Tron (Flashback Movie Marketing)

Among the many movies I felt The Emoji Movie was borrowing themes and approaches from as I reviewed its campaign, TRON was among the most prominent. While Inside Out or Wreck-It Ralph might be more current examples of stories taking place inside a hidden world filled with characters we were unaware of, TRON kept coming back to mind. That’s likely due in large part to my age. I’m 42 and so was nine when TRON hit theaters 35 years ago this month. It’s a childhood favorite I revisited often and so is a solid, fixed cultural touchpoint in my life.

The story was, for 1982, cutting edge. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) was a computer programmer at ENCOM, a huge technology company that develops various kinds of software. He was fired in disgrace and his work stolen by Ed Dillinger (David Warner) and now runs a popular arcade. When two current ENCOM employees, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) find there may be shady happenings at the company they enlist Flynn’s help to hack into the system and see what’s going on. Flynn is only too happy to do so since he believes evidence still exists somewhere of how Dillinger stole his programs and forced him out. The AI Master Control Program that runs ENCOM isn’t thrilled with that and so uses company technology to scan Flynn and transport him into the computer system. There he discovers a whole world of anthropomorphic computer programs that resemble their users, including TRON (who looks like Alan) and Yori (who looks like Lora). The three team up to take down the MCP and his lackey Sark (who looks like Ed) and restore freedom to the system.

The theatrical poster immediately establishes what the audience can expect, which for the early 80s was pretty mind-blowing. Specifically, the copy promises the story takes place in “A world inside the computer where man has never been. Never before now.” We see TRON and Yori standing on one of the game grids that will be part of one of the movie’s more memorable sequences, him reaching out toward a disk that’s floating either toward or away from him, it’s hard to tell. Their costumes look like circuit boards, making it clear the story is based on technology.

Let’s stop here and consider a few things. First, There’s a clear effort here to evoke the first poster for Star Wars, which features Luke reaching out toward the sky with his lightsaber. Second, let’s keep in mind the time period. As portrayed in the movie, 1982 was a time of dummy terminals that accessed a mainframe you needed to schedule processing time on. There was only so much power available and it had to be spread around to everyone on the network. Apple was just a few years old and the personal computer market was still the territory of hobbyists who largely built their own machines. So the idea that people knew what was happening under the beige plastic covers of the machines more of them were being asked to use was kind of out there. That makes the promise to find out what’s going on inside the network all that more far-fetched (and presumably interesting), because the vast majority of the audience had likely never used a computer, or had only done so marginally at work.

The trailer starts out by intoning just how intelligent those mysterious machines were becoming. The ENCOM 511 is referred to as an extension of the human intellect, one that will protect itself at all costs and is about to become our ultimate enemy. We then move over to the story and see Flynn discussing the plans to break in with Alan before Flynn is captured by the MCP and taken prisoner inside the digital world. That world is filled with danger and we’re shown some of the gladiatorial events he’s forced to compete in just to survive. There are light cycles and destroyer tanks and more. Finally, the narrator invites us to enter the world of TRON in the summer.

What the trailer does well is show off the look and feel of the digital world. The introduction is a bit shaky and seems to move as quickly past the events in the human world to get immediately to what happens once Flynn is inside the computer and fighting his way out. Flynn yells at one point about “the evidence” but it’s never explained what that’s all about and what exactly he’s looking for.

Instead the message is more that the machines are dangerous things that are out to destroy us. They’re smarter than us and will do what they need to in order to ensure their own survival. That’s the premise that was sold to the audience in 1982, that they could expect a journey inside the beating heart of an ominous foe they likely didn’t understand. That doesn’t quite jibe with the message of the movie, though the MCP certainly has less-than-noble intentions in the story. Those specifics aren’t shown, though, in favor of more vague concerns about the encroaching and possibly dangerous nature of the machines that were becoming part of people’s everyday lives.

Jaws (Flashback Movie Marketing)

Discovery Channel last night kicked off their 29th annual edition of Shark Week, a solid seven days of programming devoted to creatures that occupy a unique place in the public consciousness. While most species of shark are relatively harmless to people, one type has excited the imagination and provoked fear unlike most other modern animals: The great white. So with this week being all about the hunters of the open water, it’s a good chance to look back a whopping 42 years at the marketing of Steven Spielberg’s classic thriller Jaws.

