I just got back from seeing "Inception," and it's brilliant. It's the movie of the summer and one of the best science-fiction films I've seen in years. But I'm not going to put up a full review of it for at least a few more days so I can take some time to go over it in my head and avoid contributing to the deluge of spoiler-filled commentary that is already permeating the internet. But while discussing the film with my fellow viewers after the screening, the conversation turned to the perfect marketing campaign that Christopher Nolan and Warner Brothers put together for this movie. I think it's worthy of a post of its own.
Hard science fiction is not an easy sell these days, even if you have a cast full of big names and a director like Nolan at the helm. After a steady diet of mindless action-adventure films and idiot comedies, mainstream consumption habits have been dumbed down over the years, and the smarter filmgoers have learned to be wary of the multiplexes. So when you've got something like "Inception," that requires no small amount of brain power to keep up with and fully appreciate, there's a real danger of it failing to connect with the audience it was meant for, or worse attracting filmgoers who will fail to understand it and write it off as pretentious hackery.
It must have been tempting for the studio to push this film as a heist film or an action-adventure spectacle, and to center the campaign around all the gunfire and chase scenes that figure heavily into its latter half. There's so much here that is a challenge for marketers to sell to general audiences. "Inception" has a premise that is difficult to explain, it isn't a franchise film, and its stars are better known for their prestige pictures than their summer blockbusters. Even worse, it's a serious dramatic thriller, and nobody sees those anymore, right? I'm surprised Warner Brothers didn't take the easy way out and push it as something easier to digest. There have been plenty of recent examples of deceptive marketing, where the darker, more difficult aspects of a film will be hidden away from the public to push tickets. I can't count the number of times I've heard grumbles about misleading ads, that often string together the best special-effects shots and neglect to mention little things like story. Or the lack of one.
Instead, the "Inception" campaign never shied away from the fact that the film was going to be a difficult watch, and would probably confuse many people. In fact, that's what the early teaser trailers seemed determined to evoke – a sense of disorientation. You had a few intriguing images, but no context at all. But like the concept of "inception" in the film itself, those few glimpses - planted over a year ago - wound up germinating into significant speculation, interest, and buzz. By selling the film as an object of mystery, as a well-guarded secret that was going to require more than passive watching to solve, it got potential viewers into the right mindset to approach the film with. It was the ultimate in truth in advertising. Not only did the trailers not misrepresent what was going on in "Inception," it really didn't spell out anything at all. There were a few concepts introduced and a few nice effects shots to whet our appetites, but even the full two-minute trailer didn't delve very deep into the intricate plot – which is easily the best part of the film.
In the weeks leading up to the film's premier, a lot of the press made mention of viewers like me, who were eagerly anticipating the film but extremely sensitive about spoilers and getting too much information via Internet spoilers. This was shrewdly cued by the marketing campaign itself, which made keeping the secrets of the film part of the moviegoing experience. By not giving us the usual glut of exposition to set up the story from the outset, the message was that the less you knew about "Inception" before actually seeing the film, the better it would play. Old school science fiction fans like me already knew this, but it was interesting to see how the idea took hold more widely, the closer we got to the release date. It's really turned into an event film all on its own, as word has spread – not just about the film, but about the mystery surrounding it.
I really hope more films use the "less is more" approach in the future, because it's about time the pendulum started swinging back in the other direction and marketers got more careful with the amount of information oversaturating the marketplace. And for the ultimate proof that the strategy works, "Inception" is estimated to have taken in over $60 million in ticket sales over the weekend, easily surpassing all analyst estimates.