If the Internet is responsible for anything – and there are many divergent (and slightly seedy) concepts it can claim – perhaps the most seismic shock has come in the realm of movie marketing. It used to be that, when a film wanted to tout its potential as either a stellar drama, hilarious comedy, heart-pumping actioner or nail-biting thriller, studios and producers set up carefully considered publicity campaigns, playing to their products strengths while downplaying its potential problems. When the print media made early pronouncements of troubled talent or less than successful results, the mighty Hollywood spin machine was right there, ready to twist the tales in their favor.
Take the films opening in the next few weeks. The Nicholas Cage comic book saga Ghost Rider has been almost omnipresent since production began. Within months, photos of the phantom biker, skull aflame with meticulous CGI conflagration, were "leaked" to fan-favorable sites all along the web. It wasn't long after that a genre-defining trailer was released, a jump cut driven example of minor exposition mixed with major money shots. By the time the film actually opens on 16 February, audiences will know of Cage's deal with the Devil, the impressive images of the main character racing up the side of a skyscraper, and the lack of emotional heft possessed by supposed romantic interest Eva Mendes. No wonder the final film won't be screened for critics prior to release. You can practically review it from the ads alone.
Or what about 300. Ever since it was announced that Zack Snyder was taking on Frank Miller's graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. (when tens of thousands of Persians challenged – you guessed it – 300 Spartans), the nerd network went into hyperdrive. Snyder, instrumental in jumpstarting the whole horror remake craze with his excellent work in updating George Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead, promised a Sin City like respect for the author's work, and as if to accentuate that fact, early teasers featured signature stylized shots of buff men making war in drama-defining slow motion. Understanding inherently that the new adolescent audience is as devoted to its own idiosyncratic interests as it is with the current pop culture landscape, 300 decided to avoid the standard marketing mechanism and simply go geek.
That's right, in between online discussions of Doctor Doom's new look for the Fantastic Four sequel (along with quips about the Silver Surfer's metallic 'package') and the constant consideration of Spider-man 3's villain viability (where are those images of Venom!?), dork nation now determines the imagined achievement of a soon to be released film. While it may seem unfair to toss around terms like 'geek', 'nerd', or 'dweeb', the truth is that the web has made the obsessive instrumental in creating the momentum that will make or break a movie. Where once this social stigmatization illustrated one's unacceptability as a perceived member of the inevitable in-crowd, it's now a badge of honor, a recognized symbol of status inside the film business's new advertising strategy.
While consensus has it that Harry Knowles and his Ain't It Cool News website is the main purveyor of this armchair analyst conceit, the fact remains that, no matter who started it, the new wired mindset is setting the agenda for motion picture marketing. It's no longer necessary to fashion extensive ad campaigns, hoping your coverage creates the kind of universal interest that generates major box office. No, movies are now like any other prepackaged product from a shrewd and sharp multinational conglomerate. It's rare that a title will see a theatrical release without international rights, TV and cable contracts, and multiple DVD release strategies sewn up in advance. For a film to actually lose money in this safety net style approach, it has to really be awful – or better yet, lacking a legitimate online champion.
Everyone points to Snakes on a Plane as a perfect example of how the Internet is not that successful a shill, and for that film in particular, those critics have a point. Trying to take an old fashioned action film, highly reminiscent of the 1970s style of disaster and death, and selling it as a slick campy cult classic to a post post-modern audience was the height of salesmanship stupidity. What the geek audience was identifying with – the memory of dateless mid '80s evenings sitting in front of the tube with a stack of VHS hackwork – was not actually what the movie was prepared to deliver. Imagine their surprise when New Line actually offered something good. Like expecting something stupid and getting its serious substitute, Snakes of a Plane died because of improper public perception and deadly word of mouth.
Yet this is the very tactic that the new web-based bait and switch approach is hoping to achieve. Certainly there are those movies working on the hope of previously successful formulas (Eddie Murphy + Rick Baker's amazing make-up = Norbit) and more than a few believing a "don't ask, don't tell, don't preview" conceit will confuse a few dollars out of the demographic (The Hitcher, The Messengers). But what the new breed of cinematic carnival barkers are really counting on is the feeb's fascination with the unknown. When Michael Bay announced his 2007 Summer blockbuster wannabe The Transformers, online speculation went nuclear. It wasn't long before the base had weighed in on must-have characters, feared directorial missteps, and a genuine curiosity over whether this material would play in a live action format.
Then the first teaser trailer was delivered – adding fuel to the already blazing interest inferno. Prior to the full fledged ad which answered a lot of questions and appeased a lot of panic, the momentary glimpse of the title robots sent messageboards into a tantalized tizzy, which in turn generates the kind of MySpace interest that movie marketers murder for. If a studio can expertly control the release of such iconic information, if they can prevent the kind of collaborative overkill that sunk Snakes chances at wider acceptance, it can guarantee a huge opening weekend and not have to worry about the ultimate value of the product.
Of course, this strategy can backfire – sometimes, tragically – when misapplied. You just know that Cartoon Network and the suits at Time-Warner were wetting themselves when their proposed promotional campaign for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force film (utilizing black boxes that featured a light up illustration of the show's symbolic Mooninite character) turned into an imagined terrorist plot. Had our post-9/11 mania not kicked in, and the populace panic over something that 'sort of, could of' looked like a bomb (in the right light), it would have been fairly obvious what the unusual animated project was attempting. By slyly placing these series symbols around cities in the US, nerds in the know would have their own public private joke. While others looked on at the blocky image, trying to decipher its Atari throwback design, the fanatical would have a shared chuckle and move along.
Indeed that's the whole point of this new geekdom strategy. Don't worry what professional critics have to say, don't screen a movie in advance to allow newspapers and other media sources to set the agenda. Instead, tap into the online cosmos of specific genre categories and hope the devoted fans pull you along. Back when television was the reigning cultural watchdog, such a tactic worked. Shows like Star Trek and Firefly discovered a long life beyond cancellation, while recent efforts like Family Guy and Futurama used the newly discovered populist power of DVD to revive their fortunes. And as the sole significant force setting the agenda for Internet discussion, the wired now work overtime doing the same sort of selling that a carefully choreographed marketing campaign would.
So as the next few months drag on, as film after film arrives without preview press coverage and advanced critical consideration, simply sign on to your favorite world wide website and get the good geek word. Why, even now you can discover how Chow Yun-Fat looks in Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At Worlds End, read a breakdown of how successful a recent focus group screening of the new Simon Pegg and Nick Frost comedy Hot Fuzz was, or just bask in the glow of an onset visit to the still in pre-production Iron Man. And if you don't think these all knowing nerds matter, consider this: recent reports have Rob Zombie putting a temporary halt on his remake of the John Carpenter classic Halloween. Why? Because early reviews of the script have been brutal in their unified hatred of the project.
What this means for the future of the motion picture marketing machine and its compatriots in the legitimate press may be insignificant – or insurgent. For decades, fans have complained about the lack of a voice in the way in which films are created. They've wanted more heart, more head, more meaning; basically, more substance. How letting a bunch of individuals with way too much free time on their hands dictate what does and does not make money (and therefore, catches the eye of those who make the creative decisions) as well as the dialogue on how it is received by the like minded public, doesn't sound like a sane business practice. But for now, the geek zeitgeist controls the conversation, and there's not much anyone outside the clique can do about it.