Ruining It for Everyone

2008-04-04 (General release)

Sometimes, you have to wonder what goes on in a marketer’s head. Let’s say you have a good movie – granted, a niche genre effort, but a good film none the less. Now, you know that most critics are going to crucify it, demeaning what it stands for merely because of the type it represents (in this case, horror). And from past experience, you are aware that this kind of narrative appeals to a certain sort of audience, one that needs to be ballyhooed right up front in order to earn the maximum opening weekend returns. These movies don’t have legs, and you understand that. So it’s now or never; pile on the hype and hope for the best.

In the case of The Ruins, however, the advertising took a decidedly odd approach. Instead of discussing the film as a throwback scarefest, a work worthy of early Stephen King or grade-A Romero, it took the tired, torture porn route. Indeed, many of the trailers accented the foreign locale, the strange native threat, and a clear corporeal putrescence. It was all blood, badlands, and bad guys. Nowhere was there a suggestion that suspense would be part of the mix. There was hardly a hint of the survival story involved. And at the end of the day, when potential has to be measured, the viewership was considered too stupid to accept the premise or the pay-off, and so a classic bait and switch was used.

Now, this is not new. It’s the premiere tactic of a business model that bases success on a few weeks at the Cineplex, not the artistic value or commercial longevity of a project. True, it’s all part of some bizarre vicious cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy that sees stars and directors rewarded for putting butts in the seats early and often. Rare is the certified sleeper, a film that plays for months on end before becoming a cultural lynchpin. No, what Hollywood specializes in is the notion of instant gratification and planned obsolescence – especially during certain ‘seasons’ (read: Summer and Oscar). It won’t wait for a movie to build a following. If it hasn’t shown significant “buzz” during the first 10 days of a release, it is forced off screens to make room for the next bit of grand mal gambling.

And this flies directly in the face of a film like The Ruins. This is a movie that needs a couple of weeks to clean the Hostel taste out of a potential ticket buyer’s mouths, to reestablish itself for what it truly is – a taut and rather terrifying little thriller. It employs the classic creepshow elements: exotic locale, unexplained evil, the possibility that anyone could die at any time. It’s a morbid little work, the combined talents of novelist/screenwriter Scott Smith (of A Simple Plan fame) and director Carter Smith. Together, they eschew the recent trend in over the top grotesqueries, instead metering out their gore with the same sense of style and resolve as the rest of the film.

The story takes place in Mexico, where four friends are trying to find ways to pass the time during their last few days on vacation. They meet up with a German tourist who has a map to some ancient ruins. His brother has been investigating the site, and he’s anxious to find out what he’s up to. Agreeing that a little sightseeing would do them good, they all head off into the jungle. Within hours, they come face to face with a giant temple, an abandoned archeological dig, and a group of murderous natives who want the “gringos” quarantined to the very top of the structure. At first, our quintet isn’t sure what’s going on. But slowly they realize that something among these ancient rocks is unbelievably evil, incredibly relentless‚Ķand very, very hungry.

From this point on, the movie takes many intriguing twists and turns. Some of them are so shocking as to stay with you for days (can you say “impromptu surgery”?). Others are so sensationally schlocky that the resulting cheese threatens to undermine everything that came before – or after. But thanks to the Smiths, who constantly keep things in focus and in check, and their incredibly earnest cast who sells everything – even the most implausible facets – with drive and determination, The Ruins works, and works well. It becomes a wonderful little gem, the kind of unsung macabre that has fans wondering why it seemed to get so little favorable fanfare.

Naturally, the horror maven understands the limited appeal of their particular poison, especially from a critical standpoint. The Ruins rates a dismal 44% on Rotten Tomatoes, with a total of 68 so-called journalists voicing their support/disapproval. Oddly enough, Hancock, which earns an even worse 37% rating, was seen by 166. Almost 100 more. Back when we discussed the bias against fright flicks, there were numerous examples of this discrepancy. The Strangers managed a much better 113 reviews, even if it too ranks lower than The Ruins (at 41%), but this can’t compare with 234 for the fourth Indiana Jones pic. While numbers are usually arbitrary, and anyone can read anything into them, there are some trends that can be surmised here.

