Two unrelated events got me grumbling about movie marketing this week -- the DVD release of Adventureland, and a screening of Bobcat Goldthwait's new film, World's Greatest Dad.

What these two films have in common, aside from being low-ish budget hybrid comedies, is that they've been sold to the public as something other than what they really are. It's not an uncommon marketing tactic by any means, and at some point we've all bought a movie ticket based on an ad, only to discover that we've been misled. But it seems that studios, when faced with the challenge of how to sell films that aren't easily described in two sentences, are increasingly willing to promote movies as something entirely different, just to get butts in seats on opening weekend.

Over at the blog PopMatters, writer Bill Gibron offered an excellent observation of the practice, noting that the theatrical marketing of Adventureland pimped it as a Superbad-style laugh fest, when in fact the movie's a much smaller, less raucous character study/coming-of-age flick. And the marketing backfired at the box office. "Fans coming in expecting more penis-laden laughs were legitimately let down by Adventureland's wistful, warm embrace," Gibron writes. "Instead of scatology, they got sentiment. [Greg] Motolla's motion picture tribute received good reviews but did mediocre business, moneywise." In a somewhat similar fashion,Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is bound to feel like a letdown to at least some of the moviegoers who've seen the ads and expect Tarantino to deliver his long-promised Sergio Leone-meets-The Dirty Dozen homage. The spaghetti western tone is there, certainly, but the Basterds themselves are just one component in a larger film that spends most of its time focused elsewhere. In fact, after setting up the squad of eight Jewish American soldiers led by Brad Pitt, we only get the sketchiest of character studies of two of them. Seen a second or third time, Tarantino's picture reveals itself to be a masterfully crafted work -- but on first viewing, it's jarring to realize that this isn't the movie being sold to the public, and it colors the viewing experience.

World's Greatest Dad, which opened in select cities and will be hitting the secondary markets this weekend, is another case in point. The trailer's quite funny, positioning the movie as an edgy comedy about a middle-aged man raising a typically annoying teenage boy. But what the film actually delivers is much darker, much more cringe-inducing and self-flagellating, with Robin Williams shrugging on the most extreme version of his patented sad-eyed schlub persona. And the son ... well, the son, played by Spy Kids' Daryl Sabara, is the most deliberately, unrelentingly repellent character to appear on film in recent memory.

To be fair, the premise (which can't be fully revealed here without producing a massive spoiler) is terrific. But the pacing of the film is typically slow, three-act indie movie stuff, with each set piece punctuated with predictably on-the-nose alt-rock songs, and a resolution so pat that you can see it coming down the road from ten miles away. Critics have mostly responded favorably to World's Greatest Dad, but it's hard to believe that audiences will be as pleased with what they get after seeing the advertising.

The blame falls squarely on the number-crunching which makes opening weekend grosses the studios' only concern. Get people into theaters that first weekend, the conventional wisdom goes, and the rest of the money can be made from foreign distribution, broadcast rights and video sales, even if word of mouth keeps audiences from buying tickets the second weekend. The losers in this scenario are film lovers who actually enjoy going to the movies, and who look to studios to honestly market their product.
categories Movies, Cinematical