Marketing a movie isn’t always easy. Sure, films that stick to an established genre aren’t so hard, and ones with a recognized brand basically sell themselves, but what about those that don’t fall in either category? What about movies that mix genres or are meant to subvert genre conventions? There is also a very fine line between piquing an audience’s interest and spoiling the surprise, and stepping over that line is perhaps the most common marketing blunder.
Today though, I’m here to talk about a different marketing mistake. One that is almost as frequent and arguably much less understandable—misleading the audience. Sometimes this is because the studio doesn’t have faith in their product, and sometimes it’s because the marketing team simply didn’t understand it. Either way, doing so never works out in their favor, and often leads to disappointed audiences and angry critics.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying these are bad movies. Most of them are pretty enjoyable and a few are even personal favorites of mine. However, more than one of these were poorly received primarily because the studios misled audiences into expecting something they had no intention of delivering.
This is the most recent, so it makes sense to start here. Anyone who saw the trailers, such as this one and this one, probably figures that they understand the gist of what the movie’s about: There are a bunch of people in a house in the woods, there’s something outside that wants in and the one girl is probably one of the somethings because she just puked black slime into a guy’s mouth. There’s also a few frames of a zombie-looking creature with the same substance dripping from his lips.
Because of that, a lot of people thought it was going to be a horror movie. Since it looked like the girl was deliberately trying to infect him, my first thought was something along the lines of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (any of the three), with aliens being replaced by a new take on the zombie plague scenario. The problem with that, and the thing the trailers didn’t tell us, was that most of the horror movie stuff isn’t real. The “it” in the title refers to paranoia, and the slime zombies only showed up in dream sequences.
In reality, the movie is a dark deconstruction of the apocalypse survival genre. There are two families, each led by a variation on the standard hero dad archetype. They’re the kind who would usually be the protagonist in this sort of thing. Instead, things go very wrong very quickly and the tagline “Fear turns men into monsters” is proven true.
If the film had been marketed as what it is, a slow-building, character-driven thriller, it is likely that there wouldn’t be such a vast gulf between critic and audience reactions.
Starring Canadian actor Ryan Gosling, “Drive” is a 2009 neo-noir crime drama whose trailer makes it look like a fast-paced action movie. The plot centers around Gosling’s character, a Hollywood stunt driver by day and getaway driver by night, meeting and flirting with a neighbor whose ex-con husband owes money to an Armenian mobster. Gosling’s character agrees to help them by being the husband’s getaway driver during a robbery, which quickly goes off the rails.
The detail most relevant to this discussion is the part about “Drive” being a “neo-noir crime drama.” As the name suggests, neo-noir refers to modern renditions of the classic genre of film noir, known for morally complex protagonists and darker tone. It’s the genre that popularized the hardboiled detective and femme fatale and generally has a slower pace, focusing more on character-driven drama than action.
The trailer however fixated on the fist fights, shootouts and car chases that are actually a minority of “Drive’s” runtime. They’re still there, but the movie isn’t really about them. It’s strange that a film clearly written and directed in the mode of “Casablanca” or “Chinatown” would sell itself as something along the lines of “The Fast and the Furious.”
Analyzing the marketing for M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” may lead to some interesting conclusions. For example, based on the two trailers, there appears to be two totally different movies, both called “Lady in the Water,” both featuring the same actors playing characters with the same names, appearance and personalities. One is apparently a modern-set fairytale Shyamalan wrote as a bedtime story for his kids; the other is a horror movie about monsters from another dimension.
Seriously, look at the start of the theatrical trailer again. Right after Paul Giamatti says, “I’m Cleveland Heap, welcome to The Cove,” they do that thing where dissonant children’s laughter starts playing over slowed-down footage of people doing something innocuous. The entire point of that cliché is signaling to the audience that there’s something terrible hiding behind the veneer of innocence. That was just the first ten seconds of a two-and-a-half-minute long trailer, and already it is outright lying to the audience.
Cecil from the “Good Bad Flicks” YouTube channel even argued during his review of “The Happening” that people only dislike “Lady in the Water” because it was so radically different from what the studio led them to expect. While I personally wouldn’t go that far, as the film does have serious problems, I agree that many of the criticisms stem from people having been wildly mislead about what they should expect.
4. “Red Eye”
Anyone remember the 2005 thriller “Red Eye”? Don’t feel bad if you don’t; I only know this thing exists because of a “Cracked” article from a few years ago. The film is about a hotel manager, played by Rachel McAdams, who learns that the fellow airline passenger she’s been flirting with is a terrorist who tries to blackmail her into helping assassinate the deputy secretary of Homeland Security. Depending on who you ask, it is either “the best thriller of summer 2005” or the discount version of “24.”
What it most certainly is not, is whatever the marketing team thought it was. The trailer (if you watch it to the end) clearly thinks it’s a horror movie, and both of the posters seem to agree. Presenting the movie as “From Wes Craven, director of ‘Scream’ and ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’” didn’t help, and neither did the tagline, “Fear takes flight.”
However, the thing that bugs me the most is the Photoshop filter that makes actor Cillian Murphy’s eye start glowing red at the 1:17 mark. That never happens in the film, and while the other entries on the list had moments stitched together out of context, this is the only one that actually edited the footage for the purpose of misleading the viewer.
Oh, and if it seems like I’m picking on films that were marketed as horror movies, I am, but not for the reason you think. I’m picking on them because for what I’m sure is a terrible reason: This is the most common source of falsely advertised movies. I could have just made this article about that and still had enough examples left over for a sequel.
Oh boy, this movie about two precocious children finding a magical kingdom in the forest looks really cool. It’s full of wonder and the joy of discovery and look at all those neat monsters like those giant rodents with hats and the army of little flying insect people. I hope the whole thing doesn’t turn out to be imaginary, and the little blonde girl doesn’t die tragically when her friend decides not to go into the woods with her one day.
To be fair, none of this is a surprise to anyone who read the book, since the movie follows the plot almost exactly. The problem is that the promotion for the movie referenced none of that, selling it as a “Chronicles of Narnia” style fantasy adventure movie. I sort of understand why the imaginary creatures are treated as real, since to children the protagonists’ age, the imaginary might as well be real. However, there wasn’t even a hint of the film’s darker themes.
That said, considering how loss of innocence is part of the point, you can’t really say the deceptive marketing was completely off message.
6-8. Honorable Mentions
These are a few special cases that don’t deserve quite as much grief as the others on this list, but sill warrant mentioning for one reason or another.
This isn’t so much a case of the trailers lying as the film trying to subvert its own genre. The trailer makes it clear that the fantasy battles are metaphors for what’s really going on, but the pretty girls in revealing outfits are the main draw. The point of the film is actually that giving the eye candy super powers is not the same thing as empowerment, but I doubt there’s a way to make that come across in the trailer.
This is only true in the UK, since according to this “Screen Rant” article, the Olaf- and Sven-centric teaser was the only promotion of any kind the film received in that country. I cannot even comprehend why this happened. What, did someone just forget to send UK distributors the full trailer?
This movie is entirely in Spanish, something the trailer goes out of the way to hide. I don’t have a problem with reading subtitles, but using none of the film’s actual dialogue and hiring an English-speaking narrator just seems dishonest. However, I’m tempted to give this one a pass, because I know there’s a depressingly large segment of the public who refuses to watch any movie not in English.
Again, I’m not saying that any of these are bad movies. A few of them are even genuine classics. It’s always frustrating when a movie is hurt by studio interference. What exactly is gained by lying about a film’s subject matter? It’s not like people aren’t going to find out what’s in it soon enough.