Hollywood studios have never been completely moron free. A quick look through the history of Hollywood reveals a lot of head scratching moments that likely cost people a good sized chunk of change over the decades. Sometimes it’s just a little thing that makes it seem that way, sometimes it’s a huge thing, and sometimes it’s in the way various studio heads seem to view their potential audience.
Some of the little ways can be seen in some ad campaigns over the years. Back in 1988 there was a film released starring Michael J. Fox. He was riding high as a comedy actor at the time with Family Ties and Back to the Future along with lesser hits like The Secret of My Success, Teen Wolf, and a few made for TV movies. He’d tried to break out with more dramatic roles in projects like Light of Day, but these never seemed to gain traction at the time. Michael J. Fox was seen primarily as a draw in comedies, so that’s what he’d be in.
Even if he wasn’t.
The ads started running before the release of this film. If you weren’t familiar with the book the film was based on, well, you’d have no idea what it was supposed to have been about. You got a smiling, laughing Michael J. Fox hanging with friends, checking out girls, getting a drink, and grinning a goofy grin at the camera. The image froze on his face during the goofy grin and the title came up. They even used that freeze-frame image on the posters. Your reaction would have understandably been to assume it was another lesser Michael J. Fox comedy along the lines of The Secret of My Success; fluff, but maybe a funny matinee weekend film.
You’d have been wrong. Bright Lights, Big City was about a man dealing with a wife who just left him, the death of his mother, a frustrating job that he hates but is in fear of losing, and the very real possibility of losing that job due to his out of control cocaine addiction. Fox’s character is in short a man desperately trying to escape the pain in his life and failing miserably.
Anyone looking to walk into the theater on opening weekend in the hopes of seeing a light, goofy, fluffy Michael J. Fox comedy would have been mortified by what they were watching. Meanwhile, anyone who might want to see a film looking at the darker side of big city life would never have known what the film was about because of the ad campaign.
A few years later, 1993’s Malice came out. I refer to Malice as the only good thing that came out of a relationship I was in at that time. The ads for Malice were horrible. Forget ads that give away too much, these ads gave you nothing. Well, that’s not true. They gave you the idea that the film was horrible.
The major ad for it that ran over and over and over again had Alec Baldwin sitting in a room, the apparent subject of some sort of hearing. He’s delivering an ego-maniacal rant about how when his patient’s family members are in the waiting room, they’re not praying to God. They’re praying to him. He ends it by blowing off their claim that he has a god complex and then declaring that he is God.
Wow… A film about an egomaniac doctor who is getting a board review hearing. Pass.
A girl I was dating at the time heard that the film was a wee bit more salacious in nature. I got reluctantly dragged to it. Halfway through the film she wanted to leave but couldn’t drag me out. As a first time viewing experience (and even on later viewings) it was an amazing film. It had multiple layers of plots and subplots, schemes and cons weaving in and out, a dash of mystery, taut writing, a beautiful twist at the end, and Anne Bancroft turning in roughly six minutes of a performance that damned near stole the film.
I never would have seen the film based on the ad campaign. It made it look ridiculous and offered no clue as to the true nature of the film. It’s likely not a film you could easily channel surf into either. There’s no way you can come in halfway and understand anything about what’s going on. You’d channel surf right back out of it in about five minutes. I am absolutely the target audience for that film, but the film’s ad campaign totally failed to let me know that. I’ve gotten others hooked on the film over the years. They’ve all said the same thing.
The new Ghostbusters suffered in part from a horrible ad campaign. Trailers and teaser clips sometimes seemed like little more than random images and noise. The first trailer was also put together so poorly that it confused some people as to whether or not it was supposed to be a sequel or a reboot. The studio people should have been embarrassed enough to get their act together when (as happened with John Carter) a fan-cut of the first teaser trailer dropped immediately behind its release that was noticeably better at doing the job of being an attractive teaser trailer. Sadly, they never did get their act together.
These are far from the only cases of horribly done ad campaigns.
How are these little ways that the studio heads can be morons? How does this cost them money? Easy, they’re paying these people to make these ad campaigns. It’s not like they’re not paying them for a bad campaign. They’re getting paid and they’re making ad campaigns that are likely turning the target audiences off. Even if it’s a lesser quality film, it’s likely to make more money if the actual target audience is actually interested in it. But people who are getting paid to promote films are apparently getting away with fairly often just saying, “I have no idea how to market this film. Screw it, this will do.”
Ad campaigns are also starting to show signs of moronic leadership because of their costs. The most recent Bond film failed to recover its costs at the domestic box office, but even the sizable foreign take didn’t quite help it as much as it could due in large part to the reportedly huge ad campaign. Batman v Superman suffered a similar fate. It earned domestically $80 million more than its budget, and its foreign take was over twice the cost of the film’s budget. It was a more successful film than the similarly budgeted Man of Steel at the box office by far, but the industry reports on the film’s totals indicate that it will ultimately earn less profit than its predecessor even after Blu-Ray sales.
