Glengarry Glen Ross (25th Anniversary Flashback Marketing)

I fell in love with Glengarry Glen Ross pretty quickly. It was my first exposure to David Mamet’s writing, hitting me at a time when I was seriously getting into film and beginning to notice the creators behind movies I was enjoying. Over the years I’d see more movies he wrote, including those he directed as well. Like may later appreciation for Aaron Sorkin, I was a sucker for the rapid-fire, ellipse-filled dialogue he specialized in, amazed at how detailed and nuanced it was.

Based on Mamet’s own stage play, Glengarry is mostly set in the office of Premiere Properties, a real estate sales office. The salesmen there are hyper-competitive, always vying for advantage over the others in the office, employing whatever tactics might be needed to close the deal. Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon) is the old veteran, Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) the slick hotshot and Dave Moss (Ed Harris) and George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) the guys who just want to do their jobs. When an executive from the home office (Alec Baldwin) shows up to explain people will be fired if they don’t meet sales goals, the situation gets even more desperate. Schemes are hatched to somehow access the new, high-quality leads dangled under their noses. One way or another, not everyone will survive the day with their job intact.

With the movie recently celebrating its 25th anniversary, let’s take a look at how it was sold to audiences in 1992.

Considering how unique the movie is and the kind of value proposition made in the trailer below, the poster always struck me as oddly generic. It shows a businessman in a suit and tie with his briefcase walking a tightrope set high in the sky. The impressive cast list appears at the top while the copy point “A story for everyone who works for a living” is near the bottom, just above the title.

While neither the copy or the illustration are inaccurate, they’re also not great representations of the film being sold. It’s pretty bland, without the verve or spirit that could be conveyed. These seem like they could be used for any workplace-set story. Yes, the movie is about that – albeit an amped up, testosterone-filled one – but it’s about how far you’re willing to go in selling your soul to keep that job.

The trailer opens in the middle of the famous speech by Alec Baldwin’s unnamed character as he tells Levene to “put that coffee down” because he wants to make sure all the salesmen in the office know what’s going on. They’re all on the cusp of being fired and the title cards that are intercut with the footage explain these guys will do anything to win. There are conversations that seem to hint at plans to rob the place to gain an advantage, which we soon see has actually happened, leading to accusations and investigations. That’s where the footage ends, though, with the trailer ending by touting the all-star powerhouse cast that’s been assembled.

Not only is the trailer selling that cast, but it’s selling Mamet’s lightning-fast dialogue. Everyone is given a mouthful and the editing of the footage here only enhances the pace at which it’s delivered. It explains the story well enough, but that’s inconsequential. You’re being told the main attraction is the cast engaging in some serious verbal gymnastics.

In some ways, the campaign undersold the movie. The poster doesn’t play to its strengths and even the trailer doesn’t go far enough in selling how dramatic and dynamic the story is. What the audience was promised was a glorified play, which isn’t wrong. It’s just not as pulse-pounding as it could be.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

The Last of the Mohicans (25th Anniversary Flashback Marketing)

1992’s The Last of the Mohicans was the first Michael Mann movie I saw, introducing me to the world of the director’s stylized visuals. Today marks the film’s 25th anniversary and so we’re jumping in the Wayback Machine a bit early to revisit how this epic drama was sold to the public.

Based on the classic novel by James Fenimore Cooper, Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Hawkeye/Nathaniel, a half-white man raised by a Mohican father in the years before U.S. independence. Hawkeyes and his family want no part of the French-Indian War currently raging. They’re pulled in, though, when they’re called on to protect Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe), the daughter of a British colonel who’s been kidnapped by a scout the British army thought they could trust. So begins a passionate but chaste romance set against the lush landscapes of New York, featuring heightened emotions mixed with brutal violence.

The theatrical poster captures many of those elements and emotions in a single image. Day-Lewis as Hawkeye is shown racing through what appears to be a massive melee, axe and knife drawn to confront whatever dangers lie before him. The determined look on his face show he’s clearly running *toward* something and feels very strongly about the matter. The actor’s name is the only one to appear at the top, showing the solid reputation he’d built up by this time. The washed out daguerreotype-esque look that’s applied to the photo achieves the same effect going full black-and-white would have, using a monochromatic approach to heighten the emotions on display.

