Film Marketing: A Lesson in Deception
Upon leaving the theater during a showing of Lucy the other night, disheartened movements and angry whispers filled the exit halls as large portions of the audience expressed their displeasure with the film. I noticed a considerable amount thoughts, ranging from “well that was strange,” to “I thought we were going to see an action movie.” This collective anger equated to countless negative responses to the film, most of them based solely on the marketing making the film seem like something it was not. This is not a trend that starts and ends with Lucy; in general, many movie-goers dismiss films because their expectations were not fully met. As a result, this can limit a film’s long term box office potential not because of any artistic faults it may have, but rather because of a ludicrous sense of self-entitlement that argues a film should wholly resemble the marketing campaign. The dislike of Lucy and other similarly marketed films shows that the difference between a film ‘s perception and its reality is merely a product of business and is unfair when used on its own to judge a film’s quality.
A marketing campaign’s goal is simply to draw as many moviegoers in as possible, particularly during opening weekend. It’s designed to take the most appealing parts of a film (however many there may or may not be) and translate them into a tease that entices audiences to buy tickets. As a result, this means that manipulation of the material is likely going to happen to best market it to general audiences. With Lucy, for example, all the trailers, posters, and T.V. spots leading up to its release touted Scarlett Johansson as a gun-wielding, ass-kicking machine. Lucy follows the story of the titular character as she’s tricked into being a drug mule by a Korean gangster. However, after accidentally digesting the drug, Lucy gains the ability to access over 20% of her brain’s capacity. With her capabilities only growing, it is up to Lucy to confront her captors as well as try to understand her growing knowledge of humanity itself. With that type of story, the marketing played up the idea of an action thriller, when there is actually minimal action throughout the picture; instead, the film focuses on large, scientific ideas/theories and thoughts about the state/future of humankind. The former is much easier to advertise (and significantly more appealing) to casual audiences than the latter.
The fact that Lucy won the weekend box office and made up its production budget within three days of release suggests that the marketing was an absolute triumph. The problem with this slight manipulation, however, is that a large chunk of the movie-going public (as well as people in general), have a sense of entitlement to nothing but the truth when it comes to a particular product. This predisposition, as a result, leads to an unfair criticism at what was purchased. Film audiences, for example, dismiss a movie than actually judge it because of a sense of betrayal. Some fail to understand that they are the ones that decided to buy a ticket in the first place and that the marketing simply succeeded at its job. It’s one thing to actually dislike the film because of how it is made, or how it executed its ideas, but it is absurd to not recommend it to others because you felt cheated by the marketing. An exceptionally useful tool in analyzing this trend and further highlighting the disconnect between certain films and audiences is the polling system, CinemaScore.
CinemaScore has been around since 1978, surveying movie-goers on opening nights to gauge reactions on the newest releases. Typically, this serves to judge word-of-mouth and predict long-term box office potential. Overall, the system does a very good job of gauging the reaction to a film, but it is not a great representation of the actual quality of the movie. Instead, there is a strong correlation between a film’s CinemaScore, its perception leading up to release, and overall box office potential. Transformers: Age of Extinction, for example, is a disaster with critics, yet holds an A- CinemaScore and a box office total that is well on its way to over $1 billion worldwide. Despite the fact that most consider it a bad film, the final product was an exact replication of the marketing: a mindless and aggressive action movie, thus resulting in a high CinemaScore and subsequent money-making success
On the other hand, there are multiple other examples of films that gained a rough reaction from audiences based on the difference between its marketing and final product. Drive (2011) is a prime example of this trend. The story follows of a nameless Hollywood stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who doubles as a freelance getaway driver. Though, once he gets involved with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), his life takes a turn for the unexpected, and upon Irene’s husband’s release from prison, he gets much more than he bargained for. With a plot structure like that, it is easy for the marketing campaign to play up more than what is really there. The marketing, therefore, sold the idea that the film would include several high-speed chases as well as violent action throughout. However, the film was in fact more of a character study about the nameless protagonist (with the occasional action scene) than a long, brutal thriller. After receiving a C- CinemaScore from audiences, the anger towards the marketing even prompted a Michigan woman to sue the distributor of the film on the grounds that the trailer was “misleading.” In 2010, The American was played up as a classic spy thriller led by George Clooney, but upon its release it was slammed by audiences, thus receiving a D- CinemaScore and suffering heavily at the box office. Despite both of these films receiving solid reviews by critics, general audiences turned them down because of the disparity between the advertising and the final, on-screen product.
In addition to both Drive and The American, another example of this trend is 2012’s Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt. The film received an F CinemaScore and bombed financially because audiences were not expecting the startling political commentary that was prevalent throughout the film, but completely absent in the marketing. It didn’t matter that the film had a very good score of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes. Instead, audiences were displeased because of a misplaced sense of betrayal and anger, leading others to disprove of the film as well, before even seeing it for themselves. Like Drive and The American, Killing Them Softly suffered financially because audiences were more upset with the marketing than any real fault that the film may have had.
Some would argue, however, that anger towards a film that is vastly different from its marketing is fully justifiable. They would say that it is unfair for the consumer to be surprised by such a vast change because that was not expected by them. The problem with that claim, though, is that a person can research the film they are about to go see and make sure that it is (or isn’t) what they expect. The element of surprise is removable, if a person so chooses. The responsibility, therefore, falls on them if the film is different from how its advertisements. Lucy may have won the weekend box office, but time will tell if it will suffer from its poor word-of-mouth like other similarly marketed films.
Ultimately, complete truth towards an audience is not necessary from a marketing campaign. Its job is to sell a product as best it can. Therefore, the disconnect between the film’s marketing and the final onscreen product should not be the sole factor in determining whether a picture is “good” or “bad.” When someone buys a ticket for a film based on how it looks, that is simply the marketing succeeding in its job. The sense of entitlement that is prevalent throughout the public is misdirected. Moviegoers need to understand that studios do not owe them anything. If audiences really want to avoid being tricked, it is up to them to do the research and not blame the marketing. It is more than okay to dislike a film because of any problems that it may or may not have, but there is no need to discount it because of how its advertising chose to sell it.
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