Why is it so Hard to Market Challenging Movies?

by Redmond Bacon

Annihilation, the latest film from Ex Machina director Alex Garland, is a haunting and poetic experience, as much indebted to Tarkovsky and other Soviet sci-fi classics as genre movies such as Predator. It resists easy explanations, and instead works on a purely cinematic level, culminating in one of the most enigmatic endings to any sci-fi movie ever. Though hardly perfect with some unnecessary plot developments midway through, the Natalie Portman-headed movie remains the kind of challenging work that studios should champion.


So where can non-North American/Chinese citizens watch Anniilation? For us, it’s a Netflix-only venture that wasn’t even put on the front page. Or the “Netflix Originals” tab. Or the “Recently Added” tab. Since being sold to streaming giant for international distribution, Garland’s film has been buried for seemingly no good reason. This is even more bizarre when you factor in the critical acclaim it has received, and the fact it stands on a domestic total of $28 million off a budget of $40 million. Even when you factor in marketing and promotional costs, Paramount could have released this movie internationally in cinemas and turned a reasonable profit.

Arrival — featuring Amy Adams as a translator tasked to talk to alien invaders — is a great case in point, making over $200 million worldwide off a slightly higher budget of $47 million. Annihilation is a far more difficult film, but it would easily have connected with discerning audiences, and probably turned a profit due to the relatively low budget. Nonetheless, given the current state of moviemaking, it is understandable as to why Paramount made such a marketing fumble.

To look at their releases in the past year is to see a studio suffering an identity crisis. The Cloverfield Paradox was also gifted to Netflix, giving them a unique movie moment by dropping it straight after the Super Bowl. It was also terrible. The brilliant Downsizing and the not-so-great Surbubicon flopped, while Ghost in The Shell suffered a major backlash, and Tulip Fever went almost completely unnoticed before being wrecked under the weight of the controversy overwhelming its co-producers, The Weinstein Company. In fact, Paramount’s only big hits in 2017 were the critically panned Transformers: The Last Knight and Daddy’s Home 2.

It’s a shame when this model seems pretty good, alternating between broad comedies, action films, challenging horror, and sci-fi, but doesn’t actually work. These films barely made any waves, with zero Oscar nominations between them, making Paramount the first major studio in fifteen years not to get a nod. This was especially true of mother!, the truly breathtaking film from Darren Aranofsky, which barely recouped costs and received a Cinemascore of F+.

mother! is one of the most challenging movies to ever be released by a major studio, an allegory of the creation myth that features Javier Bardem as a gaslighting God, and Jennifer Lawrence as Mother Earth. Some critics thought it was absolutely brilliant, while others thought it was crass and shameful. One thing could be said for sure: you had to see it for yourself. Somehow though, despite featuring Jennifer Lawrence in the main role, the movie never really connected with fans, who were expecting straightforward horror yet got something far stranger.

Having produced an arthouse film made on a studio budget, Paramount was trapped, knowing that the movie would ultimately polarise the average viewer. If they had tried to explain that it was a once-in-a-lifetime style experience with a unique edge instead of cutting trailers that looked too much like a traditional haunted house thriller, perhaps the average viewer would have connected better with its themes. In a bizarre stunt, they later tried to capitalise upon the more negative reviews by incorporating it into the marketing techniques itself, but by then the film had already sunk. mother! had been mis-sold.


Less people are going to movies than ever, especially in the USA. The rise of online streaming, quality TV, and massive sporting events — in combination with higher prices and the squeeze in living costs — means that less people choose to go to the cinema. Movies today need an extremely strong message if they are going to appeal to everyone. The gargantuan success of Black Panther is a brilliant case in point, expertly utilising the Marvel brand and delivering something for a highly underserved population. With Black Panther there is the sense that the time has come for cinema with black majority casts. Annihilation might have made strong waves in terms of diversity (all-female science crew, two of them women of colour), but the marketers went for vagaries (“Fear What’s Inside”) instead of focusing on its key strengths: a type of light-and-sound-effects show that would make Kubrick proud.

Films like mother! and Annihilation, seemingly already forgotten, can take refuge in the kindness of history. Sci-fi aficionados can easily point to the polarised critical opinion towards 2001: A Space Odyssey and the poor $27 million gross of the original Blade Runner as decent examples of perceptions changing; some films simply take longer to sink in and become classics than others. These aren’t the kind of movies that benefit from snap judgments, their eventual success linked to the variety of interpretations that can be brought upon the narrative. For now they may be seen as curiosities, strange examples of big studios taking relatively large risks on challenging material.

What big studios need to work on now is delivering these types of films under budget (unlike the fantastic Blade Runner 2049, which cost $150 million to make) and connecting them with the right viewers. Burying them under the Netflix deluge, a marketplace that will produce 700 films, TV shows, and comedy specials this year, helps no one at all.

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