The creator of “Lost” might have a horse in this fight (he’s the co-writer of Ridley Scott‘s “Prometheus“), but he also has a point. In the last few months, marketing of major blockbusters seems to fall into two separate categories: keeping your cards close to the chest (the J.J. Abrams mystery box approach), or the show-absolutely-everything technique, bombarding fans with character posters, different trailers and enough clips and stills that you could essentially reconstruct the movie, with a basic understanding of narrative structure and a copy of iMovie.
And the two major trailer premieres of the last few days set up that contrast nicely. First, there was “Prometheus,” which unveiled a three-minute trailer that had many fans wishing they’d not seen it, for fear that many of the film’s surprises had been ruined. While on the other hand, you have Christopher Nolan‘s “The Dark Knight Rises,” which debuted an admirably low-key trailer, which still excited, but kept its secrets under wraps. But which approach works best? Do you need to show all your wares to bring in an audience, or do moviegoers actually respond better when they feel like they haven’t seen the whole movie before it comes out?
A similar dichotomy was at play with what are looking like the two biggest hits of the year so far, “The Hunger Games,” which has made over $600 million worldwide to date, and “The Avengers,” which looks to come close to equaling that within a few days of opening in the U.S. this Friday. While the campaign for “The Avengers” has released what feels like several dozen clips and an encylopedia’s worth of stills, and has been nearly inescapable (down to Clark Gregg ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange), the former was all over both traditional and social media, but its trailers were relatively shy. The New York Times reported that, perhaps because their hand was forced by the depressing, violent nature of the material, Lionsgate marketing executive Tim Palen decided early that the film’s trailer and TV spots wouldn’t showcase the Hunger Games of the title at all.
It was a gamble that left many fans disappointed at the trailer, but clearly it worked spectacularly, thanks to a young female fanbase who care less about action money shots, and pre-existing fans of the book who were just eager to see story up on the big screen. Similarly, after the billion-dollar, critically-acclaimed success of “The Dark Knight,” Warner Bros and Nolan could have released a trailer that showed nothing but a title card and Christian Bale drop-kicking kittens into helicopter rotors, and it would still make hundreds of millions of dollars. As it is, they can simply highlight enough new additions (Bane, Catwoman, a flying Batmobile) to make audiences feel like it’s not going to be a retread, and the anticipation stays at a fever pitch.
But then, this is in part because Christopher Nolan has earned trust from his audience, particularly after “Inception,” which had a trailer with a host of money shots, but almost no detail on the plot, keeping the mystery shrouded. J.J. Abrams is a similar figure. Ever since “Alias,” he’s built his career on the “mystery box” he discussed in his TED talk, “Lost” being perhaps the best example (although let’s not forget he was only tangentially involved with the show after the pilot). Twice, he’s unveiled a top-secret trailer for a new project, and twice, he’s turned them into big hits, “Cloverfield” and “Super 8.” Indeed, the latter saw several think-pieces written beforehand, which suggested that the film’s decision to play the enigmatic card was going to backfire, but it went on to make five times its budget at the worldwide box office.
Whereas Abrams was once billed as the creator of “Lost,” he’s shifted (almost simultaneously with the show disappointing fans with its finale) to being simply ‘Writer/Director J.J. Abrams,’ billed above producer Steven Spielberg on the “Super 8” poster. Association instantly created. Abrams has gone right where M. Night Shyamanlan went wrong: he, too, was a brand-name director associated with mystery after “The Sixth Sense,” but he gradually squandered his goodwill with “The Village,” “Lady In The Water” and “The Happening.” Now, it’s unsurprising that we’ve only seen one film from his Night Chronicles production banner, and he’s resorted to more traditional blockbuster fare, with the Will Smith sci-fi vehicle “After Earth.”
Ultimately, secrecy and mystery works if an audience feels like they’re not going to get screwed, whether it’s from a reliable brand, or a director they recognize. Even something like “The Avengers,” bringing together not one, but four famous heroes, needed something a little different to turn it into a true phenomenon. Many prognosticators had said that there was likely a window on the Marvel movies: why would people go and see it if they hadn’t seen at least one of the other films? And yet it’s looking likely that “The Avengers” will come close to doubling the most successful Marvel move thus far, “Iron Man 2.” And that’s because they, and Disney, have worked hard to make it feel like a massive event, a once-in-a-lifetime team up of heroes who are at least recognizable, even if you didn’t see the earlier films. It’s good old fashioned value for money, four for the price of one. But to get that message across, they couldn’t have run a campaign saying “What Are The Avengers?,” or glossing over the enormous third act set-piece. They had to show the film’s goods up front (hence the barrage of clips showing characters in virtually every combination), and it’s turning it into a billion-dollar hit.
“Prometheus” is notable because it seems to have changed its approach. Starting out with a mysterious tease that didn’t give a lot away, its trailers have seemingly revealed more and more until fans are left concerned that all its secrets have been given up (we’re pretty sure they haven’t been, but still). The film’s always been a tough sell. The “Alien” franchise has been tarnished by inferior sequels and ‘Predator‘ match-ups, but even then, the film doesn’t have “Alien” in the title, so Fox have been having to sell it by association (right down to the engraving of one of H.R. Giger‘s beasts in the second trailer). We suspect that they may have set out to keep things more under wraps, but after finding that audiences weren’t responding, are switching paths to the shock-and-awe technique. Time will tell if it works out, but with a month to go until it hits theaters, we suspect we’ll be seeing more from the film, not less.
But ultimately, “Prometheus” is the best example of the crux of the matter here: whether you think that trailers are showing too much, or too little, you’re not the person the trailers are being made for. Whatever happens, if you’re reading this, you’re going to go and see a film like “Prometheus” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” because you’re the kind of person that reads movie websites. Geek culture might have firmly permeated the mainstream in the last couple of decades, but for too long studios thought they could target only the online/geek audience, and make blockbuster numbers, but from “Serenity” to “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” it’s been shown that aiming exclusively at the Comic-Con crowd will end up in disappointing returns.
“The Cabin In The Woods” is the most recent example — it was sold mainly on the name of Joss Whedon, and a sense of mystery, but Whedon was not, at the time, a name who means much outside a certain demographic. Would releasing the film in the fall, labeled as “From the director of The Avengers” have helped matters? Perhaps. Would trailers, TV spots and reviews that highlighted the third act madness, rather than danced around it, have boosted box office? We suspect so. We like going in cold, you like going in cold, but general audiences want to know more about what they’re putting their cash on, particularly with movie tickets so expensive, and we suspect the low Cinemascore for the film was partly down to this.
It’s a simple as this: if you know you’re going to be seeing a movie anyway, don’t watch any footage. Avoid online trailers, go to the toilet during promos at the theater, change the channel on TV. Show a little willpower. You’re the audience that’s going to see the movie, come what may. The marketing people have bigger things to worry about than you complaining you’ve seen too much: they’re trying to get Joe Public to turn up along with you. And who knows, maybe audiences will eventually start to follow your lead, and go for a little mystery too.