That’s a bit surprising given the movie itself would trade in such rich, lush green visuals. It’s also a bit of a surprise there’s no attention given to the romance that provides much of Hawkeye’s actions and which would have made a decent selling point. If the movie were coming out today it’s easy to see a design featuring Hawkeye standing with Cora wrapped in his arms and “I Will Find You” plastered across the top, selling it as a dimestore romance. There was a publicity still that shows just that kind of image. One has to wonder if it wasn’t the influence of Mann or someone else who nixed this approach.

That romance forms the central focus of the trailer, though, which frames everything as being in service to the passion felt between Hawkeye and Cora. We see the violence that would be pervasive in the movie, as well as Hawkeye’s frequent clashes with the British army that doesn’t understand how anyone could possibly not be part of their formal structure. Hawkeye is positioned by the narrator as a courageous warrior devoted to honor and chivalry, while Cora is a woman ahead of her time, unwilling to fit into the societal box she was expected to and determined to strike her own path.

The actual story arc isn’t super-clear here, but that’s not important. Between the heightened emotions and the incredible visuals, the trailer lays out exactly what the audience can expect to enjoy most about the movie. Mann’s eye for framing a shot and getting unique, powerful performances from his leads are all on display here and that’s what was going to hook the audience in 1992.

These two elements of the marketing campaign emphasize a story that’s a far cry from the source novel, which has a much more staid tone and a much different ending. The emphasis on Day-Lewis makes a lot of sense following his Academy Award a couple years prior for My Left Foot. Overall it’s sold as a mainstream drama for discerning adults, neither a blockbuster nor an art-film but combining the best elements of both.


Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Batman Returns (Flashback Marketing)

Tomorrow is Batman Day, the day DC Entertainment established in 2014 as part of the company’s celebration of Batman’s 75th anniversary.

[extreme tim curry in clue voice] I know because I was there.

The day has persisted over the years because…well…he’s Batman. Similar days have been marked for Superman and last year Wonder Woman entered the mix thanks to the combination of both her big screen solo adventure and the character’s own 75th anniversary.

To celebrate both tomorrow’s pop culture holiday and the recently-passed 25th anniversary of its release, today we’re going to turn our attention to one of my favorite movies starring The Dark Knight, 1992’s Batman Returns.

The sequel to the 1989 blockbuster brought back the powerhouse combination of director Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton. In the story, Batman is now well-established in Gotham City. That’s good because the city faces a new threat in the form of Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), who was abandoned by his wealthy parents as a toddler because his birth defects were too much for them and their haughty lifestyle. Now grown, Cobblebot positions himself as the returning prodigal, anxious help the city and run for mayor. That bid is just a cover, though, for his more devious plans to exact revenge. At the same time, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), has evolved into a feline-inspired symbol of feminine power after she was killed by her boss Max Shreck (Christoper Walken) and revived by a group of stray cats. While Batman takes on The Penguin, Bruce Wayne begins a flirtatious affair with Kyle until it all comes crashing together at the end.

When I walked out of the movie I turned to my friend Todd and said “Wow…Tim Burton really loves directing snow,” a reference not only to its use in this film but also Edward Scissorhands. In fact, the movie plays much more like what at the time was considered a Tim Burton Film than a Batman movie. With themes touching on the place of outcasts in society, a blue/gray color palette and explorations as to the duality of the human mind, it fits much more neatly with the director’s overall work than the first Batman, which by contrast seems like well-made if slightly generic studio film.

The teaser poster is an amazing piece of promotional artwork. Like the iconic poster for the first film, the primary element is the Bat symbol that bleeds out over the sides of the frame. Instead of the bright yellow and dark black of the first one, this one is covered in windswept snow, showing audiences what the tone of the movie was going to be. The expanded character list isn’t named but only referenced with copy at the top reading “The Bat. The Cat. The Penguin.” It’s simple and it’s stunning, showing the restrained colors that would dominate the movie and telling audiences what they could expect to see.

The theatrical one-sheet arranges the faces in the same order as they were previously listed, with Batman followed by Catwoman followed by Penguin. That allowed a good look at just the kind of characters we were going to be following and clearly signaled to anyone well-versed in Burton’s style that his design aesthetic would be well-represented in the character designs. Catwoman looks fierce in her obviously homemade costume while Penguin looks grotesque, like a twisted version of a fairy tale character. Some of the story, but not much, is conveyed at the bottom with a scene showing dozens of penguins huddled around, all with brightly-colored rockets strapped to their backs. Again, the contrast of the dark scene and the pops of red show that Burton’s unique visuals would dominate the movie.

