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Mystery marketing is no substitute for good filmmaking


Last week the hype for Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, moved into top gear with the launch of a clever and mysterious publicity campaign. On Thursday the 19th of May the official website became active, only to reveal nothing but a black screen and the sound of chanting. By the following morning, the most dedicated and geeky intelligent of fans, had filtered the noises through various ingenious programmes that visualise sound waves, revealing the Twitter hashtag #TheFireRises. To cut a long story short, the more people that Tweeted the hashtag, the more of an image from the film was revealed. Eventually a genius with time on their hands managed to expose the whole picture, giving the world its first glimpse of Tom Hardy’s beastly Bane.

As exciting as all this was for fans eager to learn about the sequel to The Dark Knight’s phenomenal success, such high concept viral marketing is not a new idea. Christopher Nolan in particular should know this, after previous films of his have utilised the growing trend for such campaigns. Most notably, last year’s Inception generated enormous hype with lots of vague waffle about the “architecture of the mind” doing the rounds on forums before any plot details had emerged. The official Facebook page for the film released clues to the whereabouts of Inception merchandise and tickets, sparking races across British cities for the treasure. There was also a special app for the film.

Even The Dark Knight had seemingly legitimate websites, both pro and anti Harvey Dent, calling for support in the Gotham city elections for District Attorney. But the undisputed king of mystery, minimalist marketing is Lost creator JJ Abrams. He produced 2008’s Cloverfield, which was perhaps the first project to truly embrace the public lust for speculation and a hunt for clues. It was promoted with the merest slither of information and talked up as a story that blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction, claiming to be comprised of “found” footage from real home videos. Lost too, made the most of secrets to stir debate amongst fans.

Abrams is the director of this summer’s much anticipated Super 8, which is co-produced by the tantalising team of him and Steven Spielberg, and the trailers have adopted the same old tricks which we’ve come to expect. During the flurry of Super Bowl trailers earlier this year, Super 8 remained the only real enigma amongst a pack of blockbusters, which undoubtedly made it stand out. But there are also drawbacks and limitations to such cryptic and vague promotion.

A few weeks ago a select group of journalists and critics got to see the opening 20 minutes of Super 8. And whilst many of them had positive things to say, those that have already written about their snippet of Abrams’ creation pack their articles with questions and a tone of scepticism as they look to extract the substance from the chorus of theories. Several commentators have said that the uneven blend of a heart warming buddy movie, a scary alien attack and effects heavy blockbuster, doesn’t satisfy the hype.

Without all the frustrating teasing, perhaps the writers would have been more inclined to focus on the film’s positives. How can the product ever live up to unrealistically heightened expectations? The trailers have already been ripped apart, frame by frame, for the slightest of clues. Cinemagoers with regular internet access may have heard of Super 8, but by the time of its release its barebones promotion may have left them either uninterested or so frustrated that they seek out an idiot who has leaked detailed spoilers.  

Such saturation of the web certainly gets people talking and immersed by the ideas of a film. But it’s not a standalone guarantee of a box office hit. For one thing, despite its all conquering swell, the internet still does not reach everyone. Even some of those that use it may not wander into areas dedicated to film or have the time and desire to unravel marketing mysteries. Other media such as television and newspapers remain a vital tool for more instant advertising reach, rather than a slow burn.

There have also been failures that are too reliant on viral campaigns, even when those campaigns are successful. Disaster epic 2012 caused such a stir about the end of the world that NASA had to set up a special page to reassure people. But after it bombed with critics and the public, the big budget project was still a flop. Countless low budget releases think that cheap online methods will assure sufficient publicity but without a breakthrough in more traditional media, most of these languish and pass unnoticed in the cyber shadows, even when they have their merits.

The fact remains that viral marketing often only helps increase the hype for an already much anticipated film. The Dark Knight Rises will be a box office success regardless but the occasional prod from the filmmakers will cause sizzling talk to increase the takings still further. JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg are names that will attract attention because they are accomplished storytellers, not marketing magicians.

In the case of Abrams I would hope that the motivations behind his teasing details and whiffs of mystery are noble; he wants his audience as absorbed as possible by his fictional world and genuinely surprised by its twists and turns. Abrams, Spielberg, Nolan and others know that what matters in the end, after the hype, is the film itself. Get this wrong and the publicity will be a curse rather than a blessing.

The Shadow Line – Episode 1


I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by the term “event television” at first. Apparently we don’t have much of it over here. Whereas they have loads of it over there. Here of course is, well here, and there is America, the US, the United States, the land of the free. I suppose now they can call themselves the conquerors of terror. Nevertheless, whatever our inferiorities on the hunting down madmen front, I thought it was a harsh and unfair assessment of our television schedules.

Course no one reads schedules anymore though, no one sits down to watch anything at the allotted hour. We’re all addicted to endless self gratification. We get up to have an iPoo, flush it down the iBog and wash our hands with interactive iSoap, ambling into the kitchen through the iDoors that open with that Star Trek noise, to sit down to our perfectly timed iToast. Then we float to work on our iMagicCarpets, reading an article about the latest iPod on our iPads. When we’ve got a spare moment we’ll catch up with our favourite shows, saved straight to our favourites automatically on iPlayer. Or we check out some new comedy, whenever we want, on 4Od. Thankfully ITV is pretty much forgotten online. Someone told me there was an itvplayer, but I didn’t believe them. What would be the point?

