a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Friday, July 07, 2006

Marketing "Lady In The Water"

So I'm going to make a prediction now. I have absolutely no hard evidence to back it up, but there's something in my brain that says it is so.

My prediction is that "Lady In The Water", the new M. Night Shyamalan film, isn't the movie that it is being sold as.

The current compaign is actually a great one, because it makes the movie look mysterious and exciting. No longer does it look like a motel version of "Splash"; now there is Danger! And Evil Creatures! And Characters Running in Fear!

It is being sold as a horror/thriller, and sold well. And maybe I'm wrong (I haven't read the script), and maybe it is a truly effective horror/thriller, and that audiences going to see it based on that idea aren't going to be disappointed.

But I don't think so.

Because the initial trailers for this movie were sort of lame. They were trying to set this up as a "fairy tale", and there was only the barest glimmer of potential menace. Mostly we got the sense of a lonely janitor, foggy nights, and a girl in a pool who seemed like she was destined to be some sort of otherworldly love interest.

The problem is that, if this is an intense horror/thriller, I have no idea why you'd try to sell it with the first trailer. Unless there is some brilliant bait-and-switch going on here (the studio making you think it's a light fairy tale, with the idea of surprising you and scaring you, provided that you actually come and see it), what it feels more like is the studio trying to figure out how to market a story that didn't fall into traditional marketing plans.

Because let's face it. If it really is the movie they are selling it as now, there'd be no reason not to sell it to the public that way from the start. I think the studio would have been thrilled if M. Night delivered a scary foggy motel creature feature, and would have had a ball letting the public know about it from day one.

Instead, this feels like the marketing team worried because no one was all that excited by the first trailer, so they are cobbling together as many scary-looking moments as they can, and grabbing enough random story elements out of the actual storyline so that they can later credibly claim that the movie they are selling is the movie they are delivering.

I hope I'm wrong. I think M. Night still has a great movie or two in him, and it would be nice if he started reversing his recent downward trend here. But there's a smell around this movie, that is a bit too pungent to ignore.

Marketing also came into play during my recent low-pay, no-credit rewrite.

The original writer had started the tale off with a sequence lifted from the third act of the movie, which is a common technique in scripts that take a while to build; you want to reassure the reader that this is going somewhere interesting, so you tease with the climax stuff, before settling into your actual story.

It's a form of marketing, that makes a certain amount of sense for the right kind of script; it's the same reason that horror scripts (including my original one, that I'm noodling around with) often start with someone getting violently knocked off, just to set the tone. "Scream", for example.

The irony is that, in terms of horror/thriller type scripts, the showing-the-scene-from-Act-3 is really something that is only necessary for the script, and not the actual movie.

Because thanks to the deluge of marketing, by the time anyone would sit down to watch a movie based on this script, they already know the kind of movie it is, so there is no reason to tease with third act stuff (and, if you don't know what kind of movie it is, you've bought your ticket, so the slow build-up won't lose you).

Which is one of the weird things about the movie biz. You are writing something that won't exist in a bubble; if it's a movie, people will already be bringing expectations to it. But it's hard to really reflect this with a script that someone is cold-reading, because unless you've been able to prime them beforehand, they can always toss it away and move to the next one.

As writers, we're always told that you need to grab the reader early, and it's generally a good idea just from a basic storytelling standpoint; hell, you should grab the reader throughout. But again, if it's a film, the people have paid to see it; there's no real need to hook them from minute one once they are sitting down. Because the marketing has already done that for you.

Obviously, the closest thing to marketing for screenwriters is in the process of getting someone to read your script. Building interest in a query or cover letter, or pitching it to an exec to make them want to read it. You are essentially putting together little commercials for your script, coming up with little expectation-building shorthand. "It's 'The Wedding Crashers' meets 'Beaches', but with more nudity".

And yet, actually doing something like putting a mock-up of a potential poster on the cover of your script is considered amateurish.

My second prediction? The day is coming when things like poster mock-ups will be common. As the movie biz moves more and more toward films only getting made that can reach a wide audience, there will be a distinct advantage in writers having marketing skills (maybe even studying marketing -- ack, I know), and being able to let the movie execs see the commercial potential of your idea beyond what's on the page.

I know, the purist in you is cringing. But seriously, want to sell a script? Write a great story, that a lot of people are going to want to see. And then figure out how to let the execs vividly imagine this happening.

Better yet, get the execs to imagine that your great script will still make money even after they hire McG to direct it and he screws up the movie.

Basic stuff, but if you write a script that you are hoping that someone else will buy and spend a lot of money making, you'd better at least ask yourself how this movie would be sold, and what its potential is in that arena.

Because, when push comes to shove, writing a good story only gets you so far. The money people are going to want to make money on it too.

