How Sony/MGM Just Let 'RoboCop' Become a Flop Through Inaction
It's nearly confirmed - MGM's RoboCop remake is going to flop. Though it doesn't come out until August 9th, 2013, this is pretty much when it was decided. The fate of the movie has been all but secured simply through the inaction of Columbia/Sony and MGM's marketing department(s). How can I say this? How can I actually make a sound prediction this far out? Let me explain. RoboCop just started shooting this weekend in Toronto. On the very first day of principal photography, paparazzi got the shot they were waiting (a whole day) for - one of Joel Kinnaman in his cyborg outfit. Now it's out. All over the internet. Everyone has seen it, scrutinized it, in just over 48 hours. And because of that, this movie's failure is pretty much guaranteed.
Here at FS.net, we have a long-standing policy opposing any/all set photos. We never post them. Period. (I know the teaser image is one, but used for the sake of covering it as news.) I even wrote an entire editorial about it back in 2011 - and that was before The Dark Knight Rises set photo frenzy, which was nearly out of hand. Posting paparazzi-taken set photos is a sad and disgraceful habit of hit-hungry websites who use the excuse "well, everyone wants to see them!" Of course they do. Everyone wants to know the ending of every movie before they see it. Just because it's some crass impulsive urge doesn't mean we, as the curators of content and creators of hype, have to indulge in it. Leave that to TMZ or Just Jared. I prefer not to stoop to the low standards of gossip rags. But that certainly won't (and doesn't) stop the endless spread of set photos.
So what's wrong with RoboCop? This remake
has had potential. One of my favorite shirts that I wear only has the OCP (Omni Consumer Products) logo from the original 1987 Verhoeven film - made by Last Exit to Nowhere. Every time I wear it, someone always stops me to comment on it. Usually "that's awesome" or "I love RoboCop!" It's proof there is a huge fan base out there, and just like Tron, it's one of those 80's sci-fi franchises that still has a passionate fanboy following (of males 20 to 40 years old). If you play your cards right, it could be a big sci-fi hit. But MGM (who is distributing through a deal with Sony/Columbia Pictures) hasn't played their cards right. Not only making the wrong decisions with every card they draw (what really happened to Aronofsky?) but they're trying to bluff big time and it's not going to work. At least I don't think.
In fact, their bluff is so blatantly transparent, it has created a large amount of negative buzz before they have even shot a single frame of footage. Tough break. But with these first set photos from the first weekend, things have been pushed to the edge. Before that, there were already troubling quotes coming out about this remake; as I said, they tried to bluff, but everyone could see right through it. Word is that Brazilian director José Padilha was speaking on the phone to friend Fernando Meirelles, and told him "it is the worst experience. For every 10 ideas he has, 9 are cut. Whatever he wants, he has to fight. 'This is hell here.'" Whether or not it's accurate, the fact that quote was one of the first to come about the production is not a good way to start. When searching for RoboCop, that story is everywhere, the first thing anyone looking will find.
There was, kind of, a brief follow-up. Padilha apparently stated, in a translated interview found by Latino Review, that the quotes weren't entirely true and "we deal with those difficulties with coolness and familiarity." But no one picked up that story, it barely spread to a few sites, not many cared (why would they?). Plus, his quote almost confirms that there are troubles, as he doesn't seem to outright deny them anyway. But there was no response. Sony/MGM was tight-lipped all the way, as expected, as it finished casting and gearing up to begin production in Toronto the final weekend of TIFF. The perfect time/place for paparazzi to descend, especially with reports that Joel Kinnaman was around at parties anyway. They went and got the shot they wanted.
In this day and age, studios can't just cower behind a wall of silence when this kind of negativity flares up. The internet has power that can shape a film's fate before it even shoots. Bad buzz got worse this weekend when ComingSoon landed two set photos from Toronto of Kinnaman as the new Alex Murphy/RoboCop in costume. There's a camera in one shot, but the other looks like he's just walking to his trailer. Beyond that, we don't know whether this is a prototype, just an exoskeleton, an FX extension, but not the finished suit, or actually the final costume being shown in full minus a few post-production touch-ups. Well, take all of that and toss it out the window, because these two photos have been spread everywhere, and every fan/non-fan has already taken an opportunity to state their opinions, be it on Twitter, Facebook or to friends over texts.
