Stephen King comes back to theaters with the release of this week’s The Dark Tower. The movie is based on the popular series of eight books from the author that tell the story of The Gunfighter (Idris Elba), a kind of knight whose order is charged with the protection of their world. That includes protecting the Dark Tower, a mystical structure that is integral to the balance between light and dark that’s enjoyed by all the worlds of the multiverse.
Challenging that balance is the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), the embodiment of humanity’s dark nature and a servant of the underworld. As these two magical, elemental forces collide the story and their conflict unfolds through the eyes of Lucas (Nicholas Hamilton), a young boy from Earth who has begun having visions of a strange, mysterious tower. He eventually crosses over into the world where The Gunslinger and the Man in Black are waging their war, in part causing that war to come to Earth.
The first poster promised a mind-bending adventure. Two figures stand at the bottom of the image while a cityscape hovers above them, the buildings upside down from the perspective of those characters. “There are other worlds than these” according to the text that appears alongside the title treatment.
Around the time the first trailer debuted there were two new posters released, one showing The Gunslinger and other showing The Man in Black, with copy on each saying “One man sworn to protect it” and other “And one man to destroy it” just in case anyone needed further clarification on character motivations.
Two more posters took the same approach, with each of the main characters on a different poster, the Gunslinger in the city and The Man in Black on a barren landscape with the titular tower in the background.
Another poster shows the Man in Black and The Gunslinger with their backs to each other, the tower that they’re fighting over in the background. The Man in Black stands in the other world where their battle takes place while The Gunslinger is standing in our real world, showing the split settings of the story.
As the first trailer opens we get the backstory on the Gunslingers and their role as protectors. We meet a boy who’s having visions of the conflict between the two powerful forces and see him find a portal to the world where the battle is being fought. He meets and falls under the protection of the Gunslinger and finds out about the importance of The Tower. Eventually the Gunslinger comes back to Earth with the boy but That Man is Black follows him there and the fight continues. There’s some talk about how he doesn’t shoot with his hand but with his mind and lots of cool action sequences right up to the end.
It’s a pretty good trailer, explaining enough of the story to make it more or less attractive to those of us who haven’t read the source book. While hardcore fans weren’t thrilled with some of the liberties that were taken, the trailer presents an intriguing premise of a shadow war being fought that impacts all our fates and, more than anything, shows off Elba and his sweat-soaked performance.
Online and Social
The official website opens with the trailer playing in a pop-up window. That goes along with “Videos” being the first option in the content menu at the top of the page. After that is “About,” which has a brief synopsis of the movie’s story.
A “Gallery” of about five stills featuring the two lead characters is next, followed by a “Cast & Crew” section that has lists of those involved in making the movie.
Other than the links to the movie’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter profiles, the final section on the site is the “Journey to the Dark Tower.” That’s not a great site but takes you to the world of the tower where you can move the camera around and click on some bright lights that play short clips from the film. It’s not much of a journey as you don’t seem to move toward the tower at all.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
A series of TV spots began running in early June that featured narration from The Man in Black or the Gunslinger. Each one sets up the conflict from various ways, explaining who these characters are and what motivates them along with one that brings it all together to sell the movie as basically a superhero story about the fight between right and wrong.
Outdoor and online ads used the key art featuring the two leads or just an image of the tower while social ads utilized the trailer.
Media and Publicity
There was tons of conversation, speculation and reports about casting, filming and more, but the official publicity campaign kicked off with a first look at official stills featuring McConaughey, Elba and others in Entertainment Weekly. Along with the pictures the cast talked about the movie, their characters and more, including how King himself got involved in some ways to help the movie along.
Shortly before release director Nik Arcel cleared up some confusion around the story by stating it wasn’t really an adaptation but a sequel to previous Dark Tower stories, meaning it’s part of the universe not a straight retelling of the book’s story. That’s an…interesting perspective that actually has a high probability of turning off the general audience since it means some prior knowledge is required to get the full mythology of the world. Arcel also commented on the movie’s short – just 95 minutes – runtime, explaining it resulted from a tight script for what was meant to just be the first of many chapters in the overall story.
Not sure what it means about the appeal of this movie specifically but there was a late push to highlight its connections to other Stephen King properties, hoping to draw people in with easter eggs to other movies and stories. That seems like the studios admitting it has a weak hand.
While the cast made the press and talk show rounds to promote the movie and talk about how it compares with the source novels, the big last minute story was one that detailed the troubled road the movie had taken to the big screen. That began with ambitious plans to make a seven movie series with a TV series tie-in that was ultimately pared down, though TV plans are still in the works. Closer to release it also included problematic test screenings, reports of creative clashes between the director, producers and studio execs.
There’s so much going on with this campaign that it’s hard to get my head around it. “So much” not in the sense of a movie like some of the other big releases from this and other years, where there are an overwhelming amount of trailers, promotional tie-ins and other elements designed to inundate the audience with sheer volume of messaging. No, instead the movie’s message to potential moviegoers is weighed down with so much baggage, the result of its troubled path to production.
That baggage involves more than just the one or two big stories that have detailed specific issues or behind-the-scenes conflict. It also is manifests in the relatively small campaign that’s been mounted. Just one trailer was released, and the posters were all variations on the same theme, none featuring interesting designs or unique appeals. This was not a full-throated effort.
Other major studio release campaigns might suffer from a bit of bloat. Conversely, this one suffers from severe anorexia, especially for a movie that 1) Is a major fantasy release, 2) Is based on a book by a well-known author and 3) Has a built-in fanbase because of those books. Simply the fact that only one trailer was produced and that it only came three months before the movie’s opening weekend creates an odor of issues around it. That might turn the public off, allowing them to feel fine as they choose to finally check out Dunkirk or Baby Driver or see Wonder Woman again.