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“The Truman Show” Didn’t Just Predict Our Future, But Also the Future of How Movies Would Be Sold…

More than twenty years after its release, it feels like everything that might be said about The Truman Show has already been said.

The Truman Show is that rare Hollywood blockbuster that feels somehow simultaneously timeless, timely and prescient. It speaks to anxieties that resonate throughout history, fears that were very particular to the cusp of the millennium, and to nightmares that were yet to come. It belongs at once to that age-old anxiety that the world is an illusion and human comprehension is insufficient, to the difficult-to-articulate existential uncertainty of the so-called “end of history”, to a future in which everybody would willingly become the star of their own Truman Show.

Indeed, The Truman Show seems to say so much about the world outside itself and the human condition that it’s possible to miss the film itself. Peter Weir’s late nineties blockbuster is a surreal slice of history itself, a relatively big budget mainstream release starring one of the most famous people on the planet, built around a rather abstract high concept. Not only was the film a massive critical success, it also managed to survive and prosper against a heated summer season.

While its actual themes and contents might be dystopian, The Truman Show itself offers an optimistic glimpse of a kind of blockbuster that seems increasingly unlikely.

Much has been made of the ways in which The Truman Show extrapolated certain trends. Watched in hindsight, The Truman Show seems like a prescient commentary on trends like reality television and even social media. Watching it’s hard not to draw these connections, particularly in the era of the reality television president and the power of “the winner’s edit.” It’s arguably the mark of a true cinematic classic that it somehow packs more bite decades after release.

Of course, it is not mere happenstance that The Truman Show predicted the future. The truth is that original writer Andrew Niccol and director Peter Weir simply had their eye on the right trends in contemporary pop culture. Even in the late nineties, it was easy to find contemporary resonances with The Truman Show. Some of these metaphors were relatively abstract, with both Roger Ebert and Peter Weir talking about Truman Burbank’s scrutinised existence evoking the relationship of Princess Diana Spenser with the press. Jim Carrey himself could empathise.

More specifically, the nineties had seen the beginnings of reality television. CNN had launched in 1980, but the twenty-four-hour news cycle kicked into highgear in the nineties, with coverage of celebrities like Tanya Harding or O.J. Simpson. The year after The Truman Show was released, Monica Lewinsky would compare her own life to The Truman Show. It was not too unreasonable to extrapolate that trend to an unknowing or unsuspecting individual.

Even as The Truman Show was produced and released, the groundwork for the modern reality television boom was settling. Cops was a television sensation for Fox. Taxi Cab Confessions was bringing a dose of sordid reality to HBO. Chat shows like The Jerry Springer Show were holding public attention, blurring the line between what was real and what was not. With the benefit of hindsight, The Truman Show feels like a logic extrapolation from these forces.

Indeed, the only thing that really dates The Truman Show is its relative naivety. The film suggests that trapping Truman Burbank inside his fake reality is an act of cruelty, and that – given the opportunity – people would reject this simulacra in favour of actual reality. If anything, the past few years have demonstrated people’s eagerness to curate and embrace their own falsified idealised realities. As Andrew Niccol reflected twenty years later, “I guess I’m most surprised that while Truman was running from cameras, most of society is running towards them.”

Of course, it’s unfair to criticise The Truman Show for failing to predict the future entirely accurately. The Truman Show is much a reflection of its present as a prediction of the future. The anxieties plaguing Truman Burbank are not so different from those confronting the protagonists in contemporary films like The Matrix or Dark City or The Thirteenth Floor, and those mirrored more abstractly in films as diverse as Jakob the Liar, Life is Beautiful, The Sixth SenseFight Club and even – from earlier in the decade – Total Recall.

Truman lives a relatively peaceful life in a prosperous community. As Christof argues, Truman doesn’t actually want for anything. He has everything that he could ever need provided to him. He has a nice house, a good job, a loving wife. He is loved by everybody around him, and the world is literally designed and tailored for him. However, Truman is restless and anxious. He is frustrated, even if he can’t quite articulate why. He wants to explore, even though he has already been assured that he is too late; everything that could be discovered has been discovered.

This is a very literal expression of a broader cultural malaise that permeates nineties pop culture. The nineties were (mostly) a peaceful and prosperous decade. They marked the end of the Cold War, and so arguably marked the first time that the United States had truly been at peace in over half-a-century. Life was good and comfortable. The economy was booming. However, beneath that peaceful exterior, there was a sense of existential uncertainty and restlessness that only accelerated as the decade raced towards the turn of the millennium.

Truman’s belief that there must be more to his world, some hidden knowledge concealed from him that will make sense of his own unrest, finds echoes in a lot of nineties pop culture from the paranoid conspiracy of The X-Files through to the gnosticism of Stigmata. Indeed, The Truman Show might be the purest and most humanist distillation of these themes, as it roots Truman’s journey not in anger or violence or rage, but instead in a childish yearning and curiosity.

Of course, the anxieties through which Truman is working are not unique to that moment. While the specific details of Truman’s beliefs have since been classfied as a mental illness known as “the Truman Show Delusion”, they reflect a deeper philosophical quandary. Strip out the references to television, and The Truman Show plays as a potent metaphor of the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic. Boil the story down even further, and Truman’s efforts to escape his captivity are a quintessential human story about perseverance in the face on an angry and aggressive world.

