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‘Black Messiah,’ ‘Boyhood’ and the Virtues of the Unhyped Release

'Black Messiah,' 'Boyhood' and the Virtues of the Unhyped Release

At the end of last week, a picture started to circulate around social media: A hand holding a shrinkwrapped CD of something called “Black Messiah,” credited to D’Angelo and the Vanguard. By Saturday, word was out: D’Angelo’s long (long, long) awaited followup to 2000’s Voodoo was finished and about to go onsale. By midnight Sunday, it was sitting in my iTunes, and my Twitter feed was lighting up with ecstatic insta-reactions. An hour later, an email with a review copy arrived in my inbox.

The traditional model dictates a massive buildup for anticipated releases: the long march towards the release of Taylor Swift’s “1989,” or the breathless buildup to the teaser trailer for the next “Star Wars” movie. But there’s another method that’s creeping into the mix: The stealth release, also known as “doing a Beyoncé.” When you’re dealing with an established quantity whose next product-drop is a guaranteed hit, why risk the potential for backlash or early leaks? The more you build a desire for something consumers can’t yet purchase, the greater the demand for illegal, revenue-free sources. Why tell people there’s a new D’Angelo album until they can buy it for themselves?

So, what if they did the same with movies?

For many reasons, ranging from production costs to simple inertia, an exact parallel scenario is unlikely to happen any time soon. But it’s interesting that two of the year’s most acclaimed movies followed a vaguely similar path to their initial screenings. Before it was announced in the immediate runup to January’s Sundance Film Festival, few people even knew Richard Linklater’s “12-year project,” aka “Boyhood,” even existed, let alone that it was nearly complete. Linklater also kept “Before Midnight” under wraps until it had finished shooting, evidently calculating he had nothing to gain from publicizing the existence of a movie until it actually existed.

Likewise Laura Poitras “CITIZENFOUR,” which was announced as a late addition to the New York Film Festival before anyone knew she was working on it. That Poitras, who’d already published a short video interview with Edward Snowden along with the articles that would eventually win her two Pulitzer prizes, was working on a parallel feature documentary was not exactly a shock, but its rapid completion took us by surprise.

Both “Boyhood” and “CITIZENFOUR” were showered with accolades on their festival premieres, and they’ve continued to dominate critics awards and polls ever since. Though it’s not quite a sure thing, it’s seeming quite possible that come February, the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Documentary may be handed out to movies that weren’t even known to exist at the beginning of 2014. 

Of course, both movies’ festival bows were followed by the usual flotilla of trailers and pre-theatrical interviews, if not the carefully time-released reaction tweets and trade reviews that accompany the typical studio release. But the reaction to “Boyhood” and “CITIZENFOUR” suggests there’s a virtue to going in cold, without letting critics or marketing departments tell you what to expect beforehand, and meeting up in the lobby afterwards to talk about what we’ve seen. There’s a special thrill that comes with the stealth release, replacing careful consideration with “OMG Must See/Listen To/Read Now!” If I’d waited an hour, I could have heard “Black Messiah” for free, but I’m glad I didn’t. It’s fun to be part of that initial rush, and it also encourages you to put your critical faculties on hold and let yourself be swept up in the crowd — at which point, the hypeless release starts to manufacture its own kind of hype.

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