The story, based on the Peter Benchley novel of the same name, follows Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), the new police chief in Amityville, a small seaside town that relies on tourist travel to its beaches. It’s not long after Brody’s arrival that strange deaths start occurring out in the water, deaths the town’s mayor is quick to dismiss as accidental. Brody’s skeptical though and brings in shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to confirm his fears something is hunting the local waters. To take out the threat the two enlist Quint (Robert Shaw), one of the town’s more colorful fishermen, to go out and find the beast once and for all.

The movie was coming out just three years after the bestselling book hit shelves so it was still enjoying sizable public awareness. That’s why, just as with many many adaptations, the source material is the top value proposition on the theatrical poster. In fact the poster’s design features a similar image to that of the first hardcover printing of the book. Both show a shark coming up toward the surface of the water where a lone swimmer is blissfully unaware of the danger that lurks beneath. Where the book’s cover was more subdued, using a monochromatic color scheme, the movie’s poster goes all-in on the terror. The woman swimming at the top is still there but now the shark isn’t a vague shape, it’s fearsome monster with sharp teeth exposed as it prepares to take her.

It’s always so interesting for me to look back at movies like this because it presents an opportunity to see how reputations and awareness of certain things have changed over time. This was Spielberg’s first major feature and so he’s given no more credit here than any other first-time director over the years. He wasn’t heralded, the trumpets weren’t announcing his arrival. Señor Spielbergo was just another kid who convinced a couple producers to take a chance on him. With the first trailer for Ready Player One referring to him as a “Cinematic game changer,” it’s notable that it was just four decades ago that he was an unknown.

The theatrical trailer starts out by setting out just how dangerous the shark in question is, explaining that it’s an unthinking eating machine that may very well be the physical incarnation of the devil. We hear about the warnings that are given about the danger lurking along the beaches and what it means for the town that relies on people feeling like this is a good place to swim and relax. There are shots from the various attacks the killer shark commits before we switch over to the hunt for the beast involving Brody, Hooper and Quint. Their efforts are intense as they face an opponent that seems more massive than they believed and doesn’t appear stoppable. At the end, we get the cast alongside the key poster art and the narrator warns us to “See it…before you go swimming.”

Once more, it has to be noted that Spielberg is completely omitted from the campaign here. That it’s based on Benchley’s popular novel is mentioned at least once but the director isn’t even given a nod. It’s also interesting how most of the trailer doesn’t show the titular shark. The audience then didn’t have the context we do now about the troubles the practical special effect gave the filmmakers, which led to it being hinted at in the movie more than shown.

With that in mind, the effect is the same, though. The audience is asked to invest in the plight of the characters that are impacted by the shark attacks and the ensuing hunt more than shown the shark that’s causing all this trouble. It creates the impression of the movie being a psychological thriller, which is actually pretty close to what it winds up being, more than a B-grade monster movie. Compare that to the trailers for more recent shark movies like 47 Meters Down or The Shallows, where one or more sharks are shown in stark close-up that emphasizes the size of the danger the protagonists face. For Jaws it wasn’t about what’s out there, it’s about what *could* be out there, which is often more dangerous and intimidating.

The Winners and Losers in the Last 10 Years of Movie Marketing at San Diego Comic-Con (Part 2)

Later this week the entertainment press and countless fans will descend upon the San Diego Convention Center for this year’s installment of San Diego Comic-Con. Yesterday we looked at which movies went on to success or failure after using Comic-Con as a big promotional platform, so today we’re going to finish revisiting the decade by analyzing 2012 through 2016.

2012 – No One Wins, No One Loses

man of steel pic

Hard to pick in either category for this year since most of the notable movies appearing this year went on to decent box-office and various levels of positive critical reception. Wreck-It Ralph was quickly hailed as a modern classic. Man of Steel did well – and started the new DC Cinematic Universe – but wasn’t loved by critics. Looper wasn’t a big success but did keep Rian Johnson making interesting movies. Pacific Rim is loved by many but barely cracked $1m in ticket sales. This is the most mixed bag of the last 10 years.

