Comic-Con 2016 | Are Surprise Sequels The Best Marketing Gimmick Ever?
Move over Percepto! You stink, Smell-O-Vision! Hollywood has a brand new trick to get audiences super excited about their movies, and it’s not just novel… it’s actually kind of brilliant.
This weekend, for the second time in 2016, audiences were taken aback by the revelation that the studio system had genuinely pulled a fast one. Back in January the under-the-rader horror thriller Valencia was suddenly renamed 10 Cloverfield Lane just two months before the movie’s release, surprising audiences and pundits alike. This weekend, the upcoming horror movie The Woods – which had been building buzz for weeks now – was suddenly revealed to have been a Blair Witch Project sequel all along. That Lionsgate was able to keep this production under wraps for months, and that they went to all the trouble of marketing it as a completely different movie, was a successful attempt to subvert an industry paradigm which is so ubiquitous that I think everyone more-or-less assumed it was the only way to go.
Put simply, if studios are making a sequel to an established property, they usually announce it ahead of time in order to generate publicity, build buzz, excite the online journalists and impress their stockholders. Marvel Studios wants you to know Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is coming, so why not follow that same tried-and-true pattern for Blair Witch?
Because that system is broken, that’s why. And what’s more, I think it’s fair to say that we broke it right here on the internet. Fans of established franchises and online publications desperately trying to capitalize on that interest have turned what should have been a news cycle into an online speculation matrix. Rumors abound, and are rarely (if ever) vetted. Every tweet from everyone involved is picked apart for clues. And every single effort is made to reveal – or if nothing else, at least guess – the whole plot of our most anticipated upcoming movies beforehand.
To put it another way, when was the last time you DIDN’T see a Star Wars news story? You may have to go back quite a while. Star Wars may not be an example of this system gone awry, since it’s such a vast institution that it can actually withstand all the constant attention, but that same approach hasn’t done too many favors to a film like Ghostbusters, for example, which made its intentions known early on and – amongst some highly vocal circles, at least – only generated more and more negative buzz for years, long before anybody had actually seen the film.
Can you imagine if Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters had been a surprise? If, like Blair Witch and 10 Cloverfield Lane, Sony had merely told audiences they were working on a new horror comedy, and only to reveal their full intentions a just couple months before the release? The studio would have been able to immediately capitalize on the fan excitement and simultaneously minimize all of the backlash. Even hardcore fans would have trouble making up their minds about the property ahead of time, since they only had to wait two months to see the finished product.
That doesn’t mean studios have carte blanche to just rename movies at the last minute and dick audiences over. 10 Cloverfield Lane made money but I don’t think this marketing gimmick could withstand too many of more films just like it, which began as a completely unrelated thriller and only had a few tangential references to the franchise that were added late in the development cycle. You just can’t do that too many times before audiences realize that they’re not getting sequels, they’re getting bait-and-switches. If you had changed the name of The Conjuring 2 at the last minute to something like The Conjuring vs. Insidious, but then released the exact same movie with only a couple oblique references to the Insidious movies, we would all be pissed… and with good cause.
But what Lionsgate did with Blair Witch, that can work over and over again. They made a genuine sequel to a very well known property, and they’ve amplified the audience’s interest by releasing the entire product just two months after they made its existence public. The novelty isn’t a cheap trick. The novelty is the fact that the movie exists. If Lionsgate had announced that they were making a Blair Witch sequel last summer, people would have been interested for a couple of days and then forgotten all about it until the week of release. It’s hard to keep excitement alive for a year or more, and even if you pull that off it can be hard to manage to expectations of a fan base who won’t stop speculating about it that whole time. But two months… yeah, two months is manageable.
If Blair Witch makes a profit – and it’s a low budget horror movie, so there’s no reason to assume that it won’t – I suspect we’ll see a lot more of these surprise last-minute announcements in the future. What’s more, I suspect it will actually be pretty hard for all the rumor-mongers out there to keep tabs on them all. When literally any production could turn out to be a major release in disguise, how do you even know what to investigate in the first place? The secret is bound to get out once in a while, but if Hollywood doesn’t blow it, this could be a really great way to get audiences pumped again, and to fix a broken system that makes everyone a little tired of our upcoming movies before they’re ever released.
So keep ‘em coming, Hollywood! I look forward to the revelation that the World War II drama Hacksaw Ridge was secretly a Sgt. Rock movie all along, and that Keeping Up With The Joneses is somehow just a prequel to The In-Laws. If you play your cards right, Hollywood, you might just have a game changer on your hands.
Now don’t screw it up.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.