And if you are making a "Lady In The Water" type genre film, and you find yourself pitching it as the kind of tale that you haven't actually written, well maybe it's time to write the version of the story that everyone is going to want to see.

And then write the hell out of it, and bring enough originality to it so you haven't just written another dumb movie in which Tara Reid plays a scientist.

Might as well embrace that now, and figure out how to kick ass within those parameters.


At 1:26 PM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

American International Pictures (AIP) made their money by making the marketing campaigns - title, concept, poster - first, then making the movie. They would go around to theater chain owners and show them the poster and get a pre-book right then and there.

Then one time, theater owners told them they didn't need the movies they were making, just put sprocket holes in the posters and run those.

The point is that you have to understand at the outset what story it is you're telling and selling - emphasis on the latter. You can have the most wonderful dialogue, the most gripping description, but if it isn't a sellable concept - it goes into the trash.

That's why you have "high concept" scripts and "execution dependent" scripts. Of the two - the executive will bet on the high concept one every time, because if the dialogue is lame it can be fixed. If the description isn't compelling it can be fixed.

But if you have a script that - no matter how you look at it, no matter how good the writing itself - is really not a great concept or story, it means a total rewrite from word one.

That means, "Pass!"

At 8:11 PM, Blogger Chesher Cat said...

As Bill said, the presell marketing campaign is alive and well - not for screenwriters at this point but production/distribution companies have been doing it for years at AFM, Cannes, MIP etc. As a matter of fact, creating those images is my occasional day job, so if you want to see some samples:

I look forward to the day it's acceptable for a screenwriter to add a marketing campaign to their script - I'll be so ahead of the curve for a change. And maybe have a whole new "screenwriter market" open up to me.

At 10:19 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

I agree with your Lady notes, afte the 1st trailer I saw I was like "Yawn" and then in the 2nd one there was some kind of werewolf creature thing running around and I was thinking "Where the hell does that show up?" It could be decne, well see.

At 2:13 AM, Anonymous George said...

scotty-boy, best film post yet. right on with LADY and the how to market comments. screenwriters are not writing literature. scripts are business plans. it's crass. it sucks. but it's the current reality in hollyweird. great insight though i really hope you're way off base on LADY. i'm aching for a great flick! Superman=zzzz. X-Men=been there, don't that (so i didn't see it). M:I3=who cares? (again, so i didn't see it.) The Break-Up=lacking balls to be poignant and/or hysterical. Only thing i've enjoyed this summer=Nachoooooooooooooooo.
and that was majorlity flawed. it seems hollywood is churning one mess after another AND MAKING $$ AT IT!! Where are the great summer films? The original Star Wars? Jaws? Raiders? Shit, I'd even settle for another Wedding Crashers right about now.

Best film of the year so far=United 93. Of course, no one saw it, so why will Hollywood want to make more of that quality? Get ready for x-men and m:i infinity! America (and the world for that matter) gets what it pays for=crap.

At 5:09 AM, Anonymous Mariano said...

I think they made the same mistake with THE VILLAGE.

Most of the people who were very disappointed by that film were disappointed because, based on the marketing campaign, they expected a horror movie, and instead they got a costume drama from the twilight zone.

To be honest, I really think we shouldn't only blame the marketing department. I think they'd never been gripped by panic if the film hadn't cost 70 million dollars to make!

Isn't that the real problem? If you want to make your cross-genre, personal film, go ahead BUT don't spend 70 million dollars on it. If LADY IN THE WATER had cost 5 mill we wouldn't be having this discussion.

At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what I want to know is there any cool underwater naked swimming nymph shots

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Update: I actually got an e-mail from someone involved in the marketing of the film, who told me my post was dead on. Sigh. I wanted it to be good too, and according to him, it isn't.

There's also a good article in this week's Entertainment Weekly, about how Disney didn't make the movie because the script wasn't that good and he wouldn't change it; Warner Bros gave him the money to make it without making any changes to the script, because he's M. Night. Have a feeling Disney might have been right on this one.

At 10:13 AM, Blogger Dave said...

The only thing I can say about M. Night's films is that they all fall into the same vein - that is, perception.

Every one of his films revolves around telling you a story from one perspective, then turning it around and viewing it from another perspective at the end - which is typically a gotcha type moment.

The problem with that is that you can't market it. I've enjoyed all the movies to some degree, but he's suffered immensely after The Sixth Sense. I don't remember how it was marketed, but from Unbreakable on, his films get so much attention and hype that the marketers are trying desperately to interest people in a film that you have to experience to enjoy.

I'll still watch Lady. I'll probably enjoy it. The concept is interesting to me. But, I agree totally with the trailers being misleading. That seems to be happening quite a bit lately.

The real question is: How do you keep mystery and suspense in a movie if the trailer is going to show you everything?

Imagine Alien made today. You certainly wouldn't be able to get away with their creative campaign. You'd have monster shots all over the place. The face-huggers in frame one, etc. No mystery. No surprise.

