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Does Hype Ruin Good Films?

So, how was Avatar Day for you?

The word so far has been a resounding ‘meh‘, but still a somewhat enthusiastic one. Still, it’s nothing compared to the hype that has built up around the movie. A ‘game changer’, Avatar was rumoured to redefine movies themselves – ushering in the golden era of three-dimensional filmmaking. How does a film live up to that hype? In fairness, most of the comments on the preview footage have been relatively positive, but most seem a little disappointed. So, has the Hollywood hype machine spoiled a perfectly good movie?

Is James Cameron still king of the world?

Is James Cameron still king of the world?

Just to get an idea of the general tone of responses, here’s what Entertainment Weekly had to say:

Avatar is, without a doubt, an audacious motion picture, and I tip my hat to Cameron for having the cojones to try to pull this off. Nevertheless, I predict moviegoers won’t be able to completely surrender themselves to this movie’s appearance. I think we’re all going to be watching Avatar from a distance, desperately trying to figure out why a film with such mesmerizing visuals still doesn’t feel quite right.

Or the reaction from Cinema Blend:

For years now we’ve been deluged with wild claims about the spectacle that was about to unfold. Groundbreaking, game changing, we’ve been told. Brand new 3D technology like you’ve never seen before, they’ve claimed. Photorealistic computer animation, they’ve cried. Now that we’ve seen fifteen minutes it’s plainly obvious that none of that is exactly true. … The question for me isn’t what I saw but whether or not it delivers. The answer to that question is, unfortunately, only sort of.

Indeed Rope of Silicon suggested completely boycotting the event – okay, ‘boycott’ is a strong word, they used ‘skip’ -and lay out some pretty reasonable arguments for doing so (and based on reports of half-full theatres maybe a lot of people shared their opinion). On the other hand, a lot of people who saw the footage loved it and it may even have served to get people more excited, which is what hype should do. But hype is a double-edged sword. Hype can kill a movie before it has even appeared on screen.

It’s probably symptomatic of the age that we live in. The age where we want things fast and we want them now. Hollywood churns out movies by the bucketful. Summer begins a lot earlier (Watchmen hoped to start it in March and Fast & Furious actually started it in April). In order to get movies noticed, you need to generate buzz. I remember the wonderful drip-feed of information we had from The Dark Knight for about a year leading up the release of the film. Arguably the reason why District 9 has trumped the odds and succeeded at the US Box Office despite being a science fiction foreign film is because of the excellent viral campaign. It seems that movies are hyped up and down the ying-yang.

I’ll be fair. It isn’t just the studios and the marketing companies that generate this tremendous buzz. A large part of it comes from film fans such as myself. I am excited about Avatar. Hell, I’m excited about this year’s Oscar season. Hell, I’m excited about The Avengers in 2012. I’m a very excitable person. Most bloggers/critics/commentators are. And the internet just throws gasoline on that fire. I know which movies are slated for release over at least the next two years. I know some of the scripts floating around Hollywood looking for a home. Sure, I even know some directors’ dream projects (Speilberg’s Lincoln biopic!). I’ll bug the people I know about District 9 or Avatar or Shutter Island as much as the studios. Even if I am as irritating as I realise I am, it’s still generating some small hint of interest in the people listening.

Nor is hype a particularly new phenomenon. It was always there. Summer blockbusters were always everywhere. There were always tie-ins. But it was generally only within a week (or – at a push – a month) before release. I just think the internet made it bigger and longer.

Ewan McGregor wanted to make this movie since before he was born (almost)...

Ewan McGregor wanted to make this movie since before he was born (almost)...

So, maybe hype isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Small films need hype in order to survive. If people weren’t so fascinated with Fanboys it never would have been made. It doesn’t matter that the end result wasn’t as epic as people seem to have been expecting. And some movies live up to the hype – at least for some/most people. Or rather, perhaps most people try to phase out the buzz and try to appreciate the movie on its own merits. On the other hand, there are some movies which could never have lived up to the standard set before their release. Take the Star Wars prequels for example. Not great films be any standard (though there is one-and-a-half good films hidden in there amid one-and-a-half terrible films). Still, there was no way that they could live up to three decades of anticipation.

I recently lambasted a bunch of critics for jumping to conclusions about G.I. Joe, even though they hadn’t seen it. I acknowledged that it is nearly impossible to leave all your preconceptions of a movie at the door. In even choosing to go an see a particular movie you’ve generally demonstrated that you expect it to be good (or there’s nothing else on). So it can be hard to let go of all the pre-release publicity, astro-turfing, gushing, marketing and various other commentaries that you have heard, read or seen about the film in question, regardless of whether they come from someone who has actually seen the movie in question. Sometimes it would be nice to take a step back.

I wonder if any of those movies that I love would have held up under such scrutiny. If we’d been told repeatedly that The Godfather was the best movie ever, how would audiences have responded? Is part of the appeal of Blade Runner that it is (for most of us at least), a rediscovery? Classic is a very heavy mantle for any film to bear. Even moreso when the label is applied to movie that hasn’t been released yet. ‘Game changer’ is somewhat similar.

And if the amazing movies would suffer – what about the decidedly average movies? One the wonderful things about flicking through channels on the television and catching twenty-year-old movies is that very few of them have any of that anticipation behind them. I enjoyed Pacific Heights or Demolition Man better than I enjoyed any comparably average films from today (say Wolverine), if only because I hadn’t been watching the title approach gradually for a while.

Which is kinda what I’m getting at. A great film, like The Dark Knight, can stand up to the hype. Sure, it has its fair share of critics and cynics, but it also has a fairly devoted fanbase. Even if people were let down by what they had been hyped up about, they still get a great movie. On the other hand, what about movies that fall just short? Films that fall more on the flawed side of the ‘flawed masterpiece’ label. Take Peter Jackson’s King Kong. It’s a good film and a solidly entertaining (if overlong and self-important) one. I think it’s these movies that get a bit of a short shrift. And Peter Jackson was only coming from a trilogy of highly respected blockbusters. It’s arguably the same deal that Watchman gets. Love it or hate it, you have to concede it is the strangest would-be blockbuster ever (it’s R-rated, foul-mouthed, features an attempted rape, murder, brutality and a luminous blue penis). Yet it was sold as a movie from the guy who made 300. I have me doubts whether it was necessary to make the movie in the first place, but creating a marketing campaign to sell it as ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ was a massive mistake. And in those cases, we were dealing with directors only relatively recently introduced to the mainstream. In the case of Avatar, James Cameron is the daddy of the biggest blockbuster ever, not to mention hugely respected and influential cult and mainstream classics. Oh, and Piranha 2. But he hopes we’ll forget that. Keep hoping, James.

I don’t know if I should have gone to the Avatar previews, but I’m kinda glad I didn’t. Even if I’m a little skeptical of a company trying to create a holiday to market their film, I will still be queuing up on release day.

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