Friday, June 17, 2011

Movie Marketing III: Mystery Box

Film is a mysterious industry, both in production and story value. It use to be that the mystery of how movies were crafted was part of their appeal, but in today's world of the internet few secrets remain about the process of making a movie. What filmmakers do hold on to, though, is the mystery of the screen. High profile films like The Dark Knight Rises or The Amazing Spiderman have a hard time staying ahead of bloggers who would spoil secrets, but sometimes it is those secrets that make a film so great. In this third installment of Movie Marketing, we'll examine keeping Mystery alive and how it relates to the different levels of spoilers.

 Several months ago, I saw a TED Talk by writer/director JJ Abrams, and my recent viewing of Super 8 (which was AMAZING) brought it back to mind. Abrams is notorious for keeping an incredibly tight seal on his stories. He's a low profile enough director to still manage to make a movie without people snapping pictures, but high profile enough to where fans love speculating. It was true for Cloverfield, which I expected to be a Godzilla movie, as well as Super 8, where the only thing we knew going in was that a monster escapes from an Air Force train (and talk about a train wreck!).

His TED Talk was about the Mystery Box, a metaphor in abstract but a very real thing for him. It's a great talk that delves into how the creative process of one of Hollywood's most imaginative filmmakers works, and I highly recommend watching it. The talk is embedded below, and runs about fifteen minutes, but it's worth it. Check it out and then come back, since the irony of talking about a mystery box by spoiling what it is before the reader sees the video is too much to bear.

People have different styles of mystery boxes. One of my closest friends likes his box completely sealed. He makes a judgement call on a movie after seeing the first trailer, and is either excited or uncaring until the release. Some bloggers like to take a machete to their box, ripping apart every side by reading Wikipedia plot summaries before even getting to the theater. There's nothing wrong with either extreme, it just comes down to a matter of how much mystery you want there to be going in...and sometimes coming out, depending on the film.

I like to poke holes in my mystery box but still leave enough so that I can be surprised by what happens. I don't look up how a character will die, but I do look at production photos, analyze trailers, and usually will keep reading when an article says "SPOILERS BEWARE!" It's not so much that I want to spoil a movie; it's just that when I'm really excited for something, patience is hard to come by.

Sometimes the way a film is marketed can make the mystery even greater, and even rarer are the times when it makes the payoff more than expected. Super 8 had a great payoff, and the monster looks amazing, but story-wise there isn't anything you are really just "wait... what?" to. The Dark Knight, on the other hand, was even better for me because when I saw it it made me realize that this entire time I'd been excited based on trailers that came from about ten minutes of the film. There were entire scenes I did not expect (ex. destruction of Gotham General), and it rocked.

As The Dark Knight Rises churns through production, I read articles about new casting and jump with excitement as I set the released promo photo of Bane as my desktop background. For me, the mystery box is a a great thing, and I would never want to completely spoil a movie, but there's also nothing wrong with sneaking a peek at a few things. I think there are different levels of spoilers, put simply this way:

LOW LEVEL - Promotional photo of Tom Hardy as Bane
MID LEVEL - Reading about what roles certain A-list actors are cast as
HIGH LEVEL - Vader is Luke's father!

Seeing a photo, especially when promotional, doesn't ruin the experience of seeing the movie for me. Finding out plot points that are designed to surprise, however, can. In the weeks leading up to The Dark Knight, news leaked that a major character would die. I actually thought it would be Rachel, but then I accidentally read something online that said Jim Gordon would be shot. I was pissed because I felt like I had just ruined a major part of the film. Of course, being the genius he is, Nolan ended up taking me on an adventure as Gordon is shot, then returns, and Rachel does end up dying! It was amazing, and maybe even better because of how I'd been keeping up with the viral campaign.

Spoilers aren't inherently evil, especially depending on how anticipated the project is. They are dangerous, though, hence the warnings. Many people say they hate surprises, but having a little mystery in life can be a great thing. JJ Abrams' projects thrive off of this mystery (would you have watched LOST if the ends to every season were told to you beforehand?) It's an exhilarating feeling when a character is in peril and you really don't know whether they will survive. Usually the leads are safe, but every now and then even that is taken into question. It's these rushes of emotion that make movies so fun, going beyond the theater itself to the rush of well-made trailers or intriguing viral campaigns. This is why movies were, are, and continue to be so popular. This is the power of movie marketing.

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