In a recent interview, Quentin Tarantino took the criticism over the marketing of his latest effort, the brilliant Inglourious Basterds, to task. “How else were they supposed to sell this movie?” he asked, and in some ways, he has a point. PR is all about the hook, about getting the reader/viewer/consumer excited about experiencing something that they previously had no inclination or interest in doing so, and within the artform known as film, there are lots of ways of getting an audience’s attention. Comedies have jokes, horror titles have scares. Dramas have their stars and directors. Action has it set-ups and stunts. So for the most part, individuals in charge of advertising have no problem dealing with their proposed pitch. They cut a few key scenes into a trailer, add an imposing narrator, and wait for the weekend box office results to rate their efforts.
But recently, it looks like grifters have taken over the preview trade. Over the past few months, there have been several films sold as one thing when they really represent something else. In the flim flam game it’s known as ‘bait and switch’ - promise one thing, deliver another. It’s not a new Hollywood trick - Tinseltown has been twisting the truth about its occasionally underwhelming works ever since the dawn of modern advertising. In a desperate attempt at an angle or an equally panicked desire to minimize critical damage, they’ve reworked storylines and star power into their own “unique” vision of what a film was about. Yet in 2009, there seemed to be more of this ‘sell one thing, deliver another’ ideal - and in at least one case, it cost the film both commercially and creatively.
Take Adventureland (coming to DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday, 25 August). Greg Motolla was not a household name when his film about a couple of high school seniors on the prowl for a good party went from good to Superbad at the box office. But success allowed the Daytrippers director to craft a semi-serious autobiographical film about his late ‘80s summer at a sad East Coast amusement park. Named Adventureland, and starring newcomer Jesse Eisenberg and Twilight gal Kristen Stewart, it was Motolla’s attempt at updating the already overdone coming of age film, a genre bereft of anything remotely resembling truth or emotional honesty. So naturally the minds behind the ad campaign completely ignored the film’s lack of dick jokes and outrageous scatological humor and tried to paint it as a proposed pseudo-sequel to Superbad. Even the trailer took a path toward otherwise absent obviousness, concentrating on the “jokes” that seemed most geared toward an Apatow-prone demographic.
Of course, it didn’t work. Fans coming in expecting more penis-laden laughs were legitimately let down by Adventureland‘s wistful, warm embrace. Instead of scatology, they got sentiment. Motolla’s motion picture tribute received good reviews but did mediocre business, moneywise. Many blame the low budget and lack of stars, but with a current member of Stephanie Meyer mania in tow, there should have been some leftover Bella bait. Besides, you’d have thought the Madison Avenue aces would have learned their lesson from another post-Apatow underachiever - Observe and Report. In that instance, Seth Rogen was positioned as the star of a security guard spoof, sold as part 40 Year Old Virgin, part Paul Blart: Mall Cop (the January smash starring Kevin James). Slapstick and toilet humor ruled the teasers and trailers. Turned out, writer/director Jody Hill had a Motolla up his sleeve. Instead of a balls-out farce, he delivered a dense dark comedy which raised as many unsettling questions as it delivered big belly laughs.
And yet no one paid attention to the failure of such telltale tactics. All throughout the Summer of 2009, similar PR approaches were taken for Land of the Lost, Year One, and Brüno. Each was presented as something (cocky kiddie film, all out Biblical lampoon, a gay Borat redux) that it turned out not to be (mean spirited and crude, one note and nominal, obsessed with pushing the homophobe button). About the only films never wincing at what they had to offer were the season’s biggest hits - Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (more of the same, and it was - BOY was it…), Star Trek (adventure filled revamp of the classic characters), Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (CG eye candy) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (more boy wizard intrigue). Sure, some of these titles were presold, and there were examples of underperformance even when marketing made no bones about what was up on the screen (Public Enemies, Drag Me to Hell).
In the last two weeks, however, we have come across instances where movies, once again, flummox the people paid to sell them to audiences. In the case of District 9, webuzz had this Peter Jackson produced epic as a Halo adaptation in disguise. It was going to be a grand scale first person shooter video game experience additionally amped up by WETA’s wonderful F/X work. While many expected some kind of race-related allegory, action and alien ass kicking was the film’s perceived raison d’etra. Turns out, everyone was wrong - especially those marketing the movie as Independence Day with a conscience. Instead, as Movie City News’ David Poland once said, District 9 turned out to be The Defiant Ones with extraterrestrials, the story of a bumbling bureaucrat, a raid gone horribly wrong, and his pair-up with a “prawn” (racist slang for the spacemen) who wants nothing more than to go home.
That was followed by this week’s entry, Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. For years, ever since the Pulp Fiction maverick announced his desire to make a World War II flick, he’s tossed around the idea of an ultra-violent Dirty Dozen, or something similar to the ‘70s Italian exploitation effort which inspired the name. Even when script reviews suggested something more over the top and broader in scope, fans were foaming over the prospect of seeing some Jewish Nazi hunters scalping krauts and chewing bubble gum - and Bazooka Joe was nowhere to be seen. Oddly enough, that’s the exact approach taken by the earliest trailers. Brad Pitt (truly a star, but perhaps not THE star of the film) was plastered all over posters while bloody knives and baseball bats adorned unnerving preview publicity stills. The marketers were making a very clear statement - this is one gory good time.
Except, that’s not what Inglourious Basterds is. Not exactly. Oh, it’s a good time all right, but the pleasures come from areas outside of ample arterial spray. The Pitt-inspired storyline is one of the MINOR elements in the movie, a subterfuge which allows Tarantino to explore the importance of media as a means of manipulating our view of war, including a subtle statement on how movies can literally snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat. There’s a plot involving the assassination of Hitler (only hinted at in later trailers), a entire storyline centering on the British part of said plan, and the Jew Hunter angle featuring the brilliant acting work of Christophe Waltz is all but absent. Indeed, what one gets from this approach is that anyone learning about the film’s true nature wouldn’t appreciate its actual ideas, and instead, must use a supplemental sleazoid subplot to sell itself.
Maybe they can all take a page out of the Pixar manual. For years now, the animation giants, creators of some of CGI cartooning’s greatest efforts, have been experts at defying expectations. Take this year’s Up, for example. As with Wall-E before, the premise did not sound promising at all. There were elements of the storyline that seemed twee and rather trite. Even with their track record of turning cloying kiddie fare (a robot falling in love with another machine) into brilliant, brave entertainments, it didn’t seem like it would work. Yet Pixar offered up a marketing campaign that kept most of the narrative elements a secret, and instead, used specific images (the balloon laden house, the old man/fat child dynamic) as a means of selling the “idea” of the movie. Indeed, that’s what Pixar and Disney does best - giving the impression of what to expect without giving it all away. It’s more about tone and overall entertainment value, not shouting specifics. It’s clearly an approach that others in the media advertising game could benefit from.
Still, Tarantino has a point. When you deliver something unusual, difficult, or clearly outside the norm, it’s almost impossible to democratize it. Populism is based in the lowest common denominator (at least partially) and complicated concepts usually find a hard time fitting in. So Adventureland needed the Superbad shill in order to warrant its existence in the minds of viewers, while District 9 and Basterds were smart in finding already existing parallels to their otherwise unique visions. And when you’ve got someone like Seth Rogen in the cast, why should you sell a movie’s darker side? Still, it seems odd to walk into one proposed kind of entertainment and walk out having witnessed another. Even worse, what if this becomes the norm? What if every movie is sold as something other than what it really is? Truth in advertising is one thing. Apparently, truth in media promotion is another issue all together.