First, part of the reason The Ruins has less write-ups than The Strangers is that most markets did not screen the movie for critics prior to release. Strike that, some did, but many saw the Smiths’ effort at a late night preview the THURSDAY before it opened. This guaranteed that several senior critics would not and could not run reviews. Unlike online scribes who can usually get something posted within 24 hours, print (and other mainstream) publishing has an editorial pecking order that must be abided by. Some papers demand material three to four days before, meaning that if you have not seen a certain movie before that time, a day/date review will not go up.

Secondly, the studio behind The Strangers obviously believed they had a hit on their hands. They ran screenings at least a week before opening, and in some cities, there was 10 days or more between the advance and the street date. This meant that (a) more critics could come, and (b) more reviews could be written. So from a pragmatic standpoint, The Ruins suffered from stealth like cloak and dagger design. But there is more to it than that. The Strangers had recognizable names (Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman), while The Ruins did not. Somewhere, in some office, an agent is collecting his bonus for making sure his client got a decent chance at some quality opinions.

Thirdly, the suits are still scared spitless of the messageboard mentality that guides the Internet. Well aware that negative rumor-mongering can begin as quickly as the script stage, they (falsely) believe that keeping a film away from the blog-posting masses will guarantee that none of said bad vibes will rub off on their product. Aside from being incredibly narrow minded and racked with logic loopholes, the situation does stand the other way as well. If you have a “good” film (and The Ruins is a good film), then holding back on any publicity means that you have the standard set of voices giving the final word. And since there is an automatic bias against the genre, said flawed thinking turns fatal.

You see, most surveys suggest that critics only matter when it comes to bad films. Take The Love Guru, for example. Sure, word of mouth more or less killed it, but the consensus was already out there, thanks to at least 105 bad reviews. The press agreeing with your best buddy just adds supportive insult to established injury. Yet the Fourth Estate could clamor all over a film – as they usually do with Awards season selections – and if viewers aren’t interested, they will stay away in droves. So to think that advance word does anything other than sway a few turnstile twists pro or con is ridiculous. On Broadway, yes, but not when it comes to the tween/teen demo that determines most movie sales.

With The Ruins coming to DVD this Tuesday (8 July), here’s some friendly advice to the paid professionals behind the push. Up front, learn your real target crowd. There are many horror buffs in the 30 and older category, their teenage years spent in a pot smoke haze at their local drive-in drinking in the latest terror show. Heck, even Boomers enjoy an occasional scare now and then. So stop thinking that disaffected Goth types and bored PG-13 year old geeks are your prime audience. Broaden the scope. And then accept the fact that you are fighting a major battle when it comes to the critics. Less than 25% are open minded when it comes to fear, and of them, less than half would claim it as their favorite cinematic style.

So here’s an idea – find those journalists who might favor fright and play to them. Offer them special screenings, interviews with cast and crew, sneak peeks that your typical tabloid-esque rag might simply ignore. DVD does this really well. Sites like Bloody Disgusting, Gorezone, and Fangoria are frequently seen quoted on direct to format titles. This is done because these distributors understand the weight of consensus and suggestion in horror fandom. Trust is paramount among the macabre devotees, mostly because they can’t rely on their local paper or favorite website to give dread a fair shake. By finally accepting that you can broaden the demand for something that’s normally rather limited (ala The Blair Witch Project), you can reap undeniable rewards.

This means, of course, destroying the current model. Movies like The Ruins might muster up a few million come opening weekend, but in order to have any longevity whatsoever, these films have to find their core constituency – and then expand on it. Current belief sees women as the next untapped fanbase, filmmakers aiming the experience at a group that’s not normally considered fright friendly. It may have been the basis for The Strangers‘ above-average box office ($60 million and counting) or the outpouring of affection for Neil Marshall’s The Descent (a very girl power drive experience indeed). Until then, individuals inclined toward the creepy and spooky will simply have to hunt and peck for a theater playing their eerie entertainment of choice – or worse, wait for its digital equivalent. Clearly, it’s the marketers, not the movies themselves, that are ruining things for everyone. Sometimes, you have to wonder.