They spent a lot on promoting the film, but it was money spent poorly and it cost them. Certainly it could have been money spent smarter. Deadpool had far less promotional budget, but having less made them think more. The result was a better ad campaign for less. Maybe someone can say it’s a gamble worth the risk. You have to spend money to make it after all, but how crazy of a gamble is it when a film that makes $872 million can be considered “disappointing” financially?
But there’s a bigger way that many a studio head has earned being called a moron. That’s by apparently assuming that most of us, most of the movie going public, are in fact morons.
The Batman v Superman ultimate cut hit store to much buzz. I’d seen a number of reviews on it and even reviewers that were less than kind to the film in theaters were giving this version more positive reviews. The reason for the better reviews was the same in write-up after write-up- there was a lot more in the story than the theatrical version and that made it make more sense.
I kept seeing and hearing that the excised footage was largely footage that built plot, built characters, and explained things better. You’d have people looking at this version and discovering that, oh, Lex has been doing way more to manipulate matters than was seen in the theater, some of the “WTF” moments for characters are explained, and just a few minutes of cut dialogue here and there went a long way towards making the film make a lot less sense. I agreed when I saw it.
The theatrical cut was around two and a half hours. This version is around three. The supposed rationale for cutting half an hour out of the film was the belief that no one would sit through a three-hour film. Really?
All of The Lord of the Rings films were as long or longer than Batman v Superman’s ultimate cut. The most successful of the three films was the longest of the three, and two of the three films did better domestic box office than Batman v Superman. Saving Private Ryan was almost three hours long. Dances with Wolves was a massive hit in its day. It was just over three hours long. Some of the Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Batman films ran somewhere in between the length of the BvS theatrical cut and the Ultimate edition.
If the film has big buzz and a name or two in the cast, the fans will come. A film like Batman v Superman would have still drawn like gangbusters on the opening weekends at three hours of runtime. It might have then drawn better box office after that because you would have had reviews closer to what we’re seeing now. The word of mouth would not have been about how the movie was muddled, lacked focus, felt like it was missing key points, etc.
The powers that be wanted some trimming done, and they decided that the way to go was to cut plot and characterization and serve up slam and bang without any real meaning behind it. Even if they felt that the film might have been too long for financial reasons, perhaps fearing the decreased showings per day might hit the totals, they could easily have gone Kill Bill or Deathly Hallows with it.
Batman v Superman should have been epic and that is something that should have been recognized before it was even being filmed. They could have filmed a total of four hours of finalized footage with a good breakpoint in the middle and given us a complete story with epic scope served up in a Spring/Fall two-part release. But, instead, we got the slam bang edition with trimmed out characterization and plot.
And this isn’t an isolated thing.
Whenever things like this happen, no matter the decade, it always feels like the idea behind the action is a belief that the audiences are stupid and/or need to be tricked. Whenever things like this happen, whether it’s a deceptive ad campaign or gutting story in order to maximize slam bang wow, it almost always proves that it shouldn’t be done when the audiences let their displeasure be known via the final box office numbers. But they continue to do it. It’s like the definition of insanity that people joke about. They keep doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome.
One wonders why they do it at all. Fans discuss the films with friends, telling them the ad campaign sucks and then telling them in no time at all what a film actually is while making it sound more interesting than the ad campaign. Over and over again, fans declare loudly that the version they later see with more story added in makes for a better film. But we keep seeing things like this done, and seemingly more often of late.
It’s a gamble that’s going to have to start hurting the studios more as time goes by. A family of four going to see a film in the theaters can cost upwards of $40 on tickets alone. Add snacks into the mix and you could be talking a total of $80 or $90 for one movie. Waiting for the Blu-Ray or the streaming debut is made a better looking option more and more as these prices continue to climb. When taking a chance on a film in the face of a bad ad campaign or word of edits sacrificing a coherent story for more action per hour of film, the cost makes it a gamble fewer people seem to be wanting to take.
It’s something that the studios are going to have to figure out rather quickly. Studios are seeing less overall successful years of late. It’s becoming more and more common to hear news of a disappointing box office summer or fall. The saving graces are the tent pole films that belong to major franchises, but those won’t last forever.
Against that, the buzz talk among fandom is more and more often about TV shows, original streaming content, or films that didn’t get the giant push by studios and a wide release run on the big screen. The warning issued by some in the industry when VHS first launched and repeated with every major entertainment evolution is seemingly more ready to become true than ever before. All of the other ways out there for fans to enjoy their movies and shows may finally be in a position to truly threaten the big screen in ways we’ve not seen before.
I like seeing movies on the big screen. But the reality is that more often than not bad ad campaigns, deceptive ad campaigns, and purely conceived versions of “blockbuster” films make it not worth gambling the money on; especially when there’s so much entertainment to turn to and enjoy out there on so many other platforms. But the ball is in the court of the people running the studios. Now, if only they’d stop making so many decisions that cause so many to question what kind of moron was making those decisions.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Subject Matter. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.