I watch a lot of things. I can’t hide that from you. Movies, TV series, comic books, webcomics, the occasional novel, I consume a lot of media, and when something really sticks out as worth talking about, such as the fact that everything Agents of SHIELD promised but failed to deliver is happening on Arrow, I mention it here. Weird intro. Finding my feet.
Here’s the thing. Every now and then, something about a movie or whatnot will strike an off chord with me. There’ll be something about the product that just feels off. And when this happens, I sometimes wonder… was it actually the product that was flawed, or is it because the marketing team sold me something else?
See, the marketers, more often than not, aren’t actually working on the movie. Or TV show. The thing. They’re just trying to sell it. And sometimes that means I’m judging something good or even great for not being the other thing the marketing team decided would sell better. Let’s start with a couple of examples of exactly that before I just jump on bad marketing moves in general.
Inglourious Basterds, for those unfamiliar, was Quentin Tarantino’s first volley into historical revenge fantasy, as a team of vicious American Jewish soldiers stage commando raids against German troops in Nazi-occupied France, leading to a conclusion that’s about as historically accurate as James Bond movies are an accurate depiction of the Cold War.
Or so the trailers and other advertising led us to believe. As far as we knew, this was an action-comedy starring Brad Pitt as the leader of the titular Basterds, who would go on a tear through the Nazis.
The thing is, that’s not actually what the movie’s about. Inglourious Basterds is about Shoshanna Dreyfuss, only survivor of a Jewish family slaughtered by the Nazis while hiding at a French farmhouse, and Hans Landa, the Nazi investigator who tracked her family down. It’s about Shoshanna’s quest for revenge and Hans’ growing dissatisfaction with his employers, and his title of “Jew Hunter.” It’s a suspense film, in which people desperately try to keep their secrets hidden from the Germans, despite the fact that their secret is known and the Germans just need that last piece of proof. And through all this is a comic relief subplot about the Basterds.
Perhaps part of the reason we thought the Basterds might be the main characters is that they were the title characters. But then, Tarantino didn’t even want to call it “Inglourious Basterds.” He was going to call it “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France,” which both would have warned us that this wasn’t going to be history as we knew it, and wouldn’t have made us think Brad Pitt was going to be the main character. Because he really wasn’t.
So when we sat down to watch what we were told was an action-comedy, and got a tense suspense thriller, it was a little jarring. The movie’s still excellent, but you need to be aware what you’re going to get.
Star Trek: Into Darkness
I’m a big fan of Star Trek: Into Darkness. Both of the J.J. Abrams Trek movies, but Into Darkness in particular. It may not be perfect, but it’s my favourite action movie of the year, and the only one with a protagonist that fights to not kill the bad guy. Well, other than Lone Ranger, but in that case it’s played as a character flaw, not something noble. Into Darkness is the only movie to do it well. There is one flaw with Into Darkness, however, that’s difficult to defend.
The “surprise twist” is the least surprising thing they could have done. And I will be revealing it in the next paragraph, so if you somehow don’t know or are in denial that you’ve known all along, skip ahead. Like, to the next section.
As soon as the script was done, the J.J. Abrams marketing team got to work trying to hide who the villain was in the most obvious way possible. They didn’t just avoid saying who the villain was (like Iron Man 3), they shouted out as loud as possible that the villain’s identity was being kept a secret. Tried to build as much suspense as they could over who Benedict Cumberbatch was playing, even though it was blatantly clear from the word go that he was Khan. Of course he was Khan, he was always going to be Khan, there is nothing surprising about that. And I am doing you a favour by telling you.
But that hardly ruins the movie. It’s not like they’re telling you who Kaiser Soze really is. When Kirk and company finally catch up with “John Harrison,” as he’s been called up until then, he immediately identifies himself as Khan. And at that point there’s still over half the movie left. The movie itself never hinges on the identity of the villain being a secret, only the marketing campaigns. We wouldn’t even consider it a plot twist if nobody had told us to expect one, and we’d have been fine with it.
Next week, on…
Now, let’s look at how network and cable television tend to screw up their promos for future episodes. Because in these cases, I am sure that nobody involved in the production of the shows was responsible for these promos. Here’s three case studies representing three massive sins.
The worst “next week on” promo I’ve ever seen was a first season episode of Queer as Folk. Every single moment that they chose for the promo was taken from the last two minutes of the episode. And they were big moments. Big moments that I did not want to spend most of the episode knowing were coming. As Peter David once put it, these were not spoilers, they were ruiners. They straight up ruined that episode.
Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip has it’s detractors. I am not one of them. Sure, I have qualms with the fact that they devoted five of their last six episodes to a plotline that could have been done in, like, half of that, and why was a show about sketch comedy spending so long talking about the war in Afghanistan, but I love it to death. The promos, on the other hand, were clearly put together by people who weren’t actually watching the show. They’d pick random moments from the next episode and play them up as fifty times more dramatic than they were. They’d show two characters kissing and say “One kiss… changes EVERYTHING.” When you watched the episode, the kiss was a quick joke that had no impact on any plot, past or future.
And then there’s the “post-Thor” episode of Agents of SHIELD. They advertised an episode that would tie into Thor: the Dark World, and when it came? Thirty seconds of the main cast cleaning up after the movie’s climactic battle (which makes no sense. How did Coulson’s hand-picked team of elite globetrotting problem solvers get stuck on clean-up duty?) before they jumped into an unrelated plot about an unrelated Asgardian artifact with no connection at all to any Thor movie. And in this case… I really feel the corporate bosses are to blame. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that they’d made an episode with Asgardian stuff, and then were told to add a scene involving cleaning up Greenwich so that they could sell it as connected to the movie.
Three examples that I think comprise the major sins of network-edited promos. One case of utterly spoiling the next episode, once case of selling a show that wasn’t actually filmed (Star Trek: DS9 and Voyager were awful for this), and one blatant bait-and-switch in a transparent, if successful, attempt to stop their rating from slipping every week. And each of these can profoundly impact your enjoyment of the show, be it ruining that week’s stories, or making you expect a show you’re just not going to get.
It’s not really germane but now’s as good a time as any to mention that the “next time” promos for Mad Men are so breathtakingly vague that they’re teetering into self-parody. This video says it best.
I work in marketing every now and again myself, so I get the struggle involved in getting people excited without spelling out the whole story for them. But Iron Man 3 managed it, man. They managed it. They put out multiple trailers that basically said “What’s it about? It’s about two and a half hours, come watch it,” and by the gods we did.
I guess the moral is “Don’t try to sell us what you think we want to buy, sell us what you’re actually doing,” but trying to make corporations be less stupid is kind of an impossible quest. Still… there’s always hope.
Whew. Made it through the whole thing without mentioning how the trailer for Free Willy managed to sum up the movie so completely it’s amazing anyone actually paid to see it. Aw, son of a–