Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Real Mystery is "Do I even care anymore?" (JJ Abrams, Tomorrowland, and Too-Coy Marketing)

Rant Prologue

This past weekend, I was a good Disney Crazy and attended the D23 Expo in Anaheim. For those of you not in the know, this expo is essentially Comic Con-lite: booths, panels, costumes, and swag on everything Disney (of course, with the company’s ownership of Star Wars and Marvel, it has a decent amount of geek muscle in it by now).

There were a few things I was looking forward to in the convention:

1. The Animation Panel and seeing what Pixar had in store for us with their non-sequel movies as well as learning more about Frozen

2. The Movie Panel and previewing Saving Mr. Banks as well as learning what the heck Tomorrowland is about

3. Richard Sherman and Alan Mencken in concert

4. The Imagineering Pavilion and learning what was on the slate for Imagineering now that Cars Land is a roaring success and all New Fantasyland needs is the finished Mine Cart ride.

1 and 3 did not disappoint. Neither did the first half of 2. But then, there were the other parts….

Somehow, between the 20 minutes at the booth and the 10-15 minutes that Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof talked at the movie panel, I still have no freaking clue what Tomorrowland is about. Instead of, I dunno, showing concept art, talking about how they came up with the story, showing clips, or doing whatever it is that every other film did at the two panels, we were “treated” to an elaborate song and dance about how they found this box in the Disney studios morgue and it was full of stuff, and all the stuff was super secret and all filled with mysteries (photoshopped picture of Walt and Amelia Earheart), labyrinth under Small World, scratched up early laserdisc that showed a pastiche of 50s images of the future, etc.). For those of you not following Tomorrowlnad, this mystery box and its mysterious contents have been all we’ve been hearing about the film since the beginning of this year. There also has been some type of “alternate reality game” involving somebody blogging about her father, but who has time for that? (More on that later)

Eventually, there was also a booth which was mysteriously guarded in a blue tarp and wasn’t revealed till halfway through the convention (which meant hellish lines afterwards). The booth contained an exhibition of “random” artifacts from the box. To tour the booth, you needed to rent an iPad and carry it about as it gave you an audio tour, spending about three minutes on each object. If you took your time at the booth, it could easily take over half an hour…after waiting an hour on line (needless to say, the overly complex nature of this booth made it far more time intensive and with far longer lines than your average movie booth).

And throughout all of this, you still would not know what the movie was about. Is it a mockumentary about espionage and such during the World’s Fair? Is it a sci-fi time travel film? Is it a period piece? Will Walt be in it or has Tom Hanks filled our "people playing Walt" quota for the decade? Who knows…

Meanwhile, Imagineering’s exhibit seemed mostly like a retrospective on their techniques and accomplishements. Except for three things.

1. Cartons saying “Orange Harvest” out of which R2-D2 broke out, wearing a castmember badge.

2. A booth that seemed to be on Animal Kingdom but, according to some reports, actually had stuff on Avatarland.

3. If you asked to “see something weird” you would receive the poster shown at the top of this post.

Orange Harvest is the least egregious of these offenders, almost to be a non-offender. Its placement was obvious, its message clear and already building off prominent rumors. Star Wars Land is in the works. But the other two, combined with the marketing of Tomorrowland, provide the subject of this rant.

Rant Proper

I knew a gal once who would be prone to saying things like this: “Oh I know a story, but it’s so dirty, I really shouldn’t tell it!” After which, naturally, she would wait for people to beg her to tell it. It was a simple, desperate attempt for attention, to make the story seem more interesting than it probably was. And the worst thing you could do was say “Well, if you don’t want to tell it, let’s move on, shall we?”

For years, a marketing trend has gained steamed among Hollywood, thanks mainly to JJ Abrams and his cronies (of which Lindelof is one) that resembles this young woman’s storytelling technique. It asks fans to beg the filmmakers for more information, to do an intense amount of research and devote far too many hours to what is ultimately a wild goose chase, where the most "fans" (and I use this term loosely) can do is speculate, guess, and beg the filmmakers for another labyrinth…all the while having to deal with the creators not giving them even the most basic of information (genre, premise, characters).

As I said, JJ Abrams with Cloverfield and Super 8 is, if not the main culprit, certainly the personification of this problem. He even inexplicably remained coy about the villain of the second Star Trek film even though everyone had already guessed it. Some think that this coyness is exactly what led Into the Darkness to underperform at the box office (after all, we all know the primary antagonist for our average summer blockbuster). Either way, I think it’s time that we tell Abrams and his ilk that we’re changing the conversation?

Why does this bug me?

It assumes I’m a fan and that I care enough to do the marketers work for them. As I said, Tomorrowland is expecting more time from its fans than the length of the movie itself. Similarly, Disney Imagineering was attempting to put me on a quest that would put that for all Hidden Mickeys to shame. Quite frankly, you need to earn it. I don’t watch the DVD extras before I watch the movie. That’s ridiculous. Why should I devote hours of my time immersing myself in a world before I even know if I like this world…hell, to even find out what this world is? Ultimately at the end of the day, while “Shut up and take my money” is an ideal situation for an entertainment company to be in, they should not assume that will be the case. They should be trying to sell me on paying fifteen bucks to see Tomorrowland at the multiplex, not hoping that I will be so intrigued with so little that I will be begging them to take fifteen bucks so I can learn the secret to an obtuse mystery. I don’t have time to do this research, and quite frankly, if you can’t tell me what your movie is even about, there are a lot of other movies for me to choose from. Come on JJ Abrams/David Lindelof…some of us have work in the morning.