All of this explains why The Truman Show has endured for over twenty years as a cultural artifact. However, the film itself also merits consideration. Hindsight tends to obscure just how surreal the film must have seemed. During production, it was dubbed “the most expensive art film of all time.” Exhibitors openly worried about Jim Carrey cashing in his superstar status on what seemed to be an experimental art house film, particularly considering the costly failure of The Cable Guy just two years prior. The studio was also worried.

Carrey’s use of his star power to get a movie like The Truman Show made and distributed is remarkable. It’s not unusual for comedic actors to push their careers in more dramatic and earnest directions; Will Ferrell has made movies like Downhill and Steve Carell has made movies like Welcome to Marwen. However, Carrey was relatively unique in his willingness to conflate his comedic persona with his more earnest dramatic material. Carrey seemed to invest just as much in films like Man on the Moon as Liar, Liar.

Films like The Cable GuyMan on the Moon and The Truman Show were effectively part of Carrey’s screen persona, to the point that Paramount’s marketing chief Rob Friedman actively wondered if The Truman Show would have a harder time convincing “Carrey’s nonbelievers.”It’s interesting to contrast Carrey’s use of his star persona to try to bring audiences to these films with Adam Sandler’s more passive approach to films like Punch Drunk Love or Uncut Gems, where those prestige pictures feel very disconnected from the rest of his filmography.

The Truman Show was an incredible gamble in terms of summer releases, even at the time. After all, it would be opening quite close to Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, and there was every chance that the (relatively) costly weird little film would get crushed by that gigantic monster foot. Carrey aside, The Truman Show was not anchored in any pre-existing intellectual property and was not driven by a simple premise that could easily be sold to the general public. It didn’t really meet Steven Spielberg’s “twenty-five words or less” criteria for a blockbuster.

With this in mind, it’s interesting how The Truman Show ultimately succeeded in that environment, with that weight against it. Admittedly, director Peter Weir had to make compromises to make the film more accessible than Andrew Niccol’s original script might have seemed – it’s a long way from Gary Oldman threatening to murder a baby to Jim Carrey goofing around with a lawnmower. The first cut of the film was reportedly a disaster, and Weir had to deal with issues like Dennis Hopper dropping out of the Christof role.

However, a lot of the publicity techniques used to sell The Truman Show have become part and parcel of modern Hollywood marketing. Tapping into the reality-warping premise of the movie, Paramount Pictures launched an online campaign to “Free Truman”, that blurred the boundaries of fiction and reality. It was undoubtedly one of the first major examples of a viral online campaign for a movie of this magnitude. (This fit with Weir’s use of fourteen months of pre-production time to build his own bible for the universe of the show, imagining himself as a daytime director on it.)

More than that, Weir completed production on The Truman Show in January for a June release. This allowed Paramount to roll out publicity on The Truman Show well in advance of opening to audiences. The studio was able to hold advanced early screenings of the film for influential critics and reporters, helping to build advanced word of mouth. Famously, Esquire called it “the movie of the decade” months before it was even released. Both Weir and Carrey were made available to publications like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun Times.

This cycle should be very familiar. It is effectively the publicity pattern of most modern major releases, whether awards fare of blockbusters. It’s primarily about softening the ground for the landing, connecting with influencers and helping to build momentum. This playbook might have seemed radical at the time, but in the years since it has become standard operating procedure. It’s not unusual for modern blockbusters to host “augmented reality” promotions or for awards films to host early screenings to “generate buzz.”

The Truman Show was a sensation among pundits and critics. In the month of the film’s release, it generated quite a few opinion articles in publications like The Los Angeles Times, what modern readers might define as “think pieces.” Was it related to the voyeurism of contemporary talk show culture? Is everybody Truman? Meanwhile, The New Yorker visited the town of Seaside in Florida and The Atlantic wondered if the film was a rejection of fifties nostalgia. This feels very much like the wage of coverage that greets almost every significant modern release.

It’s notable that Kenneth Turan in The Los Angeles times noted that The Truman Show might have suffered from something of a backlash from those who felt like it had been oversold, musing that the campaign “was so well-orchestrated and worked so fast that some opinion makers who were happy to embrace the film when it was something of a needy orphan became slightly aghast at the extent of its success, and at finding themselves part of the hype.” Even this is a staple of the modern movie promotion landscape: the inevitable “hype” and “backlash” cycle.

Indeed, it’s notable that The Truman Show appears to have been affected by this backlash. Various publications (including Kenneth Turan at The Los Angeles Times) named The Truman Show as the movie of the year, but it arguably slipped from public consciousness in the years that followed. To pick one small example, The Truman Show disappeared from the Internet Movie Database‘s user-generated list of the best 250 movies of all-time between November 2002 and February 2010, suggesting a sharp drop in opinion following release and subsequent rise in esteem.

Still, even if the film suffered in the medium-term, the approach worked in the short- and long-term. The Truman Show was a hit, despite all of the anxiety and uncertainty around its high concept. This approach to selling a movie to the general public worked, and helped to get audiences on board with an adventurous and postmodern existential character drama. The marketing seems likely to have been a large part of that, and so it’s no surprise that this pre-packaging of a movie for public consumption became the norm in the years and decades that followed.

Still, there’s something just a little tragic in all of this. The publicity campaign around The Truman Show found a way to package and sell a very unusual and ambitious piece of cinema as a summer blockbuster, carving out a niche for the film in a very crowded market place. However, despite establishing and codifying a release playbook that is now taken for granted, that marketing approach is generally used to package less ambitious and less creative films. It seems impossible to imagine a modern film like The Truman Show thriving in the current landscape.

Still, The Truman Show goes on.

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