Today Shout! Factory is doing something that, were I still 18 years old with nothing to do for hours on end on a summer day, I’d be totally down for: Streaming 38 episodes of the original incarnation of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” it has the rights to on its Twitch channel. The stunt has a couple goals seemingly in mind: First, i wants to show off its Twitch channel and reach the powerful, incredibly sticky audience that site has, especially around gamers and others who like to watch live broadcasts from others. Second, Shout! wants to draft off the renewed buzz for MST3K, which recently relaunched on Netflix with new episodes starring Jonah Ray and others.
So because I can, today I’m going to take this flimsy excuse and look back at the marketing of 1996’s Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie.
The movie was the product of what turned out to be a tumultuous time for the show. Shot between the sixth and seventh seasons, its production wound up shortening that seventh season. That meant it was just a season-and-a-half after the departure of original host Joel Hodgson, when fans were still kind of getting used to the slightly different style of Mike Nelson. In fact Hodgson’s departure was at least in part due to producer Jim Mallon’s desire to produce a theatrical feature. That abridged seventh season – it was just six episodes long – would be its last on Comedy Central, which no longer felt this sci-fi themed show fit into its more hip, political brand identity. So at the same time MST3K was never more popular, the result of a rabid tape-trading fanbase, and never on shakier ground.
In the midst of all that the talent and creators of the show signed up with Universal to bring MST3K to theaters. To do so they picked This Island Earth, a Universal-owned science fiction classic that unlike many films riffed by the team actually had a pretty good reputation. There’s no big conceit that’s added to the basic show formula: Mike, Tom Servo and Crow are sent a movie by Dr. Clayton Forester that is meant to drive them mad as part of his plan to rule the world. Instead, they wind up wisecracking their way through it to retain their sanity. In between movie segments the residents of the Satellite of Love engage in various hijinks, including trying to dig a tunnel through space back to Earth, attempting to repair the Hubble space telescope and more.
That’s a stark contrast to many TV-to-movie adaptations, where there’s some bigger plot that’s shoehorned onto the basic idea. This is the show writ-large, though its 75-minute runtime means it actually comes in at least 20 minutes under what a normal TV broadcast would be. Perhaps this retention of the low-concept outline was part of the reason the movie got a *very* limited release by Universal (my friends and I had to go to the one theater in Chicago it was playing at and it wouldn’t stick around long enough to expand) and has languished with barebones and infrequent releases on home video.
While Universal was anxious to release the movie at first, the marketing push perhaps showed that the “the show, but on the big screen” approach was a difficult one to sell. That starts on the poster, which is a direct appeal to the show’s existing fanbase with almost nothing to attract anyone not already familiar with this not-too-distant future. Mike and the Bots are shown in their familiar silhouette at the bottom of the image, looking up at the screen. On that screen are images from This Island Earth, though that movie isn’t mentioned at all. In addition to those images, which are pulled straight from the one-sheet for the original movie, we see the giant MST3K logo hanging in space, with “The Movie” added to it. A word balloon coming from Mike’s mouth declares “Every year Hollywood makes hundreds of movies. This is one of them.”
That’s an OK tagline in that it evokes the often dry sense of humor of the show. But it’s less than compelling and seems a bit half-hearted in the end, like no one could think of anything better so they just went with something that was mildly self-deprecating and called it a day.
The trailer opens with that same copy, which is shown and narrated as Mike and the Bots are shown entering the theater and taking their seats. The narration continues as it sells the idea of the show but this time without a censor. From there on out we get a mishmash of clips from the host segments as well as a few riffs from inside the theater itself.
It’s…weak. Again, there’s no surprise the movie didn’t find a mass audience as there’s nothing here that’s going to appeal to anyone who wasn’t already likely to have been watching the show. If you don’t know who Mike and the Bots are and what that guy in the green lab coat is doing spanking himself with the clipboard, there’s nothing for you here. There’s no decryption code offered for non-fans. Sure, you get a sense of what’s going on, but it fails to sell the audience on anything but watching a movie about watching a movie.
Perhaps that’s why the concept behind MST3K worked so well on the small screen but failed to translate to the larger one, where it takes a lot more intentional effort on the part of the audience to accept the meta nature of the idea.
MST3K: The Movie is a pretty good episode of the show, which is not an insult in any way. But the campaign, which seems to have been tossed off by Universal/Gramercy after it realized it had no idea how to sell such a low-concept movie.