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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.

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The curse of an unbeaten run: Do United need to lose?


In Westminster a Conservative and Liberal coalition sits in power. But the mood, as shown by recent policies and events, is unquestionably one of cold conservatism. And so it is too in Manchester, a city that at the start of the Premier League season may have had lofty but not unattainable ambitions of displacing London as the country’s capital of football. The nil-nil clash between the city’s red and blue halves this week has been widely condemned as the dreariest fixture of this campaign. The disappointing lack of incident, entertainment and thrills can be traced back to the currently cautious philosophies of both managers.

Now Roberto Mancini’s preference for restrained, grey tactics is well known. He is, after all, following a long, accepted tradition of the defensive minded Italian coach. Many have criticised him for pursuing such a continental style of football in the action-packed, fast-paced Premiership and it would seem results are now proving these critics correct. It beggars belief that a squad bursting with creativity and forwards can be so dependent on Carlos Tevez for a cutting edge. The starting line-up Mancini decided upon for the mid-week derby looked as if it were struggling to accommodate all his holding midfield players, as opposed to the usual dilemma of squeezing every last ounce of creativity from the team sheet. My jaw actually dropped when I discovered that Yaya Toure, the man once courted by the red side of town as the solution to their weak defensive spine, was selected to play “in the hole” behind Tevez. Certainly Toure was capable of surging runs on the ball but he was and is primarily a defensive rock to be positioned in front of the defence, giving other more gifted attacking players the freedom to roam. Even if Mancini refuses to play a second striker, and a degree of caution was more understandable against such able rivals, he ought to at least deploy his midfield cast in the right roles to support the increasingly isolated Tevez.

Anyway Mancini’s shortcomings are predictable. He has openly said that he would be happy with fourth place for his Manchester City side and is seemingly happy to progress in small steps towards the oil rich owners’ dream of global domination. Certainly his side has enough quality to achieve this goal, ahead of an overstretched Tottenham and dazed Liverpool, even though I happen to agree with Tony Cascarino in The Times that the title is up for grabs this season should any team have the willpower and resources to seize it. City clearly have the resources and an opportunity afforded them by a league in which teams continuously take points off each other, including the big teams. If Mancini took a risk and let some of his fiercer dogs off the lead the oil barons’ dream could be accelerated. The more interesting aspect of the mid-week duel however was Sir Alex Ferguson’s conservative style.

What conservative style? I hear you cry. His team just stormed back from two nil down against Aston Villa to snatch a point and remain unbeaten, and the defence has hardly been watertight, so if anything they need to sharpen up the concentration and caution. The real problem is that United just aren’t good enough anymore. All of this may be true. There’s certainly no doubt that the Reds have eased off the gas too early, conceding damaging late equalisers in games they should have easily won, despite below par performances. There’s also no doubt that another type of conservatism, that of caution in the transfer market, has led to a United squad that no longer matched Chelsea’s and in some cases City’s. The last time I saw the Red Devils play they were decked out in white kit at Villa Park, as they were yesterday. Rooney was also absent for most of the game, coming on late as a right-winger. Ronaldo tore Villa to shreds down the left, the defence was impenetrable, Scholes scored a wonder goal. Yesterday the squad could not cope so well, despite an almost identical backline. But a team of United’s stature having more draws than wins at this stage of the season must suggest something more.

As do Sir Alex’s comments after the Villa game yesterday. He had just watched two vital substitutions prove crucial to his team’s revival, with the first goal an excellent, thumping top corner finish from Federico Macheda, and the equaliser a diving header from the always commanding Nemanja Vidic. Before that though Villa had nearly deservedly runaway with it and the defending had been dire. Fergie insisted that another five minutes, and such was the swing of momentum, United would have won it. All I could think though was, like most fans: why had they not played with such incisiveness and urgency for the whole 90 minutes or at least from the off? Why the need for the near fatal catalyst?

Without Rooney, Manchester United look timid, shy and inexperienced going forward. They are also crucially devoid of leaders in the final third of the pitch. Vidic is superb, but good teams need someone to lead by example from the front, and Berbatov’s languid style can only do so sporadically. During Rooney’s injury spell, despite his poor form and bad attitude preceding it, an air of hope rather than expectation has ruled before United’s games. Fans seem to be praying a promising youngster like Hernandez can step up to grab a winner, whilst consciously lowering their expectations, knowing they aren’t ready to do so consistently.

By remaining unbeaten for the longest spell at the start of a season during Fergie’s considerable tenure, United remain within touching distance of Chelsea, just. But only just. And coasting so inconsistently will not wrest the title back from London. Given the promise shown lately by the likes of Hernandez, Obertan and Macheda, perhaps it’s time Sir Alex let his own young pups off the lead to go truly wild in pursuit of glory. It might lead to recklessness and the end of the immaculate record and it may already be too late, but they have little to lose. All of the big hitters seem to be plodding this season, with even Chelsea’s march slowing, so it’s about time someone erupted into a sprint for silverware. A return to the attack minded, high tempo, youthful United of days gone by may provide the key to unlocking a championship increasingly shackled by the scarves of caution donned by European coaches. And if not, at the very least it will be gripping entertainment.

