John Travolta’s Gotti and Its Strange Marketing Campaign

"Audiences loved Gotti but critics don't want you to see it". But is that true? We look at Gotti's strange marketing...

“We made this movie for the fans.” In recent years, variations on this phrase have emerged time and again – often in the wake of a poorly-reviewed major film.

A kind of half-hearted inoculation against gloomy critical notices, the “for the fans” defence has emerged during the promotion of such varied films as Suicide Squad, The Mummy, Batman v Superman, and Baywatch. Film School Rejects even compiled a handy spotter’s guide to the critics versus fans defense in 2017.

In the past, the “for the fans” defence was commonly applied to a high-profile movie, and uttered by a big name attached to it. Dwayne Johnson, for example, used a spin on it for his Baywatch film (“Fans LOVE the movie. Huge positive scores”), while Cara DeLevingne invoked it for Suicide Squad, in which she played the Enchantress (“It’s the fans that we made this movie for”).

This year’s Gotti, meanwhile, offers a strange new variation on the critic-fan theme.

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First, a bit of context for the uninitiated. Gotti is a crime drama based on the violent history of New York mobster John Gotti, with John Travolta wearing a succession of wigs and makeup appliances as the smooth-dressing criminal. For several years, Gotti was a passion project for Travolta, and the actor’s stuck with it through numerous bouts of production turbulence – directors have come and gone, actors have entered and exited, while a disagreement with Gottis distributor saw its release delayed from 2017 to the summer of 2018.

To be clear, we haven’t seen Gotti for ourselves yet, but it’s fair to say that notices from other outlets haven’t been kind thus far: the drama can count itself among a small group of movies to score a zero on Rotten Tomatoes. This, clearly, isn’t good news for a relatively small film that its star has fought long and hard to release; according to The Hollywood Reporter’s sources, Travolta had hoped that Gotti would give him a shot at Oscar glory. The seething reception has likely nipped those ambitions in the bud.

With Gotti now in theaters, the film’s marketers have taken an unusually combative stance in the face of its dire notices. Take a look at a recent TV spot, shown on the Gotti movie’s official Twitter feed, and you’ll get a flavor of it: “Audiences loved Gotti,” the clip’s blurb reads, between scenes from the movie. “Critics put out the hit.”

Then comes the best part: “Who would you trust more? Yourself, or a troll behind a keyboard?”

It’s a bold way of putting things, certainly, and the tweet accompanying the clip has a similarly febrile atmosphere. “Audiences loved Gotti but critics don’t want you to see it… The question is why???” 

Leaving aside the Trumpian air of that tweet’s three question marks, you might be wondering who these audiences are that loved Gotti so much, given its opening weekend in the US wasn’t exactly a cash bonanza; reports suggest that it made a disappointing $1.7 million against its $10 million budget. A glance at Rotten Tomatoes, meanwhile, suggests that Gottis building up an immediate cult following. While aggregate scores from critics place the film at zero percent, the audience score sits at a notably high 75 percent – a sum harvested from a total of just under 7,000 users who, at the time of writing, gave Gotti an average score of 3.9 out of five.

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This would appear to show a glaring disconnect between the reaction of audiences and critics – at least if we take the numbers at face value. On Twitter, Screen Junkies critic Dan Murrell has voiced suspicion at the sheer number of users who have left a rating for Gotti; he rightly points out that, although Travolta’s film had a relatively small release compared to Incredibles 2, Gotti got almost as many user reviews as Pixar’s movie did.

Could it be that someone, somewhere’s gaming the system? We couldn’t say, though The Hollywood Reporter’s piece on Gottis opening weekend offers one possible explanation. 

One of the film’s big sources of financing was MoviePass, an American company that offers cheap cinema tickets in exchange for a monthly subscription; according to The Hollywood Reporter, 40 percent of Gotti’s ticket sales came from MoviePass users. It’s just possible, we suppose, that those reviews flooded in from MoviePass’s unusually enthusiastic subscribers. (A recent Reddit post, by the by, points out that a number of the audience reviews came from new accounts on Rotten Tomatoes; many of those who reviewed Gotti also left a positive review for American Animals another movie financed by MoviePass.)

Whatever the truth is, Gottis marketers have used the Rotten Tomatoes user score as evidence that cinema-goers have enjoyed the movie far more than critics.

“What is shocking to me is that 80 percent of audience members on Rotten Tomatoes and 4 out of 5 of them on Fandango liked the film,” Gotti’s publicity boss Dennis Rice told THR. “Clearly critics are out of touch with the people who actually vote with their pocketbook. It makes me wonder if the press and critics don’t want a movie to succeed because they incorrectly think we are glorifying John Gotti.” 

Rice’s line – that critics have their knives out for Gotti and don’t want audiences to see it – is clearly echoed in the movie’s TV spot and Twitter feed. And in fairness, Gotti is a relatively small film that needs all the publicity it can get; if those who’ve turned up to see the crime drama have genuinely enjoyed it, then it’s only logical that their praise would be pointed out. Plenty of other movies have absorbed a drubbing from critics and gone on to enjoy a cult following – examples that immediately spring to mind are The Thing and Blade Runner. Both were condemned by reviewers and suffered at the box-office, only to enjoy a groundswell of support years later.

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What’s more bizarre, though, is the decision to label Gotti’s critics as trolls with keyboards. On one hand, it no doubt follows the gangster swagger tone of the movie, but to say that a bunch of critics, from separate parts of the country with little to no contact with each other, would for some reason choose to focus all their negative energies on one minor crime movie, is far fetched to say the least.

Gottis TV spot is, however, noteworthy for its minor escalation in the “for the fans” tactic. As we’ve already seen, it’s a line that’s long been trotted out by stars or filmmakers in defence of their own films, usually in press tour interviews; as far as we’re aware, this is the first time a trailer for a movie has actively tried to pit cinema-goers against the writers who’ve criticised it. 

The advent of Rotten Tomatoes and other aggregate scoring sites has, for better or worse, helped to highlight the difference between what audiences and critics respond to. There are plenty of instances where critics have adored a movie that has subsequently left audiences nonplussed (see Hereditary as a recent example), and there are numerous instances where audiences have flocked to see movies that critics have hated. But it also goes without saying that critics are also fans of movies themselves; they may be jaded, and their tastes may vary wildly from the average film-goer, but they wouldn’t be in their job if they didn’t love movies on some level.

To accuse reviewers of deliberately trying to sink a movie’s chances is something of a stretch – particularly as most movie critics we know couldn’t organise a pub crawl, let alone a coordinated trolling campaign against a John Travolta flick.

Who knows? Maybe Gotti will shrug off its dismal critical response and go on to become a much-loved cult hit. If it does, we’d bet it won’t be thanks to its very strange marketing campaign.