[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article contains spoilers about the first half hour of Pixar's Brave.]
Pixar/Disney released their new film Brave in theaters this Friday, and, lo and behold, it had a bear in it. Odd that a film about a young girl who accidentally turns her mother into a bear should not be advertised anywhere in the world as a film about a young girl who accidentally turns her mother into a bear. Disney used to be so savvy about marketing and saturating the marketplace with a certain product: they were considered the central titan of the craft. With this film and with the widely mis-advertised John Carter, Disney seems to be slipping in their usual marketing acumen. I suppose they had to dump all their energy into the teen-boy-ready and ultra-safe The Avengers. Which, as we all know, paid off handsomely for them.
But, yes, Brave was advertised entirely on images of its wild-haired young heroine firing arrows, in an obvious positioning of her as yet another wispy pseudo-feminist icon for the little girls to emulate. Despite efforts like Mulan, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Lilo & Stitch, Enchanted, and Pocahontas, Disney is still, in the mind of the public, closely associated with the blushing, powerless princess who inherits the world through no action of her own (the handsome prince is more often the one to slay the dragon). When they have a chance to outwardly (but safely) buck that trend, that’s what they’ll hammer into the ground. Hence, all the images we saw of Brave were of a strong young girl using a weapon. There was, oddly, no mention anywhere of the film’s actual story. As such, the film’s ad campaign kind of lied to us, making us expect a vague medieval adventure film, and not the manic, slapstick farce it turned out to be.
Both William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I have gone on record at The B-Movies Podcast as saying that film advertisers tend to rejigger their assigned film to make it look more like a previous success recently in theaters, and less like the actual film they have. It’s standard advertising practice. We even lamented the bad ad campaign surrounding Tim Burton’s recent film Dark Shadows (which Bibbs and I and nobody else seemed to like), which made a wry and mannered spoof of soap operas look like something broad and kind of dumb. But, y’know? It still pisses us off. I do sympathize with certain advertisers. It must be hard to get audiences riled up about tragedies, film with ambiguous endings, or anything that’s not a big-budget action film for teenage boys. You’ll know when a film is something of a downer (whether it’s good or bad) when you see worlds like “powerful” and “moving” in the ad copy, rather than the usual “spectacular!” and “awesome!”
To illustrate the ubiquity of this practice, William and I have come up with a few examples of movie previews or ad campaigns that promise you something that, well, just wasn’t in the final film.
Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
Tarantino’s WWII epic is boldly pro-cinema, and features a deliciously offensive twist ending about the fate of Hitler that I will not reveal here. It follows several groups of Americans as they sneak about the French and German countrysides looking for Nazis, and how the Nazis managed to sniff them out. The film is worthy of Sergio Leone (it’s no wonder Tarantino’s next film will be a western), and bears the director’s well-known ear for snappy dialogue that feels like Ernst Lubitsch on crystal meth. The ad campaign, however, did not really focus on many of the film’s many subplots, nor did it imply anything about the fate of Hitler. It focused, instead, on Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine and his group of bloodthirsty underlings. Aldo and his Basterds were on a mission to simply murder as many Nazis as they could. And while Pitt and his dirty dozen did play heavily into the film, the ads made Inglourious Basterds look more like a violent, simple vigilante film that was entirely about Aldo Raine. All told, Aldo had maybe 20 minutes of screentime in a 153-minute film. I still loved Inglourious Basterds, but it was hardly the hard-edged action picture the ads seemed to promise.
The Thin Red Line (dir. Terrence Malick, 1998)
And while we’re on the subject of WWII films that are made to look like they’re full of mayhem, why not bring up the still-argued-over war dream that was Terrence Malick’s moody 1998 Academy Award nominee? Malick is known for his dream-like and beautiful approaches to facets of life and life-altering events. He tells his stories with visual collages, using the landscapes of the natural world as a mirrored vista for the vastness of a human’s infinite interior. The Thin Red Line was no different than his few other film projects, only it had a much more notable ensemble cast of recognizable actors (Nick Nolte, George Clooney, Sean Penn, John Cusack, and Woody Harrelson amongst them). Seeing as it’s hard to market a film as dreamy and as abstract as Malick tends to make, the advertisers, I recall, not only leaned heavily on the actors, but also included many of the combat scenes, making it look like, natch, another action flick, albeit a slightly more thoughtful one. Many people were incensed that Clooney, to cite one actor, only appeared in the film briefly, and right at the end of its 170 minutes at that. Malick made an arguably great movie that wasn’t what we were promised.