2013 – The Winner

lego movie

If you have to pick one winner here it seems like it should be The LEGO Movie, which surprised everyone with its emotional story and quirky sense of humor. San Diego was where audiences got their first look at the future animated hit and started a cycle of buzz that resulted in it becoming such a hit the LEGO series is now a franchise of its own.

2013 – The Disappointment

Safe to put Kick-Ass 2 in this bucket. While the 2010 original was fresh and funny with its shocking realistic violence, it couldn’t continue that momentum three years later. Everything that was original in the first movie felt forced and warmed over in the sequel.

2014 – The Winner

mad max fury road

I’ll admit to having been among the skeptical regarding Mad Max: Fury Road. Not because the story was going to be focusing on a woman but because was this franchise still relevant at all. As always, I was wrong and the movie was one of the biggest successes of 2015, both with critics and fans. That was at least in part due to the look given to those in San Diego, a look that won them over with incredible visuals and a unique take on the idea.

2014 – The Disappointment

Similar to other points made above, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For may have seemed like it was perfect for the Comic-Con crowd to go on to champion. That didn’t happen, though, as the clunky story dragged down the comic-inspired visuals despite the attachment of creator Frank Miller.

2015 – The Winner

suicide squad pic

Let’s go ahead and disqualify Star Wars: The Force Awakens from consideration, shall we? It was always going to be a massive hit and succeeded in not turning off audiences, so mission accomplished. With that off to the side, let’s award the prize to Suicide Squad, which got everyone’s attention with an incredible sizzle reel/teaser trailer that had everyone talking. While critics hated the movie with a passion, it went on to do over $325m at the U.S. box office, so it clearly qualifies as a hit. All of that buzz started in San Diego.

2015 – The Disappointment

Again, there’s a caveat to the movie appearing here, Warcraft. While San Diego promotion didn’t do anything to help it at theaters – it grossed less than $50m in the U.S. – it’s done massive business overseas. So it worked, just not exactly like Universal may have had in mind.

2016 – The Winner

WONDER WOMAN

The winner is Wonder Woman. The winner is always Wonder Woman. The first look at Gal Gadot as the Amazon princess came in 2014 as part of the early promotion for Batman v Superman. It was in 2016, though, that the marketing for her solo movie really kicked into gear. It’s now the highest-grossing movie directed by a woman, the second-highest grossing DCCU movie and is just generally awesome. Another clear indicator that it’s not just adolescent (physically, mentally or both) males that pay attention to SDCC buzz.

2016 – The Disappointment

Prior to San Diego Comic-Con last year, horror fans seemed to be moderately interested in The Woods, a new movie from director Adam Wingard. Just before a scheduled screening of the movie it was revealed it was actually a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. That was meant to make the movie a must-see among not just horror aficionados but also the general public. While its eventual box-office take of $45m is nothing to sneeze at, it’s nowhere near what had to be expected based on the secrecy and big reveal.

The Winners and Losers in the Last 10 Years of Movie Marketing at San Diego Comic-Con (Part 1)

Later this week the entertainment press and countless fans will descend upon the San Diego Convention Center for this year’s installment of San Diego Comic-Con. The convention, which runs four days, is massive, taking up the entirety of the center with other stunts spilling out into the surrounding area.

This is the 48th year of the geek gathering and it’s long been a favorite target for movie studios looking to sell their upcoming movies to an audience with the potential to turn into a rabid fanbase. It’s not just science-fiction and fantasy movies that have been pitched here, though. Spy stories like Salt, comedies like Superbad and others have also been brought here in an attempt to get people talking and hopefully create a few movie ticket buyers.

Still, genre movies are the bread and butter of the event as they line up clearly with the interests of attendees who are more than happy to drop $250 on that ¼ scale resin bust of Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters. So we’re going to look back over the last 10 years at just a small snapshot of the movies that have had a significant presence at SDCC to see how they’ve fared. Here’s 2007 through 2011.

