When was the last time you walked into a movie, without knowing anything beyond the title and maybe who was in it? Not even seeing the trailer first? These days, it's hard to believe such an experience even exists.
And yet, there was a time when I routinely saw movies after glancing at a poster and saying, "Hey, this looks cool." From the poster, you could glean that some decent actors were in this thing, and that it was a spy thriller or a pulp science-fiction story or a foreign art movie. A good poster might give you some sense of texture, or whether this was likely to be slow and smoky, or fast-paced and weird. I also managed to rent a lot of movies at the video store, based on the box art and description on the back.
I can vividly remember the last couple of movies I saw without any prior knowledge: 28 Days Later and Austin Powers. In the former case, I vaguely knew it was from the director of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, which was enough information for me. In the latter case, we saw the poster when we were walking past the movie theater and thought it looked cool. I probably would have seen both movies even if I'd known more about them, but the element of surprise was a nice plus. Of course, either one of them could have sucked, and that would have been sad.
Am I alone here? Did everybody else research always movies fanatically before going to see them? Or has there been a widespread shift? I suspect it's the latter.
Blame the internet.
It would be intensely hypocritical for me to complain about the internet giving people too much information about movies, considering what I do for a living. Plus, I wouldn't actually complain about this — I think we're much better off, in some ways, having information overload. And for most people, who aren't steeped in entertainment, a lot of movies still probably come out of nowhere. When we did our "person on the street" interviews about Avatar, a week before it came out, we were still able to find plenty of people who knew almost nothing about it.
But there's definitely been a shift, caused by sites like this one as well as Youtube and other video sites. And studio marketing campaigns are a lot more frenetic and in-your-face than they used to be too, it seems to me. It's much easier to see ten versions of a movie's trailer, and probably harder to avoid seeing them. Prime time TV shows are dotted with loads of movie ads, probably more than in the past. Variety and The Hollywood Reporter used to be trade publications, read by a handful of industry insiders, and now their reports on upcoming movies get reposted on thousands of blogs like ours. Often, up to 10 minutes in clips from a movie will be online before it comes out, and interviews are everywhere.
The internet is a bit of an echo chamber at the best of times, and this tendency is magnified with entertainment stuff. A movie that has internet buzz will go into a kind of endless feedback loop where every new bit of news — or rumor, in the case of Batman 3 — gets passed around endlessly, getting more and more enhanced with every pass. Just the information that a movie will have a trailer on a particular date becomes fodder for the frenetic centrifuge.
I'd say two things have changed. First, the internet provides way more information. In the old days, I might read about upcoming films in the newspaper, but a single newspaper article was pretty easy to miss in the days before online archives. I also read Starlog and Fangoria occasionally, but the same problem applies. And the second change is that studios are a lot more hyperactive in marketing upcoming films — partly because they've learned to use the internet, but also because Hollywood movies are a lot more expensive these days. And what was a respectable opening a decade ago is now a total flop. The stakes are much, much higher than in the past, so the studios throw everything out there to make sure you know all about a film before it opens.
I'm also wondering if there are more trailers shown before a typical movie in the theaters. I went to see a lot of movies back in the day, but I still managed to miss seeing the trailers for many of them.
Blame the "retread" factor
(Again, I don't really think it's a question of "blame," because there are good and bad things about this change. You could just as easily say "Credit the internet" or "Credit the 'retread' factor" in those subheads above.)
It's not just that the internet has increased our information sources and volume about movies, or that the studios are marketing movies more intensively. There's also the much-discussed fact that more and more movies are sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, reimaginings, and the latest film in a series. Back in the day, you might go to a James Bond movie not knowing much about it — but you knew it was a James Bond movie, and that told you a lot. There are just a heck of a lot more movies now that this rule applies to.
Because movies are so much more expensive, and need to make so much more money, than they used to, Hollywood is much more interested in the "sure thing." A new Tron movie is a much surer bet than some random story idea about people interacting with the virtual world or becoming cybernetic. A movie based on a successful comic, or a fresh update to a classic property that Hollywood ran into the ground, will either be a huge hit, or will be less of a flop than a movie based on an unknown idea could be.
In a sense, Hollywood has slightly shifted the landscape from the generic to the specific. As I said, back in the day, you could see a poster and know that a movie was a "spy thriller" or a "buddy comedy," and that would tell you something about it. But now, increasingly, instead of "spy thriller," you get the specificity of knowing that it's the tenth movie in the Spy Dogz series, or whatever.
A lot of the frenetic marketing is also aimed at reassuring you that your next Big Mac really will be exactly the same as your last Big Mac. When the next Star Trek movie comes out, you'll no doubt once again hear lots of talk about how J.J. Abrams is staying true to the original series. A big part of the marketing of any movie retread is about reassuring the fans that it'll respect the source material, or even that it'll be a faithful copy. From that standpoint, knowing too much is a pre-requisite. You'll even hear fans say things like, "I won't go see the new Green Lantern unless I know in advance that they're keeping the original oath." Or whatever.
Hollywood movies have always been unoriginal. In the past, they were the same old tropes with new names, and now they take great pains to keep even the names the same. To the extent that a lot of big movies are comfort food, this makes perfect sense. You want to know that your mac-cheese is not going to turn out to have Brussels sprouts in it.
What's so bad about knowing too much?
Nothing, really. In many ways, it really is great. It helps me to avoid some movies that would have felt like a huge waste of $10 if I'd gone into see them cold. Plus, as I wrote before, the internet actually made me love old media more. Including movies. I love being part of a "grand conversation" online about media, and I get way more out of movies, television, comics and books that way.
Part of that is getting more access to creators, through their Twitter feeds and interviews and blog posts. But it's also news, spoilers, speculation, rumors, lies, and, yes, too much information. Movies aren't going to be truly interactive for decades, probably. But they're already interactive to some extent, because we can obsess about them online for months and months before they come out, and that feels like we're engaging with them.
But it's fair to ask what we've lost, too. The old way felt a lot less complicated, and maybe more innocent — you discovered movies, in much the same way you discovered a new restaurant, by glancing at the menu and peeking inside. And there were some surprises — both good ones and bad ones. It turns out not every movie with Christopher Walken in it is going to be good, and I had to discover that the hard way.
Inevitably, the same five cool moments from each big Hollywood blockbuster get put into every trailer, TV spot and clip reel, until by the time you watch the movie, you feel as though you're just seeing those moments in a slightly different context this time. Of course, the worse the movie is, the more likely this is to be true.
The playing field was probably also a lot more level, when you knew less about movies in general. A smaller movie had just as much of a chance of grabbing my eye as a bigger one did, although to be fair, the presence of an actor I'd heard of might make a wee bit of a difference. But now that there's a huge conversation about movies online, and tons of information being bandied about, it's easier for a bigger movie to drown out the smaller ones.
And I do miss the casualness of picking a movie almost at random, taking a chance, and letting a director and a crew of actors do their thing with no preconceptions. It was fun.
I can't even imagine what degree of monastic discipline would be involved in going to see movies without any foreknowledge whatsoever, in this day and age. It might be doable, if you weren't that much of an entertainment junkie. Still, that world is probably gone forever, barring the apocalypse or some dramatic shift in the landscape. And it's mostly for the best, I think.
So what was the last movie you went into without knowing anything at all about it?