The trailer opens with Penguin plotting his return to Gotham as we see him walking through the sewers he’s made his home since his exile. Then we see Selina become Catwoman in the wake of her death, becoming an empowered anti-hero. Batman is then the only hope for the city, but he’s consumed with feelings for Catwoman. We see Penguin executing his plans and Batman taking on the circus gang that’s part of that. There are shots of the Batmobile, the Bat-boat and just of Batman punching his way through the guys.

What comes through here is the focus on the villains the movie would take. Penguin and Catwoman are positioned in the trailer as the ones driving the story and whose journeys we’ll be following. Batman is the hero, yes, but he’s seen here as almost a side character who’s only interesting as he relates to the other two.

That’s…well, it’s not exactly accurate because Bruce Wayne plays a big part in the stories of both characters, one that’s bigger than what he does as Batman, but we don’t see that here. Instead we’re focusing on the twisted personalities that drive Batman’s adversaries. That, on the other hand, is pretty accurate to the movie that’s being sold. Burton, in his second outing, was not able to more fully integrate his design sense but also give outlet to his love of the outsiders, the characters shunned by society because of their differences. It’s that message that’s sold loudly and strongly in the trailer, that we’ll be watching a Tim Burton film with comic book characters as the medium for his worldview.

As has been well-documented by others, the superhero cinematic genre learned exactly the wrong lesson from Batman Returns. The takeaway was a simplistic “more villains” approach to sequels, something that’s sunk more than one movie. In reality, what Burton did was use characters he identified with to explore the topics that were near to his heart. That goes for Batman as much as it does for Catwoman and Penguin. Everyone here, as Selina says at point, is struggling with their own “difficulty with duality.”

While the campaign may not get that deep, it does present the movie as both an action-filled blockbuster and a study of characters who all walk the line between the light and the dark.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Rebecca – Flashback Marketing

The title character of Rebecca is a major presence throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s gothic romance but is never seen on-screen. At least not alive. She haunts everything, though, particularly the life of the woman (Joan Fontaine) who has married her former husband Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). The two met by chance but married quickly, her moving into the huge seaside house Maxim shared with Rebecca before her untimely death. The new wife (her first name is never given) is unwelcome by the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who was close with Rebecca. What follows is a story of psychological manipulation, a mystery dealing with the true circumstances of Rebecca’s death and an exploration of how far you can go to earn someone’s love.

With the 1940 film, one of the best in a long list of great films from the director, being added to the Criterion Collection this week it’s a good time to jump back and revisit its marketing campaign.

You have to love the artwork used on the movie’s theatrical poster, a richly-painted piece of art that conveys a classic feeling and hits some key selling points for the audience. At the top are the faces of Fontaine and Olivier, positioned as a couple and both looking very stoic and proper. At the bottom is the lavish estate she will move into as his new wife, an anonymous and unidentifiable woman standing over it like a statue. The movie’s title treatment is splashed across the cover of a book, a reference to the fact that it was based on a popular novel, something that’s stated outright in the credits. That appears below the names of Hitchcock as well as David O. Selznick, referenced here as the producer not only as the producer of this film but also the previous year’s Gone With the Wind.

The poster doesn’t go into the nature of the story, but you get the message that it’s a high-society drama pretty clearly from the tone of the art and the looks of the actors. That was a common genre in this era of Hollywood so there was likely some instant connection with audiences created through what’s conveyed here.

The best trailer I could find that isn’t fan-made or of questionable provenance is this one, which seems to be for the 1949 rerelease of the movie. It starts out by hailing the picture as one of the most beloved in American cinema, “one of the most glamorous” ever made and returning to theaters as the result of a national poll. The movie is identified as based on a popular novel and the two main characters, Maxim and his new wife, are introduced. Narration makes it clear that Rebecca’s spirit is still present in the house. Scenes from the romance are shown as we’re told the movie is still hailed as a classic of suspense. The names of both Hitchcock and Selznick are used generously throughout the trailer, showing the power and influence they wielded in Hollywood at the time as well as their continued name recognition and subsequent assumed appeal with the audience.

I’d love to be able to scour the archives of Variety and other trade publications from the era to see how much of the behind-the-scenes machinations made it into the press at a time when the studios wielded great influence over coverage. Hitchcock and Selznick reportedly clashed over various story points and visions, with the producer exercising his right over final cut to make the movie his own to a great extent and reshooting a number of scenes.

