Thursday, September 24, 2009

Expectations and Movie Marketing: "Unbreakable" Retrospective

I've always been fascinated with movie marketing - what makes a good trailer, poster, and why. How much do you reveal? How much do you withhold? These things can drastically affect a viewer's experience with the film, because they create very specific expectations. There have been countless movies over the years that I've disliked simply because the marketing promised something that wasn't delivered. Though, there have also been many movies that I ended up loving in spite of the way they were marketed.

It seems that for ages the central tenant of movie marketing has stated that it's better to misrepresent the movie in favor of reaching everyone (or at least the largest demographic) than reaching the exact audience the movie was made for. Obviously, the reasoning is simple:

More asses in the seats = more $$$.

Marketing generally doesn't care if that means the audience comes out of the theater unhappy. They've already coughed up the cash, so marketing considers that a job well done. But there are cases that clearly show us how much more successful a movie could've been if it had been marketed to the right audience.

The best, and yet, most tragic, example of this is M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000).

Coming right off the heels of the massive success with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan's next film had a lot of expectations attached to it before the first trailer even hit screens. When information about the movie finally started to reveal itself, people were confident that Shyamalan was about deliver yet another - if not classic - at least a solid, creepy, suspenseful film. The trailer showed us a man in a hospital (Bruce Willis) being told that he was the sole survivor of a deadly train wreck, and he didn't have a scratch. Cue the quick flashes of the disaster, accompanied by frantic clashing sounds. After some ominous slow motion walking and Sam Jackson talking like Lawrence Fishburne in The Matrix ("Are you ready for the truth?") the same thing was on everyone's mind. We wanted another Sixth Sense experience, and it appeared that Unbreakable would be more than capable of delivering it.

The problem was, Unbreakable wasn't scary at all. There was suspense, yes, but people went in expecting to be jolted out of their seats once in a while. It didn't really happen. What we saw was a very deliberately paced film about a man discovering that he was, essentially, invincible. Many of us recoiled at this, bucking the true nature of the film in favor of the empty promises of the trailer, and in a way, that terribly generic poster (more on movie poster designs, next entry), but then there were those of us who were floored at the revelation that we were actually watching a very elegant, moody, and by many accounts brilliant, superhero movie.

However, at the time, those disappointed were heard loudest. The box-office performance was dismal. Critics were lukewarm, and apparently continued to misrepresent the film, even after seeing it (Richard Corliss of Time Magazine said Shyamalan was adept at "balancing sophistication and horror" - again with the "horror").

All this because of the expectations perpetuated by the marketing campaign.

It's well-documented that Shyamalan wanted to market Unbreakable as "the story of an unlikely superhero," but met resistance from distributors at Disney, who wanted instead to portray it as a thriller. Last year, in a New York Times article entitled, "Shyamalan's Hollywood Horror Story, With Twist," Shyamalan mentioned his regret:

“I remember the moment that it happened, exactly where I was sitting at the table, the speakerphone,” he recalled in an interview from his office in a converted farmhouse near Philadelphia. “That moment may have been the biggest mistake that I have to undo over 10 years so the little old lady doesn’t go, ‘Oh, he’s the guy who makes the scary movies with a twist.’ ”

I wonder if this really was the moment that Shyamalan's career was sabotaged. This misconception of his affinity for "plot twists" has been nothing but a bane to his film career. Though, that's still no excuse for how terrible his films have progressively gotten (The Happening is one of the worst films I've ever seen - laugh-out-loud bad). Only two or three of his movies hinge on plot twists (The Sixth Sense, The Village, possibly Lady in the Water - haven't seen it) the rest simply withhold information from the viewer - information the viewer is actively seeking. A twist, on the other hand, is something that blindsides the audience. So if someone says the twist in Unbreakable was lame, they just don't realize what effect movie marketing has had on them. Dude, there was no twist.


  1. Between this post and Tarantino's praise, "Unbreakable" just got bumped up on the queue. I'll let ya know what I think!