2007 – The Winner

iron man pic

Today the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the model every studio is trying replicate. The Mummy tried to establish a “shared universe” with its marketing, as did King Arthur and many other movies over the last few years. But in 2007 we were introduced to Robert Downey Jr. in advance of the first Iron Man movie, which went on to box office success and set the stage for the next 10 years (and more) of movies featuring Marvel’s cast of characters.

2007 – The Disappointment

Speed Racer should have been a hit. It was the first movie from the Wachowskis following their massive Matrix trilogy and, as an adaptation of a beloved cartoon, was pretty well positioned to do well with this crowd. While the initial buzz was pretty good, though, it never connected with a mass audience. The movie still has ardent fans and is occasionally rediscovered and given new appreciation, but it’s not a household name.

2008 – The Winner

twilight pic

Many people like me were skeptical the Twilight franchise could become a box office hit. Surely the success of the books was a fluke, right? Nope. The cast and crew of the first movie stopped by SDCC in 2008, a few months before the movie opened, and went on to become a hit. An important reminder here that it’s not just “fanboys” here, or at any other geek gathering, but a diverse audience that wants lots of stories, not just super-violent superheroes.

2008 – The Disappointment

Does The Watchmen count here if it ultimately made over $100m domestically? How about Keanu Reeves’ overly-heavy and boring The Day The Earth Stood Still remake? Or The Spirit, which confused and turned off audiences with its odd visual style? Honestly, these are just a few of the movies that tried to enlist the San Diego crowd but failed to launch. Rough year.

2009 – The Winner

avatar pic

Clearly, Avatar is the big boy in this crowd. Director James Cameron came out and showed off the movie’s incredible visuals, which connected on every level with those in attendance. Not just that, but those who got a first look went back home and turned everyone else they knew onto the movie, turning it into one of the biggest box-office success of all time.

2009 – The Disappointment

Disney pulled out all the stops to sell TRON: Legacy, a sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic, including real-life deployments of Flynn’s Arcade at various events and an appearance at Comic-Con. It’s odd to call this a disappointment because it scored over $170m in ticket sales, but the overall reception to the movie was very mixed. The lack of a follow-up in the last eight years shows it wasn’t enough for someone to keep things going.

2010 – The Winner

the-avengers-2012

The first solo outings for both Captain America or Thor weren’t even out when Marvel went about as big as any studio had gone before or has gone since, bringing out the entire cast of The Avengers, which wouldn’t come out for two more years. Director Joss Whedon appeared on stage as well, as the audience was really introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the first time.

2010 – The Disappointment

Again, which one to pick? Scott Pilgrim Vs The World should have been the biggest movie of the decade based on buzz out of both SDCC and SXSW but didn’t catch on with audiences. Geek God Harrison Ford made his first San Diego appearance to promote Cowboys & Aliens but it wasn’t enough to get people talking about – or watching – that genre mashup. Seth Rogen didn’t make a convincing comic hero in The Green Hornet. And then there’s Green Lantern, which didn’t do badly but has become such a punchline it was used as a throwaway joke in Deadpool.

2011 – The Winner

amazing spider-man pic

The Amazing Spider-Man, with Andrew Garfield rebooting the Spider-Man franchise, is probably the biggest box-office success to come out of SDCC this year. It loses points for being rebooted just four years later, though, and I have to mention Attack the Block, a movie about aliens attacking a block of London flats and being repelled by the residents there. It didn’t light up the box-office but has an impeccable reputation among critics and introduced us to John Boyega, who the rest of the world discovered four years later when he starred in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

2011 – The Disappointment

Colin Farrell took over for Arnold Schwarzenegger in the remake of 1990’s Total Recall. Despite the brand recognition and the big names involved, including director Len Wiseman, the spark failed to ignite. The Adventures of Tin-Tin, which combined the geek muscle of Steven Spielberg, Edgar Wright, and Peter Jackson but which couldn’t sell its animated look to audiences, would also qualify here.