As for Bill's comments on all the crap being made, while I agree to some degree, I'll also add that I see many of the films (like MI, X-men, Spiderman, James Bond, the old Lethal Weapon series, etc.) more like serials. I know the characters, they don't need to grow, just put them in a new adventure.

The problem with that is that you really don't get a lot of character growth and emotional impact; however, I don't expect that from every film. As long as it's entertaining - meaning, plenty of action and pyrotechnics.

It's not for everybody for sure, but part of the enjoyment of a film is your expectations going in, is it not?

I think this is just the tip of the iceburg, Scott. How films are marketed today, in the future vs how they were in the past.

At 12:34 PM, Anonymous Laura Reyna said...

Guess i'm one of the few people that didn't like The Sixth Sense when i 1st saw it. Bored me from start to finish. I've liked his subsequent films even less.

Will probably see 'The Lady' at some point, but won't be surprised AT ALL if it's bad & tanks.

I'm surprised he's had as much success as he's had. He's a mediocre talent at best.

(Sorry for the pile-on M Night bashing, i just think he's always been highly overrated. :-/ )

At 7:06 PM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

To clarify my point as I think Dave misunderstood:

You need a great concept and great writing. Many writers have one and not the other. If you are in that situation it's better to have a script with a great concept, because the writing can be fixed.

I wasn't talking about character growth - I was talking concept.

At 8:20 PM, Blogger wcdixon said...

Went through the same 'huh?' moment when I saw the second teaser...and mulled, and began to think they either reshoot or shot a bunch of additional scenes. And that could be okay, if it pushed the movie clearly into one arena.

But as your email seems to have confirmed, something smells in the water...

At 9:12 PM, Blogger Dave said...

Sorry Bill, owe you an apology - I meant George. I agree 100% with your comments.

I'm one of "those" people that doesn't think everything at the movies is garbage and there's "nothing" good on TV anymore.

At 4:06 AM, Blogger Tim Clague said...

Completely agree with your original post. Writers do need to be marketing themselves more. We all moan that we don't get enough respect - but then what do we do that will actually make us a name - not a household name but an industry name. Here in the UK we are hoping to put together a CD-ROM (to give away free to all writer / directors) about how to market themselves better. You have to do it to stand out. Of course you still need a great script when you turn up. The good news - telling a great story about yourself (ie marketing) uses the same skills as normal storytelling.

At 8:32 AM, Blogger A. M. said...

Too bad they're marketing to cash in on opening weekend and disappoint all those who fall for the false pretenses. Spread the word about a bad film that may not be bad at all - just not what they were told it was and what they paid for.

I don't mind watching a well-made movie about a lonely janitor that might take me places that are interesting to me. Then again, you couldn't *pay me* enough in order for me to waste 2.5 hours of my life looking at squid-faced pirates.

Having said that - watch Hard Candy. That's actually worth the price of admission.

Re: Marketing. Marketing's always been fun for me and I'd look forward to the day when writers were allowed or even expected to submit trailer-scripts, suggest artwork etc. It could make for better marketing campaigns that bring in the right audience to see a film they do enjoy. And spread the word afterwards.

(perhaps doing away with press screenings wouldn't be such a bad idea, either. Audience wouldn't come in knowing all of act I before the film starts, you see....)

At 6:02 PM, Anonymous chris Soth said...

Lady -- maybe i missed first teaser, but yes, I heard that this was based on a story that M. Night told his kids. Now I've seen trailers, that doesn't make sense w/how scarifying it looks.

M. Night -- MUCH better shooter than he is a writer. 6th Sense, great end twist saved DULL second act for most, not couldn't go back and rewrite history and make me think "No I wasn't bored these past two hours now that THAT happened." Unbreakable -- a first act of any other superhero movie, at best, and given a weighty, over-dramatic treatment that elevated it slightly. Signs...don't even ASK me why that was successful...The Village PROVES he's run out of gas, I think...I have hopes like you, but fears that I think will be confirmed.

Writers/Marketing: Yeah, we gotta know that. Justify/rationalize it thus: it's all about knowing what the appeal of your story is, what makes a crowd love it...and knowing that can only serve your writing.

At 9:19 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

I must admit, I rather enjoyed the squid-faced pirates.

At 7:27 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I remember when Eyes Wide Shut came out. Warner had no idea how to market it, so they played up the Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman angle to get the teenage girls into the movie.

Result, 15 million opening, 25 dollar second week.

When marketers don't have faith in a movie, they sometimes just try to latch onto one interesting element and hype that up even if the element betrays what the movie is actually about.

I'm going to see the movie regardless.

At 5:41 PM, Anonymous Amy F. said...

Tuning in late to say I've never been so excited to be a struggling screenwriter working at a marketing job. Could I be ahead of the curve?

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