Whatever happened between production and post, the movie remains a classic of the era, a standout in Hitchcock’s filmography and a go-to example of the gothic romance genre.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Revival Marketing)

Sony Pictures is celebrating the 40th anniversary of a modern science-fiction classic as it rereleases Close Encounters of the Third Kind to theaters this weekend.

The movie, director Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to his breakout film Jaws, tells two stories that eventually converge. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is a husband and father who works for the local electrical utility. When widespread outages are reported he goes out to investigate and winds up having a mysterious experience he can’t quite remember or make sense of, but which is with an expedition of aliens that are circling Earth. Meanwhile, a team of scientists and others are investigating a series of mysterious incidents, many of which involve the return to Earth of people, ships and more that have gone missing over the last 50 years. Those two stories come together as mankind makes meaningful contact with alien visitors for the first time.

To promote the release, Sony has engaged in a decent marketing campaign.

That started with a cryptic teaser titled “This Means Something,” which is a call back to a line Roy repeats throughout the movie as he seeks to figure out what happened to him and why he can’t get the image of a particular mountain out of his head. There was no footage shown, just visuals of an air traffic control display that are played while we hear dialogue from a key scene involving air traffic control and reports coming in from planes in the air. Familiar music plays at the end and we’re asked to visit, which is just an email newsletter signup conversion form.

Later on, a new trailer for the re-release starts out with the traffic control team dealing with the pilots who are reporting a UFO of some sort. We see shots of Roy’s truck shaking before he has his own encounter with the visitors followed by other scenes of him and others seeing the ships and trying to find out what’s happening. After having the different kinds of contact explained to us we’re invited to “Make contact…again.” The pace of the trailer picks up to make it seem like an all-out action movie, which isn’t totally accurate if you’ve already seen it. Still, it sells you on the idea of experiencing the film on the big screen, which is an attractive option.

There was also a new poster created. It uses one of the most famous, iconic images from the movie, showing the alien ship descending down on Devil’s Tower. The “40th anniversary” event is touted at the top while the same title treatment from the original release is used further down, followed by the value proposition that it’s been digitally remastered in 4k.

Activity on the movie’s Facebook page has also ramped up during this campaign. The page had previously been used only intermittently to occasionally share random stories about the movie or Spielberg but had been largely dormant since November 2015. In the last couple months, though, it’s been sharing the marketing materials as well as offering fan art contests and other reminders of the upcoming theatrical showings.

Sony’s been advertising the event online and on social media as well, with short videos that let people know it’s returning to theaters.

It’s certainly not at the scale of the marketing of a current release (though it’s actually more substantial than many campaigns) but it has gotten people talking about the movie again, which is a good thing. Whether or not the re-release comes off as successful remains to be seen, but the more people who appreciate what I consider to be one of Spielberg’s top three movies, the better.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day – Flashback Marketing

Later this week Terminator 2: Judgement Day returns to select AMC Theaters locations, a re-release to mark and celebrate a new 4K 3D restoration of the film that was supervised by director James Cameron, taking time away from working on the seven Avatar sequels he’s planning. Unlike some other filmmakers, though, he’s done very little tweaking of the original, finding it sufficient to improve the master print as a way to make the film accessible on the big screen to a whole new generation of fans.

I’m old enough to remember the first theatrical release, though, and how controversial and notable it was that the film had a production budget of over $100 million, at the time an unheard of sum. Now $100 million is table stakes for anything above a title like The Big Sick. While I wasn’t a die hard fan of the 1984 original, I still stood in line for the sequel, not wanting to miss out on what was being hyped and discussed as the most essential film the summer of 1991 had to offer.

The movie picks up several years after the events of the original. Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) is in a psychiatric ward because of her insistence that the rise of the machines was coming and that humanity’s days were numbered. Because of her incarceration her son John (Edward Furlong), now 10, has bounced around the foster system and is kind of a punk. One day a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that’s identical to the one who hunted Sarah down 10 years prior shows up but this time its mission is to protect John from the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). That new, more advanced machine is made of a living, liquid metal that can take any form it wants and is even more unstoppable than the earlier model. Sarah and John, with the Terminator’s aid, try to find the man responsible for the creation of Skynet and get him to stop before he can build the AI that will cause nuclear annihilation on what in the future is known as Judgement Day.

At first it may not seem like there’s a lot going on with the theatrical poster. It doesn’t include any hints or copy that would allude to the story outlined above. It doesn’t feature anyone but Schwarzenegger, who sits astride a motorcycle while holding an imposing shotgun. The only copy here outside of the title, credits and release date is “It’s nothing personal,” which even with the advantage of hindsight doesn’t seem to be super-applicable to the story.