Nearly every other movie website has taken the chance to post these, even sadly Hollywood Reporter. Devin from Badass Digest sums up the general reaction: "underwhelming in the extreme, and further fodder for the belief that design is long dead in Hollywood genre films… I find it hard to care, honestly. This is a movie whose existence is pointless; it will never be as good as the original and it does not seem to be interested in pushing boundaries, at least as far as design goes." He goes on to joke that "I'm sure they'll say they started from a place of realism" but I doubt they'll respond to these criticisms and will just cover it up with publicity way down the line. Nevertheless, the world has taken notice, and there's plenty of responses to back it up.
Here's a tweet reply I received - Alejandro nails it. I may be out of my own ability to change the fact that set photos are covered so vehemently by other movie blogs, but it's up to the studios to make a difference in the end. And if they're just going to ignore them, it's going to continue hurt them. Not always, and many films can and do get away with it, but not this time. So much so, that the audience has acknowleded how bad it is:
@firstshowing movies get the life suck out of them by this kind of behavior, hyped or ditched before it gets a chance to stand by it's self.
— Alejandro Torres (@Alx_th) September 15, 2012
These two tweets below from Nordling of AICN (which I had nothing to do with) truly say it all. And as of writing this, both of those tweets have already been retweeted six times. It's not just a prominent writer for a geek website making up his mind early. He's instantly influencing the fanbase and audience, who will in turn influence non-fans, too. This is all happening a year before release. Before they've unveiled or done any real marketing. This is why this movie is almost guaranteed to flop. Due to a complete lack of marketing or concern, the audience is already tuning out. Marketing, whenever it does hit, won't even have a chance to save it. RoboCop is finished. They could of course turn it around, but this negativity will still be lingering.
Over the past few weeks my excitement for ROBOCOP has slowly deflated due to news about the script and Padilha's studio struggles.
— Alan Cerny (@NordlingAICN) September 15, 2012
Seeing the Robocop outfit today… yeah. #movingon
— Alan Cerny (@NordlingAICN) September 15, 2012
Before we get into the helpful side of this, there is another quick marketing recap necessary. RoboCop has actually had studio-released marketing, but its been feeding the negativity. Beyond casting updates, the only official marketing for RoboCop arrived around early July and during Comic-Con this summer. A viral site for robotics company OmniCorp (omnicorp.com) was launched with some weaponry teases, followed-up by a viral banner showing the new "ED-209" mech on the side of the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego (photos here). I remember having conversations then about how terrible the new design looked, with people I would consider true fans of this franchise. Sony's first soft marketing launch, which was an admirable attempt I'll give, was nonetheless ineffective at building good buzz. As we now know, it just went downhill from there.
In addition to all this criticism, my biggest complaints are that studios can be running better marketing, but aren't. They can be using better tactics to promote and keep everyone's attention focused on studio-made marketing, if they truly cared. So I've decided to suggest a few ideas of what I would prefer to see them do. More questions meant to prod them: why aren't we seeing this kind of response, or this kind of marketing?
Give us an Actual First Look at Murphy or RoboCop
Hollywood's current response to set photos is to attempt to cover them up with real photos. That is the good idea, since there's not much else that will help. If the photos are taken from public property (e.g. a sidewalk) they're legally safe, no matter what. The studio can't do anything. However, they can divert our attention. I'm sure most execs think "in the long run set photos don't hurt us much." That can and occasionally is true (look at TDKR I guess), but with RoboCop it's the fact this is the first way most audiences are introduced to their movie, that should make them concerned. If Hollywood is so obsessed with control right now (which they are), then why aren't they controlling the very first look at a hot remake? To the point of releasing good photos before any paparazzi has a chance to get a shot on the street. It's one of the only worthwhile tactics.
Concept art of the new RoboCop armor suit, from Filmophilia posted in early August.
We saw The Dark Knight Rises do this, though they failed to follow up with additional fan engagement (e.g. a good viral). Right around the time Christopher Nolan started filming with Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in Pittsburgh, was when we got the first officially released studio photo. Even then I got the sense they were pressured into putting that out. The same with Bane, he got revealed (with a side-shot of his mask) in a viral before they even started shooting. TDKR got a much cleaner start than this movie is getting, and look how much money it went on to earn. But WB's marketing for that is a whole other topic for another day, it's just a easy reference for first look photos being used to draw some attention away from copious set photos.