 

The Magnificent Ambersons (75th Anniversary Marketing Flashback)

magnificent ambersons posterIt’s so interesting to think of where Orson Welles was following the critical, if not commercial, success of 1941’s Citizen Kane. If that were released in 2011 and had met with a similar fate he probably would have been mentioned on the short list of potential directors for an upcoming Star Wars movie or something from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Those franchises love to poach (men, mostly) from the independent film world, finding acclaimed directors and giving them big budgets and tight reins.

But this was the 1940s and Welles chose to follow  Kane with an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons. The story is a Victorian melodrama of the first order, following the travails of a wealthy Indianapolis family at the start of the 20th century. The focus is on George (Tim Holt), the son of Wilbur Minafer and Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), who has a reputation around town as a troublemaker. When Wilbur dies, Isabel’s first – and true – love Eugene (Joseph Cotton) seeks to rekindle their long-dormant romance. Meanwhile, George is longing to woo Eugene’s daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter). Through it all, The Narrator (Welles), makes sure the audience is following along with all the machinations and manipulations that are part and parcel in a drama about high society, inheritances and arranged marriages.

The movie is infamous for having been taken out of Welles’ hands by RKO, for whom he filmed it and to whom he had ceded final edit. The studio not only cut Welles’ initial version by around 40 minutes but reshot the ending so it more closely resembled the source book’s, not the more melancholy and somewhat downbeat one written and shot by Welles. Those changes are part of Hollywood lore and have been for almost all of the intervening 75 years. Attempts have been made to locate any surviving footage, but the original film was destroyed by RKO because it was taking up storage space. Welles’ notes on the ending survived, though, and in 2002 A&E Network shot a remake that used those notes, though it didn’t adhere strictly to his wishes.

All this makes the movie more than a little relevant in this age of extensively-covered reshoots. After all, we spent six months awash in speculation over what was being changed in Rogue One reshoots and are about to experience the same phenomenon in the lead-up to Justice League. So with the movie celebrating its 75th anniversary this week, let’s take a look at how this was sold to audiences back in 1942.

First up, the theatrical poster which shows…

[record scratch] [peers in for closer look]

IT’S DESIGNED BY NORMAN ROCKWELL.

Yes, that’s right, the poster features the artwork of one of the masters of the 20th century, Norman Rockwell. His name appears down there below the face of Richard Bennett. That should be apparent if you actually look at the artwork, which is unmistakably in the artist’s signature style. That in and of itself would have been something notable to audiences of 1942 as this was well into his tenure at The Saturday Evening Post and elsewhere.

Moving on, the design of the poster doesn’t exactly sell the same epic tone we’ll see on display in the trailer. The faces of the six main characters are shown arranged around the poster, half framing the title, which is in the same size font as Welles’ name and the fact that it’s a “Mercury production of Booth Tarkington’s great novel…” Above the ring of heads is the reminder that this comes “From the man who made ‘The best picture of 1941,’” a reference to Kane, of course. Welles is name-dropped again at the bottom, where it’s stated he wrote, produced and directed the movie.

The trailer immediately starts out by drawing a connection between the movie and the novel, with the camera panning in on the book’s cover, which is adorned not only with the title but also a large representation of the Pulitzer Prize it won after release. The Ambersons are called “Literature’s most fascinating family” by the narrator, who calls out that it’s coming to the screen courtesy of the director of Citizen Kane. That movie is referenced a couple more times as the cast is introduced. We’re quickly shown that the main conflict will come between George and everyone else, from his mother Isabel to Eugene to the entire rest of the town, which can’t stand him and his irresponsible antics. George is going to get in the way of anything and everything just because he can. It ends with another reminder that the movie comes not just from the director of Citizen Kane but also features “many of the Mercury Theater players” who appeared in that film as well. The book closes to provide a closing to the trailer.

magnificent ambersons pic

Considering it was not a box office success, Kane is mentioned pretty often here, so clearly it was well known enough and had a good enough reputation that it was assumed the audience would be moved by appeals mentioning it. Outside of that what’s on display here is a big, epic story of a wealthy family that is in danger of eating itself. There’s a line from the narrator about it enjoying all the privileges of royalty with none of its responsibilities and that’s indicative of the overall tone. In 1942, just as America was pulling itself out of the Great Depression and just about to enter World War II, the public is being sold on a 24-year old story about the problems of an affluent family. Why? Because it’s escapism of a sort. It’s the same reason people watch “Real Housewives of X” now, non-rich people enjoy watching rich people behave badly.