What the poster does convey, though, is the look. That cool, dark blue. The reflection of street lights off the leather jacket. The matte black of the gun. Those are all the key visual elements of the movie, particularly as the story moves toward its climax. Not only does it focus on the presence of the star, by then the biggest movie star in the world, but it also shares an essential color palate with the audience, setting up the expectation for the tone of the movie they’re being asked to see.

The trailer starts out by catching us up on what’s happening and setting the idea that the Terminator we saw from the first movie is back with a very different mission. We see the Terminator find and work to protect John Conner, the new machine the whole team is up against, the interplay between the Terminator and John and more. The narration over the action talks repeatedly about how the action is even bigger and more intense than before, promising at the end that “He’s back….for good.” which is a much better tagline than what’s on the poster.

It’s surprising how much of the story is actually shown in this trailer. You get a pretty good sense of what’s happening and why here, though the emphasis is certainly on the visual. Not just the action set pieces but the T-1000’s liquid transformations in particular. Those were the big draw, the subject of countless press stories at the time, held up as the next big leap forward in computer-aided visual effects.

That really presents a portion of the campaign that can’t adequately be captured here. Remember that this was only Cameron’s fourth major directorial outing, including the original Terminator. While his reputation was certainly well known, particularly in the sci-fi genre, he was still pretty green. So the focus was, at the time, on the special effects, which were pretty mind-blowing. This was still very much the early days of computer animation, with Toy Story still four years away and only 10 years removed from TRON and Star Trek II. So the innovations coming out of Cameron’s workshop were not only groundbreaking but also a substantial audience draw in and of themselves.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day would go on to enormous box office success, cementing Cameron’s place as a top-tier director (though he’d only helm three more movies over the years) and establishing The Terminator as a legitimate franchise, albeit one that’s had a few spotty subsequent entries without Cameron’s involvement. Still, this campaign stands as a testament to the power of selling the audience on a movie based on the presence of a familiar star and a continued story that was bigger and better than the original.

9 Elvis Presley Movie Trailers

It’s been 40 years today since the death of Elvis Presley to mark the occasion we’re going to look back at the trailers for just some of the movies he starred in as he worked to leverage his success with music into a Hollywood acting career. To make the selection process easier I’m using this list from Variety of what it identifies as 10 of The King’s best feature films,

The Trouble With Girls (1969)

In his second-to-last film role Elvis plays the boss of a traveling medicine show filled with lecturers, motivational-speakers, quick cure salesmen and more. When the show lands in Chautauqua things get complicated as Walter Hale (Presley) and his crew become involved in the investigation into a murder and other problems. That trailer doesn’t get to that murder plot until halfway through its running time, though, and even then only gives it a small amount of attention. Instead the focus is on Elvis singing and balancing a steady stream of women all eager to fall into his arms if they’re not getting on his last nerve.

Kid Galahad (1962)

Elvis famously was drafted into the Army in 1958, serving two years, largely in Germany. Kid Galahad reflects some of that as Presley plays Walter Gulick, who returns to his small New York hometown after leaving the Army. Despite wanting to make an honest living, his boxing prowess leads him to a professional fighting career. We see in the trailer him as a fighter and getting into trouble outside the ring as well. From there on out it’s the usual combination of singing, dancing, romance and more that are common themes in selling most of Presley’s films, including him taking a moral stance against someone who’s asking him to compromise his ideals.

Love Me Tender (1956)

Elvis’ film debut casts him as Clint Reno, whose older brother went to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War. When that brother comes back, Clint has married Vance’s old girlfriend. Clint gets caught up in Vance’s involvement with the theft of Union money, money he now wants to return. “Here he comes” we’re told as the trailer opens with a shot of Elvis singing and dancing. The story is positioned as a dramatic love triangle between Clint, Vance and Cathy, while working hard to introduce Elvis to theatrical audiences. It’s notable how he’s not the focus here, despite the presence of the title track and an ending that features a handful of other songs. It’s playing off his brand while not hanging success entirely on his unproven shoulders.

Wild In the Country (1961)

Once more Elvis is cast here as a “troubled young man.” This time he plays Glen Tyler, a ruffian from the backwoods who comes under the wing of counselor Irene Sperry (Hope Lange), who encourages him to develop some obvious writing talents. The trailer starts out by promising “songs of love” for the audience to enjoy, with him performing those songs, often directly to one girl or another. There’s trouble with some locals, though that’s never really explained. It never really gets into the story of him being nudged in a productive direction by Sperry, instead making the appeal mostly about the music and the romance.

