Why So Serious: Questioning Marketing in the Face of Real Tragedy

It is no stretch to say that the movie business today is controlled by the almighty dollar. In an industry where films can be sold and produced before a script is even written, the question has become "is it profitable?" rather than "is it good?" The way a film is marketed and sold to audiences is now just as important as the film's plot and performances. Although this has become the status quo, what happens when a studio's ability to market a film is hampered by unthinkable tragedy? This is exactly the dilemma that one major studios faces with their upcoming summer blockbuster.

Actor Heath Ledger passed away on January 22nd, 2008. At first thought to be a suicide, it was later ruled an accidental overdose as reported by Guardian Unlimited Film. The Dark Knight, the final film Ledger completed before his untimely death, is a sequel to 2005's re-imagining of the classic Batman tale, Batman Begins. The Dark Knight is slated for a July 2008 release and was shaping up to be one of the most anticipated film of the summer. But what impact does the tragic event have on selling this big-budget Hollywood action film? In the wake of Ledger's death, issues have arisen on the proper way to continue marketing the film, and this reveals and exposes many aspects of the cash-first, taste-later industry that has continued to grow over the past few years.

In order to better analyze the current situation, one must first explore the campaign as it has evolved so far. One of the newest trends in Hollywood is viral marketing. These campaigns utilize alternate mediums, specifically the internet, to provide additional components to the viewer's film experience. Most recently this proved successful with Cloverfield, the latest J.J. Abrams film, that utilized months of viral marketing such as hints and clues hidden on the internet and became number one at the box office in its opening weekend. The campaign for The Dark Knight began over a year before the film's release last May. Utilizing fake internet sites such a IBelieveinHarveyDent.com, a faux political campaign for one character, and Thegothamtimes.com, a fictional newspaper, buzz across the internet started very early for the film. While these sites stirred up interest, it became clear the campaign would be focused on what fan's really wanted to see, Ledger's portrayal of the legendary character The Joker, once portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the 1989 version of the film. Questions regarding the casting of Ledger arose, most of which came from comic book fanboys who refused to see Brokeback Mountain, but excitement grew as the campaign developed. The sites previously mentioned now featured defaced versions, suggesting that the Joker had destroyed them, as Thehahahatimes.com demonstrates. The popularity of the character as well as the buzz over Ledger's performance, explored here in The O.C. Register, made it evident early on that it would be the focus of the campaign, but this was ultimately brought to a halt with his death last month. The issue that arose was based not so much on Ledger's involvement, but rather the content of the marketing.

It only made sense that director Christopher Nolan's dark retelling of the Batman saga would feature a dark characterization of the Joker. The image at the top of the post is one of the first poster's released for the film. Featuring an ominous, and strangely recognizable, character behind a pane of glass, the words "why so serious?" are messily scribbled in red. The image is haunting and alarming at first, and becomes even more disturbing after Ledger's overdose. It was reported in many outlets, including the entertainment website Monsters and Critics, that the role was very taxing, both emotionally and physically, for Ledger. Clearly the role is twisted and dark, but did it force Ledger into a downward spiral that ultimately caused his death? Unfortunately, the audience and his fans will never know, and I think it is ultimately inappropriate for anyone to speculate.

The question arises just how Warner Brothers is to proceed from this unfortunate point. They have created a brilliant campaign, however, it happens to be feature an psychotic villain, portrayed by a beloved actor who just died due to usage of controlled substances. In a January 24th Wall Street Journal article, "a spokeswoman for Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc., said the marketing campaign was continuing but declined to comment further." The issue of business versus personal becomes an interesting one, and reveals what I think to be an intriguing social construct. Of course Warner Brothers wants their film to be successful, sell movie tickets, toys, lunchboxes and all kinds of other merchandising, but at what point does this become exploitation of a man's untimely death. While some "trade papers speculate[s] that the marketing campaign will be changed abruptly," I believe that changing the campaign at this point would be damaging both to the film as well as Ledger's legacy. While many will hypothesize as to how much the role led to Ledger's personal issues, the truth is no one will ever know for sure. The filming and initial marketing was completed before his death, and this is clearly the original intentions of the producers and director. To change their vision, as well as Ledger's vision in the role, is like going back and attempting to erase pen with a pencil eraser. What is done is done, and while unfortunate, is something no one could have anticipated. While continuing the market the film is this manner could be seen as cashing in on tragedy, I agree rather with a Warner representative quoted in a Slate Magazine article by Kim Masters: "'You don't want people to think you're exploiting his death," the source explains. "But his character is part of the movie, and he was on board with wanting to do this with his character."'

Ledger's tragic and untimely death marked a real loss for the entire movie industry. The promising young actor was still on the rise, creating new and interesting characters for his audience. His involvement in The Dark Knight is rumored to some of his best, and though the issue is delicate, his overdose should not lead to a complete marketing overhaul. Although I personally believe the best way to honor the actor would be to keep the images and campaign as they were originally intended, do not be surprised to see a few more Batman-focused posters to appear, such as the one at the right.

1 comment:

SRA said...

First of all, let me just say that I really enjoyed reading your blog. Growing up, I always thought of Heath Ledger as my dream guy, and his death came as such a huge shock to me. It saddened me more than I expected it would. And I remember hearing words from friends such as "it's horrible to say, but you know this will be good for his movie." So, I particularly thought your blog was an interesting topic.

Secondly, I was so intrigued by the article you linked to about Ledger's preparation for his new movie. To learn that he spent six weeks in solitude practicing the part made me realize that the part may have influenced his accidental death more so than I previously thought. I had heard that it may have caused slight depression, but I had my doubts. However, upon learning about the forced solitude, I cannot help but to think that had something to do with it. In fact, I remember visiting Alcatraz a few years back and learning that the worst form of punishment was solitary confinement. No one wanted to be left alone. Ledger should have spent time practicing alone only sparingly to keep from going crazy.

Most importantly, though, I completely agree with your opinion that the release should not be altered. I think that especially if his work will so intense that it may have influenced his death, it is only fair that we honor him and publicize and release his work the way he would have wanted. Yes, his death was a sad tragedy, but let us not forget that his work was some of his best, and he deserves to be remembered for it.

While I think that it should still be released according to the original plan, that is not to say that I will want to see it. I find it so sad that he passed away, and it's hard to watch him act without feeling sad knowing that he is no longer around. Even when 10 Things I Hate About You was on t.v. the other day, I found myself thinking more about his death than his acting. I still believe that the bottom line is that nothing should change--let's give him credit for the work he did when he was still with us.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.