All in all, that focus on the movie’s connections to Kane are a bit surprising. While It’s not uncommon now for second efforts following an underwhelming, if critically acclaimed, debut film to reference that first effort, the film market is much different now. There wasn’t the same indie film scene, with devoted fans that will follow coverage of a director’s career from festival to festival and eventually try and find a limited release movie somewhere. 1941 was the middle of the studio system, when those powerhouses decided who was and wasn’t a star by sheer force of will. So it’s not as if there was the 40s equivalent of a Reddit forum that was devoted to Kane’s work and eagerly anticipating his next film.

That more likely, then, has to do with Welles’ influence. He was a big ego even then and obviously had the power to make sure his name was plastered everywhere it could be, even if he still wasn’t powerful enough to ensure the movie was released under his supervision. While The Magnificent Ambersons has gone on to become almost as revered as Kane, its reputation is focused primarily on its contentious production, a legacy that’s endured for three quarters of a century.

Cool World (25th Anniversary Marketing Flashback)

Released 25 years ago yesterday, Cool World seemed to be aiming to accomplish two things: First, it was Ralph Bakshi’s attempt to make a big of dough by writing and directing another feature film; Second, it was an attempt by Paramount to create an adult-targeting version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, complete with the hybrid animation/live action look of that movie. The movie did get made, but it failed to take off at the box office.

Cool World follows Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne), a cartoonist who created a fictional world called Cool World while in prison. After he’s released he’s pulled into the animated universe by Holli (voiced by Kim Basinger), a femme fatale type who wants to seduce Jack so she can cross over into the human world. The two are foiled by Frank Harris (Brad Pitt), a former soldier who’s been living in Cool World for 40 years and serves as a cop. Holli’s plans grow increasingly desperate and begin to threaten the division between the two worlds.

All of this is told with visuals featuring Bakshi’s trademark look and feel, meaning disproportionately-drawn females, dirty, cigar-chomping men and so on. These are not the clean-cut cartoons of Roger Rabbit, instead very much showing off the sensibility that made Bakshi’s Felix the Cat an underground hit years before.

(A personal note before we go further: While this is not a great movie – it’s actually stunning in its incompetence at times – it still holds a special place in my heart. That’s because months before it opened I was invited, by virtue of my working at a local movie theater at the time, to an advanced distributor screening. That presentation featured a lot of rough animation and even just pencil drawings in places. So while I understand there are plenty of areas on which to criticize the movie I’ll still feel fondly toward it.)

The theatrical poster works hard to sell the sex appeal. The animated Holli is shown walking through a door, pushing aside Pitt, who’s shown as some sort of noir-ish detective with his gun drawn, double-breasted suit and Brian Seltzer-like haircut. Below them are many of the supporting characters, all shown in Bakshi’s signature outrageous animation style. “Holli would if she could…and she will.” tells us she has sin on the mind and that she’s not the type of character to take “No” for an answer.

The trailer shows just what kind of mess the audience could expect. We start off by getting a bit of Jack Deebs’ backstory before he’s pulled into Cool World, where he finds his cartoon world existed long before he channeled it into his art. Frank warns him away from Holli but Jack ignores him and Holli makes it into the real world. We see how much mayhem she causes and how the characters start to switch back and forth from human to cartoon as the walls begin to fall.

Despite my stated affection for the movie, the trailer reinforces my notion that there’s no need to ever revisit it. You can see the clumsy filmmaking clearly here, including bad matching up of sightlines, wonky animation and more. Pitt’s performance is wooden, Byrne’s is apologetic and embarrassed. It’s hard to imagine how this would appeal to anyone or how anyone involved worked again.

The campaign is, as a whole, pretty much a mess. There’s little here that presented an appealing product to the audience, likely part of the reason it bombed at the box office. While it seems to have established itself as something of a cult hit among animation enthusiasts, it’s not being celebrated outside of those limited circles. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be the first movie I asked Pitt about if I were given the chance.

