Movie Marketing Madness – Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

hitchhikermmm01storyThe Flying Party. The Infinite Impossibility Drive. Towels. Vogon Constructor ships hanging in the air in exactly the way bricks don’t. Bistromathics. Stavromueller Beta. The trick to flying. Don’t Panic. Deep Thought. 42.
The above is just really an extraordinarily brief list of the highpoints from Douglas Adams’ five-part “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy<” trilogy (yes, you read that right. If you’re a fan you know what I’m talking about). The series is so full of quotable lines, memorable scenarios and fascinating moments it would take a column twice this long just to list the parts I like. That list would then get debated and discussed until Bob knows when. That’s why this column will not be doing that. In fact I will most emphatically avoid doing that so if you think that’s the kind of column you’re getting, well this column is not going to go there.

Where was I? Oh, right.

It’s been a twenty year journey for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” to get to the big screen. Adams himself says in the introduction to a collection of the first four books that he had been working on it in 1985. Just a few years ago it looked like it was going to happen with Jay Roach of Austin Powers infamy in the director’s chair. Prior to that the adaptation had gone through a number of hands, most of which were attached to filmmakers. Those filmmakers ultimately decided to do other things and the movie never, as you may have noticed, got made. Until now.

Disney (perhaps the last company I would have chosen for the adaptation of book filled with very dry and very British humor) finally got the movie made. Their first obstacle was the material itself. How does a movie studio, which not only embraces but actually runs to with open arms and heaving breast the lowest common denominator, film a book filled with very dry, very British humor? After all, their primary audience is a bunch of ape-descended primitives who still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. And American ape-descended primitives at that. The answer to that question remains to be seen in its entirety.

The second obstacle is marketing said adaptation in such a way as to accomplish two simultaneous yet possibly mutually exclusive goals. Goal #1: Ensure fans of the book, who rival “Lord of the Rings” fanatics for the devotion to the source material, will be satisfied and therefore spend heaps of money at the theater and DVD store. Goal #2: Make sure the material is dumbed-down enough to appeal to those who aren’t familiar with the books because quite frankly those British tend to be too intelligent with their humor. These people are probably going to be happier with “XxX: State of the Union” and really should be written off. It’d be better for everyone.

So, without further ado, on with the regular column.

The Posters

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the poster, which features silhouettes of Arthur Dent and Marvin the Paranoid Android standing at the end of the runway last used for Fashion Week in New York City and staring up at the gargantuan letters making up the title of the film. It’s just not very fun. The whole point of this is to market a comedy and the designers have created what may be one of the most boring posters I’ve seen.

The teaser poster wasn’t much better in that it was just a look at the Earth with a star-illuminated thumb above it. Interestingly my theory is that a thumb was involved in the design of these posters only instead of being part of the design it was stuck up someone’s… hey, look at the time!

The Trailers

There are three trailers that have been released. The first teaser trailer was astoundingly dull and showed the Earth while playing Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World”. (As a side note, “World” played over the end of the 1981 BBC Hitchhiker’s mini-series, though I have to wonder if this was an intentional homage or simply somebody mistakenly thinking they had an original idea.) The world was then blown up and the familiar phrase “Don’t Panic” was shown. After watching this I completely failed to take that simple piece of advice and began, for lack of anything better to do, to panic.

The first theatrical trailer took that panic and rolled it around between its palms like a piece of Play-Doh until it became fully formed dreading. Not present were any jokes, any wit, any humor. In their place were lots of laser blast, explosions, fast moving vehicles and special effects. Umm. Err. I’m sure that these would translate nicely to an amusement park ride (say, one at the theme-parks owned by a certain soulless corporation still clinging to the last tattered bits of the towel that is their wholesome image) but it certainly doesn’t look like the Guide I know and love.

The third trailer (sometimes identified as the internet trailer) works the best out of the three. The upshot is that the narrator is explaining to the audience what the Guide has to say about the creation of movie trailers. That in and of itself is pretty funny but the on-screen action is about the same as that in the previous trailer so it’s not that much of an improvement.

The Website

OK, so I was a little bummed by the trailers and the poster but when I read the official site had gone live (back in March) I felt the old wave of excitement rush back over me. The problem, I thought, was that the Guide itself was an interactive thing and the trailers and poster just couldn’t use that aspect to its fullest extent. Surely if there’s one medium, I continued to think, that would really enhance the experience it’s a website. I’m confident Disney was able to see, I hoped, the inherent potential of creating a fun site for this movie. I then thought it was time to go to lunch and forgot all about it. This last move proved to be the best one.

The site opens with the Vogon warning the Earth that it is about to be destroyed, the text “Don’t Panic” in a style that is anything but calming and the third trailer. Don’t worry, it doesn’t get any better.

I’m not going to do my usual point-by-point description of what’s on the site this time. Imagine all the potential for a website devoted to the ultimate guidebook to the universe, a book which outsells the Encyclopedia Galactica despite it being filled with much that is apocryphal. Imagine how funny the site could have been?

