Does Hollywood really hate spoilers?

Feature Simon Brew 16 May 2013 - 07:02
The inside of a cinema

Does the Hollywood system want spoilers to be protected, or have they become part of the marketing fabric?

Please note: there are no spoilers in this article. Please do not leave any in the comments below!

Early in the production of Star Trek Into Darkness, a series of stills were leaked of a fight involving Benedict Cumberbatch's John Harrison. Believe the stories, and those behind the scenes - not least JJ Abrams - were extremely unhappy about the leak. Abrams is, after all, someone who works hard to protect surprises. Just look at the sudden trailer reveal for Super 8 a few years back, or the whole Cloverfield build up. He's one of the few directors who usually has the power to reveal what he wants only when he's ready to reveal it.

Most of Star Trek Into Darkness was shot on sound stages, and away from the gaze of the professional and fan photographers who increasingly follow film productions. But after spending so much time desperately trying to protect us from spoilers, we then had a flurry of marketing materials that exposed one or two things that arguably would have been more interesting had they been kept secret, and then an IMDB page that also revealed something you wouldn't want to know going into the film.

In fact, IMDB has also seen fit to pull the same trick with Fast & Furious 6, with a key surprise for that film ruined for anyone who goes and checks out the listing beforehand. But then it's just the latest obstacle in a spoiler minefield, that's making it increasingly tricky for those who want to know little about a movie before they see it to do so.

The general line with big movies now is supposedly that spoilers are a bad thing. That surprises should be preserved for seeing the film on the big screen for the first time. That's what many filmmakers say, and that's what a substantial part of the audience is saying.

But if that's the case, why is Hollywood willing to sacrifice so many key plot points in the battle to market a movie?

Spider Streets

Right now, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is shooting on the streets of New York City. Location shoots are nothing new of course, but Sony will surely be savvy to the fact that if it's shooting Spider-Man in the open air, people will take pictures and report it. It watched the six month global tour of The Dark Knight Rises production with as much interest as any of us.

Sony is well aware that the numerous photos being taken of the Spider-Man shoot will be shouldering some of the marketing burden of the film. That's part of the plan, even if the collateral damage is that some surprises are spoiled in advance. Take the first appearance of Paul Giamatti's character, where snap shots appeared online quickly. We don't even wait for the trailer to see him in character now - his picture's all over Instagram. And then, just in case you hadn't seen them, director Marc Webb added a Giamatti shot of his own to his Twitter account. If you were in any doubt as to whether this sort of image was supposed to be seen in advance, Webb removed that doubt. The director, these days, is in on it.

Bryan Singer is doing a similar thing as he shoots X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Tweeting us pictures and titbits from the film as he goes. And we can't deny it: as a fan, it's fun to watch. But when we all sit down and see the final cut for the first time, will we appreciate knowing so much beforehand? After all, it used to be the trailer we complained about. Now? If only it was just the trailer we had to avoid.

Ticket Sales Vs Surprises

This is where the two sides of Hollywood are at slight opposites to one another. In truth, what storyteller doesn't want to keep the twists, turns, and surprises of their story under wraps?

Yet, when a story costs $200m to make, or you're looking for angles to get people interested in it, it seems you're having to give more and more away in advance. It's like a spoiler version of Kickstarter - we'll give you this much up front, if you come and watch the film.

Bluntly, when it comes to the bottom line of the movie, do the bean counters in the studio care if you knew about a certain character or a plot twist in advance? They do not. Nor would most of us in their job. They care about whether you've spent money on the film in question, and whether you plan to do so again.

The problem is that for all the complaining we and others do about spoilers, they've turned into - through their many flavours - a hugely effective marketing tool. Arguably the most effective marketing tool for a prolonged promotional campaign.  Let's go back to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The open air location shoot for the film is giving Sony publicity it couldn't buy by any other means. Every week, there are two or three fresh stories doing the rounds, reported by hundreds of sites such as this. Is that what the director and writers want? Probably not. But it's almost part of the deal now, and it raises anticipation and awareness to levels that studios like to see, a long way in advance of release.

Perhaps there's an acceptance from the studio side that if it can't beat the spoiler leaks, it should just take more control of them (although that's clearly not always the case). After all, it's virtually impossible to contain spoilers for a big film, especially one with a location shoot. If you choose not to release them yourself, then there are so many other ways they can be found.

Who else remembers the Return Of The Jedi comic book, back in the 80s, revealing the relationship between Luke and Leia? That was a rare example. Now, for Man Of Steel, even the release of the LEGO sets is having to be kept relatively under wraps, as they give certain things about the film away. In fact, soundtrack listings, tie-in book synopses, action figures... all of these contribute to the spoiler flood. So if word is going to leak out anyway, is it best to leak it in a way that's more advantageous to the bottom line of the film?

Historic

In truth, the trade in spoilers has always been part of the game. The movie trailer to Robert Zemeckis' What Lies Beneath over a decade ago was content to ruin a significant part of the film for you, were you willing to fork out for a ticket. After all, the chances are you wouldn't appreciate what you'd been shown until you'd paid for the ticket (we'd dearly love movie trailers that didn't contain a shred of footage from the last half hour of a film). But our appetite for spoilers has clearly increased, and they're coming in more flavours than ever.

What's more, even when materials are being released that aren't necessarily giving a direct spoiler away, you can't help but feel that they're still taking something away. The flood of material released in the build-up to Prometheus bordered on ludicrous, and if anyone had sieved through it all, then good chunks of the film would have been revealed in advance.

On the flip side of things, some spoilers can be a good thing. Doctor Who series seven comes to an end in the UK this weekend, and we've heard from more than one person who's far more intrigued to watch it now, now that they know of a spoiler that's leaked ahead of that episode's transmission.

Balance Of The Force

The world of movies and television needs to find a balance. As Bryan Burk, the producer of Star Trek Into Darkness told us, "Even if 51 percent of our audience does not like spoilers, and I'd hope it was a lot more than that, it's our job to try and protect the rest. Because if you want spoilers, you will always be able to find them".

And he's right on both counts. There's an onus on websites such as this to clearly label spoilers when reported upon, there's an onus on those using the comments and forums to not drop major reveals in without warning, and most of all, there's an onus on the likes of Hollywood to try and keep something in reserve for us. When all this works in tandem, you get many people being surprised by, for instance, Iron Man 3, because something happened in that movie that they didn't see coming. And surely that remains a good thing.

But there's little getting away from it: once upon a time, it did seem to be a case that it was Hollywood against spoilers. Now, more and more, Hollywood and spoilers appear to be on the same side, a pact made with hundreds of millions of extra dollars in mind. And sadly, spoiling a film's surprises may increasingly be the required collateral damage on the way to a bigger box office take. Here's hoping not.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Sponsored Links