When Hollywood pulls the wool over our eyes
Drive opened at the Cannes Film Festival to a standing ovation and a Best Director Award for Nicolas Winding Refn. But when it came time to market the 2011 arthouse crime film to American audiences, it was presented as a loud, visceral, action-packed car chase film a la The Fast and the Furious and The Transporter, the very types of films that Drive was attempting to subvert.
One woman, Sarah Deming, saw the film and was so upset by the misleading marketing campaign that she filed a lawsuit, according to The Guardian. And while it’s her fault for not researching the movie she was about to see, she might be onto something.
Drive is in no way the first of its kind. For decades, audiences have been manipulated and deceived through clever marketing into believing the movie they’re about to see is something else entirely. There are tons of people who neglect to read up on the movies and simply go see something for its stars, its genre or its trailers.
Despite the most recent Fantastic Four movie sucking so bad that it is now the worst commercially-received major superhero film of the last ten years, the trailers were actually quite smart. They present a film that had endearing camaraderie between its young, attractive leads, strong themes of family and friendship, impressive Interstellar-esque scientific intrepidity, and an epic showdown between the titular heroes and the villainous Dr. Doom.
So imagine viewers’ surprise when their superhero movie turned out to be a dark film with heavy elements of body-horror in line with David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Imagine their shock when this Dr. Doom became a weird creep who makes people’s heads explode and the Fantastic Four were introduced as a bunch of unlikable jerks in a film that, to quote Jonathan Romney of The Observer, is “beyond depressing.”
But films don’t even have to be bad to get a misleading trailer. Oftentimes an art film like Drive will be marketed for a broader audience with a trailer that sells a false product. The slow, meditative George Clooney drama The American was marketed as an action film with plenty of shootouts and romance. Foreign films like Pan’s Labyrinth have trailers that are voiced over in English, never using dialogue from the film and thus never clueing the audience into the fact that the entire movie is actually in Spanish with English subtitles.
Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd curiously did not include much singing in its trailers, despite the fact that the film is a musical. Bridge to Terabithia leaves out any and all indications that, an hour into it, things get really, really depressing.
The explanation is simple: Studios want as many people as possible to see their films. This desire often comes at the price of creative singularity. Fans of Ocean’s Eleven might be put off by a slow art film, so it’s best to market The American to the crowd that normally eats up Clooney’s movies. Some of Johnny Depp’s fans might be turned off of Sweeney Todd if they saw that Depp spent most of the time singing. The false marketing is meant to cut out all of the quirks and deliver more of the same stuff that audiences have become familiar with.
Adam Sandler’s Click presented itself as a typical Sandler comedy with crude humor and a lot of slapping David Hasselhoff in the face, underplaying the sadder and more serious elements of its atypically tragic story. It’s all a matter of putting butts in seats. The Bill Murray film Lost in Translation used a similar strategy. It was marketed as a wacky comedy with Murray acting as a fish out of water in Japan, leaving out the underlying melancholy of the entire story and the elements of sadness, alienation and futility that characterize the film.
Back when M. Night Shyamalan was considered to be “the next Spielberg,” tons of people loved him for his suspense and thriller work in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. With his next film The Village, a period romance, advertising instead indicated it to be a suspenseful, horrifying creature film.
Many people were undoubtedly fooled into going to see Drive and The American under the guise that they were seeing a car chase movie or an action-packed, hit-man film. But films like The Village, Sweeney Todd and Lost in Translation only could have benefitted from more honest marketing campaigns. It would have resulted in less critical backlash against The Village, because audience expectations would have been different.
A more honest marketing campaign is sturdier, because the entire thing isn’t built on a fabrication. Editors don’t have to tiptoe around what the film is really about and audiences don’t have to adjust their expectations as they watch the movie. Sometimes, these deceptions can’t be helped. Would Lost in Translation have made any money at all if it was marketed as a bittersweet movie about loneliness and melancholia? Would Drive have tripled its budget if it stuck to its arthouse audience?
False advertising can be instrumental to a film’s financial success, but it can also ruin the joy of movies. The studios behind The Village, Drive and especially Fantastic Four look like they don’t trust their product and the product itself loses some of its quality when this reaction is taken into consideration. You can’t help seeing the slower, dramatic scenes in Drive and thinking, “Why wasn’t this in the trailers?” Yet, a world where all films are marketed honestly would be a world in which The American doesn’t triple its budget in box office receipts, one where your average movie-goer will go to no foreign-made movies, and one where absolutely nobody goes to see 20th Century Fox’s most recent Fantastic Four.
Tyler Obropta is a freshman film, photography and visual arts major who thought The Lord of the Rings was a movie about gymnastics. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.