It’s not a good sign for the movie, especially on the heels of the lack of funny included in the trailers, that the website is a colossal waste of server space. There’s the usual list of features, including trailers, screensavers, character bios and the like but where are the best bits of the book? Where’s the entry on Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple breasted whore of Eroticon 6? Where’s the entry on the particularly intriguing phenomenon that has led to a drink called “gin and tonic” being developed on every inhabitable planet in the galaxy, despite some of these planets having never made contact with another civilization?

Even moving beyond cribbing the best parts of the book -where is the humor? This is supposed to be a comedy and the Disney team has successfully created a website that is almost, but not quite, completely unlike anything funny.

To be fair, there are a few spots where the site does try to be funny. Marvin the Android appears in the lower left-hand corner of the site and makes depressing comments on things. If you hit the button labeled “Improbability” you can make dolphins jump across the screen or a whale fall from the sky. The problem is Marvin only has about six phrases he repeats over and over and I’ve just named two of the four “Improbability” effects so there’s not much value to repeatedly accessing these features.

The best part of the site is the “Guide to the Guide” which does attempt to mimic the Guide itself with about a dozen entries. Most of these are character profiles or key points from the movie. It’s just good enough to wet my appetite for what I will label as “The Site That Could Have Been.”

Overall

I just don’t have a good feeling about this, which is a shame because everything else being equal I would have made this one of my must-sees this summer. Between the unfunny posters, unfunny trailers and unfunny website Disney isn’t doing a very good job of marketing this as a movie. The campaign had such potential that has been pissed away.

Early reviews have either blasted the movie for lacking the reviewers’ favorite bits from the book or have given faint praise (smile-inducing rather than laughter-provoking was one quote I read). I’m not someone who demands movies be word-for-word translations from the source material but what I do ask for is that the tone and attitude be faithful to the book. Movies are a visual medium, I get that. What I refuse to do is sit down and accept that story must be sacrificed at the altar of those visuals. We learned from Peter Jackson that you can successfully film a book widely considered unfilmable because of its reliance on visuals and not jettison the tone.

My guess is that the movie will open huge as fans will give it the benefit of the doubt. Bad word of mouth will then cause the movie to suffer Total Existence Failure and disappearcompletely.

This Site is the #1 Movie Blog In America!!*

Ryan Anderson

Over at his site Ryan Anderson goes on a little mini-rant:

I’m getting sick of hearing “#1 Movie in America” in tv spots. Over the past 4 weeks, 4 different movies have been #1. And over the next 4 weeks, 4 different movies will be #1 (likely anyway). Will there be a movie between now and the end of the summer that stays on top for more than a week? I think so. Will there be more than one? Will the new STAR WARS have enough staying power to hold off Adam Sandler’s remake of THE LONGEST YARD?

But Ryan, don’t you know that’s an essential part of the marketing mix? Hyperbole, no matter how transparent, is necessary. I’m not saying it does any good since movies seem to live and die on word of mouth after their opening weekend, but it is necessary for the marketing team to produce these spots. That way they can add a promotion for the “#1″ movie in America to their own portfolio and can pull that out when they’re looking for another job.

Seriously, my belief is that everyone knows that the “#1″ ads don’t really do anything. We’ve seen time and time again that the most vacuous critically lambasted piece of shit can be the number one movie in the country on its opening weekend. The real purpose of these is for the studios to pat themselves on the back.

I also think that these promos are produced before opening weekend and then are aired simply to justify the cost of creating them. There’s no other reason for it. True, there are some lemmings in the audience who will say, “___ was the number one movie this weekend? It must be great and I will go see it immediately.” Those people are also swayed by ads for the leading toothpaste, cereal and laundry detergent despite research showing brand loyalty is created at a young age and continues into adulthood.

My advice is to let the “#1″ ads fade into the white noise that permeates most programming.

–Chris

*If America is defined to only include my office cubicle.

Saint Ralph Trailer

Saint Ralph Trailers & Clips – Yahoo! Movies

I can envision the pitch for this one: Angela’s Ashes meets Chariots of Fire. Must have made for a great meeting.

Campbell Scott plays a priest who, against what seems to be the conventional wisdom of his superiors and the town around him, coaches a young boy to run in the 1954 Boston Marathon. Around this is a coming of age tale where the boy finds first love and deals with a mother who lies comatose in a hospital bed.

All of this is presented in the trailer, meaning the studio is actually trying to sell the movie for what it is. That’s actually rarer than it would seem to be and Samuel Goldwyn Films and its partners deserve credit for it.

–Chris

Must Love Dogs Trailer

Perfectmatch.com – Bewitched, Must Love Dogs, The Wedding Crashers in Theaters this Summer

An interesting little trailer from Warner Bros. for their new romantic comedy starring Diane Lane and John Cusack. There’s not much substance to it, but what did you expect? It’s a romantic comedy. Cusack is still trying valiantly to rise above the material he’s given and, if the lines in the trailer are any indication, does so rather well. Still, it’s time for him to really get back in the game. He’s too good an actor to not be challenging himself creatively.

ThePerfectMatch.com, where this trailer is making its debut, is featured in said trailer and in the movie itself. Product placement is big money folks, make no mistake about it. I’d expect to see more of these situations as time goes on.

–Chris