Flaming Star (1960)

One of two movies on this list set in the years following the Civil War, this one has Elvis playing Pacer Burton, the mixed-race son of a white man and Native American woman. (woof with the lack of actual representation). Because of his mixed heritage, Pacer may be the only one capable of establishing peace between the native residents and the White settlers intruding on their land. There’s lots of shirtless-Presley in the trailer, which shows him fighting with a Native American, threatening white men who he feels are responsible for the death of someone he loved and more. Two conflicts are sold here, the one between the two sides of Pacer’s heritage and the other between the two women he must choose between.

Blue Hawaii (1961)

Another movie that ties into Elvis’ history in the Army, this time he plays Chad Gates, who’s returned to Hawaii after serving his time. Not content to follow his parents’ wished and help run the family farm, he becomes a tour guide at an agency run by his girlfriend Maile (Joan Blackman). There’s not much of that story in the trailer, which is instead devoted to making the primary selling point Elvis engaging in romantic and other hijinks in the exotic location of the Hawaiian islands.

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

With that hair and those dance moves , Elvis was seen as a bad influence by the older generation during his time. So it makes sense that Jailhouse Rock would position him as a bad boy, though one who’s trying to reform. Presley plays Vince Everett, who decides to try and make a living in the music business after he gets out of jail, where he’s serving time for manslaughter, eventually going on to great success. That bad boy image is the first we see and hear about as the trailer opens, introducing Vince as a tough kid learning a hard lesson in prison. When he’s out, though, it’s all about music and girls, though it’s clear he’s still got a temper that can flare when provoked. This is the movie that would define Elvis’ public persona in a major way and it’s clear the marketing played a big role in writing that creation myth.

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

It’s interesting how relatively early in Presley’s career this came out considering so much of his later reputation would be centered around a glitzy Vegas-driven schtick. Here he plays race car driver Lucky Jackson who works as a waiter in Vegas to help earn money to upgrade his car. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have time for a little romance, though, this time with Rusty Martin, played memorably by Ann-Margaret. The trailer kicks off with the title song and establishes the setting. The romance between Jackson and Martin is very much positioned as a match of equal wits and sensuality, her rebuffing him and holding her own against his game. In fact Ann-Margaret is every bit Elvis’ equal in terms of billing and attention on all fronts, with plenty of shots of her singing and dancing.

King Creole (1958)

Here Presley plays Danny Fisher, an aspiring singer and musician who performs in a nightclub to support himself and his unemployed father. While the club he frequents is on the up-and-up, he can’t escape the influence and reach of Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau), a crime boss who controls much of the other area entertainment. The trailer makes it clear we’re catching Elvis at “the top of his career,” with this being a turn for the dramatic. So we’re sold a story of a rough young youth who wants to make a decent living in a crooked system while also being torn between two available female love interests.

It’s remarkable the kinds of common elements that present themselves when you look at these trailer in quick succession. There was certainly a formula that most of the stories followed to play on Presley’s reputation, including:

  • He’s a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who just wants to do the right thing and make an honest living, a goal that often brings him into conflict with a shady figure of some sort
  • He’s a headstrong individual who refuses to be buttoned in by the expectations someone else has for him, opting to strike out on his own
  • He almost always has to choose between two potential love interests
  • He’s a little too headstrong and temperamental for his own good, often resorting to punching someone
  • The kid, whatever his circumstances, can sing

I’m pretty confident if we looked at trailers for the other movies in Elvis’ filmography we’d find those patterns repeating themselves with some regularity. So you certainly can’t say Hollywood didn’t know what to do with him, it just kept doing variations on the same thing over and over again.

Stay Tuned (25th Anniversary Flashback Marketing)

Back in 1992 comedies were still being written and marketed for adults, not just for kids and teenagers. That allowed for something like Stay Tuned to be produced that was definitely meant to appeal to an older audience. So with the movie celebrating its 25th anniversary today, it’s a good time to look back at how it was sold to audiences at the time.

The movie follows Roy and Helen Knable (John Ritter and Pam Dawber), a married couple that’s still happy but definitely having issues, especially around how much TV he watches on a daily basis. After she smashes the family TV in frustration a mysterious figure named Spike (Jeffrey Jones) appears and offers Roy a brand new, high-end unit. He takes it but the couple are quickly sucked into the set, forced to bounce from one hellish, twisted program to the next. Escaping, of course, brings them closer together, but they have to get past Spike and the devilish contract Roy signed first.

