Editorial: Why Do Studios Hide Original Sci-Fi Until the Last Minute?
by Alex Billington
October 8, 2012
This is a question that has been on my mind quite a bit recently. It's something I indirectly addressed once before in response to the numerous, revealing RoboCop remake set photos (titled: How Sony/MGM Just Let RoboCop Become a Flop Through Inaction). Why so much inaction, I wonder? Can they ignore everyone and everything until a few months before and pull out a campaign last minute? I suppose. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But it's still an unanswered question that even if I were to discuss with a studio exec, I still wouldn't have a real reason for why they think they can get away so easily with last minute marketing.
There are examples on both sides: of a movie flopping because it didn't have enough of an extended build up (e.g. recently The Thing remake, Dredd 3D, Skyline, Paul, The Darkest Hour) as well as those that launched most of their major marketing a mere five months early and still made tons of money (e.g. Avatar, 21 Jump Street, The Hangover). I understand that every movie is unique, some need more time, some don't, but it has started to get to me regarding two upcoming original sci-fi projects: Neill Blomkamp's Elysium and Joe Kosinski's Oblivion. They both hit theaters next March/April (respectively) which also means, yes, we have to make it to 2013 first, and it may be better to save most of the marketing until the New Year anyway.
But this needs to change. Especially for original science fiction projects like these two that have the potential to become huge hits and push the genre in major ways. No matter what, Blomkamp will be doing exactly that with his second film, but hopefully the studio gives him enough support (meaning confidence in marketing) to match District 9's success (and perhaps even surpass it). But what they seem to forget is that D9 was advertised years in advance (at Comic-Con '08 before August '09 release) through an effective and engaging viral. Elysium's viral, so far, is as lackluster as almost every viral Sony has run these last few years.
What I believe drives this "hiding" is a powerful, inherent fear in the minds of the marketers and publicists working at studios. The fear of, what is known as, "peaking too early" or building buzz that reaches its prime well in advance of the release that can only go down from that point. But, completely honestly, that's an unfounded fear driven more by the pressure for the film to perform and their bosses demands than any actual reality. That's the truth. By bosses, I mean studio executives, producers, even the actors/filmmakers themselves, trying to control every little aspect. Those directly involved don't want it to fail, so they never take bold risks anymore; it's always minor, cautious steps that have somehow proven successful in the past.
The two movies I'm most concerned about are two highly anticipated sci-fi movies - Elysium and Oblivion. Based on titles alone (what does it mean?) they are direct competitors and one will outperform the other at the box office, there's no question. They're both original sci-fi films, they're both sophomore films from two of the most talented up-and-coming sci-fi filmmakers, they're both out in theaters Spring 2013 within a month of each other. But we haven't seen much for either yet. Well, Elysium is the big exception, because they did pull off a big reveal at Comic-Con with 10 minutes of raw footage in Hall H, a futuristic vehicle on display (no one knew what it was?), one first look photo, and buzz from interviews (like with Blomkamp).
Besides that though, we haven't seen any trailers (the most important reveal) and they haven't otherwise started mass marketing either one yet. I may be jumping the gun a bit because the five month mark is the sweet spot for most movie studios and that's generally when the first trailer and poster will arrive (we're approaching that point in November with Elysium). Marvel's Iron Man 3 gets its first public trailer in a few weeks, so maybe we should expect to see the same coming soon for these two. But again, why so late for a March movie? This all seems a bit too last minute for two sci-fi movies that shouldn't really be last minute.
There are hundreds of reasons anyone in the industry will immediately give for these kind of marketing delays: visual effects aren't done (and no one wants to show unfinished effects in trailers), editing isn't done, they haven't had enough time to see the final cut and get a good idea of what the film is really about or how to market it. But these responses always make me roll my eyes. They're minor concerns that should have easy (and intelligent) workarounds when it comes to the bigger picture of building interest in the movie, the story, the universe, even with a quick photo or a beneficial, intriguing viral campaign. Isn't this Hollywood?
Look at The Hobbit. Yes, it's a very established franchise and has its supporters already, but they've been marketing it for years. Peter Jackson and his team in New Zealand understand the importance of building anticipatory buzz years out. If crafted and executed well (like his brilliant behind-the-scenes production video blogs) they're able to build hype that starts big and only gets bigger with time. It never peaks because we all know the release date(s) and they know there's plenty to show us that will keep us all excited until December. The release is the peak, and as long as they don't blow it, we will keep climbing up to that point.
