Two weeks ago, the newly revamped Spider-Man franchise caused a brief stir when Tom Holland — the relatively unknown actor tapped to portray the friendly neighborhood web-slinger — announced at CinemaCon in Las Vegas the title of the forthcoming film: Spider-Man: Homecoming.
That the film doesn’t come out for another 15 months was no deterrent to fans and reporters: The seemingly minor announcement elicited stories in Deadline, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, The Telegraph, The Verge (to name just a few major outlets) and countless blogs dedicated to covering all aspects of geek culture and entertainment. Next to nothing was revealed about the film’s plot, save for Holland saying, “Peter [Parker] is trying to find his true identity and where he really belongs in the world.” Sony Pictures chairman Tony Rothman did say he hopes Parker’s emotional journey will span the course of three films — assuring us at least another six years of incessant Spider-Man marketing.
Such is the norm in the current, superhero-saturated state of the film industry. Fanboy culture has created a state of perpetual movie hype — a movie-trailer and comic-book conference-industrial complex in which the marketing cycles for major films are now several years long (and often overshadow the films themselves).
“There’s no doubt the lead time for movies has extended,” says Tom Nunan, a lecturer at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television and producer on Crash, winner of the 2006 Academy Award for Best Picture. “It used to be three months. Occasionally, you’d see a six-month lead. Now you’re seeing things a year, two years out. It’s crazy.”
The process begins with the studio declaring it will make a superhero film, followed by the ‘big’ announcement of who will play the film’s titular character. Next comes months of teasing out details in interviews, trade newspaper leaks, talk show appearances, product tie-ins, Reddit AMAs, exclusive behind-the-scenes looks and requisite Comic-Con panel. Throughout this media blitz, the studio cuts and releases various trailers for the film — a teaser trailer for initial excitement; several longer “official” trailers; an edgy “red band” trailer for mature audiences.
Marketing has become so integral to the release of comic-book films, in fact, that their marketing budgets often approach the actual production costs, Nunan says, pointing to Marvel’s Ant-Man as an example.
In June 2015, Marvel Studios made headlines for releasing the title of the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel — the brilliantly titled Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — two years before its release.
And the madness reached its inevitable conclusion last January when Marvel’s YouTube channel released a 17-second, “1st Ant-Sized Look” of the Ant-Man teaser trailer — a video whose sole purpose was to market the premiere of the actual teaser trailer (itself an ad for the “full” trailer) during an upcoming episode of ABC’s Agent Carter. This “ad for an ad for an ad” has generated more than 7 million views to date.
More recently, MTV bragged that its 2016 Movie Awards broadcast would feature the premiere of the latest trailer for the superhero ensemble movie Suicide Squad. A commercial for a movie that was months away from release outshined the entire movie awards presentation during which it aired.
In fact, the entire awards show was just a glorified marketing vehicle for this year’s slate of summer films, with every presenter hawking his or her upcoming role. Chris Evans was only there to present an exclusive clip from Captain America: Civil War.
Nunan partially attributes this influx to the state of modern media. There are infinite media options vying for people’s attention nowadays, so movie studios feel like they need to market their films earlier and more frequently to make any kind of impact.
But the real culprit, Nunan says, is the target audience for these movies — the fanboys with their insatiable appetites for all forms of superhero #content. For them, dissecting a trailer within an inch of its life isn’t exasperating at all; it’s fun. And because fans are notoriously hard to please, studios want to assure them early on that their beloved superheroes are being treated with the care and dignity they deserve, Nunan says.
Fans of the irreverent anti-hero Deadpool were appalled by his depiction in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, for instance. To take a wiseass like Deadpool and sew his mouth shut was unthinkable, and the decision was rightly mocked when Deadpool was given his own movie, a sign Marvel took fans’ desires into account.
“In the digital media world that we live in, it’s essential to actually describe, solicit and engage your audience before you make the film itself,” according to Michael Peyser, professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
But the aggregate effect can be exhausting. Approximately 15 minutes of Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, nearly one-tenth of the film, had been released across all of its trailers and clips by the time the film finally hit theaters last May.
The most egregious example of excessive marketing is 2016’s biggest superhero film to date, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which at this point feels as though it’s been theaters for several years. When Warner Bros. unveiled “Official Trailer 2” in December 2015, a full three months before the film’s theatrical release, fans complained it revealed the film’s “secret” villain (Doomsday) and the “surprise” entry of Wonder Woman. Worst of all, it showed Batman and Superman putting aside their differences, essentially negating the film’s central conflict. And that wasn’t even the end of the trailer assault — two months later, the “Official Final Trailer” was released.
And yet Batman v Superman also illustrates how effective this onslaught of marketing can be. The film has grossed more than $300 million in the U.S. to date, and Warner Bros. has already greenlit a Batman-focused spinoff, restarting the whole cycle anew.
“If they go overboard like that and reveal all the big secrets, then they’re buying the opening weekend because they don’t have confidence of the long haul for the movie,” Nunan says of films such as Batman v Superman and Jurassic World, another crassly marketed success to the tune of $1.6 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. Both had hugely successful opening weekends despite near-universal negative reviews, proof that studios can will a movie to profitability if they just spend enough.
“Let me play devil’s advocate,” Nunan says. “It works.”