka' and 'Rahzar'.  Nor did we know that the film had a much campier and kid-friendly tone more in line with the animated series, a reaction to the apparent outcry over the first film's dark tone and somewhat realistic violence.  It was the incredible thrill of discovery and the thrill of *not* knowing everything in advance.  

Just two months later I would start subscribing to Entertainment Weekly, a magazine I still get to this day, and at least some of that mystery would be gone.  With Entertainment Weekly came an interest in box office, pre-release announcements, and various sorts of inside baseball.  With the Internet and sites like Ain't It Cool News came pre-release speculation, reviews of test screenings, and other such forbidden fruit.  And over the last 10-15 years we've seen not just an increase in pre-release information but the transformation of the mainstream entertainment media into a bastion of the kind of news that once only mattered to hardcore film nerds like myself.  When I was growing up, I was the only one who knew the weekly box office, the end-of-year Oscar buzz, and the various behind-the-scenes deals.  I embraced the knowledge and I can only blame myself for what I lost in the bargain. But only in the last four years, arguably due to the rise of Deadline Hollywood, we've seen the normalization of utter gossip, pure speculation or rumor reported as news, denounced as mistruths, and then re-reported again as confirmed fact.  In the last four years, we've watched as seemingly mainstream news sites acting like slobbering fanboys while discussing the latest genre film (just compare the coverage of The Dark Knight to The Dark Knight Rises).  I am surely a part of the problem.  Even if I don't play the gossip game, I still read sites like The Playlist and I still glance at Deadline Hollywood from time to time.  I still post genre-friendly trailers and posters as if they are 'news events' worthy of commentary.  Sure I genuinely like analyzing trailers and I'm damn-good at analyzing box office (been doing it for twenty years), but I can only plead 'no contest'.

Maybe that poster above is my 'Rosebud', a sign of a lost childhood innocence that I can't get back, in an industry that works overtime to deny me that rush of discovery because I arguably asked for it.  Yes Warner Bros. pulled a glorious fast one on everyone 4.5 years ago when they snuck a traditional Dark Knight trailer onto 35mm prints of I Am Legend without anyone knowing in advance, but we'll never see anything like that again.  It was the last gasp of surprise, any kind of surprise really, before the Internet exploded into information saturation.  That poster above is a testament to a time when we movie fans didn't know everything in advance, couldn't accurately predict when a trailer was going to debut, and weren't able to piece together an entire film just from studio-released clips.  No one knew about the existence of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze until that poster popped up in a theater lobby just three months before it was to be released.  You can't imagine how exciting that discovery was for a ten-year old fan back in December 1990.  If you're remotely younger than me you probably can't begin to imagine because it's not something you ever got to experience.

So, what was the last bit of movie marketing that surprised you?  A trailer you didn't expect, a poster you didn't know about, or even a movie that you didn't know anything about until you caught the trailer in a theater?  Feel free to share below.

Scott Mendelson


J. R. said...

Me an my brother freaked out when we saw that movie poster for the first time. (I'm slightly younger than you.) The last time I was surprised at a movie theater was when I saw A Bug's Life. It was a special family outing because we didn't normally see movies right after they were released. Normally, we'd wait until they were at the $1 theater, but we made an exception for A Bug's Life. Even went to a theater in Louisville that was the first one in the area with stadium seating. So, there we were watching previews when suddenly the Lucasfilm logo appears, and The Phantom Menace trailer starts with a clip from the pod race, and I'm just blown away. Sometimes I missed being surprised, but as you said, it's my own fault for keeping up with the "news."

AJ Wiley said...

I'm ten years younger than you, and I probably started paying attention to movie news in 2002, when I was 12. We still had dial-up then, and I remember waiting for the trailer for Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man movie to finish buffering.

The last marketing I remember being really surprised by was for the Scooby-Doo movie. I have no idea what movie I saw it before, but there was a teaser that made it out to be a new Batman movie. Bats floating around an empty mansion, a voice-over about how an iconic character was returning, even a silhouette of what was clearly supposed to be Batman. I had no idea that there wouldn't be another Batman movie for a few years, and became genuinely excited. Then the silhouette turns around, and it's just Scooby with his ears pointed up...and I was still excited! (Because, again, I was 12.)

I'd love to be surprised like that again, but at this point, I don't think I'd be able to cut myself off from the flood of news.

Tyler Foster said...

Yeah, I've always wondered what it would've been like to be in a theater and see a trailer for a sequel or something that nobody knew was coming.

Adam said...

" No one knew about the existence of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze until that poster popped up in a theater lobby just three months before it was to be released."

Really?! Because your 10 year old self didn't know the movie was coming, that means nobody knew about it or was talking about it? You're sure that EW didn't have articles on it prior to your subscribing?


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