Ah, but Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are all about the free-flowing, thrilling stuff aren’t they? And where has it got them for the last few seasons? There are two key differences between United and the Gunners though. One is the strength of the defence: Ferdinand, Vidic and co have it in them to be immovable, they just need to get their act together, whereas Arsenal’s last resort is more questionable, particularly the goalkeeper. The other difference is the styles in which the teams attack: Arsenal attack in an arty, pretty, more continental style whereas United are direct, to the point, going for goal in wave after wave of red surges. It’s these imposing surges United must find the confidence to unleash away from home, as well as at the fortress of Old Trafford, if they are to reverse their stagnant fortunes on their travels, which have hampered their season so far. It will certainly do them little good carrying on as they are. At the moment United look easy to intimidate away; a fact they must reverse by becoming the aggressor, not through Mancini’s technical intricacies.

Africa United


Africa United has been dubbed this year’s Slumdog Millionaire and the hype around this feel-good movie set amongst third world scenery was certainly sufficient to cause me some logistical problems at my first ever press screening. A last minute venue change meant that for a while my attendance was touch and go, but given the plot of the movie this was perhaps appropriate.

Essentially a road movie, Africa United follows three Rwandan children, talented footballer Fabrice from a privileged world of exams and plasma screens, his “manager” Dudu and his sister Beatrice, who dreams of becoming a doctor and finding the cure to HIV. So far so generic. The three plucky adventurers gradually acquire friends, forming the “team for the dream” that aims to accompany Fabrice all the way to Soccer City in Johannesburg in time for the World Cup’s opening ceremony, where he was promised a place by a scout back in his village. Inevitably the journey does not run smoothly and the young friends must overcome many hurdles, some specific to the troubled continent of the title and others typical to the human condition. Despite this predictable format Africa United is far from being an ordinary film. Like Slumdog Millionaire it is distributed by Pathe and deserves recognition and success, but for different and in my view more persuasive reasons.

Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, which was based upon a successful novel, Africa United was built upon far slimmer foundations; a chance remark in January 2009. Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, which was helmed by the respected Danny Boyle and marked the culmination of that respect with global recognition, Africa United was the directorial debut of Debs Gardner- Patterson, who explained the origins of the story and the difficulties of casting with a few words before my screening of the movie began. I watched a nervous unknown make an uncertain speech but knew 90 minutes or so later that I had been in the presence of at the least an accomplished filmmaker, and at best this country’s next big thing. She has crafted, created and steered a project from the inspiration of just a few words into a must-see movie experience, talked of in the same breath as an Oscar winner. It lacks the epic scope and romantic intrigue of Slumdog and is at its heart a simple tale of friendship, but feels better formed and is much, much funnier throughout than 2008’s Indian set smash-hit.

The key to this humour and indeed the crucial factor elevating Africa United from the good to the excellent is the performance of young Eriya Ndayambaje as lead character Dudu. To use one of the many football metaphors ever present in the film, director Gardner-Patterson is an excellent manager, for acknowledging the importance of playing her star player from the start. The film opens with Dudu charmingly explaining, in almost Blue Peter style, how to construct the perfect football from condoms. It took just seconds for his infectious smile to have the audience giggling and cooing at his cuteness and in the rare moments that his sheer charm wears off, the script by Silent Witness writer Rhidian Brook provides him with killer lines. Often the gags are football based, such as when Dudu and Fabrice discuss which animals their heroes would be, with Dudu correcting Fabrice that Ronaldo is not a lively baboon but an arrogant peacock. But there are also laughs galore for the whole family, football fans or not, certainly too many for me to remember here. Although one of the more obvious, simple messages of the film is that “impossible is nothing” when people come together in teams, it is an inescapable fact that Africa United would lose much of its power without Dudu; he is the authentic magnet at the core of the story, the star striker, or perhaps kingpin playmaker pulling the strings.

That is not to say there are not other important elements to the story and the film’s authenticity. It was shot in real locations in Burundi, Rwanda and South Africa and the scenery is suitably stunning and colourful. There are actions sequences with rolling cars and firing guns as well as gags, innocence and friendship. The entertainment covers a broad range from childish humour to grand themes of dreams and emotion, often all skilfully related linked back the central idea of the power of sport. For example the scene where Dudu chooses to leave his sister at a school so she can get the education she craves is not only incredibly emotional but again links back to the idea of management, as the others praise Dudu’s skills. Africa United also perhaps understandably owes a lot to the continent of the title and paints a refreshingly honest portrait of modern African life; one in which some, like Fabrice’s family, are well off and football shirts, cars and mobile phones are the norm, as much as HIV, AIDS and child soldiers are. By showing African life realistically and making it accessible it is impossible not to root for the likeable main characters and thus Africa United becomes the perfect advert for the continent, far more effective than appeals for aid crammed with images of drought and famine. Who would not want to support this ambitious team for the dream, with ambitions not so unlike yours or mine, but smiles and charm that are a whole lot cuter?

Africa United then will find it hard to escape the same old labels of “feel-good” and “family friendly” in the coming weeks before its release, but through the hype remember that this film has far more to offer beneath the surface and do your best to support it. It has been lovingly nurtured by  British debutants in the film world, shot and edited with a distinctive, fun style, suitably scored and dotted with original, heart warming and amusing African animations that add another notch to its originality. Most of all watch out for Dudu, and Eriya Ndayambaje who plays him, as his performance alone makes Africa United unmissable.