Publisher Theme
I’m a gamer, always have been.

The State of the Race: Marketing in the Age of Cynicism

I don’t know how else to describe the age in which we all live except that it’s more skeptical, less idealistic, less hopeful. So much has changed in the past several decades that a movie like Rob Reiner’s Flipped, a good movie, almost a great movie, is virtually MIA in this year’s Oscar race. Part of it is the cool factor: it’s not a movie that appeals to the loudest movie voices online. The critics did not warm up to it either. In the end, though, I’ve settled on the idea that it is just too sincere to work in 2010. It would have worked in 1986. It did work in 1986.

Marketing films now requires a broader knowledge of how kids now communicate, and how information travels from person to person. It isn’t just a matter of releasing trailers and hoping for the best, or planting opinions online. Studios are now requires to know their monster well. Take the recent unfurling of the Social Network movie trailer. First we had the trailer, then we had the trailer parody, and then another parody. Now, the perception of the Social Network has been blended with ubiquitous snark.

There is also the matter of Facebook itself, and how marketing this film can end up being a snake eating its own tail. Will those who consider themselves early adopters, the cool kids in the room, suddenly conclude that Facebook is over because the movie made it uncool? No way, most people say. Facebook is here to stay. Not only that, but more people may want to see the movie because they use Facebook more and more.

I am wondering, though, if the parodies online are the beginning of something bigger in terms of the film’s target demo. Are the parodies affectionate or are they potentially harmful?

After seeing Eat, Pray, Love I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t do as well. While it is a sincere, feelgood movie in many aspects, it is also a film that doesn’t tell a good story. Flipped does. It tells a very good story about the two altering points of view. With several good performances and a great script, Flipped feels out of a different time. I thought it might have played better as a TV movie, but it is even too sweet for TV. Kids and tweens expect a healthy heaping of snark now, because they aren’t raised on sweet stories. They have cut their teeth on The Simpsons, South Park, and untolds amounts of shows that make fun of sincerity.

Maybe Rob Riener was thinking he’d introduce this kind of sweet and simple sincerity back into the collective tweener world, but alas, after taking my own 12 year-old to see it, she walked out saying “nothing really happened.”

What kinds of stories are going to be represented this year in the Oscar race, and will they match the mood of right now, or will they slightly miss the mark and find themselves rediscovered on down the road? Does having your film hit at exactly the right time mean it will be forever dated to 2010, with no room to be remembered? Yes, it almost always does.

Avatar was hit with a crowd that needed more than just a simple story. If you look at Star Wars and Avatar side by side you will see that there isn’t a lot of difference, story-wise — they both give us what we want and what we’re familiar with. They are fairy tales and archetypes. They were both huge hits — and both will be remembered well. The difference, in terms of perception, is that Avatar was released in the YouTube age when a Pocahontas parody spreads wildly, finally making its way to the New York Times. Avatar, in many ways, is conjoined with YouTube culture not just here in America but internationally. I recently spent time with an Italian family and the 14 year-old son had not only seen the Avatar/Pocahontas parody, but he’d made one of his own.

I don’t know if the Avatar/Pocahontas thing had anything to do with whether or not it won Best Picture, I suspect not. But it is worth noting that once a film makes that jump to parody-land, even though it’s respected, part of it becomes a joke. Brokeback Mountain met the same fate, as I recall.

Maybe it is better than the fate of The Hurt Locker with people repeating the refrain that “it only won because she was a woman.” While I think it was a strong deciding factor, to finally break the chokehold of precedent and open doors for women directors, I also think the film wasn’t particularly sentimental. It didn’t have a feelgood ending, and it exposed something we all needed to face: our involvement in Iraq. It was also great filmmaking. But let’s not go there, shall we?

Conversely, Slumdog Millionaire was a film that did have an impossibly happy ending, and was sincere – it had no problem with marketing across all age groups. But the difference was that Slumdog already had built-in tragedy because of the poverty in India. Without that, the film might not have been such a powerful force in the Oscar race; I don’t think it is necessarily a matter of the Academy having a stronger taste for feelgood films.

What will drive the Social Network (already anointed by Scott Foundas and Peter Travers) isn’t that it’s about Facebook, but that it’s written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher. The director drives the Best Picture race, and unless it really flies off the rails and becomes a YouTube meme, it remains one of our highest hopes for greatness. No pressure.

There has also been a bit of a discussion about the historical facts of Facebook. This article draws the comparison between The Social Network and The Hurricane (starring Denzel Washington). They wrongly claim that the historical inaccuracies of The Hurricane cost the film its Oscar, but I don’t really agree. Denzel Washington was brilliant in the role, the film’s only Oscar nomination. He lost to Kevin Spacey.

I don’t think anyone is going to look at The Social Network and think they’re seeing a true story. Sorkin and Fincher are artists. This will be very much their own take on both this story and the ultimate impact of Facebook and social networking on our lives. No one is going to give two shits about the whiny founders of the company. It is the broader context that will ultimately make this film timely and profound.

The way one tends to view the Oscar race is from the top down. Before the films have been seen, one pays attention to the director, the writer, the studio, sometimes the actors involved, and the last thing we look at is the plot. Traditionally, it has been hard to break this model.

Now we must also take into consideration the atmosphere of movie love online. Marketing in the age of cynicism or snark requires sensitivity.

No one is going to say that the Oscars have to be dumbed down, or that Academy members necessarily pay attention to what’s happening online, but there is trickle down, it does impact PERCEPTION. In the Oscar race, perception is everything.

I personally don’t feel like ridding my personality of sincerity. I watched and loved every minute of Flipped, knowing that I didn’t belong to this world, particularly, but not minding. I don’t think we gain anything by giving that up. The message of Flipped was to beyond what’s right in front you and see the art in everything. It was also about being brave enough to embrace the oddities.

Therefore, I hope that the AMPAS can model similar bravery. Don’t wonder whether or not tweens or audiences will be too cool to let the sunshine in. Oscar can still lead the way.