I have written many times about my aggravation with film sequels and reboots, and I’m sure I will continue to do so for the rest of my life. Such films are a substitute for good writing and good marketing. I’ve laid the blame on bad marketing before, but how should one market films? Well, you market to a film’s strengths, of course.
Let’s take the easiest one: films that have a striking visual style. It’s the easiest because you can simply show it, or show the best parts of it. In many cases, it might be best to reveal it, starting first with ordinary and moving to the extraordinary.
“TRON: Legacy” is the most obvious example that comes to my mind. However, to be fair, this was a reboot/sequel, and it depended heavily on nostalgia for the original film. I just watched a couple of the trailers, and they both follow a similar pattern of starting out in the normal world and then transitioning to the more visually striking world. In addition to its striking visuals, the film had great music and sound design, but can’t really demonstrate that to home viewers, who mostly have pathetic sound systems. This film’s story was very basic, and it wasn’t one of the film’s strong points.
It would be selling “The Matrix” short to say that visuals are its strong point. The film is strong in every way you would want it to be. However, the film did have quite a few unique visual effects, including the “bullet time” effect. It also had striking wardrobe and production design. The trailers paraded all of the visual effects, of course. They did attempt to hint at the story, but it’s difficult to do that with “The Matrix” without giving it away, which was important to the film’s appeal. The trailers also gave glimpses of the action in the film.
You may not remember “Prometheus“, which didn’t exactly flop, but which didn’t make back its entire budget in domestic theaters. I remember watching it because of the visuals in the trailers, which involved big space ships, and because it was directed by Ridley Scott. I also remember being not just disappointed, but actually angry that the story was non-existent, and that it wasn’t actually science-fiction or space opera, but just the most basic sort of horror. The space ship shot in the trailer was the only interesting shot in the whole film. The trailer hinted at some kind of profound story, but at the end of the film, the profound stuff had yet to be revealed. Some of the trailers online now show the horror nature of the film, but those elements weren’t included in the previews I saw in theaters.
You may also not remember “The Island“, which did flop. It had a great visual design, and I want to say that I saw it because of that, and because it had Steve Buscemi. Looking at the trailers now, it seems they emphasized the chase action scenes. I didn’t really think of the film as being especially action-oriented, but I suppose it’s true that the majority of the film is about the two characters trying to escape. Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansonn, and Steve Buscemi were big names then, so it was certainly important to include them in the trailers.
“Sin City” was about 85% visual style, 10% dropping Quentin Tarantino’s name, and 5% the impressive roster of A-list actors in the film. The trailers showed all that, and it worked because the film was a financial success. It didn’t even have a story, just a series of vignettes.
I’m not sure “Amélie” counts as a visual film, but I am convinced that it did as well as it did in the United States primarily because of how adorable Audrey Tautou appeared in the film and the trailers. Part of this was her child-like expression, but part of this was simply the way she was photographed, emphasizing her dark eyes. The American trailers revealed nothing about the story, except that it had won an award.
So if a film has visual strengths, or heaven forbid, it has nothing going for it except its visuals, then the answer is simple: put them in the trailer.
Aside from trailers, there is probably a lesson to be learned here about choosing films to make. Should a film like “Sin City” have ever been made? You could argue yes, since it made money. And honestly, it delivered everything promised in the trailers. And yes, I think filmmakers should be given license to experiment this way.
Should “Prometheus” have been green-lighted? In hindsight, the answer is probably no, but undoubtedly studio execs were salivating for another Ridley Scott “Alien” sequel, and they probably didn’t even read the script. I wonder if the film would have made more money if it had been marketed a different way. “Alien” was clearly marketed as horror in space. The trailer I just watched was space visuals, with a hint of tension on screen and in the music, then five seconds of chaos, followed by, “in space no one can hear you scream.” Not ambiguous. However, for some reason the marketing for “Prometheus” that reached me did not hint at horror at all, and I wonder if the people who normally go for horror were not interested in a film that just seemed to be about space and alien civilizations. I remember seeing the preview in a theater, but I don’t remember what film I was there to see. Maybe spacey trailers were shown in theaters with science-fiction films, and horror trailers were shown in theaters with horror films. Or maybe the film just sucked for everyone. Horror isn’t my thing, so I’m not a good judge, but the horror in “Prometheus” didn’t seem very good, whereas the horror in “Alien” was very good at getting under your skin. Marketing shouldn’t be expected to save a film that is bad all around.