Butts In Seats: Marketing in the Rebirth of Auteur Cinema

Paramount Pictures released the new Aronofsky film mother! this past weekend. Despite receiving mostly positive critical reviews, audiences largely hated the film, as it earned an 'F' Cinemascore, and Paramount itself had to come to its defense. Despite being led by box-office draw Jennifer Lawrence, it also failed to make a big impact in the weekend box office. One cinemagoer may ask another hypothetical cinemagoer, "hey man, if this was supposed to be an audacious recipe for cinematic success, with acclaimed actors and a great director, why did it flounder so hard?"

The short answer is one word: marketing. The long answer follows:

mother! was largely marketed as a home invasion thriller, as evidenced by its trailer:

So when audiences showed up to a film that is only (something of) a home invasion thriller for its first thirty minutes before progressing into an eclectic kaleidoscope of mayhem and debauchery, coupled with aggressive statements on society, politics, gender relations, and religion, audiences were not too jazzed about it.

The trailer is not the singular blame for this mismatch of audience expectations, but the film had a lot of things going for it. Jennifer Lawrence has proven to be a kind of heir to the Meryl Streep throne of critically acclaimed actress-dom. Not only does she (usually) put butts in seats, she also has a tendency to be at least pretty good in her original films (though she's recently decided to heavily phone it in for her franchise deals ala X-Men and the last dual-film outing for The Hunger Games.) Aronofsky is not necessarily a box-office draw, but if a controversial, liberally adapted Biblical film like Noah didn't damage his career, how risky could mother! possibly be? 

mother! is not the sole offender of this kind of misleading marketing in 2017. A few months ago an arthouse drama marketed as a horror thriller arrived into theaters called It Comes At Night:

Now in this case, this trailer does not provide as bad of an expectation. For one, it's distributed by A24, who have quickly made a name for themselves in the past few years by distributing independent and mid-level films that would otherwise not get released into theaters. Therefore, attentive audiences are immediately clued in to what kind of experience they're getting into, since this is not a major studio backing. The creepy imagery and obvious audio editing in the trailer does leave implications that horror is in store, as does the ominous, goosebump-inducing title, but audiences still were baffled by the fact that its horror comes not from an "it" but from its character interactions and social tension. Whereas this kind of dramatic display has found more success on prestige drama television as of late, moviegoers have unfortunately proven not as willing to accept this kind of dialogue-driven conflict, especially considering what they were fed as a sample through the film's marketing. Other than exceptions from writers like Charlie Kaufman and Aaron Sorkin, the popular cinematic world is largely apathetic towards these kinds of films. 

What this all comes down to is this: common moviegoers have a certain expectation when they buy a ticket and sit in a theater. They want to be entertained, they want to see some kind of spectacle, and most importantly, they want something that feels like it was tailor-made for them. The common moviegoer, however, doesn't read reviews, at least not to any degree of depth that they couldn't find on a Rotten Tomatoes blurb. Most people just look at the percentage scores on that site, go see the film, and don't think twice about why it was rated so high, or do any further research on the film itself. Both of the above films have high critic scores and mixed user/viewer scores because of this simple fact. 

Both of these films were created by auteurs that wanted their singular vision realized on a cinematic canvas. Both of these films feel incredibly personal, and are not without their own flaws. But they also feel like films that were necessary as artistic statements for the directors. Chris Evans said in an interview somewhere while promoting Captain America: Winter Soldier (you could probably find it on YouTube, I have since lost the link) that oftentimes actors will "do one for the fans, then do one for themselves." mother! and It Comes At Night are not films that the directors pitched to studios with an idea that screamed "audiences are gonna LOVE this!" Naturally the common moviegoer replied to these messages with disdain or apathy.

I want to argue these kinds of films are more important than standard blockbuster fare. I don't need to tell you this if you're one of the (maybe two or three) people who have regularly read my reviews and articles. It's a little hidden fact that I am oftentimes skeptical when it comes to big, mainstream studio films. Luckily, it's seeming like I'm not the only individual feeling this way. The fact of the matter is that more and more studios are willing to take risks with these directors to release the kinds of films that were made in the '50s through the '70s. The return of the auteurist visionaries are quickly encroaching, as the public slowly but surely grows more and more tired of mainstream blockbusters that non-Disney studios release. The public will need to get accustomed to more films like mother! and It Comes At Night. 

By the same token, however, a marketing department's job is not necessarily to relay an auteur's vision, but to get butts in seats. They will have a tough job coming forward with this new trend of peeling back studio control. Just as viewer's expectations will have to change going forward, lest the viewer lose interest in film altogether, so too will marketing departments have to adapt to the changing messages and movie-going landscape. With streaming services on the rise and television taking a great, big handle on the creative side of visual storytelling, cinema cannot afford to NOT take risks. Box office sales are down, and theaters themselves are just now beginning to try and adapt to accommodate more reasons to go to a theater with bars, reclining seats and more premium experiences. 

It'll probably be a bumpy road getting there, but next time you see a trailer, my advice would be not to take it at face value. Too often trailers are unable to replicate the tone of a film, which is understandable given that you must condense one hundred minutes into two for a trailer, but marketing departments across the world of cinema will have no choice but to try, lest consumers lose more and more faith in the theater experience. The simple, uncompromising truth is that moviegoers and studios alike must jointly realize that cinema has to have its mother!s and It Comes At Nights. If not for the tradition-strict moviegoer, than for the future of the medium itself: the industry must adapt or die.