The Selling of Other Getaway Driver Movies

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver hit theaters last weekend. In the story Baby (Ansel Elgort) is an in-demand getaway driver for crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey), sought after for his incredible skills behind the wheel of any car. That talent comes in part because of innate skill and partly because he keeps headphones in his ears, with music constantly playing to not only drown out the buzz caused by a childhood injury but also to eliminate any distractions from the road in front of him.

Baby Driver is just the latest Hollywood story of getaway drivers, the guys who sit in the car waiting for the heist or robbery to go down so they can get everyone out of there in a hurry. And there are some common elements to how all those movies, including Baby Driver, have been sold to the public.

Rule #1: Show the Car, Preferably in Motion

Makes sense, right? If you want to sell a movie about fast cars then you need to put a fast car on the poster. That’s true for Baby Driver as well as for the one sheets for 2012’s Hit & Run and 1978’s The Driver. All three prominently feature the vehicle the driver will use to get away from the scene of the crime or whatever else the story needs him to escape from. Notably the theatrical one sheet for Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, doesn’t take an action-oriented approach, instead opting for a shot of him sitting contemplatively behind the wheel. That hints at the story’s more dramatic, character-driven approach.

Fast-moving cars are obviously a big part of most all these trailers as well. Drive, Baby Driver and Hit & Run all put the spotlight squarely on the car at various times. All those are high-octane action sequences compared to The Driver, where the scenes of the cars in action come off more like the requisite car chases that were part of almost every episode of “The Rockford Files,” but we’ll try not to hold the 1970s against anyone.

Rule #2: Show the Conflict

The poster for 1997’s Heaven’s Burning shows Russell Crowe in one shot while masked thugs are seen in surrounding photos. So we don’t get a clear sense that he’s a getaway driver of any sort but do see he’s surrounded by armed tough guys who he’ll likely go up against. Similarly, the poster for The Driver, starring Bruce Dern and Ryan O’Neal, makes it clear those two, one a cop and one a driver, are going to butt heads.

The trailer for The Driver hits that especially hard, making it clear there’s a girl that stands between the two men, with the cop leaning on that woman in an effort to get the driver he’s trying to arrest. Hit & Run takes a much more comedic approach, explaining to the

 

audience that Dax Shepherd’s character is reformed and while Bradley Cooper’s is out for the money he’s owed they can still get along.

Rule #3: Emphasize the Skill of the Driver

Watch the trailers for both Baby Driver and Drive and there’s someone, in both cases a crime boss, who’s extolling the talent of the driver and his ability behind the wheel. That’s usually accompanied by a montage of clips showing just how talented they are. There isn’t that kind of boasting in trailers for The Driver or Hit & Run, though. In both those cases the drivers aren’t repeatedly referred to as “the best,” just as very good at what they do, or at least good enough to not be either in jail or dead yet.

That skill level is a little harder to convey on the posters, but it’s still clear who the talent behind the wheel is from the way they’re arranged. It’s assumed no one is calling Kevin Spacey “Baby Driver” and Gosling, as he moodily stares into the middle distance is obviously ready to “Drive.” Similarly, the one without the gun on The Driver’s poster is probably the one ready to do the driving. Hit & Run’s poster is less clear, just showing the car and cast headshots.

Rule #4: Use a Car Pun or Reference In The Tagline

Drive: “There are no clean getaways”

Hit & Run: “A comedy that never takes its foot off the gas.”

OK, both are fine, but are kind of on the nose when you’re selling a car-centric movie. You can’t really take points off because they’re thematically appropriate, but you also can’t help but wince a bit at the obviousness.

There are two exceptions in this case. Baby Driver used “All you need is one killer track” is more of an extension of the campaign’s overall focus on the music and soundtrack than anything else. Throughout the marketing of the movie the music has come up again and again, so it makes sense that this is the approach taken when it came to copy. The Driver used “To break the driver, the cop was willing to break the law,” which similarly continues that campaign’s emphasis on the looming showdown between two men on opposite sides of the law.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (Flashback Movie Marketing)

mst3k movie posterToday 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.

this_island_earth_ver2_xlgWhile 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.