I remember Batman Forever and its beautiful artwork plastered all over Burger King’s cups, posters, and billboards back in 1995. That said I have no recollection of actually seeing the film at the cinema. I remember the spectacular must-have toys (I was seven years old), having the VHS much later on, but literally nothing about a cinema trip to see Val Kilmer as the Dark Knight.
That’s the whole point of good film promotion, though. You are saturated with the idea that the film is such a huge, once in a lifetime spectacle that you have to see it. Your anticipation and your expectations are boiled to a frothing point until you’re the first in line on the day of its release. It makes no difference if the film is good, or if it’s memorable, as long as you feel and remember the excitement for it.
Twenty years later, movies are not only bigger, but their marketing budgets are twice the size because they have a nearly infinite number of outlets to blast their image through. Ones that sneak below the radar are considered either independent or cult (even if they have a blockbuster-like budget), but all in all, if it hopes to hit the global jackpot of the ‘opening weekend’, studios need to invest millions to see a global return (particularly if the film isn’t very good).
Take Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: in recent memory, there has been no other more critically disappointing film with such a huge promotion budget. It made the campaign of Batman Forever look puerile, as it was made for $250 million with a marketing pot of $150 million. Every internet website had posters for it and every news outlet ran the trailer; there were ticket competitions, there were previews, there were behind the scenes footage, there were special edition soundtracks, film posters drip fed years ahead of the release; there were games, there were apps and previews into the sets of the film. Everyone was talking about it and even if Batman and Superman were the two most despised superheroes you could think of, you’d still know there was a film coming out with them in it. Voila, marketing.
The problem is marketing can’t fix something that’s already broken. The great game to get backsides on seats for the opening weekend doesn’t last if it’s a bad film. BvS might have set new box-office records with a $420.1 million opening, but it also experienced a record historic drop in its second weekend (losing 68 percent in ticket sales).
No matter how much money you throw at something, the saturation of marketing is rivaled by the equally prolific and verbose number of reviewers who can post their own review either with the big name papers and news broadcasts or, more spontaneously accessible, YouTube reviews with respected film critics or people who have a thought to share. You see it promoted everywhere, you also see the reviews everywhere almost immediately after its release.
In this case, the dichotomy between professional critics and the fans was stark: the former panned the picture and the latter were more lukewarm with enthusiasm. There was nevertheless a general consensus that the spectacle was nowhere close to what the advertisement campaign had led many to believe it was going to be, promising one of the biggest films of all time which everyone wanted a piece of.
Fox’s 2015 breakout hit Deadpool likewise had a suffocating omnipresence in the run-up to its release, albeit in a much more comedic fashion with viral fourth wall skit videos of the eponymous character. Although it had a much smaller budget of $58 million, it proved to be a critical hit and made an opening weekend return of $130 million making it the biggest opening ever for an R-rated movie. Fox had predicted an opening weekend of only around $70 million.
This is the problem then: film studios are treating film-goers as idiots. Once upon a time it was a trailer and a synopsis and off we pop if we like the look of the film. Now it’s saturation until, or so the studios think, we have no choice but to pay it a visit whatever the quality of the picture. What Deadpool has proven is that word of mouth and critically lauding reviews still make a difference and work in partnership with a solid promotion campaign.
Marketing is an arm of studios seeking a return, it cannot and should not be conflated with the stylistic creative vision of the director. This becomes apparent when, no matter how eager a director is, you have to ask why anyone would go through months and years to create a film only for the major plot points to be relieved in a trailer, as was the case with BvS. Moviegoers and fans aren’t stupid: if you know enough about something you can infer and deduce until all you’re doing is sitting in a cinema waiting to be proved correct. For £20 a cinema trip with a ticket and popcorn thrown in, it’s an expensive exercise in futility. It only ruins the fun.
Marketing departments have become too big. It’s inconsistent to assume more marketing money means better returns. You may get an initial punching above its weight opening weekend but it won’t last, particularly as word of mouth will always catch up and, more damningly, you’ve already revealed most of the details of your picture anyway.
Studios shouldn’t rely so much on marketing anymore, they should have faith in their own productions to stand on their own two feet. If they don’t trust their director, the script, the actors or the overall quality of the picture it poses the question why they made it in the first place. You can throw something in someone’s face, but that doesn’t make it good and no matter how hard you try to manipulate people’s heart rates into wanting to see more, you can’t make wave after wave of viewers follow if it’s a bad film.
Trailer – six months later – popcorn – film. That’s the old formula and no one has proved that this doesn’t work.