There was a problem with the marketing campaign for mother! that never really coalesced in my mind until I saw a new poster. The one-sheet uses a half-disfigured photo of star Jennifer Lawrence surrounded by, on one half, quotes praising the movie and on the other quotes calling it “insane,” “grotesque” and more.
The new poster elicited strong criticism, both for its use of an apparently abused woman as a selling point and for the approach of hiding the face of one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and bankable actresses.
That last point is what finally brought a concern to the forefront of my thoughts, specifically, the disconnect between the marketing and publicity portions of the movie’s campaign.
The official marketing of the movie – the trailers and posters – borrowed elements from the horror genre to sell it as a psychological thriller with mysterious characters, no sense of story and lots of jump-scares. If you are going by the marketing alone, you would come away with the sense that this is an unconventional and terrifying drama from a director known for disturbing imagery and a penchant for making the audience uncomfortable.
The publicity, though, featured Lawrence being her usual self-effacing and charming self. She was funny and dressed to the nines, joking with Fallon and the like. If you were going by this public effort alone, you’d get the sense that yeah, it’s a bit more serious than The Hunger Games, but it’s J-Law and so we know generally what to expect.
Those contradictory tones seem, now, predisposed to create confusion, disappointment, and anger in the audience. Anyone who hadn’t been following film festival coverage and who went to opening weekend likely came out of the theater and warned all of their friends away from it, telling them this confusing, disturbing and not worth their time.
The problem faced by studios like Paramount, which made the questionable decision to open mother! wide from the start, is that release patterns like that are dependent on reaching the general population who aren’t tracking buzz and reviews from festivals and elsewhere. That necessitates mainstream exposure like an interview on Fallon and other shows where the star was likely instructed to keep it light and tell funny anecdotes about the set, not getting bogged down in discussions of religious symbolism and other weighty topics.
Those tactics inherently create expectations which, in cases like this, are out of sync with the actual movie being sold. It’s a no-win situation: You need the audience to justify the release plan, so you go broad in the sales pitch, even if the product has at best niche appeal.
Don’t get bogged down in discussions of whether or not mother! was sold as a horror movie or not and what effect that might have had. Instead, focus on the conflict in approach between the owned and earned media efforts as a key component of audience confusion and dissatisfaction.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.