There was no viral advertising when I was a kid. Movies were advertised for their content. Television spots would tempt you with high adventure. I remember a trailer for the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The advertising basically outlined the entire plot of the film so that you the viewer, might know exactly why this movies was going to be exciting (and worth your cash at the box office). “Audiences pack theaters today to answer a burning question, not to see a great movie.”
Now advertising doesn’t show you anything. Take Cloverfield for example. The cryptic trailers and viral web marketing didn’t reveal anything about the movie at all. Audiences pack theaters today to answer a burning question, not to see a great movie. Cloverfield didn’t really need a monster at all to tell a great story, so I’m not sure what all the secrecy was really about.
JJ Abrams has a way of grabbing your attention with the fantastic and then taking the opportunity to show you the importance of the mundane. I suppose if Cloverfield had been advertised as a movie about the importance of human connections and the emotional risks of mixing friendship with romance, fewer people would have obsessed over the film.
In case you haven’t been paying attention to LOST for the past four years, that’s exactly what Abrams does. The nature of the island and the truth about “the black smoke” are in the end, unimportant. Now that LOST has your attention, Abrams can tell you a story about human relationships. Where characters came from and what they do, determines how others perceive them. I think LOST could have been sold without the monsters, mysteries, and the others. I had no idea when I first started watching it that those things were part of the story. I thought I was just watching a TV series version of Cast-away.
M. Knight Shyamalan is another producer/director who shows you very little to arouse your curiosity. I’m not sure any Shyamalan film has really delivered on the promise great story telling the way The Sixth Sense did. That film was essentially advertised with the single phrase “I See Dead people” whispered by a young Haley Joel Osment. Nobody ever thought to describe the film in terms of Bruce Willis’ character. But then again I suppose that would have given away the surprise ending, right?
Do todays films really have what it takes to sell themselves without viral advertising? Or, are gimmicks and clever mis-direction a reflection of their content? Could you tell somebody what a modern film was REALLY about and expect them to be excited about seeing the film in theaters? I highly doubt it.
I would like to see films advertised on their own merits. It works for films with low expectations, why not for the movies which generate a lot of hype?