Fire in the Sky (dir. Robert Lieberman, 1993)
This is one of those films that everyone seems to love, but few tend to talk about. I think the ambivalence may be lingering from its ad campaign from almost a decade ago. Fire in the Sky told the true story of a man named Travis Walton who was abducted by aliens from an Arizona wood while five of his friends looked on. And while all the trailers and press materials made it look like a particularly creepy sci-fi tale of Travis’ unfortunate experiences on board the alien craft, the film actually proved to be a very taut little drama about the doubt and suspicion surrounding Travis’ disappearance back on Earth. This was a film that was more about earthbound suspicion and persecution than it was about aliens and spacecraft. To be sure, the film did feature a dramatization of what happened on the spacecraft, but those scenes proved to be the climax of a film-long mystery, and not the central conceit. Aliens, as we all know, are an easier sell than drama.
Swimming with Sharks (dir. George Huang, 1994)
Swimming with Sharks (watch misleading, un-embeddable the trailer here) is a much-touted “insider” film that is often discussed in film schools and within the industry, as it depicts some of the harsh and brutal workplace realities of working in the movies. The reality is that much of Hollywood’s actions takes place in dull offices, and is run by petty and mean-spirited bean-counting bosses who like to abuse interns, and have no interest in concepts like “creative control” or “art.” Swimming with Sharks stars Frank Whaley as an optimistic-but-weak-willed industry newbie and Kevin Spacey as the sadistic monster he works for. And while the previews, ad copy, and video boxes all touted the film as an uproarious black comedy, full of giggles and knee-slappers, in reality, the film is a dark, dour, horrifying tragedy about selling out, revenge, and emotional torment. The cruelties Spacey visits upon Whaley are only funny for a few moments, but thanks to excellent and intense performances from them both, you soon begin to feel the outright sadism and desperation. Swimming with Sharks is a very good film, but it’s not funny. Not for a second. It’s black and mean. Tragedies can’t ever take, I guess. Odd that Swimming with Sharks should be sold as the opposite.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
“There’s a bear there.”
That’s all I could think of as the plot of Pixar’s Brave unfolded in front of me. The story of a rebellious young princess at odds with her oppressively “proper” mother took a highly unexpected turn when Princess Merida (Kelly MacDonald, on whom I have an enormous crush) used a witch’s brew to change her fate, not knowing that the potion’s intended effect was to turn Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) into a literal Momma Grizzly. The plot point was never hinted at in Brave’s nearly ubiquitous advertising materials. Even the movie treats it as bafflingly arbitrary: we learn early on that the witch (Julie Walters) has an overpowering bear fetish, so her magic just happens to turn out to be bear-centric. “What the f*ck” is indeed the appropriate response.
The question my mind is whether marketing departments have an obligation to sell us the movie we’re actually getting. On the surface that’s the only ethical option, isn’t it? If you have a movie where the plot is about trans-bear-ification, you should probably tell us about it. But did Brave “lie” to us? They never said someone doesn’t turn into a bear, and sure enough the plot does revolve around a warrior princess at odds with social tradition. But leaving out the crux of the storyline, which may very well have turned some demographics away from the theater, is intentionally misleading. You can claim all you want that audiences should be able to “discover” the film as it unfolds on-screen, but at the very least audiences deserve enough information to decide whether they want to see the movie they’re actually going to receive for their hard-earned money.
There’s another facet to this kind of marketing strategy, however, that doesn’t bug me at all. It’s when advertisers target certain demographics by emphasizing one aspect of the movie over another to certain markets. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was clearly touted as a superhero movie, with all the action that implies. But its overwhelming crossover appeal had a lot to do with its melodramatic love story and upside-down-in-the-rain kissing scene, so some posters and commercials played up the subplot to assure some potential audiences members that, yup, that’s in there too. It’s not so much a lie as a varied approach that explains why there’s something in Spider-Man for everyone. You might notice that the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man has quite a few posters around town that are clearly intended to evoke Sam Raimi’s memorable love story, in the hopes of achieving the same kind of unified appeal.
But then, sometimes, advertisers just plain lie to us. They promise something the movie has no intention of delivering, or at least drastically overemphasize one part of the motion picture experience to make their product, in which they obviously have little faith, more palatable to consumers. This is the worst kind of bullsh*t. Some of us more avid cinephiles are getting pretty savvy about figuring out when we’re being lied to, but we get rooked sometimes too. Here are some examples of marketing campaigns that threatened, and in some cases actually succeeded, in ruining the movie I paid to see.
Alien 3 (dir. David Fincher, 1992)
It’s considered a disappointment now, but Alien 3 was one of the most anticipated movies of 1992 thanks to the classic original films in the franchise and a marketing campaign that promised the next logical progression in the Alien series. “In 1979,” a deep-voiced narrator reminds us, “we discovered, in space, no one can hear you scream. In 1992, we will discover, on Earth, everyone can hear you scream.” The shouts of elation swept through the theater like the Tingler was working overtime. Finally, right?! The movie we’ve all been waiting for… and are still are. A proper Alien movie (sans Predators) has never been set on Earth, and what’s worse, by 1991 20th Century Fox was well aware that Alien 3 wasn’t going to try. Fincher’s debut film, marred by well-publicized studio interference and a copout opening that killed two beloved characters off-screen and sullied the ending of James Cameron’s classic Aliens, was set on yet another alien world, this time populated by maximum security prisoners. The disappointment still stings. Rarely has a film’s marketing campaign so blatantly lied to our faces. This isn’t leaving out a plot point, or overemphasizing one actor’s role because they suddenly made it big. This is kind of evil.