So let's meet Alex Murphy! Paramount is using this tactic well for Jack Ryan, which also recently started filming in New York City, putting out two (now three) photos of Chris Pine as Ryan, plus Kevin Costner and director Kenneth Branagh. They know how to build good buzz around a franchise with potential and keep everyone's eyes off the streets. So where's our first look at Alex Murphy, aka RoboCop, in action? Oh, the costume needs effects work before you put out a photo? That should've been done months ago. This is 2012, get with the times. The internet doesn't slow down, neither should marketing. This first look should've been out weeks ago. It should've been out at Comic-Con. Now it's a lost opportunity (though they still might try).
Where is Unique Content from the OmniCorp Viral?
While I like the idea behind the OmniCorp viral site, it hasn't been used besides as flashy promotion. Toss up the totally-CG new ED-209 robot (which doesn't stand up to the original), as well as an XT-908 drone, and some inactive but exciting links (Projects? Products? Programs?) and you have fans interested at least. But not engaged. We need something more. Need a good excuse to release a first look photo of the finished RoboCop suit, with effects? Use OmniCorp, or an unrelated twitter viral, or with in-fiction storylines about a cheesy human-robot experiment, leaving teases as to what's going on. If that's the direction they're going for with this? We don't really know. However, they at least have the viral space to work with, why not utilize it.
Here's another solid suggestion, by a fan, of how they could've kept the focus on the viral content instead:
— GeekRest (@GeekRest) September 15, 2012
Another example of a brilliant, successful viral campaign using exciting sci-fi imagery to build pure hype is Prometheus. Why not hire the company behind that, Ignition Creative, to design futuristic promo material of the new RoboCop suit from OmniCorp, venturing beyond just robotic defense into robotic self-defense. Release newspaper articles about Alex Murphy as a cop in Detroit and his career. These are just a few of many different examples of ways to build up the universe, gets fans interested in the world they're crafting. It would help actually get a bit of positive buzz going, maybe make a few people curious about what's in this world besides the "looks like Nolan's Batman" boring black armor RoboCop suit that everyone has now seen.
My hope is that this OmniCorp viral site does eventually lead to some exciting opportunities, be it online missions or in-world activities, as it would at least provide something to keep me intrigued. Otherwise, my interest is fading very quick. No viral since The Dark Knight (not Rises) or Tron Legacy or Prometheus has been able to keep me more interested in the content that it's providing, rather than the content paparazzi are supplying. Who wants the same guys who sell sleazy photos to gossip mags to be marketing movies? Effective, smart interactive marketing is one of the key ways to build buzz, especially with a sci-fi audience.
Note: The latest viral video that auto-plays on the OmniCorp site does tease the RC-2000 RoboCop suit at the end, with a few boring glimpses of the same black armor and this tag: "In the coming months, we will unveil our newest and most exciting innovation yet. Where human resources meets robotic engineering - the RC-2000, the next generation of defensive products." Can anyone say cheesy? That's not the way to actually engage modern sci-fi fans. Did they even see the Prometheus viral or was that totally ignored, too?
Stop Looking at Set Photos, They All Suck Anyway
Why does anyone really care that much about set photos? Do they mean much? Beyond providing a first look (as was the case here), any cinephile knows the look on a set doesn't always represent the final product. That's the whole point - I would much rather wait to experience details in their finished form, whether that's in theaters or with filmmaker-approved footage. At least it would be coming from those who care about its artistic direction. But the studio is way behind here, and it seems like internal struggles may be affecting marketing, even design. That said, it's no excuse for jumping on set photos like this or caring about them. But the impact these have had has unfortunately already left a mark, even though they're trying to ignore it.
Which also may be the response the studio is taking internally. "We can ignore all of this." That's what most movies try to do. Marvel Studio's Thor: The Dark World is getting openly revealed in set photos, but Marvel/Disney seem to be ignoring it entirely. They've got their own marketing campaign and when the time comes, they'll reveal what they want. It works for them because, I suppose, we have faith in Marvel at this point. We know what Chris Hemsworth looks like as Thor. We trust Kevin Feige made the right decisions. Fans will still pour over these photos, they can't stop that desire. But that's also the problem. Neither side of this seems to really care about making a change. And I'm stuck here in the middle complaining about both.
