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‘Blade Runner 2049’: Inside the Studio’s Unique Efforts to Hide the Spoilers of the Blockbuster Movie

Warner Bros. went to extreme lengths — maybe too far — to keep plot details of Denis Villeneuve's sequel under wraps. We asked the studio to explain itself.

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049

Ryan Gosling in “Blade Runner 2049”

Warner Bros.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that “Blade Runner 2049” is a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian neo-noir, or that it stars Ryan Gosling as an assassin tasked with killing rogue humanoid robots. It’s also fair to say that it’s a very good movie, and one you should see in the theater. Beyond that, however, Warner Bros. marketing would like everyone to keep their impressions to themselves.

“It was our view, and the filmmaker’s view, that literally, the plot of the movie is a spoiler,” said Dennis Higgins, Warners senior VP publicity. “It was important to Denis and all the filmmaking team that we attempt to allow the audiences to see the movie with as little detail about the plot revealed as possible.”

At least one regional PR firm didn’t get the message. At a “Blade Runner 2049” screening Monday for Houston press managed by Dallas-based Levenson Group, attending press received a summary of five potential-spoiler talking points as a handout while exiting the movie. Listed as a “message from the filmmakers,” the short memo implored media to “do your best to abide by the following as much as possible.”

It was a mistake, but some journalists were not amused. While national media that saw the movie in advance of its review embargo signed an agreement not to reveal the plot or review the movie prior to September 29, that was the extent of the studio’s directives. At a New York screening, a publicist spoke on behalf of Villeneuve, imploring journalists to “preserve the magic of the film.” The handout’s mandate, however, suggested a problematic attempt to dictate the specifics of a review.

Today’s spoiler-heavy culture means plot twists can crop up in an offhand Wikipedia mention, a well-sourced Reddit board, or even an overly generous trailer. To preempt that possibility, the studio and “Blade Runner 2049” director Denis Villeneuve identified the five key plot details that it wanted to keep under wraps, in the hopes that critics and journalists might play ball. They weren’t meant to go directly to the press; studios distributed the would-be spoilers to publicity teams around the country with instructions that reps should speak with journalists after screenings to discourage them from revealing certain details.

The studio already took pains to curate the buzz around “Blade Runner 2049” by showing the movie to junket press before critics, allowing a presumably less-discerning crowd to take first crack on social media. (The studio employed the same tactic a month earlier with “It,” when early tweets were far more positive than the initial wave of reviews, and with “Dunkirk,” where early social-media reactions largely aligned with critical and public enthusiasm.)

However, at a moment when Rotten Tomatoes often overwhelms the nuances of critical debate, journalists are especially touchy about studio efforts to stage-manage their responses. No matter how well-intentioned, this was an unequivocal effort to do the work for them.

It wasn’t supposed to go that way. “This was a mistake by one representative at the agency we work with in Texas to have handed it out in the interest of just getting to the attendees before they left the theater,” said Higgins. “Our sole goal here was to protect the audience experience of seeing the movie with as much of a blank slate about the plot as possible.”

While the studio and Villeneuve debated which specific aspects required secrecy to be fully appreciated, they ultimately landed on certain details that many critics could easily reveal in the process of explaining the narrative backdrop. (Most early reviews for “Blade Runner 2049” contain at least one of the studio’s bullet points, involving a reveal in the opening minutes.)

He insisted that the strategy did not point to a new Warners strategy that journalists could expect going forward. “We went further than we normally do in trying to protect the secrets on this because it was the filmmaker’s wishes and we agreed that it made sense for this movie,” he said.

"Blade Runner 2049"

“Blade Runner 2049”

There’s an argument to be made that “Blade Runner 2049” doesn’t actually require such careful handling; the movie’s astonishing, textured vision of a bleak future, its jarring action sequences and moody exchanges contribute to its appeal far more than the various surprises of the story. A far cry from M. Night Shyamalan territory, “Blade Runner 2049” has a lot more going on than superficial details. While the movie’s various trailers don’t tread on the studio’s memo, they spoil nearly as much about the experience of watching “Blade Runner 2049” as any information about the plot.

This example of marketing overreach stems from a longstanding tradition. When “Psycho” was released in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock recorded a segment that screened with the movie imploring viewers, “Don’t give away the ending — it’s only one we have!”  More recently, Paramount attempted to contain the allegorical themes behind Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” by cutting a trailer that made it look like a traditional home-invasion thriller. These efforts yielded mixed results — “Psycho” is a revered classic, “mother!” was a commercial flop — but they speak to a fascinating overlap of commercial and artistic relationships to mainstream storytelling, and what it takes to catch an unwitting public by surprise.

Still, “Blade Runner 2049” is loaded with so many details, callbacks to the original movie, and ambiguous moments that no single bullet point can topple the overall experience. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Roger Deakins delivers some of the finest cinematography of his storied career, that Harrison Ford resurrects his “Blade Runner” character with a fresh layer of surliness, or that Ryan Gosling exudes cool vibes from his pores. Some audiences will take issue with the way the movie relies on the original’s power to generate much of its appeal; others will relish a return to that world.

But ultimately, like the original, this is a setting riddled with secrets and elusive answers. When it comes to a handful mysterious developments — including one that has troubled “Blade Runner” fans through the ages — the debates will continue long after the credits roll.

“Blade Runner 2049” opens nationwide on October 6.

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