The Paranoid Style in Modern Movie Marketing | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

The Paranoid Style in Modern Movie Marketing

How to promote movies by cynically harnessing media resentment.

[dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]ne can get far in American life by turning people against the news media.

Politicians have been doing that for decades, going back at least to the era of Richard Nixon, with the current president of the United States using anti-media resentment to, on a frequent basis, deny objective reality.

These days, a lot of people across American life seem to have concluded that they can accomplish their goals by convincing others that a conspiracy is afoot on the part of nefarious left-wing forces. This strategy has been deployed, twice so far this year, in an unlikely arena: Marketing of movies.

Gotti Got Got

The first instance was with Gotti, the infamous biopic of mobster John Gotti that starred John Travolta. The film had a troubled production history, which dragged on for years, and was scheduled for release last December before it was dropped by its distributor just two weeks before its release. Eventually, Gotti was picked up and released in March.

Gotti received some of the year’s most brutal reviews, from critics who chided the film’s poor acting,  exposition-heavy dialogue, and the way the film seemed to be openly shilling for its murderous, career-criminal hero. Gotti, eight months after its release, has retained a rare 0% Rotten Tomatoes score, based on 47 reviews (one of which was my own).

Gotti, eight months after its release, has retained a rare 0% Rotten Tomatoes score, based on 47 reviews…

But once it became clear that the film was both a disaster with critics and a box office flop, the distributors behind Gotti (Vertical Entertainment and MoviePass Ventures) launched an unusual tactic: It declared war against critics.

Audiences loved Gotti but critics don’t want you to see it…The question is why??? Trust the people and see it for yourself,” a tweet from the movie’s official account stated. The “audiences loved Gotti” part was somewhat questionable, as the Rotten Tomatoes audience scores appeared to be manipulated, but the campaign pressed on: Another tweet asked “Who do you trust?… The actual people who saw the movie or some TROLLS behind the keyboard?”

But beyond that, the campaign got a few things blatantly wrong. A negative review of a movie does not mean the critics don’t “want you to see it” – that’s not how film criticism works. When I review a movie, it should be construed as my evaluation of that movie, not as a consumer recommendation. Nor is it censorship, or a deliberate attempt to suppress the film. In 20 years as a film critic I’ve written plenty of negative reviews, but I’ve never intended any of them as an attempt to destroy the film’s very existence.

When I review a movie, it should be construed as my evaluation of that movie, not as a consumer recommendation.

The other key with Gotti? It did not screen for critics, to the best of my knowledge, anywhere in the country. Therefore, it’s likely that all 47 critics whose reviews appeared on Rotten Tomatoes wrote their reviews after buying a ticket to the movie and seeing it with an audience – odd behavior for critics that are supposed to be conspiring against the film. That’s what I did, during the first week of its release, and there were three other people in the theater. And this was in South Philadelphia, which even today remains a stronghold for mob enthusiasts.

The Gosnell Gambit

The Gotti strategy was repeated this fall with Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. That film, directed by actor Nick Searcy, told the story of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, an abortion doctor in West Philadelphia, who was arrested in 2011 and charged with having killed multiple babies after they were born, as well as one adult female who was his patient. He was convicted in 2013 and his trial was a major cause among the anti-abortion movement, which argued at the time – very falsely – that the news media had “ignored” the case.

…starting with its release, the filmmakers and promoters of the film went all anti-media, all the time.

The Gosnell movie was also the result of a long and sometimes troubled production process, which included a crowdfunding campaign and difficulty finding distribution.

Released in October, Gosnell wasn’t nearly as poor a film as Gotti, and this was reflected in the reviews – a 55 percent positive score at Rotten Tomatoes, as of this writing. But starting with its release, the filmmakers and promoters of the film went all anti-media, all the time.

As the film was based on the false notion that there was a “media coverup” of the Gosnell case, they felt the need to invent a second “media coverup,” of the movie itself:

None of those things happened, nor do any of them meet any reasonable definition of “censorship.” Lack of a big studio distribution deal is something that happens to most independently produced films. Theaters DID show the film, and critics did review it. A surprising number since, like with Gotti, Gosnell was not screened in advance for critics, although the talking point soon shifted to complaints that the critics who wrote reviews weren’t major or prominent enough.

Myself and other critics in Philadelphia, the city where the film’s events took place, were interested in covering this movie that was obviously of local interest – but received no reachout at all from the film’s distributors. I only saw the film when an out-of-town critic friend put me in touch with a publicist, about 24 hours before opening day.

I published a review of the movie that was mixed-to-negative, praising some technical aspects of the film but always criticizing its lack of Philadelphia authenticity, as well as its propogation of the false myth that no reporters covered the case. Sometime afterward, I was yelled at on Twitter for the better part of an afternoon by Nick Searcy, the director, as well as some of the movie’s fans. I don’t mind that, as I always welcome feedback about my work and the directors of movies I review usually don’t engage with me. And besides, I’m a fan of Searcy as an actor, as he co-starred on one of my favorite TV shows, Justified, and getting chewed out by Art made me feel like Raylan Givens.

…I’m a fan of Searcy as an actor…and getting chewed out by Art made me feel like Raylan Givens.

However, it’s sort of odd for the promoters of a film to first not screen a film for critics, then immediately turn around and attack those same critics for not reviewing it and then, once a critic DOES review it, trash his review on Twitter.

And then, the film’s producer, Phelim McAleer, wrote an editorial on the conservative website Townhall.com about the media’s “censorship” of Gosnell  because, in part, the film dropped from 668 theaters to 480 theaters from one week to another. Which is literally the way movie exhibition always works – films that aren’t massive hits lose theaters from week to week in order to make room for other, newer movies. And wouldn’t a film subject to a high-level censorship plot have been on zero screens, rather than 480?

Bottomless Bad Faith

I get that this is all bad faith, a cynical attempt to reach an audience with a track record of falling for this sort of appeal, from the president on down, who hate and resent the media, but at the same time really really demand the validation and approval of that same media.

It’s also worth noting that this strategy didn’t work. Gotti’s final domestic box office total was a paltry $4.3 million. Gosnell, to date, has made $3.6 million.

If you made a movie, and the reviews either weren’t positive or nonexistent, it’s almost certainly not because there’s a censorious conspiracy against your film. Going scorched-earth against critical media might work in politics, but it doesn’t seem so effective in movie promotion.

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