American Reunion: Masturbation, Humiliation and the Easter Weekend Reboot of a Diluted Brand

As Box Office Mojo noted, “American Reunion’s $21.5 million is actually the best R-rated Easter debut since Panic Room a decade ago. In comparison, the first three American Pie movies were all released in the Summer, which is prime real estate for raunchy R-rated fare.”

Without seeing Universal‘s release schedule, it’s impossible to know if the red-band trailer from October of 2011 contemplated an Easter/Passover roll-out. Regardless, there were larger challenges to surmount than the Lenten piety and self-censoring impulses of the American Judeo-Christian ticket-buying public.

“[T]he bigger problem was probably with the brand itself,” continues the B.O. Mojo recap. “While the first three American Pie movies played a part in establishing the model for risqué sex comedies in the new century,” there is no dearth of competition in the raunch genre, and the subsequent direct-to video brand extensions were neither cinematically nor financially remarkable.

The challenge then is how to “resurrect” a once popular series for a fourth installment opening in a different cultural moment after a significant passage of time since the last film of the series.

Conventional wisdom posits, rather elementarily, that you need to activate the original fans with the promise of known and familiar pleasures, updated by the development of those previously appealing story lines and characters. New audiences, for their part, are appealed to on the basis of compelling and contemporary qualities in the new film. In other words, you’ve got to navigate similarity and difference (offering a little of both) for established audiences, while delivering something fresh and attractive to new audiences.

In a more scholarly and analytical exploration of the challenge faced by sequels conducted by UCLA Anderson Biz School Professor’s Sanjay Sood and Xavier Dreze’s,(“Brand Extensions of Experiential Goods: Movie Sequel Evaluations“) they describe how:
“Three studies examined movie sequels as a type of experiential brand extension. In contrast to traditional categorization models, our results revealed a reverse pattern for the effects of perceived similarity based on the degree of assimilation and the subsequent likelihood of satiation. Study 1 revealed that evaluations of numbered movie sequels improved when the sequels were dissimilar as opposed to similar, whereas named sequels did not depend on similarity. Study 2 showed that the likelihood of satiation is dependent upon activation of the original movie; numbered sequels were more likely to be assimilated with the original movie, leading to lower evaluations, faster response times, and reduced recall of the sequel’s plot. Study 3 found two of the experimental main effects actually extended to real?world sequel evaluations over a 48 yr. period. Dissimilar sequels were rated higher than similar sequels, and sequels with named titles were rated higher than sequels with numbered titles in the IMDb. In addition, named (vs. numbered) sequels were more likely to result in the launch of yet another sequel. Summing across these three studies, we conclude that for experiential attributes, the evaluations of brand extensions reverse the traditional pattern because consumers evidently value dissimilarity over similarity.”

[Nota bene: Satiety in their usage is not a good thing. It means, more or less, too much; surfeit, enough!]

So, let’s look at how the makers of American Reunion’s Red Band trailer handled the challenge.

First, they weren’t burdened with a numbered brand extension, but one with its own title, that both referenced the series while identifying the premise of the new addition: a reunion.

Second, they relied on the most memorable moment- indeed, the paradigmatic sequence– from the first film (a conceit developed in the others as well) as the focus of this 1:21 second trailer. American Pie portrayed inappropriate and interrupted masturbation and subsequent humiliation as its model of American adolescent sexual development.

The Red Band trailer for American Reunion explores this thematic, and gives it a clever twist: whereas in the first film, Eugene Levy (the dad, Mr. Levinstein) surprises his son Jim, (Jason Biggs) in flagrante indelicato with an apple pie, this trailer shows Jim, now a father himself, being interrupted in a moment of private pleasure by his toddler son, Evan. He then, interrupts his wife, during her moment of private pleasure in the bathtub, whereupon, startled, she releases the shower massage which sprays the interior of her bathroom and soaks her husband, who is figuratively and literally, “all wet” or perhaps, cooled down after having been hot and bothered.

For a trailer, this is remarkably focused: basically, we see an extended scene involving exhausted young parents who are not finding time for intimacy with each other frustrated in their clandestine efforts to gratify themselves. Jason Bigg’s character can never, presumably, catch a break, caught in the act, as it were, first by his father, then by his son, in a striking inversion of a truly seminal moment of male anxiety.

Of course, no American Pie franchise would be complete without the “gross-out” factor and in this film, it has to do with the presumed “uncleanliness” of Jason’s masturbatory sock (filled with lube and ejaculate) which he flings onto the head of his innocent (pure) toddler, in his distraction over being surprised. He then scrambles to remove the contaminating garment after having first slammed his member in his porn-streaming laptop.

The music cues for the trailers, R Kelly’sBump & Grind,” and James‘ 1993 “Laid” hit, are well chosen, albeit, expensive components of the messaging and the tone of this trailer. Two cues from R Kelly’s 1994 hit are used as well as two cues from “Laid.” “My mind’s telling me no, but my body, my body,” talk-sings Mr. Kelly as Bigg’s hesitates, then decides to look at online porn while his wife is sequestered in the tub.

James’ infectious lyrics, “this bed is on fire, with a passionate love” kick in just as Biggs has leapt from his bed to remove the offending sock from his boy’s head. A cast run follows, featuring the actors in what look like photobooth candids, a name tag identifying them in the roles they’re reprising 13 years after the original American Pie, during the course of a sloppy high school reunion.

We then return to the Levinstein household where Jim breaks into his wife’s Michele’s (Alyson Hannigan) bubble-bath and the cue picks up R Kelly’s song at the lyric, “I don’t see nothing wrong, with the bump and grind.” She seems to be doing more than just soaking and washing in rhythm to the music.

In the first cue, R Kelly sings of sexual confidence, competence and assertion, lyrics in ironic contrast to our protagonist’s haplessness in such affairs. The James cue is an anthem to the insanity and illogic of sexual passion, which does, I think, better describe the ethos and depictions within the American Pie movies.

Of course, there’s more to be said about this trailer, but I trust I’ve said enough about how and why it works. To recap: It reactivates core fans by connecting with familiar/anticipated pleasures, while interestingly re-vising them for a new film, in which the story is developed along with the original characters. The Reunion concept is ideal, if not entirely unpredictable, as a vehicle for just this resolution of the same/difference dynamic. As for new fans, they’ll quickly see that the franchise is not to be outdone in the raunchy/gross out category which has been so well-populated in the meantime. And they just might be curious to see what all the fuss was about in the original films, albeit updated for a 2012 sensibility and frame of reference.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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