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G.I. Joe teams up with Uncle Sam…

I’ll admit it. In my defense, I’m suitably ashamed. But I am a little bit interested in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Yes, I know – deep down in my heart – that it will be terrible. No, I was not a fan of the television show, nor the toys – so I have no defense. I am a fan of Christopher Eccleston and I always have been, so my faith in him is on the line. And Stephen Sommers is the guy behind the two really good Mummy films, right? Still, the most interesting aspect of the production (amid all the rumours and gossip, the leaked reviews – both good and bad) is the approach that the studio is taking to marketing. Some movies – like The Dark Knight or Tron: Legacy or Cloverfield – go the subtle, nuanced approach of viral marketing. They create an emersive, engaging experience. G.I. Joe, on the other hand, is not subtle. The marketing team seems to be hammering home on single message: if you don’t dig this movie, you just ain’t patriotic enough.

No Dennis Quaid, you can't out act him... He's Christopher Eccleston!

No Dennis Quaid, you can't out act him... He's Christopher Eccleston!

We all know that the movie is going to get lambasted by critics. It doesn’t look too promising and I doubt the triumph of Transformers 2 at the box office despite near-universal condemnation has put critics in a good mood. But, hey what do critics know? And it would appear that G.I. Joe is trakcing well with audiences even in light of these factors. I’m not frothing at the mouth waiting for the movie to fail (in fact, I hope it’s a decent pointless actioner), but this is what American audiences are anticipating? This is near the top of their “most anticipated films of 2009” list?

I’ll put most of this down to the sly way that the studio is selling the film. There was a preview screening at Andrews Air Base – complete with military photo opportunities – and the film seems to be aimed squarely at America’s heartlands, bypassing the usual Hollywood rigmoroll. The studios seem to be paying homage to Richard Nixon’s theory of the “silent majority” – the honest, hardworking decent folk who tend to be forgotten when those pesky academic types pipe up. It was that silent majority which propelled Richard Nixon to a record-breaking election victory, and Paramount seems to hope it’ll reap similar rewards for Joe.

It’s interesting that this approach has seen the studio abandon the cult fanboy following that G.I. Joe has, with the film not having a presence at Comic Con, for example. To quote producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura:

You can never win with those guys. They feel they’re the keepers of the fanboys flag and have a deep childhood association with many of these properties. And we know the hard-core fans are already coming to see the movie.

It might just be a shrewd move, given that the cult fanbase is the one demographic most liable to bite the hand that feeds – see how they treated the screen adaptation of Watchmen, for example. Instead, properties that ignore the niche market and attempt to court heartland America tend to see box office gold (the Transformers franchise is the poster boy of this approach). I can understand – and, to a large extent, agree with – cutting the more possessive cult fans out of the loop. Make good movies, not slavishly faithful movies.

Still, I am uneasy about this development. The way to get around bad reviews is to stop making bad movies, not to do a run around the critics straight to middle America. There are films that can make the studios money at the box office and court critics successfully – and these movies tend to be more beloved for that fact. I’m also somewhat uncertain about what the marketing move says about Hollywood’s opinion of blue collar America – “It doesn’t need to be good, you can enjoy it anyway!” – as I find it hard to believe that tastes are that different between the two coasts. This strikes me as the old ‘critics are elitist snobs’ argument rearing its ugly head again.

It’s also a somewhat interesting politicalisation of the summer blockbuster – this is possibly the first time that a film has been so solidly aimed at the ‘big red middle’, the traditionally Republican states. In the past most blockbusters have (understandably_ been focused on the blue state of California (as it’s home to the industry) or, occasionally, a gala premiere in New York. It was such a common occurrence that it was odd to attempt to read any politics into the move. However, this campaign seems so markedly different that it’s hard not to read politics into it.

It’ll be the weekend before we see if it pays off. Analysts are expecting a $50m payday for the film, which isn’t stellar, but is certainly higher than would be expected from the lack of industry buzz around the project. Whether the movie sinks or swims will undoubtedly determine if this approach to selling a blockbuster becomes standard industry practice.

At the start of the summer, I’d written G.I. Joe off as arguably the least interesting of the summer blockbusters. It seems I was wrong. This looks to quite interesting.

One Response

  1. […] Posted on August 7, 2009 by Darren So, G.I. Joe didn’t get screened for critics as part of Paramount’s unusual marketing. I’m miffed. I’m ticked off. I think it’s a bad […]

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