"Is Fox actually paying people to faint at 127 Hours? Because that's what William Castle would've done." -- IFC.com's Stephen Saito (@mfrushmore) on Twitter.
Saito was hardly the first or only person to Tweet either a question about a potential marketing exploitation/stunt involved with the "127 Hours" fainting or a reference to Castle's famous PR gimmicks. But his was the first I saw, prior to the film's opening. I hadn't been following the story too closely other than having noticed every once in a while seeing a Tweet reporting of a viewer or two fainting at festival screenings in Telluride and Toronto and then at the film's L.A. premiere (fortunately Movieline has chronologically tallied up the accounts). By that point it did seem too coincidental (especially given that some were considered not to be linked to the film's content), but not impossible.
strange thing was that Fox Searchlight wasn't really fighting the potentially negative buzz going around that its movie is causing fainting, seizures and other health problems. They weren't necessarily Tweeting word about the incidents themselves, but they did retweet some related articles, mostly from Vulture. As articles sprung up last week wondering if this could even be bad publicity for the film -- I believed the opposite -- there also seemed to be more and more skepticism on the validity of at least the later occurrences.
Then "127 Hours" opened Friday and, according to Scott Feinberg
, there have been sightings of ambulances outside of cinemas in anticipation of any further fainting. This has been deemed by some to be suspicious, though I think theater owners and managers could just as easily be behind the paramedic alerts -- and not necessarily for publicity purposes so much as a precautionary action taken in response to those prior incidents. Feinberg, however, is curiously hoping to find out that Fox was involved:
It might turn out that these two incidents are the exception to the rule and purely coincidental… or it might not. If Searchlight is behind these incidents (and presumably others, too), I’d like to know, not because there’s anything illegal or even unethical about it, but actually because it would be another notch on their belt of forward-thinking marketing, right up there with driving a VW-mini around Hollywood and mailing around hamburger phones
It's hard to tell if the fainting phenomenon had anything to do with the very impressive box office numbers for the film's limited opening, regardless of whether or not some of it was constructed or intentionally over-hyped. What might be even more interesting now is whether or not there will be a backlash from those viewers who felt entitled to their own incident -- not necessarily their own experience fainting during "127 Hours" but at least being witness to another viewer, planted or legitimate, suffering. I would have been disappointed. Actually, I'm already disappointed no critic fainted during the press screening I attended. Surely there's one or two writers that Fox could have paid off for such a stunt, right? How great would it be if the studio had a blurb for posters and commercials from some no-name radio critic exclaiming, "so intense I fainted!"
While many have mentioned Castle's employment of such promotional strategies to appeal to horror fans, including the very similar idea of having (fake) nurses stationed outside auditoriums and hearses parked outside theaters showing his 1958 film "Macabre," Feinberg also cites Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" as being another example for the same genre. But "127 Hours" isn't a scary movie -- well not classifiable as such, anyway. It's not horror; it just has one really horrific moment. And it's based on a true story, which makes it more intense, as audiences have to regard it as having really happened. That the visuals and especially the sound design are extremely explicit doesn't have as much of an impact as the fact that it is fact rather than nightmare fantasy, a la most horror films.
So it shouldn't be marketed as if it were a horror film. But then the issue with the fainting, if all true, could have something to do with people expecting an Oscar-worthy drama about hope and perseverance and not realizing it has such graphic material as keeps these sorts of squeamish people away from stuff like "Saw" and "Antichrist." Perhaps there should be some middle ground with the marketing between the very tame trailers and the subtle viral capitalization on the word-of-mouth and fainting stories concerning what occurs deep in the film? Or can we stop worrying about the health risks of "127 Hours" now that a weekend's worth of showings on four separate screens didn't see a single case needing emergency attention?
While you ponder your disappointment with the lack of fainting at the screening you attended, check out the Daily Beast's list of "dangerous" films ("The Blair Witch Project," "The Exorcist") that similarly affected the health of viewers in the past. Recall this story involving "Saving Private Ryan":
Director Steven Spielberg's epic 27-minute opening sequence depicting D-Day on Omaha Beach recreated the trauma of war, in more ways than one. The scene, filmed using a shaky camera, has not only been used in scientific studies comparing comedy movies with disturbing movies but a World War II veteran allegedly suffered a heart attack during a screening.
UPDATE: Movieline received an email from an actual fainter who describes his embarrassing experience at the Starz Denver Film Festival. Here's a snippet:
My main concern was not crying in front of my wife’s friends during the emotional parts. To be honest, I wish I would have cried. Instead, I passed out after the arm scene. It was very embarrassing. I passed out sitting up with my eyes open. My wife tried to talk to me and noticed I was unresponsive, even though my eyes were wide open. She of course freaked. Somebody called 911. There was a doctor a few rows back that came down to assist. I came to in her arms, drenched in sweat and lying across the seats. The paramedics came into the theater. They checked me out in the lobby then wanted me to go to the ambulance to monitor my heart. I had to walk through the crowds of people with the paramedics. Luckily they did not make me get on the gurney. I went outside and there was a fire truck and ambulance.
Of course this is still a pre-release incident. I'm still waiting for examples of more public screening accounts, if there will be any. Maybe when the film goes wide.
UPDATE 2: Fox News reports that someone fainted at the Savannah Film Festival screening of "127 Hours" on Saturday, November 6th. Again, though, this is interestingly only another film festival incident. Still waiting for the multiplex crowd...