‘The Dark Tower’ May Hold the Key to Better Movie Marketing
Marketing for big-budget blockbusters has become so predictable that you can now mark the passage of time between any given month and a film’s release date by the number of TV spots and featurettes you’ve seen. Despite a handful of early viral promotions, Sony’s approach to marketing The Dark Tower has been different. That they didn’t release a trailer (or even a proper teaser) for such a highly-anticipated blockbuster until yesterday, just three months out from release, seemed strange — to say the least. And yet that delay feels more like a teachable moment than a cautionary tale.
There’s a favorite saying among certain addiction recovery groups: “Expectations are resentments in the making.” It sounds like fortune cookie wisdom, but common sense doesn’t necessarily imply common practice. By the time a major film hits theaters, an average member of its target audience has already seen at least three trailers and a couple of teasers, fast-forwarded through numerous TV spots on their DVR, read zealous breakdowns of footage and casting, and clicked through dozens of articles touting wacky rumors — all of which contributes to an environment where movies are now judged before they even hit theaters. They either exceed or fall short of our expectations, but they rarely meet them.
There’s been growing concern about The Dark Tower over the past several months, particularly among Stephen King fans. Given the typical movie marketing cycle, the ongoing absence of a trailer became increasingly suspicious, a feeling that only worsened when Sony pushed the release date back to August and a trailer (of horribly poor quality) leaked online last fall. That leak seemed to indicate the imminent release of an official trailer that never arrived until today. Was Sony hiding something? Maybe they just didn’t know what to do with this strange movie based on a fantasy epic, or how to talk to an audience unfamiliar with Stephen King’s sprawling seven-book series. Was The Dark Tower even hitting theaters in August? It was all beginning to feel like an elaborate hoax.
But there’s nothing particularly worrisome about the first trailer for The Dark Tower. Idris Elba looks suitably badass as Roland Deschain, the stoic but heroic gunslinger. Matthew McConaughey seems perfectly cast as Roland’s immortal nemesis, the Man in Black. Under the direction of Nikolaj Arcel, the film looks good; it even features a couple of big Easter eggs for Stephen King fans. As for how the trailer plays to people unfamiliar with King’s novels, I can’t say, and anything else I might feel about it is speculative based on what I do know — namely that Arcel’s film isn’t a direct adaptation, but a potentially clever continuation that’s in keeping with the metatextual elements of its source material.
Perhaps the most worrisome thing about The Dark Tower trailer isn’t anything in the actual trailer, but what it says about the culture around it. Over the last several months we’ve experienced a rollercoaster of opinions, from excitement to deflated pessimism. That’s not on Sony. They avoided the conventional studio marketing cycle, a machine that transforms general interest into near-monstrous anticipation.
Most studios debut the first trailer for a big blockbuster seven months to a full year before the film’s release date. This is typically followed by a few official images, then a short period of silence before the marketing department begins firing on all cylinders. Every subsequent trailer premiere is preceded by a “save the date” announcement; the hype machine has its own hype. Then come the TV spots, featurettes, primetime sneak peaks, interviews, sequel announcements, spinoff considerations, and enough photos and posters to wallpaper the interiors of an entire house.
You may still be wondering what recovery groups and their favorite sayings have to do with any of this. But an addict bears just as much responsibility for their addiction as the drug-pusher, but only the addict is responsible for the consequences of their addiction. Studios may have created this cycle, but it wouldn’t work without your continued and active participation. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t buy a ticket to see these movies or even that you shouldn’t be excited for them. Still, a little practical awareness of what’s happening here could benefit your moviegoing experience.
It’s impossible to avoid marketing entirely, or to avoid forming an opinion based on that marketing (that is its purpose, after all). But the more you allow studios to dictate your thoughts, the more disappointed you’re likely to be. What if The Dark Tower isn’t a very good movie? At least Sony didn’t spend an entire year making sure a bad movie feels like the worst, most soul-crushing movie ever made. And if it’s good? The best surprises are the ones you never expect.