Right off the bat you can see a concept that has far more resonance for older audiences than it does for kids. It goes without saying that both Ritter and Dawber were major TV stars on classic shows, so putting them in a story that revolves around the world of television generates some knowing chuckles in and of itself.

The theatrical poster sells the premise in great fashion, still on the “artistic” side of the key art design divide that was opening at the top. So the painted image shows the Knables sitting in some sort of contraption, clearly in peril within the confines of the television set and looking panicked. Their kids – as well as the family dog – are on the outside looking in and just as worried.

There’s quite a bit of copy on the poster. That starts at the top with “Something weird’s on the air.” Next is “The Knables signed up for a cable system that’s out of this world.” Finally, at the bottom we’re told the movie is “A comedy on the wrong side of the screen.” All that combines to clearly tell the audience that the story will involve the world of television in some way that’s kooky and unexpected, a message that’s hammered home by the presence of Dawber and Ritter.

The trailer starts well into the story, skipping much of the setup of the relationship between Roy and Helen. Instead, we join it as Spike is delivering the TV to Roy. After some initial shock, it cuts to the main selling point, which is the crazy, homicidal shows that are broadcast on this particular TV, a world that Helen and Roy soon find themselves in the middle of. That includes variations of “Wayne’s World,” exercise programs, popular movies and more. It’s explained that Spike is basically the devil and this is part of his plan to claim their souls and that the Knables’ kids are trying to keep track of them from the real world. All the craziness ends with one of the more obvious jokes, where Ritter’s Roy winds up in a show that looks suspiciously like “Three’s Company,” allowing him to poke a little fun at himself.

What’s surprising in retrospect is how heavily the trailer leans on the premise, particularly the spoofs of the various shows, and not the stars. Neither Ritter nor Dawber were established as movie stars, though, so their casting was kind of “stunt” in nature, TV stars in a movie that revolves around TV. Now, years after his passing, Ritter is widely lauded as a comedy genius and this could have been a big turning point for Dawber though it didn’t turn out like that. Still, the focus is so squarely on the concept and the various goofiness of the demonic TV land the couple finds themselves in, there’s little room for either actor’s charm and charisma to come through.

Even more than that, the trailer shows where pop culture was in 1992 by highlighting the kind of programming that gets spoofed. “Wayne’s World,” Driving Miss Daisy, Jane Fonda-esque exercise programs, “Tom and Jerry” cartoons…that’s what the studio felt would resonate with audiences. That didn’t necessarily pan out as it only made about $10m at the box-office, but it lives on as a movie that, even if it hasn’t quite achieved “cult” status, is still fondly remembered by those of us who saw it back then.

Unforgiven (25th Anniversary Flashback Marketing)

Today’s multiplex is filled with sequels to movies that last graced theater screens a decade or more earlier. These “legasequels” or whatever you might want to call them are an attempt by studios to revive dormant IP, hoping that people will be pulled in by a nostalgia-driven campaign and the promise of a return of old favorite characters.

Unforgiven, which turned 25 this past Monday, wasn’t a long-delayed sequel to anything. It was a wholly original story written by David Webb Peoples and directed by Clint Eastwood, who also starred. In its own way, though, it was not only a call back to the era of Westerns – a genre Eastwood was plenty familiar with – but also a sequel of sorts to the stories those movies used to tell.

It’s easy to see William Munny (Eastwood) as the older, more grizzled version of the same sort of cocky gunslinger that had been a staple of film from the 1930s, hitting their heyday in the 50s. Munny was a bandit back in his younger years, now retired and raising his kids on a small farm. One day a young man calling himself The Schofield Kid comes to Munny’s door, asking him to join him on a quest to collect a $1,000 reward. That prize has been offered by a group of prostitutes for the death of two cowboys who disfigured one of their number and was let off with merely a fine by Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), the sheriff of the town. Munny reluctantly agrees and brings along his friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) for the journey.

Continue reading “Unforgiven (25th Anniversary Flashback Marketing)”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (25th Anniversary Marketing Flashback)

buffy vampire slayer movie posterEarlier this year the internet celebrated the 20th anniversary of the series debut of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” The show, created by Joss Whedon, broke quite a bit of new ground for mainstream television. It reversed the usual horror dynamic by positioning the young female character not as monster fodder but as the one who would take the fight to the monsters. The show was also a giant metaphor, using actual demons as stand-ins for the emotional and social demons afflicting all teenagers, particularly teenage girls, in their high school years. The anniversary of the show, which introduced many a genre fan to Whedon and created a legion of loyalists, really culminated in an Entertainment Weekly cover story reuniting most of the show’s main cast.

