Trailers Sell Popcorn: Marketing 2008's Summer Blockbuster

It is undeniable that the summer blockbuster, for better or for worse, has become a staple of modern Hollywood cinema. Every summer without fail audiences pack the theaters in anticipation of the next action flick or mega-sequel to help quell the summer heat. The impact of big budget action films like Independence Day, released Fourth of July weekend in 1996, has reverberated throughout the industry, impacting the way studios market their films. While over time these films may have faded in quality and originality, the box office numbers have not. Since 1995, ten of the thirteen top grossing films each year came out between May and July, according to data from box office site The Numbers. As the season approaches, 2008 appears to be no different. The release schedule is littered with blockbusters and already trailers have been released to build buzz among film fans. One common thread in some of the most anticipated films of this upcoming summer is the presence of sequels and adaptations, specifically comic book films. Ever since Spiderman made spandex cool again in the summer of 2002, studios have been racing to find the next hit comic franchise, and this summer is no different. While it may seem easier to advertise a character that audiences are more familiar with, these films demonstrate some of the more creative and unique tactics used to repackage their story to obtain the widest audience possible. This is demonstrated quite clearly in the film's first trailers, one of the most important aspect of a films marketing campaign.

The phrase "highly anticipated" has perhaps never been truer than for the first film, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The fourth film in Steven Spielberg and George Lucas' legendary series is finally set for release May 22nd, just over 19 years since the series' third installment. In a recent poll by online movie ticket service Fandango, Crystal Skull crushed the competition to be named Most Anticipated Summer 2008 Movie. Being such a familiar character, it is no surprise that the trailer plays heavily on what the audience already knows about the titular hero. The trailer opens with brief recaps of Indy's previous feats, and it is not long before the familiar theme hits and the action is on. The trailer's "guess who's back" theme mirrors the return of Harrison Ford to the character. This is just a part of what SlashFilm writer Peter Sciretta describes as a classic feeling. Though it is clear that this film's rich history will insure a huge audience regardless, the trailer does a great job of playing heavily on the past, with just a hint of what is to come.

Coming in second in that Fandango poll, The Dark Knight is this summer's sequel to 2005's Batman reboot Batman Begins. Here is a strong example of a film with an established fanbase and legend, through both its comic origins, multiple previous movie incarnations, and the hit film that directly spawned it. While these facts may make selling the film seem easier, marketers are still met with the challenge of creating a new and unique story for its beloved character, allowing it to stand out in an era of countless forgettable sequels. As the trailer shows, director Christopher Nolan has painted a darker picture of its hero, and reflected it in his nemesis. Complete with dark images and haunting voice over, it is made very clear that Batman's struggle in this film will be both with the Joker, as well as within. The trailer is strong because it recognizes that there is no need to explain the character of Batman. Instead, the trailer creates a cacophony of destruction by Heath Ledger's Joker character, which serves to both show off the films scope, as well as show the inclusion of a character that the audience is familiar with from Jack Nicholson's portrayal in the 1989 version.

The next film is a unique and enigmatic one, because rather than a new story or a sequel it serves as a reboot for a franchise. The Incredible Hulk marks a new start for the classic Marvel character, and comes on the heels of Hulk, the first attempt that ultimately failed to reach audiences in 2003. Because of this, much more weight must be placed on promoting the film in a new and interesting way that remains true to the tale, while creating a fresh enough take to gain viewers. The trailer begins, fittingly, with Edward Norton, who wrote the film's screenplay, and is many ways has become the face of this new version. His extensive film career has earned him much praise, and by using his face first and foremost, he provides the production with credibility. It is also interesting to note the manner in which the trailer holds back The Hulk, not revealing him fully until the final moments. This serves as a slow dramatic reveal, as well as to tell audiences that this film does feature human character elements as well, something some reviewers found lacking from Ang Lee's 2003 version.

These three examples demonstrate just a few of the strategies used to repackage and remarket familiar characters to snag audiences. It would be very easy for any of these films to simply release their films on name and previous incarnations alone, but as the three trailers demonstrate, the marketing is much more complex. In this modern film era with dozens of films jockeying for the top spot not only weekly but across the entire summer, advertisers have learned that they need to create intricate and original campaigns to keep audiences coming back for more popcorn, time after time.

1 comment:

LV said...

I really enjoyed your thoughtful post regarding the summer blockbusters and the necessity of intelligent marketing in order to gain attention in such a competitive season. As you pointed out, "the summer blockbuster...has become a staple of modern Hollywood cinema." While I typically accept trailers and promotions for films for sheer entertainment value, your analysis of the marketers' thought processes was interesting and something that I have never really considered. It is interesting to note that the majority of this summer's most anticipated films are either sequels or reboots of beloved franchises. I liked that you recognized that although these characters are treasured and familiar to a lot of moviegoers, this does not necessarily guarantee huge box office numbers. You made an excellent point that trailers must balance the rich histories of these films and societal curiosity as to what is to come. As with Indiana Jones, you pointed out that "the trailer does a great job of playing heavily on the past, with just a hint of what is to come," a marketing ploy that definitely engenders a desire to see the movie despite the 19 year gap from the last. I think that your Dark Night paragraph could have been strengthened by possibly mentioning if marketers are utilizing Heath Ledger's unfortunate death to their advantage. I wonder if the cacophonous trailer solely dedicated to the Joker, Ledger's character, is not only because of his important role in the film, but also because of his recent passing. While your take on The Hulk’s intelligent marketing technique, in both starting with Norton in the trailer and focusing on his humanistic qualities more than his physical transformation into the titular creature, I think you could have strengthened this paragraph by comparing specific marketing techniques between the 2008 and 2003 films. You focus on the qualities of the plots themselves, and I think providing links to the 2003 trailer or even posters and comparing the two films would have been a great addition to your already thoughtful analysis.

Overall however, I definitely learned a lot about the power of the summer blockbuster, and am curious to see how these marketing techniques evolve and saturate the media as the release dates come closer.

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