By Kimberly Reyes (@CommDuCoeur)
It’s one of those “I’m a little bit country, he’s a little bit rock & roll” situations…except switch out country for charmingly off-beat and rock & roll for high-octane explosive ass-whooping and you’ve got a recipe for movie night at my apartment.
Like a lot of happy couples, my boyfriend and I have a lot in common. And like a lot of happy couples, there are still a few things that we don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on. Which movie to watch is one of those things.
You can probably guess which one I was more excited to see…but let’s be honest; I would pay $10 to watch Michael Cera eat a sandwich for 2 hours, if that were the case. Unfortunately, Stallone and his league of over-the-hill action heroes completely trounced Scott Pilgrim in box office earnings. The outcome was not just the crowning of another summer blockbuster, it’s an interesting study of how to communicate beyond the digital divide.
If you haven’t seen the previews, here’s The Expendables in 8 words: guns, muscles, explosions, motorcycles, tattoos, violence, heavy metal. That’s all the convincing men like my boyfriend need to shell out the cash for repeat viewings until every one of their male friends can gush about it over burgers and beer. Mind you, he’s a pair of binoculars and an address short of being Jason Statham’s #1 stalker – I mean fan.
The Expendables also had the advantage of one impressive social media marketing campaign. Usually when my boyfriend tips his laptop towards me and says “check this out,” I prepare myself to watch someone eat something he shouldn’t be eating. A couple of months back, he wanted me to watch an Expendables promo on YouTube with him. After a few minutes of complaining that I had better things to do, like look at pictures of cats making funny faces, I finally walked over to him and started watching what looked like a standard movie trailer…until Sylvester Stallone BLEW THE COMPUTER SCREEN UP.
That cheeky stunt was my first introduction to what turned out to be movie marketing genius, which included a few clever quips from Sly’s signature lazy lip that eventually made him a trending topic on Twitter. Talk about cognitive dissonance: Sylvester Stallone. Is a trending topic. On Twitter. The movie’s website isn’t the same old photo & video reservoir we’re used to: there’s an 8-bit game where fans can square off or share their score with other Facebook friends, a series of NSFW behind-the-scenes featurettes, and an Action Hero Hall of Fame featuring memorable quotes and some social media plug-ins. Didn’t expect that from a movie starring the likes of Bruce Willis, and (Governor) Arnold Schwarzenegger, did you?
Lions Gate Entertainment knew that they didn’t need to market The Expendables to the generation who grew up idolizing its iconic cast. The names were enough for anyone old enough to watch an R-rated movie in the 80s. Instead, it was a question of how to reach a younger audience, for whom the Stallone name doesn’t pack quite the same punch, so to speak. In other words, how do you market the heroes of digital immigrants to a generation of digital natives? Lions Gate’s answer was rapid-fire, sharable, interactive content that anyone of any age could enjoy.
However, the Expendables’ multimedia campaign is not without its flaws. As one blogger pointed out, the movie’s foray into Foursquare seemed less social and more spam.
To begin to understand why Scott Pilgrim tanked, one needs to take into account the difference between critical acclaim and box office rankings – the two are often mutually exclusive. Critics published kind words and high marks after pre-release screenings, the Internet was buzzing with excitement for the big screen adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series, and the Scott Pilgrim panel was one of the most talked-about events at this year’s Comic Con. Universal pulled every trick out of its digital hat to market the film: there was an interactive trailer, video remixes on You Tube, free ringtones, a social media aggregator that picks up mentions of the movie, an app that lets fans create their own avatar, and some commercials with catchy yet non-existent taglines like “epic of epic epicness.” Then the numbers rolled in.
The problem was not how Universal was marketing Scott Pilgrim, it’s who they were marketing to. Michael Cera’s awkward charm has generated a devout fan following since his days on Arrested Development – but it’s not necessarily a large one. In addition, the scrawny, geeky jobless hero that defeats a lineup of successful cooler-than-thou beefcakes to win the hipster girl may be the perfect plot for a generation that’s spent most of its time behind a computer screen, but alienates anyone older than 25. Unfortunately, the movie also alienates anyone under 20, who won’t understand the 8-bit graphics, Seinfeld background music, and Wayne’s World reference. Surprisingly, there was even a lack of support from Cera’s female followers, who were turned off by an unsympathetic romantic interest that doesn’t seem to deserve his love. Combine that with the fact that Scott Pilgrim has to fight off seven evil exes to win her affection, and you’ve got an entire gender scratching our heads and wondering if putting as many obstacles in the way of a healthy relationship is really the way to go. For more reasons on why Scott Pilgrim vs. The World basically didn’t have an audience to market to, here’s a brilliant read on Cinema Blend. Anyone who saw the movie over the weekend most likely loved the film. It was original, funny, infectious, and in the end, punch-for-punch equally as action-packed as the Expendables. But what this all boils down to is: you need to fill the theater seats with butts, not hearts, to be successful.
During those critical marketing months, Universal should have taken a page from the Expendables playbook and switch from pitching the movie to a group of people that were planning on watching it anyway and focusing on making it more attractive to the general population. So Michael Cera strikes out in the box office and stays indie filmgoers’ little secret. And you know what? I kind of prefer that. Obscurity may have Universal licking their wounds, but it’s certainly Michael Cera’s best marketing strategy.