Gosford Park (dir. Robert Altman, 2001)
I was primed and ready for Gosford Park, Robert Altman’s 2001 Oscar-winning comedy about that combined the serious social commentary of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game with the madcap wit of Jonathan Lynn’s wonderful Clue. So when all we got instead was just The Rules of the Game I was genuinely pissed. True, the film many consider to be Altman’s final classic had enough comedy to pack a two-minute teaser to the gills, the film that surrounded those gags was dry, serious and completely unfocused on its supposed plot. Nobody even gets killed until about halfway through the movie. This is one of the rare instances in which the movie I was promised ruined the movie I actually got. Gosford Park wound up winning an Oscar for best screenplay and charming audiences around the world, but it’s not a funny film and that’s the primary reason I ran off to see it in the first place. Hamlet is a wonderful play, but if you bought tickets to The Book of Mormon instead, Shakespeare’s great tragedy might very well ruin your evening. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes went on to create the unexpectedly popular “Downton Abbey,” a television series I was adequately prepared for and, as such, unabashedly love.
It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946)
“Wonderful news about wonderful people in a wonderful picture!” the trailer boasts, ignoring the fact that the whole movie is about committing suicide. “Never before has any film contained such a measure of the joy of living!” the trailer promises. Well, maybe at the very, very end. Frank Capra’s now-classic motion picture, about a good man (Jimmy Stewart) on the verge of killing himself, who is then visited by an angel (Henry Travers) who tries to show him what a wonderful life he’s really led. You might notice that the trailer leaves the supernatural part out as well. Indeed, watching this trailer today it’s hard to tell what It’s a Wonderful Life is about at all: it’s just smiling faces and a few romantic moments, one of which is shown completely out of context (it doesn’t end well for Stewart in the actual film). It’s almost difficult to believe, now that Capra’s film is considered one of “The Great American Movies,” that It’s a Wonderful Life bombed at the box office when it was initially released, but I suspect that audiences were a little disappointed to discover that so much of the supposedly feel-good film was a total downer. Funnier still, even today people tend to gloss over the film’s incredible darkness.
Executive Decision (dir. Stuard Baird, 1996)
“What are you doing here?” asks Kurt Russell. “Who the hell else is going to do it? You?” replies Steven Seagal. Funny thing about that… The trailer for Stuart Baird’s tightly wound and unexpectedly clever “Die Hard on a Plane” movie from 1996 completely neglects to tell the audience that Steven Seagal dies before he even gets onto the hijacked aircraft. Which is pretty funn, when you think about it, since the trailer actually shows his death scene.
Actually, this particular bit of mismarketing doesn’t bother me at all, since the folks who cut the trailer were in on the movie’s joke. Executive Decision doesn’t want you to think that Steven Seagal is going to die either. At the time, it was a highly unexpected moment that raised the stakes on the counter-terrorist mission before it even began. If you saw the film blind, without a hint of advertising, you’d assume it was going to be a buddy action film about stuffed shirt Kurt Russell teaming up with hardnosed Steven Seagal. The irony is that Steven Seagal’s popularity was already dying down by 1996, and I know many people who refused to even see the film because he was involved (and were then very excited to see it when they found out that he dies). Executive Decision wound up being a moderate success in theaters, and has a reputation today as one of the better Die Hard clones to come out of the 1990s.
The Fountain (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
“What if you could live forever?” the trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain asks, promising a story about a Spanish conquistador (played by Hugh Jackman) who finds the tree of life and winds up living forever with the Queen of Spain (Rachel Weisz) from A.D. 1500 to A.D. 2000 all the way to A.D. 2500. Lies, lies, lies. Ignoring the fact that the trailer indulges in one of my biggest pet peeves (incorrectly placed “A.D.” after the date in question), it also tells completely the wrong story. The Fountain takes place in the present day, intercutting the story of a husband (Jackman) trying to cure his wife (Weisz) of terminal cancer), with a fantasy novel she’s writing about her ordeal. The movie has it’s fans, but I never thought it entirely worked: that symbolism is so on the nose that it puts blackheads to shame, and the ridiculous ending (SPOILER –he cures cancer – END SPOILER) was extremely hard to take seriously. Audiences were promised a timeless tale of fantastical romance. Instead they got a depressing mish-mash of ideas that’s more maudlin than thrilling, made all the more insufferable by having little in common with the film we were promised.
What movie trailers lied to you…?