There is no such thing as an over-hyped movie.
When you first heard about Movie X, the hot new thing from Director Y that critics loved at FilmFest A, and how it blew all of their minds, you wanted to see it, too. Of course, you did. Who could blame you? I mean, Studio B bought the theatrical rights to Movie X for $17.5 million after seeing it at FilmFest A. That’s crazy! The highest any studio’s ever paid for a film at that festival. That’s gotta be some kind of endorsement.
And now you’re gonna have to wait a year to see it. And in that time, Movie X will play more festivals, the ones your friends go to, the ones the cool kids go to, and they’re gonna love it. They’re gonna rave about it.
And then, after a long drought of new info, Studio B announces a release date! The trailer hits the web, and it’s incredible. The posters are beautiful. And you want to see Movie X more than anything else this year, but you have to wait another four months.
You get an oil change. You finally address that toenail you think might be ingrown. You go to the dentist. You buy a scented candle you think will liven up your apartment. You forget to light it for six weeks, and when you do, it doesn’t smell like clean laundry anymore and you wonder if clean laundry-scented candles slowly start to smell like dirty laundry. You eat, you sleep, you work, you shower. For four months. And all the while, Movie X is playing somewhere in the fantasy theaters of your brain.
And then it’s here. Movie X. You can go see it tonight. It’s Thursday, and your local theater is showing it at 7:00pm. And you see it.
And it’s okay. No, scratch that. It’s good. But mind blowing? “An instant classic?” No. It’s just fine. And you’re a little let down.
This scenario, particularly in the culture we’ve built around films today, is relatively common. And it doesn’t just apply to festival darlings, either — the same thing happens with blockbusters, just without the festivals and boutique distributors. Either way, it’s easy to deem a film “over-hyped” when it doesn’t meet up with your expectations.
In January of 2015, Robert Eggers’ The Witch played Sundance, and it drew rave reviews. Critics adored it and spouted a lot of hyperbole. This is pretty normal, and it happens to great movies like The Witch (and not so great movies) all the time. At Sundance, A24 bought the US theatrical distribution rights for The Witch for $1.5 million. That’s no small chunk of change, even though Fox Searchlight dropped $17.5 million this year for Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (Netflix and The Weinstein Company reportedly put in bids of about $20 million, but didn’t secure the deal).
So after securing the distribution deal for The Witch, A24 released it almost a year later, and in a move that was highly unlike them, they released it wide instead of rolling it out over the course of several weeks. After an effective marketing campaign and a relatively wide release, the film brought in over $25 million in the US. That’s a victory for A24, and a huge victory for indie horror, especially when you consider that the film reportedly cost only a million bucks to make.
But if A24 had any hopes of making The Witch a solid hit, they had to market it like one. They had to push the trailers, the posters, the social media campaigns, and the critic quotes. And a fair amount of people I know felt that The Witch was over-hyped, that people were talking about it too much. I just don’t see a problem there. Often, an “over-hyped” movie is just a very well marketed one. And by making audiences believe the film had wider appeal, A24 got a surprising number of butts in seats to see a very boutique arthouse horror picture with relatively limited appeal.
The unfortunate side effect to all this is that many audience members came out feeling like the movie they were sold wasn’t the movie they got. And I understand why they might’ve felt that way.
A similar thing happened with 10 Cloverfield Lane — critics loved it, but the title and the mystery box marketing of the film gave audiences expectations of what they were going to see, and the film didn’t deliver on some of those expectations. The big difference between The Witch and 10 Cloverfield Lane is that 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s marketing campaign only popped up about two months before the film hit theaters. Unlike The Witch, there wasn’t a whole lot of time for hype to grow, so 10 Cloverfield Lane got a smaller backlash. But the result was similar — audiences felt mislead.
And they have a right to feel that way, I suppose. A film with any commercial aspirations isn’t just art. It’s also a product and is marketed as such. When customers spend money on a product, they expect it to function as advertised. But there’s a divide here — if you buy a coffeemaker, and you don’t like it, you should go return it. If you see a movie and don’t like it, you shouldn’t go demand that the management give you your money back. And you certainly shouldn’t sue FilmDistrict because you thought Drive was gonna be a lot more like a Fast and/or Furious movie. You paid for access to art. If your only complaint about your trip to the movies that day was the movie, you still got what you paid for. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that you were sold on something else.
Now, as much as I want to avoid cynicism, I must admit I’m actively encouraging a bit of cynicism and mistrust. In small doses, that’s okay. But we have to address the fact that marketing misleads us by design. It entices us. It makes the product look attractive. A trailer doesn’t have to be an accurate representation of the final film. In some ways, it’s a glimpse of a movie that doesn’t exist, the movie the studio wants to sell you. The movie the studio wishes they had.
And we can’t hold studios and distributors responsible because marketing is inherently disingenuous and infinitely re-interpretable based on our own personal biases. So the movie you ultimately get, no matter how it differs from the marketing campaign, was never over-hyped. We just have to be careful not to let expectations from misleading marketing campaign rob us of the joy of seeing great movies.