Looking forward to watching An American Pickle this week? The one where Seth Rogen falls into a vat of pickles in 1920 and wakes up in modern day New York? Chances are you haven’t been looking forward to it for too long, since the trailer only dropped at the start of July. You might have also missed Unhinged, the Russell Crowe road-rage thriller and the first new film to reopen cinemas along with Eva Green’s astronaut drama, Proxima. All three have sneaked up, out of nowhere, in the middle of a practically empty summer.
With the coronavirus laying waste to most traditional PR machines, a handful of major films have turned up on our watchlists without any fanfare this year – skipping the usual long-lead blitz of trailers, posters, TV spots and celebrity plugs on The Graham Norton Show. London Underground is full of in-house ads for TfL; buses are still advertising A Quiet Place Part II; and Graham hasn’t been on in months.
Of course, studios are still desperately trying to limit the damage by postponing their tentpole blockbusters, but 2020 has finally given us something that isn’t actually awful – the ‘surprise drop’ film.
You can thank Radiohead. The Oxford rockers reinvented the rules of self-promotion back in 2007 when they released their seventh studio album In Rainbows online. People remember the ‘pay-what-you-want’ gimmick, but they forget the months of interviews, posters, singles and teasers that led up to it – because literally none of that happened. Announced just 10 days before the download link went live, In Rainbows became the first major surprise drop album in history. As NME put it at the time, “the music world seemed to judder several rimes off its axis.”
Now, of course, waking up to a big new album that you didn’t see coming is nothing new. Beyoncé, Kanye and Nine Inch Nails do it all the time. My Bloody Valentine did it after 22 years. Bowie did it and it was amazing. U2 did it and it was really annoying. Taylor Swift did it last week.
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But there are big differences between an album and a movie – usually amounting to a few years of development, several thousand more people on the crew, and a whole lot of extra cash. Not only is it not usually possible to keep a film under wraps for so long, it’s also not financially viable. Music fans make their purchase decision with the tap of a finger, but if you want millions of families to get a babysitter, drive to a cinema, buy tickets and spend three hours watching a new Star Wars movie, you have to build a bit of hype.
Unless you were living under a rock back in 2015, you would have seen exactly what that hype looked like by the time Star Wars: The Force Awakens finally rumbled into cinemas. The first teaser landed in November 2014 – a full 13 months before the film was due to come out. Mock trading cards were dropped the following month to reveal key character names. A second teaser was given a full premiere at a dedicated fan festival – getting into The Guinness Book Of Records as the most watched YouTube trailer after the digi-broadcast went live. Magazine exclusives, Comic-Con panels, Super Bowl trailers and virtual reality spots followed, making sure Star Wars was all anyone could talk about by the time it finally opened. Raking in over £1.5billion at the box office, the strategy obviously worked, but at what cost?
Did it really improve the film to see Kylo Ren for the first time on the side of a bus? How much better would that misty-eyed Han Solo reunion have been if you hadn’t already watched it a dozen times before every other film that came out in 2015? Would the first Star Wars movie have made such an impact on everyone who saw it back in 1977 if they saw all the best bits on TV first?
Hype is all part of the experience if it’s done well – building anticipation is part of what makes event movies different from whatever else is coming out that week – but most films are better watched without any expectations. Trailers are designed to sell films based on the clips and scenes that best represent them, but that means horror movies almost always spoil the scares, comedies show the best jokes and big blockbusters give away the money shots for free. Get your hopes up too much and you will almost always be disappointed – but catch a surprise drop film and you’ve got much less to lose and everything to gain.
An American Pickle, Unhinged, and Proxima are all a long way from being Star Wars-sized event movies and their marketing budgets were always going to be slim (although we’d still love to see some Seth Rogen-branded pickles in the supermarket), but it’s refreshing to know that new films are coming out that no one really knows too much about. Like the basic idea of the film? Sold on the cast? Heard a bit of positive buzz? Why not give it a shot? A few weeks’ worth of build-up might just be enough to grab attentions without suffocating them, and if it works well now a few more movies might start following the same cues.
What if Disney announced that the next big Marvel movie was coming out in a couple of months instead of a couple of years? Imagine watching Tenet without trying to guess what the trailer means. What if you went back to the cinema and saw something that genuinely shocked and excited and amazed you?
2020 has flattened the landscape and it’s now more important than ever for studios to think carefully about how they get those millions of families back into cinemas, but looking to an uncertain future where long-term planning now seems ridiculous, it makes sense for film companies to start cashing in on the power of a good surprise.
If you haven’t seen the trailers for An American Pickle, Unhinged, or Proxima yet, don’t. Just watch the films instead.