Coming SoonPerhaps you didn’t know it was happening. Maybe you don’t follow the FOX friendly line-up littering the Cartoon Network’s airwaves from 9:00pm until… seven days a week. Whatever the situation is, Adult Swim remains one of the cable channel’s most effective programming blocks. Preferred demographics, usually relating to age groups between 14 and 45, make it a hotbed for potential advertisers. Thanks to the constant repetition of King of the Hill, American Dad, and Family Guy (No Simpsons, though they will soon add The Cleveland Show to the line-up), as well as their own unique blend of in-house, Williams-Street hits (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Squidbillies, The Venture Brothers, Children’s Hospital), it remains a ratings and marketing given.
So it makes sense that Hollywood would hop on the ballyhoo bandwagon and use the block as a means of getting the word out. But unlike your standard, straightforward approach (clips, cut-down trailers), Adult Swim appears to be the beneficiary of content specifically molded toward its membership. Instead of giving viewers the typical “coming soon” pitch, the studios have come up with compelling, often clever ways of circumventing the standard preview. In their place have been mini-interview featurettes, strange animated sneaks, quirky takes on the tired old conventions, and in some cases, efforts that appear to have nothing to do with the film focused on.
The first time yours truly noticed this, Nicolas Cage was dragging the Crank guys into the world of Ghost Rider. With the Spirit of Vengeance sequel hitting theaters, Brian Taylor (of the duo Neveldine/Taylor) showed viewers how many of the more amazing shots in the movie were captured. We then witnesses behind the scenes footage which saw the filmmaker hanging off of vehicles, scraping along the ground, and basically acting like a stunt man in order to film a specific moment. Meant to highlight how “cool” said concept is, it was very similar to some of the EPKs offered as part of the home video releases of their better known Jason Stathom series. Afterwards, we got the standard “opening, blah, blah, blah…”
The next obvious alteration came with Prometheus. After showing the standard preview for weeks, Swim suddenly changed. Soon, we got a weird cut-out animation “recreation” of the ad, using the same audio but with crudely drawn cartoon images in the place of Ridley Scott’s ambitious visuals. It was very surreal. Slightly less odd, but still strange, was the use of a similar style to announce the arrival of Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest comic caper, The Dictator. Again, colored pencil images skittered around the screen while the typical cinematic summarization took place. From another Q&A like snippet for the most recent Resident Evil to music video like memes for The Watch, Swim has suddenly become ground zero for an alternative ideal in movie promotion.
Granted, it’s not really a new idea. Exploitation producers knew that some audiences wouldn’t cotton to their desire to push the boundaries of content, so they would frequently offer trailers without any imagery whatsoever. Instead, they would argue that the scenes they could show would be too intense for mainstream viewers (including the very young and the very old) and that patrons of a particular theatrical experience (i.e. - the drive in or the local raincoat crowd hangout) would be better able to appreciate the implied level of envelope pushing. Of course, there never were any alternative ads, just these brazen bait and switch scenarios. Similarly, Tinseltown itself has been known to purposefully trick the intended ticket buyer. Many modern trailers push to the fore concepts (comedy, action) that really don’t accurately detail an upcoming release.
But the Adult Swim approach appears to be something different. It’s the acknowledgement that your typical moviegoer is not sitting around on a typical weeknight watching your typical television choices. As a result, said individual has to be catered to differently. They are supposedly smarter, more cynical, less likely to fall for the hallowed Hollywood hype. Instead, by giving them their own specific shout-out, they should respond in kind. It’s like the old idea, since semi-debunked, that social networking and the web can steer a specific kind of viewer into a Cineplex.
Yet it’s hard to imagine how it actually can work. Take the Prometheus ad. Sure, it was very similar to a viral video that came out a few weeks before the film’s release. Yes, it was an ingenious way of taking the visual spin out of the storyline to concentrate on the dialogue and other dramatic elements, but is that the wisest thing to do, especially for something geared towards the sci-fi geeks in the demo? Wouldn’t you take the opposite approach, infusing your pitch with as much imagery as possible? Does a cartoon (and in most cases, barely recognizable) cast compel you to attend, or are we simply supposed to snicker at something taking the piss out of the typical trailer approach.
Who knows - and the more compelling question is who cares? Is this just some strange experiment that someone like yours truly stumbled upon by accident? Is it happening elsewhere…say on MTV? Or VH1? Or any other channel which sees itself as catering to an outsider constituency? And what about the mainstream marketing? Why should it be taken seriously when other examples from the same film mock or make fun of the otherwise accepted approach? It’s very odd, and somewhat startling. You’d assume that any movie hoping to connect with viewers would want to preserve its appearances across the board. Does doing something so niche destroy that? Or are we just making too much out of some specialized showcasing?
Whatever the case, it’s clear that content, not come-ons, drive butts into theater seats. Something like The Dark Knight Rises survived a horrendous opening weekend tragedy to still make nearly $500 million at the box office. On the other hand, hyping Jennifer Lawrence and her connection to The Hunger Games did little to spur The House at the End of the Street to anything other than a one week box office anomaly (word of mouth and scorching reviews should significantly shorten its legs). The Adult Swim idea may be nothing more than a test. So far, it’s hard to tell if it’s a pass, or fail.