Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"X-Men" Marketing Fail

This post marks the inaugural use of my new marketing tag, because even though many of us film nerds don't like to think about it, marketing efforts and ad campaigns play a huge part in the business of moviemaking these days and are a major determining factor in how well they perform at the box office. Which brings us to one of this summer's blockbuster hopefuls, "X-Men: First Class," a prequel film to the popular "X-Men" series. Today we saw a new international trailer released, and yesterday there was a new poster, both unremarkable and not very exciting. They're only the latest in a stream of muddled or mediocre marketing material that has some "X-Men" fans worried about the new film.

While there are a lot of rumors flying around that director Michael Vaughn was stuck with a very rushed production schedule, which is never a good sign, I still think there's a good chance that the new "X-Men" film will be decent. Vaughn is a good director and he's a assembled a lot of good actors for this, including James Avery, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Kevin Bacon, and Jennifer Lawrence. Having seen the trailers multiple times now, what's interesting is how little they show us of the film. There's barely any dialogue, lots of effects shots, and the whole things is hampered by a distracting framing device that hammers us over the head with the fact that the main characters are younger versions of Professor Xavier and the villain Magneto. You can also see the efforts to link the older and younger versions of the duo in these very nice posters and these amusingly bad ones.

This signals that 20th Century Fox's marketing team really has no idea how to sell this movie, aside from getting us to associate the new film with the original trilogy. I sympathize with them to some extent. "X-Men: First Class" is not only a prequel, but a period piece set in an alternate version of the 1960s. The iconic badass Wolverine is not in this movie, having been spun off to do his own series. Neither are Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue, Storm, Iceman, or most of the other mutants from the older films. Instead, "First Class" is sending out several of the lesser-known "X-Men" characters for this outing, including Moira McTaggart, White Queen, Banshee, Sebastian Shaw, and Havok. The marketing campaign has done a terrible job of introducing us to any of them. Emma Frost, the White Queen, is one of my favorite "X-Men" characters, but at the moment she's being presented as little more than a statuesque blonde in campy, revealing outfits. Almost nothing has been said about the plot of the film, though from the trailer and the characters I've guessing it involves an early version of the Hellfire Club and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Another tactic has been to mirror elements of the marketing campaign for the older "X-Men" films, which didn't have the greatest marketing to begin with. I've seen early teaser posters and theater standees clearly based on the teaser image for the first "X-Men" film, which can be seen here. The big metal X is the door to the X-Mansion's Danger Room, and of course X is for "X-Men." For the new film, since there's no Danger Room yet, the X forms the center of a big metal school seal, with "Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters" and "First Class" written around the edges. The trouble is that the text is difficult to read and nowhere does "X-Men" appear on many of the marketing materials that use the seal. It's often not clear what the title of the film is, and those who aren't familiar with the older marketing campaign might not be able to link it to "X-Men" at all. And really, am I supposed to get excited about a theater standee that's just a big, gray circle with an X on it, sitting in the middle of the lobby? Where are the mutants? Where's the excitement?

The "X-Men" film franchise has had its ups and downs and been saddled with its share of bad marketing decisions before this (Does anyone refer to the second film by its official title, "X2: X-Men United"?). However, Fox's efforts to promote "X-Men: First Class" have been remarkably poor, to the extent that it might adversely affect the film. And this is a shame, because "First Class" could be a good opportunity to revitalize the series. Matthew Vaughn is hoping it will be the first of a new trilogy of darker, more challenging "X-Men" films. I could get behind that. It's a shame Fox can't seem to.

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