“Based on a true story” is a familiar copy point in movie marketing efforts. It’s supposed to convey to the audience is that this story is too wild to make up, or that it’s something that true and therefore has a vital message for the audience.
There have been a number of movies along either of those lines this year. What’s notable is that there are two significant twists on that idea that have been used in marketing some 2018 releases.
#1: These Are The Real People
On at least three occasions this year, the campaign for a movie has featured significant involvement from the people whose stories are being told. This isn’t necessarily unusual in and of itself, but the extent to which they were part of the marketing was more than is common.
The 15:17 To Paris was a particularly interesting case in that not only were the men who were involved in the incident depicted on screen part of the publicity, they were the stars of the film itself. They hit the press circuit with director Clint Eastwood to talk about the real-life events as well as what it was like making a movie about what happened to them.
For both Tag and American Animals there was significant involvement from the real people whose stories are being told. In both cases, the subjects did significant numbers of interviews, filmed promotional videos and more to help reinforce in the audience that these are actual stories being told, even if some of the details are being changed to make for a more enjoyable/coherent movie.
#2: “Kind of” a True Story
That leads to the next point, which is that the studios on a couple of occasions have come out and explained to the audience that what’s shared on screen isn’t *technically* accurate to what actually happened.
In the trailers for American Animals, copy appeared on-screen saying “This is not based on a true story,” only for the “not based on” to be taken away to convey that it is indeed based on a true story. That’s supposed to throw the audience off-kilter and make them question what is or isn’t happening here.
Similarly, the trailer and poster for The Old Man and the Gun, coming out later this year, states clearly that “This story is mostly true.” So which parts actually did or didn’t happen? Presumably that will be made clear at some point in the story or further marketing, but here the marketers are winking at the audience and telling them certain points may be changed or exaggerated to make a point.
This would seem to be borderline irresponsible in this age of “fake news” being applied to everything those in power do or don’t like, and that’s a legitimate point. It also, though, plays into the perception that truth is in the eyes of the beholder and that if you believe it, it’s true for you and is therefore a valid point of view. We can argue that, but it’s a common opinion and one that movie marketers are apparently more than willing to tap into.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.