The science fiction genre, specifically original stories within the genre, can benefit from this extended build up the most. We need to be introduced to the world, get an understanding of why it's the way it is or what happened over hundreds of years. And this doesn't mean revealing everything up front in footage or with synopses or set photos. Ridley Scott's Prometheus (regardless of how the movie turned out) used smart online viral marketing to build the world it was set in - sometimes one stunning (extremely high resolution) image at time. Or through videos like that brilliant Peter Weyland TED Talk (now a marketing case study).
Elysium and Oblivion, specifically, need this kind of buzz-making marketing build up, especially with six months left. We know nothing about their worlds, the characters, or stories, beyond unapproved set photo glimpses and vague synopses (and that Comic-Con footage). I'm sure the studio will release one photo at a time on Facebook or in Entertainment Weekly, trying to capitalize on rampant celebritism to drive buzz. But that doesn't work anymore. Sci-fi films (with the potential to blow up) need an earlier introduction to a mass audience if they're to truly succeed. They can't always be kept hidden completely until the last minute.
Of course, there are some big exceptions. J.J. Abrams' Star Trek series is definitely one. Keep it mostly hidden and secretive until a surprise screening at the Alamo Drafthouse where everyone thought they were about to watch Wrath of Khan. Perfect. It worked wonders. Cloverfield as well. This can be a smart tactic if organized effectively from the very start (e.g. years out). But Cloverfield and Super 8 also support my concerns about timing. Both of those, which went on to be very successful, were first teased more than a year out. They introduced us to the monster, without exactly showing him, more than a year in advance. That's the kind of early introduction and buzz building I'm referring to seeing—or rather, not seeing—here.
About a month ago while I was grabbing some lunch near the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles I ran into Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski. I asked him as he was heading back when we would see something, anything, from his new film. "Soon!" was all he said. I had hoped that meant within a few weeks, as if it were right around the corner, but time has passed and nothing has appeared as of yet. Not a single photo, no teaser poster or teaser trailer, no viral or even any hint that by next April we could be sitting in theaters watching an awesome, Tom Cruise sci-fi visual spectacular. So... should we be doubting that potential, now?
So why do studios hide movies? Is it just because they're driven by a strong fear of failure? A fear of peaking too early? Or do so many of them think they can easily pull off an Abrams/Avatar-like last
minute month marketing surprise and get away with it? As I said at the start, sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. It all depends on how they build up and craft their campaigns, who is involved in the movie, what the footage/photos look like, and/or whether it's all designed well enough to actually create a blitzkrieg of passionate interest right before it hits theaters. But why not get the ball rolling early. What harm is there?
I guess I just want to be excited for Oblivion (and Elysium). But without anything to show for it (save for some very early, very raw footage shown to an industry crowd at CinemaCon in April, which subsequently drove fans to angrily proclaim CinemaCon should be open to the public—cause they want to see this stuff, too!) it's very hard to do that. We need a photo or poster or viral or clip or teaser or SOMETHING that will make us register that name, and its early 2013 release date, in our minds now. Months, even years, early. Before it's too late. Before we start to question whether this delay is a bad thing... whether it's in trouble.
Checking in on a couple of other big 2013 sci-fi films - J.J. Abrams just started teasing (ever so briefly) Star Trek Into Darkness, and that comes out next May, after Oblivion and Elysium. Fox Searchlight ran the first trailer for Park Chan-wook's English-language feature debut - Stoker. It comes out the same weekend as Elysium in March, and because it's a hard sell with a twisty plot, they knew they needed to start building an interest as early as possible. The same goes for good original sci-fi (though with Blomkamp, one could claim it might be an easy sell last minute because of D9) but we still haven't seen much for either film yet.
I'm posing this question because I want to encourage studios to realize: there is a lot of potential out there waiting to be taken advantage of, especially in sci-fi. I want to encourage marketers to take more risks. To believe in original sci-fi stories with talented visual filmmakers behind them. To realize that "peaking too early" is a unrealistic concern fueled by an obnoxious fear of failure. But to prevent failure, they must show something. Give us exciting reasons, or content, or materials, or visuals, or marketing that actually makes us excited—even anxious—for that distant release date to finally arrive. Because the future isn't that far away.
Note: One very obvious answer to this question I've posed - CG visual effects. I expected Sony to release an Elysium trailer during Comic-Con after the Hall H footage, but they never did. Likely because most of the effects weren't even close to being ready and one concern that has been proven time and time again is that fans will scrutinize effects work, even in trailers. Wait until it looks perfect, looks the way it should, first. But if that's not until a few weeks before release, then it's too long of a wait. It's time to re-organize the post-production process to get some shots finished and ready well in advance of its release, if possible.