As any fan will tell you (usually preceded by an “Actually…”), the two-part series premiere of “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “The Harvest” wasn’t the culture’s introduction to Buffy Summers and her role as the key to surviving the vampire assault. No, that came five years earlier with the feature film Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, which hit theaters 25 years ago today.

In this initial incarnation, Kristy Swanson takes on the role of Buffy, a free-spirited high school student in Los Angeles. She’s one of the most popular girls in the school, with her world revolving around friends, boys, and shopping. One day a man named Merrick (Donald Sutherland) approaches her and informs her she is the Slayer, the one chosen to kill vampires and other monsters, and he’s there to teach her. After her initial reluctance, she eventually agrees to accept the responsibilities thrust upon her. That brings her into conflict with Lothos (Rutger Hauer), the reigning vampire in the area. With Merrick’s help and training, Buffy eventually saves the day.

(Sidenote: The events of the movie don’t *quite* mesh with the series’ continuity. You can make them work if you squint a bit, but as Whedon has expressed his displeasure with the finished film, putting too much effort into it isn’t a great idea. Basically, the premise is similar but the execution is a bit different. Let’s move on.)

So how did 20th Century Fox work to sell this unusual and unexpected story and character to the public in 1992?

The theatrical poster does what it can to sell the disconnect between the two parts of the title, the character’s name and her job description. Swanson’s face isn’t shown (it’s not even clear if this is her) as we just see a girl from the waist down as she stands in a cheerleader outfit on what we can assume is a football field. In one hand is a pom pom, in the other a giant wooden stake. That shows the two roles the character has to play, one the innocent cheerleader, one the hunter of vampires. The title is shown in bright pink to accentuate the feminine focus, with copy below it that reads “She knows a sucker when she sees one.”

That copy is a bit clunky, meant of course to allude to the vampires she’ll be slaying. But it also sounds like she could be a con artist or something, always on the lookout for her next mark. There’s also, of course, a sexual allusion being made that’s a bit creepy considering it’s being used to sell a movie about a high school girl. The character is obviously being sexualized, though, with the photo showing her bare midriff and legs. Yes, that’s not an uncommon cheerleader outfit, but the marketing obviously didn’t make any effort to not take the easiest possible path, even at the risk of leering more than a bit.

When it came time to actually show the movie, the studio chose to immediately show in the trailer where Buffy is before she embraces her destiny. She’s shopping, she’s hanging out with her friends, she’s rebuffing the flirting of Pike (Luke Perry), a bad boy-type she can’t be bothered with at first. Interestingly – likely because this was coming out at the height of the popularity of “Beverly Hills 90210” on which he starred – Perry provides the narration and introduction to the story. He’s the one who explains Buffy is more than she might seem and that things are getting weird in their town. We see her meet Merrick and question his sanity and eventually start to fight the vampires, not only Lothos but his right-hand vamp Amilyn (Paul Reubens). She’s constantly bouncing between her duties as the Slayer with her desire to lead a normal life, a focus the movie shares with the TV show it would spawn.

Is this the best presentation of the movie? It’s hard to figure out what would be. Certainly, it presents something that’s far more broadly funny than the show would be, playing up the one-liners and physical gags. We see Buffy’s overall arc, albeit somewhat disjointedly, from Valley Girl to Slayer and get shots from some of the bigger fights, showing her kicking vampire butt and saving Pike and others on a few occasions. In that respect it works.

What seems ham handed 25 years later is the attempt to focus on Luke Perry. Yes, he was the heartthrob on “90210” but he was not a leading man and his presence here comes off as more caricature than anything else. His position as the narrator in the trailer and continued presence throughout the action takes the focus off of Swanson’s Buffy, which runs counter to what the character was and would continue to be about. Sure, she’s shown as the one who saves the day, but the trailer seems to want us to view the story through Pike’s eyes, not Buffy’s.

That may betray the lack of confidence Fox had in the concept at the time. When you put it together with the usage of midriff on the poster, you come away with an effort that isn’t sure audiences will come see a strong female action lead – something that was pretty unusual at the time – but which might come for the brooding hunk from TV and plenty of shots of girls in cheerleader uniforms.