Mystery. Remember it? If you’re a hardcore movie lover you may not be as familiar with it as you once were. The studio marketing departments put out tons of clips, images, synopses, trailers, commercials and other ephemera that make it tough for the hardcore to maintain that element of surprise when they walk into a movie theater. Of course it’s our own fault – nobody is making us watch the nine new clips or scroll the 200 pictures in the new online gallery*, but the studios are really enabling us.
Enter Inception, the new Christopher Nolan movie. What’s it about? There have been two trailers so far, and almost nobody knows. What’s well known is that it stars Ellen Page and Leonardo DiCaprio and that it features truly hallucinatory imagery, like the streets of Paris folding up onto themselves. But the story and the characters remain shrouded in mystery. And a lot of people are loving that; in my daily jaunts around the web I’m seeing lots of folks saying that they love not knowing what the film is actually about, that they love being completely in the dark.
But how long will that last? We’re a ways out from the release of Inception. The film hits in the middle of July, and that means the stuff we’re seeing now is the epitome of teasers – posters featuring just provocative images, trailers with cool visuals and little else. The marketing materials released now are about appetite whetting. In other words, they haven’t begun selling it to us yet.
That’s when the trouble sets in. To sell a movie like Inception - with a rumored price tag of 200 million dollars – Warner Bros will have to lift that veil of mystery somewhat. Sure, they’re aided by the fact that it’s the new movie from the guy who directed The Dark Knight, and that along with the stars will go a long way towards selling the film, but there’s going to have to be a point where they tell the audience what they’re in for.
Robert Zemeckis gets a lot of shit – rightly, mind you – for the way he approaches marketing. What Lies Beneath is surely the extreme end of marketing, since the trailer gave away the entire film. And the movie still managed to make money. But has there ever been a film that went the opposite direction and completely hid its plot while also becoming a success? Some smaller films have done admirable jobs of this - World’s Greatest Dad from this year comes to mind – but they’re operating at a level where the marketing isn’t quite so mass. For big films it seems incredibly rare (at least in the modern internet age) to market a film while also keeping the public completely and totally in the dark as to what it’s actually about.
Yes, there are films that hide their twists or don’t give away anything beyond the first act, but even those marketing campaigns set up the basic plot and conflict in some fashion. So far Inception has not done that. Going by the trailers and the posters you will have no clue what the film is even remotely about, who the characters are, what they’re up against – nothing (although you can begin taking guesses with the latest teaser, where DiCaprio tells Page to only imagine places she has never been; this, coupled with the ‘Your Mind Is the Scene of the Crime’ tagline fills in some blanks for you). And for many this is ideal – you know it looks cool, you know it’s from Christopher Nolan, you know it features Leo, and you know when it comes out. That’s enough!
But it’s not really going to end up being enough. The general audience wants to know what they’re in for, and to a certain extent the studio wants them to know as well. People walk out of movies upset when they see something they weren’t expecting. Now, I’m not saying audiences shouldn’t be surprised – obviously everybody wants thrills and surprises in their films – but they don’t want to walk into what they think is a romantic comedy and find that it morphs into a serial killer film in the second act. Yeah, I’d be pretty psyched about that – and that is part of the allure of Miike’s Audition – but for the mass audience this is a no-no. So the studio has to figure out a way to give the folks a decent idea of what kind of movie they’re seeing while not giving everything away.
Inception, it turns out, will probably fare better than something like Univeral’s Repo Men, whose red band trailer felt like a beat-for-beat summation of the film**. First of all, it’s from Chris Nolan, who hates having his movie ruined in advance. And coming off The Dark Knight he has a little bit of sway over the marketing; while he may not have final say on the campaign in total (the movie is simply too pricey for him to have complete control over this stuff. This is why the studio has professionals who do this for a living), he has a whole lot of weight to throw around. And he’s dealing with a studio that’s not just artist friendly, but may have created the last campaign for a movie that truly left the plot a mystery - The Matrix. Rewatching the trailer for that film I was surprised by how many shots telegraph the true nature and meaning of The Matrix, but this stuff is only obvious on this side of the divide. At the time I walked out into The Matrix not entirely sure what the heck the movie was about, and walked out with my mind completely blown.
The Matrix had a huge advantage over Inception: everybody was still on dial-up. Back then the internet wasn’t clogged with thirty minutes of clips from the film. Movies didn’t have an endless series of posters and photos released – I believe you could create a flipbook of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince using just the publicity stills and myriad posters and banners Warner Bros put out before the movie opened. Back when The Matrix hit movie marketing was still about TV and newspapers. Mystery was much more possible.
I think it’s likely that the campaign for Inception will maintain the aura of mystery; after all, that seems to be part of the point of the movie, a surreal feeling of dislocation. But I also think that the aura of mystery is going to start getting lifted in the coming months. We may see one more mysterious teaser, but by the time the summer movie season starts we’ll be getting glimpses of the plot, and once TV commercials hit I bet informed, smart and savvy viewers – ie, the kind of people who tend to read a site like CHUD – will be able to really piece things together.
So if you like knowing exactly what you know about Inception right now, stop looking at trailers. Turn the channel when the ads start. Don’t click on links that have interviews with the stars, offer clips, or boast new photos. You’re at the last moments of true, complete mystery for Inception. The question is: can you do it?
* and by the way, this is why I rarely cover this stuff on CHUD. These clips and images often feel like nothing short of overkill.
** let it be known that they could be fucking with us. This wouldn’t be the first time a trailer makes you think you’ve seen it all and then you realize you’ve just seen the first 45 minutes. That said, remember what I said about audiences – they want to know what to expect. If Repo Men turns into a slapstick comedy at the 45 minute mark and none of that is in the trailer, people will be pissed and will walk out badmouthing the film.