Why do audiences hate surprise?

mother! was perhaps the most harrowing movie of 2017. I would like to say it divided audiences and conjured strong opinions about the liberation of art, but people just really hated it. I maintain the problem with mother! wasn’t the movie itself; if people can find joy in Joy (2015), people will watch J-Law do anything (provided its sanitized enough to take your parents to over Thanksgiving). I insist, instead, that it failed in both the mainstream and indie circuits because it was not upfront about its uniqueness.

Promotion for the movie was limited to spooky, albeit beautiful, imagery of Jennifer Lawrence in billowy dresses and a cascading wig. It’s clear this is a scary movie, maybe even a psychological thriller. Audiences remember hearing director Darren Aronofsky’s name from the Black Swan (2010) era, and assume mother! is cut from the same cloth.

mother! is surely from the same mind as Black Swan, but it is a new and individual kind of nightmare. In a terrifying series of allegories, hardly linked by narrative, audiences are asked to question the urgency of environmental destruction and brutality of humanity. Everyone dies. Kristen Wiig kills them, for god’s sake.

Unlike the Marvel trailers, however, the advertisement played it coy. It was pleasant and intriguing without giving too much away. This strategy is never magnetic enough for a large mainstream base, but mother! was expected to perform better after its Venice premiere. Instead, people really hated it.

Good trailers are understood to be those that are honest in tone without spoiling the plot. By toeing this line production can tempt big audiences by highlighting all the good scenes and fill seats by hiding all the bad.

In actuality, there is no good trailer. They either spoil or trick you. One of these experiences is boring and the other is too much of a gamble: I thought this was Joy! But in an industry where films are so high budget and so high risk, the only way to operate in-system is through effective trailers. By this new standard, I argue mother! did promotion right. Audiences are responsible for its failure.

The best movies of late are those that understand this way of communicating with audiences, and that are able to take the risk in subverting expository promotion. Serendipitously, I think the next best example of it is another J-Law film: Red Sparrow (2018).

The promotion for this movie made it look like a sexier, fuckier Mission Impossible. An homage to the spy genre, trailers showed a parade of celebrities, J-Law’s boobs, J-Law’s eyeliner, and J-Law beating someone up. While interesting to action fanatics, the gratuitous and slow-moving cinematography was appalling to others (me). After AMC put me through the trailer what felt like hundreds of times, I couldn’t think of anything worse than watching Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Lawrence do fake accents.

But understanding the potential dishonesty of trailers, I saw it anyway. I hoped it would be like mother!: completely unlike its promotion. Thankfully it was. It’s incredibly dark and committed, slow-burning and gripping.

The problem with Red Sparrow, however, is that it doesn’t have enough commercial-friendly material to hide all the rape and torture scenes. There is no way to market it to MI bros and Bond dads in an intriguing way. As dubious and ineffective as its tactic was, mother! completely concealed itself and was able to sell audiences something entirely different. While it played it safe in box office context, it was a risk to lie to potential audiences about what mother! was about. With more to lose, Red Sparrow didn’t take that risk. Unfortunately, it landed in the same place; audiences were cheated– they thought this was Catching Fire! (I’m running out of J-Law references)

I enjoyed the effect of Red Sparrow‘s marketing, because I hated it. I was expecting a cartoonish action film, something I never would have seen before MoviePass. Instead, it was exactly the intricately written government drama I’ve been craving. But if I weren’t movie-obsessed, if I hadn’t seen that IndieWire gave it the all-clear, I would have stayed far away.

The argument the industry makes is that it couldn’t have marketed only to indie lovers: it cost too much money. However, for as much as it lost in the box office, it could have performed better with a different trajectory. If they would have sold it to me instead of my father, I would have seen it earlier than its last weekend in theaters.

Movies are everywhere, and eventually the box office will die, or at least shape shift into another rating system. It’s never been easier to see movies and form opinions about movies. 2017 marked a shift in how audiences think about big and small budget films. While the numbers don’t necessarily reflect it yet, those fluent in Youth Internet cannot deny that trailers have never been less valuable.

There is value in making yourself responsible, as an audience member, to support movies on your own volition. It has always been true that reclaiming opinions from capitalism and elitism is beneficial for art’s posterity, but it is now more pertinent than ever. As Netflix and YouTube reshape cinema and trailer cultures, it’s more important than ever to resist traditional measurements of movie success. Trust directors and actors and visuals, not the people trying to commoditize them.

Don’t seek out trailers, seek out movies. If you’re already looking for a thriller, what’s the problem with being surprised?

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