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If you listen to experts at the moment, you are starting to hear a consensus. The blockbuster movie is over, done, and the blame is partially on the rippled shoulders of Ryan Reynolds and Taylor Kitsch. (Of course, the auteur theory that we default to maintains that film is primarily the work of the director. Unless it flops. Then it’s the star’s fault.) There have been a few bad flops this year, even though total box office is up 12%. Go figure.

Insiders are talking about mid-sized “targeted” movies, which have always worked. Just ask Universal. And the big story of the summer was James Wan’s The Conjuring. But part of being an American is having a giant, wasteful summer blockbuster movie to go to. If the blockbuster is dead, who killed it?

My first clue was my conversation with Tom about Pacific Rim.

“Sounds pretty good,” he said. “I’ll have to download it.”

“You can’t download it,” I replied firmly. “You have to see it in the theater. In IMAX. Dude, they have a fight at the bottom of the ocean, with giant monsters, and then they drop a nuke so big, it blows the water off of the ocean floor. You can’t see that on a computer monitor.”

There was a long pause. I am not a techie. There are only a handful of movies that are worth seeing in IMAX. I think I have one Blu-Ray disk.

“There’s a nuke,” he asked, with quiet awe. “Why didn’t anyone tell me that? The trailer made it look like a Transformers rip-off. They drop a giant nuke in the ocean?”

He’s right. I’m a big Del Toro fan, so I was going to see the movie regardless, but the trailer and marketing was unimpressive. When I started to mentally review the recent movies that had flopped, there was a common theme.

Turbo looked REALLY stupid. The Lone Ranger wasn’t really compelling. I have no idea what R.I.P.D. was about, or why I should have seen it. I don’t know what White House Down was, and I think there was another movie just like it. I can’t distinguish between the two, because they didn’t distinguish themselves. I read John Carter as a kid, and I didn’t have a reason to see that movie. Why is the marketing for all these films so lousy?

There was an excellent series of articles in Wired Magazine about the evolving art of making a movie trailer. One thing that jumped out at me though was that studios were so concerned with getting sneak peeks out early to fans, that they were releasing trailers earlier and earlier in the film process. At one point, when discussing constructing the trailers, it was mentioned that sometimes they only have 20 minutes of footage, and they have to just come up with something.
And that’s the problem right there.
You might actually want to show your movie to the people that are supposed to market it. As it stands now, I don’t know why I should see your film, and apparently you don’t either, because you don’t even have all of it. That means promotional materials and trailers are based on explosions, girls and stars, but not narrative. They can’t explain what their movie is about, but there sure is a lot of stuff happening it in for some reason.
This summer isn’t about what everyone said it was about. The films that made it, marketed themselves better than the films that didn’t. G.I. Joe Retaliation was a terrible film, but it had been in the can for months, so they were promoting a movie they had seen. They created a proper expectation for their film and it delivered. Was it good? No. But it had the Rock, Bruce Willis’s smirk and ninja’s fighting on a mountain.
Pacific Rim delivered. It DELIVERED. But no one knew it, because someone came up with the tagline “We built monsters, to fight monsters,” slapped together some terrible trailers, and it died a terrible death.

Dredd was another great film that no one saw because they had no idea how it was different from the Stallone abomination that preceded it. Word of mouth helped it sell 650,000 units in its first week of home DVD release, but word of mouth is what happens when your marketing sucks.
Contrast that with The Conjuring. To some, it’s an unlikely box office champ, but it’s not that unlikely if you were paying attention. The marketing for The Conjuring was nearly impeccable. New Line knew it had a winner and had the guts to put the right release date, to put a small niche movie in the middle of a bunch of seemingly non-descript blockbusters.
Since they moved the date back, they were marketing a movie that they had actually seen, so everything they did established what The Conjuring was about and why you would want to see it. They shared clips from the movie that were intriguing, but gave nothing away, interviewed the family that had survived the incident, and mixed the interview in with the accompanying footage and generally did a stellar but inexpensive job of supporting their film and then the film delivered on the expectations.
As long as films are rushed to provide pre-pre-pre-pre-teaser trailers, then you’re probably going to have this problem. But realistically, I think that’s only an issue for certain summer films. Let’s face it, if Christopher Nolan tells Warner Brothers that his latest movie isn’t finished and he doesn’t want a trailer out (or say – bonus Heath Ledger Joker footage?) then the trailer doesn’t come out. Problem solved.
It’s the little guys that get pushed around, the new properties, the new directors, the original properties. But that was the problem in the first place. I submit to you that the real problem isn’t the death of the summer blockbuster. It about the death of the original property. It’s going to be a million times harder to get a budget for an original idea, and that was already a huge problem. Now get ready for even more sequels, remakes, re-imaginings and adaptations.
The Blockbuster movie is going to be just fine. The summer film might not be.

I love you guys, but this is the seventh sequel of a remake.

I love you guys, but this is the seventh sequel of a remake.