So how can I still claim that a movie will flop just because one or two crappy set photos came out and there hasn't been any marketing yet? Just look at the evidence, there's plenty of it out there, and the web backs it up anywhere you look. Do a search for Jose Padilha's RoboCop yourself. Ask around. Ask your friends. Sure, a year of time can smooth out some of this negativity, but it will always linger, mostly because they haven't provided any interesting or exciting marketing to give fans any reason to be hopeful. There is nothing. Then again, fans should be able to remain optimistic about it anyway. Examples of inversely optimistic responses:
People are asking my opinion on ROBOCOP remake photos. Obviously I hate that look. The key is how that costume fits in the world around it.
— Harry Knowles (@headgeek666) September 15, 2012
Honestly, I love it. Looks cool. Can't wait to see the finished product. comicbookmovie.com/fansites/TheAl…
— WolvieCBM (@WolvieCBM) September 15, 2012
As for the actual movie, there's talk of the aerial drones coming into play in thematic ways, and maybe the ED-209 robot will be badass in action, but only time will tell. That's the point - it is too early to jump to conclusions from two set photos (as I am doing, ironically). However, it looks like this movie may already be doomed and no amount of marketing/publicity can cover that up. But if the studio really believes in this, now is the time to really jump into action and show us why we should be excited for it. Give us something to hope for that is a glimpse at the real finished product, at something that will actually convince us this is anxiously worth waiting a whole year for. Otherwise this is all just a buzz kill before it even has any buzz.
Give Us Hope OmniCorp! Get the Future Under Control!
To top it all off, there's also bad buzz from an early script review floating around. Since the project has been in the works for so long, even with Padilha and writer Nick Schenk on the latest draft, the script is out there. HitFix's Drew McWeeny took a swipe at it on twitter (via Bleeding Cool): "I'll share this one detail. In the film, when Murphy is turned into Robocop 1.0, it's described 'a high-tech version of the '80s suit.' Then they show a focus group scene where criminals laugh at the design. 'He looks like a toy from the '80s!' So they redesign him to look 'meaner' as Robocop 2.0, who passes focus group approval. So they not only make sure to include the original design, they also point out it’s dated and stupid. *facepalm*" Again, this is the first word out about the currently in-production RoboCop remake. Give us some hope guys, don't let everyone trample over it without a shred of positivity to show. Might as well give up now if that's the case.
Remember this outstanding bit of promo art from 2008 (seen to the left)? It's probably the best marketing for this RoboCop remake/reboot we've ever seen. It was used as an early promo at the Licensing Expo in 2008, teasing two years out (hint, hint Sony/MGM?) a summer 2010 release, which obviously never happened. Still, this was the kind of imagery that actually made me excited, but none of what we've seen from the studio so far has come close. And these set photos just seem to have made it worse. However, a promo banner (touting the bland black armor) has recently appeared on the Argentinean movie site Cine1, which confirms this is the new look and also hints at how much their marketing campaign is already ruined if teasing small portions of the armor is their plan.
Give us hope! Give us OmniCorp! Give us RoboCop! Give us something. Sitting around pretending none of is this is happening, that negativity doesn't matter, ignoring that the internet exists (and so do paparazzi), is only going to hurt. Studios must learn that in this day and age, where the internet drives opinions years out, inaction is ineffective. Lack of confidence leads to failure, especially when it comes to a property that needs action. RoboCop is one of those. The same "that's awesome" response I get from wearing a shirt that says OCP on it should be the same response fans are having any/every time they see images from this. But it's too late for that. The first impression has already been made and it's bad, perhaps even so bad it may be hard to recover from. If this isn't a flop next August, I'll be the very first to eat my own claim chowder.
Now is the time to take action. Well, two weeks ago was, but we're passed that. Instead of letting set photos establish excruciatingly low precedents and allowing movies to "get the life suck[ed] out of them" a year out, step up and give the audience something. Confidence is key, and if that's missing, it's all over. I hate set photos so much that it frustrates me when movies get wrongfully revealed and scrutinized like this. But it's up to Hollywood, moviegoers, and other movie sites, to make a difference. Maybe José Padilha's RoboCop will turn out pretty good in the end. Only time will tell. Although I don't have
much any confidence in it. OmniCorp doesn't seem to have this future under control at all. Where is Verhoeven when we need him?