Anyway back to my point. Even if we did read schedules we’d just shout “SHIT!” and toss them down somewhere. But it’s ridiculous to say British TV lacks events. The Royal Wedding was an event that the whole world, especially the Yanks, wanted to see. And they couldn’t replicate it even with their superior budgets and 22 feature length episode series. Quite often BBC Sport will show some horses jumping about the place and that’s actually called Event-ing! How can things get more eventful? Even ITV has the odd football match. Football matches are events, I’ve been to some. And just because baseball has more interesting bats than cricket, and the Super Bowl is so good people watch it for the adverts, does not mean British sport is any less diverse and eventful than American ones.

I eventually discovered that “event television” refers to the scale and quality of drama, as opposed to sport or documentaries. American imports like The Wire, The Sopranos and Lost have become cultural staples in recent years on this side of the pond. Meanwhile good British drama is of the costumed variety. Only wrapped in frilly frocks will British drama make it from here to the bigger apples on the other bank. Other countries don’t care about our storytelling unless it’s Downton Abbey (there’s a persistent rumour that ITV made that!). Everyone wants the classy execution and paranoia driven plots of American drama though.

Being the dinosaur that I am, I haven’t watched any of the American series I mentioned above. I couldn’t possible tolerate the colonies beating us in terms of quality. I’m quite content to chuckle along dreamily to a familiar episode of Friends but that’s because such a programme has no far flung aspirations. It’s simply crude and silly humour.

In all seriousness though, I may not be familiar with The Wire and other renowned US drama but I have seen the higher production standards of American creations and the flaws of British drama are plain. Part of the reason Doctor Who is being so lovingly welcomed back is that it’s one of just a handful of shows capable of “event television”. Off the top of my head I can only think of Spooks as another show, not dependent on a typically BBC period setting, capable of generating awe inspiring thrills and twists for the duration of a series.

The controller of BBC One recently refused to authorise a second series of Zen, about an Italian detective played by Rufus Sewell, on the grounds that the channel had too many detectives. I believe this decision to be a mistake. Zen was not “event television”, its pace was too pedestrian, but for British audiences in particular it filled in some of the weaknesses of TV drama. It was filmed on location in Italy and set in the present day. It had sophistication, a strong cast and good scripts. It might well be true that crime as a genre in this country lacks impact because there are too many identikit competitors, but Zen genuinely stood out. It was certainly superior to Luther, which will continue.

The latest addition to Britain’s list of crime based programmes is The Shadow Line, which for what it’s worth, is on every Thursday at 9pm on BBC Two. It arrives with the bold claim that it’s bringing that elusive “event television” quality, to these shores. And this is no import. It’s written, directed and produced by the man behind Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff, Hugo Blick. It’s unquestionably his brainchild and therefore primarily his problem if the bold claims disintegrate into disappointment. It’s frequently compared to The Wire in all the hype, which was of course fairly meaningless to me.

At first glance The Shadow Line is at least interesting for taking an alternative angle and a refreshing approach. It’s about a murder investigation from both sides of the law. It requires you to stick with it for its seven episode run for secrets to be revealed. Its opening scene, however, has the potential to alienate the undecided viewer. Far from going out of its way to hook you, it drops you into a rather sparse and moody scene. Two policemen discover a body in a car, with the more experienced man quickly assessing the grim situation. He has a cold and detached manner that’s slightly unsettling and mutters under his breath as he recognises the victim with multiple gunshot wounds. The rookie with him is clearly naive. The old timer declares that they’ll be leaving this one for someone else to deal with.

It may be a slow burning and confusing set up but it was enough to draw me in. The realism to the dialogue and the detail of the camerawork is some of the best in the episode. Sadly The Shadow Line doesn’t always walk the line of successful “event television”, straying into the shadows of OTT stylisation a number of times. Not all of the acting is good and the script sags at points and tarnishes its excellent features with the occasional god-awful line of dialogue. The most memorable example is when a “tough female detective” decides to dress down an ordinary cop following procedure a little too closely with a speech about the first syllable of “country” and “constable”.

These lapses let down what is otherwise a promising episode. The characters range from the rounded to the farfetched. Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph is a front man for heroin dealers, running a flower and fruit company built from scratch with his own cash. He has a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s and is more sympathetic than any other character. He’s trying to unpick things from the criminal side, and is clearly more powerful than he’s letting on. On the side of the (clearly corrupt) law, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is a detective with a bullet lodged in his brain. He can’t remember anything about the assignment that got it there, or the suitcase of money in his wardrobe, which is a well handled climax to the episode. Both of these leads do a good job and get some good lines, with Eccleston coming out of it particularly well.

The Shadow Line has so many influences and so many paranoia driven secrets that it could be too much. Its emphasis is also so firmly on looking and sounding classy that at times it simply looks ridiculous, and will come across as arrogant and up itself. But I’ll keep watching because it’s a bold idea with good looks, that now and then, does feel like top notch telly. And “event” telly at that.