Not all mysteries are created equal. Were I to post a blog entry and say, “This next blog entry is about something” I really shouldn’t expect to become an overnight sensation. And were I to, it wouldn’t be earned. What I worry about Tomorrowland, about the fact that it is so incredibly vague, is that the mystery will overpower the story. Super 8, after all (despite the praise it got), was nothing more than

a cheap mashup of ET and Stand By Me. It might have razzle-dazzled some people who were just so happy to solve the mystery of “What’s this movie about?” but ultimately, the film feels hollow and now that the secret's out, will probably not stand the test of time. Similarly, Tomorrowland’s marketing has me less likely to be dying to see this film than I was when the title and creative team were first announced. Similarly, my reaction to the Imagineering poster was not the salivation I had upon viewing each sketch of Cars Land, but something more akin to “What is this shit?”

Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t right ways to do this marketing. After all, everything in moderation…

Not all speculation is bad, but you need to earn it. Obviously, theories about the last Harry Potter books were rampant the second people would finish the latest one. But why is this different than Tomorrowland or Cloverfield? Because Harry Potter as a property had earned the time people would devote to it. It did not expect virgin – nay, potential – fans to act like diehards. Furthermore, the genre/general narrative had already been established (I knew what I was getting into more or less with each HP book) and any questions actually posed by the author for fans to speculate on were relatively straightforward (What is the Goblet of Fire? Who will die in this book?), not overly ambiguous like “Here’s a magazine from the 20s! Here’s a poem that you can get from random words in this magazine! What does it mean?!” (yes, that did happen with Tomorrowland).

I’m not asking for a trailer to give everything away, but I am asking to know what I’m getting into. Marketing is supposed to make you want something, not give you all of it, nor assume you already want it.

Extra world building for those who care is fine. Days of the Future

Past already has a website up for Trask Industries, the company that makes the Sentinels. Even with my “You have to earn it” out of the way, this technique is fine even before a trailer because anyone with Google can immediately find out the general jist of the movie. It’s based off one of the most famous and beloved X-Men stories of all time and probably won’t stray too far from the basic premise. Anything that may want to hide in the recesses of a website then is gravy.

You can have a little bit of a bait-and-switch (like Tomorrowland is doing with the mystery box), but the gag gets old fast. Disney also did this strategy better at D23 with the short “Get a Horse!” For the week or so beforehand, D23 was touting this short as a recovered 1928 Mickey Mouse short. They even brought it out to the animation

panel with the director dressed as and pretending to be a film historian. Of couse, very soon it became obvious what the truth was. Why did this work? Because it did not leave too much time for speculation and frustration. It was a week or two until the payoff. Furthermore, there was actually no perceived mystery. Whereas we all know by now that Tomorrowland isn’t actually about the F&#!ing Box (which I think I may henceforth call it), Get a Horse easily could have just been a recoverd short for the lack of pomp around it. Tomorrowland, meanwhile, has been dragging out the pretense of the F&#!ing Box for eight months and, honestly, I would not be surprised if they do so for the next year.

Call me old fashioned, but in the age of viral marketing, transmedia, and so forth, I still want there at the end of the day to be a basic advertisement at the heart. What is the movie about and why the hell should I give you any of my money to see it? If you can’t answer that, well then, I’ll just change the conversation.

EDIT: I just realized that the photo makes it look like Photography is Permitted in the Tomorrowland booth. There was a no in fat thumb was just blocking it.


  1. It extends beyond marketing. Abrams and Lindelof do this in their films, as well! Film Crit Hulk has a great article on this:

    As for the WDI booth, I think the teases there were more out of necessity than they were by design to make them seem clever. Either the plans aren't yet final, or the plans are final and are so expensive that they require Board approval (I've heard this is the 'issue'), in which case Disney cannot make any announcement until that approval is secured.


      Granted, some of this plot/story dichotomy isn't anything overly new....some would say that Wilkie Collins or Agatha Christie are earlier perpetrators of it - though I think this blogger's distinction between Mystery and Mysteriousness helps allay that critique. But yeah, overall I do think there's a growing problem with a focus on plot even over the more simply drawn, basic characters - and I wonder (if I may sound like an old man) if at least part of this is fueled by the age of message boards and such...i.e. people are more likely, sadly, to discuss plot than characters...and everyone wants word-of-mouth.

      Also, funny thing with Alias (which the author mentions) is that the original Mystery Box (Rimbaldi) started off as a perfectly acceptable MacGuffin. I always see that show as Abrams's gateway drug.

      And fair about WDI. Honestly, it's probably something that would not even have bugged me were it not coupled with Tomorrowland that weekend.