CLOUD ATLAS TRAILER: Marketing the Hard to Describe Movie

Box Office Mojo predicted the difficulties faced by Cloud Atlas in finding an audience in these paragraphs from an Oct. 25th article anticipating new releases and their likely box office expectations:

“Opening at 2,008 locations, Cloud Atlas has the most buzz among cinephiles, though its commercial prospects aren’t looking great. On the surface, the movie has a strong box office pedigree: Tom Hanks is one of the highest-grossing movie stars ever, and the Wachowski siblings are responsible for the very successful Matrix Trilogy. Unfortunately, Larry Crowne and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close proved last year that audiences won’t show up to everything Hanks does, and the Wachowski brand was hurt by Speed Racer and those baffling Matrix sequels.

The movie itself is one of the toughest sells in recent memory [my emphasis]. Since there are six separate stories taking place in six different time frames, the marketing has pushed the stunning imagery, the “Everything is Connected” tagline, and enthusiastic quotes from critics. All of that appeals to movie buffs, but on the whole it probably looks too baffling for mainstream audiences. Add in the 164 minute run time and the “R” rating, and it’s going to be tough to convert interest in to attendance.

The most obvious comparable title is 2006’s The Fountain, which also featured actors playing multiple characters across different timelines, and only opened to $5.5 million through its first five days. Cloud Atlas does seem a bit more accessible, but it’s still going to be tough to get past $10 million on opening weekend.”

And indeed, Box Office Mojo’s prognostications were borne out in the weekend box office receipts. This follow up was published on Oct. 28th:

“Cloud Atlas had the highest debut among this weekend’s newcomers with $9.6 million from 2,008 theaters. That’s the lowest nationwide launch ever for the Wachowski siblings (who co-directed with Tom Tykwer), and it’s also the worst nationwide opening for star Tom Hanks since 1996’s That Thing You Do! At least the movie nearly matched The Fountain’s $10.1 million total, though that’s really not a ringing endorsement.

This is a disappointing, but not surprising, opening for Cloud Atlas. With six thinly-connected stories set in different time periods, the marketing was never able to convey an actual story, which is the most fundamental part of selling a movie. The insane runtime (164 minutes) was also likely a deterrent for casual moviegoers, while the middling reviews (62 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) weren’t good enough to convince cinephiles to check it out. The movie could save some face overseas, where its strong visuals and internationally recognizable cast will help a lot, but it’s still going to be a long road to profitability for this $100 million epic.

Warner Bros. reported that the audience was split about evenly between men (51 percent) and women, and skewed much older (77 percent over 25). They gave the movie a “C+” CinemaScore, which isn’t shocking given the more challenging nature of the movie. IMAX contributed an estimated $1.13 million (or around 12 percent) from 105 locations.”

Without undertaking to assess the entire marketing campaign, I did want to look at the official trailer in light of the difficulties described above. In this post, then, I’ve venture to explain how the trailer-makers attempt to explain, position and create interest in a sprawling, complicated, R-rated, literary film that elicited undistinguished critical reviews and popular reaction! (See Rotten Tomatoes.)

Given the six nested and loosely connected stories that make up the book (a book which I recently read and greatly admired, by the way), there was probably no way that a 2:30 trailer could “tell” the stories or explain their relation one to another. Thus, the representative scenes of the Cloud Atlas trailer, instead of articulating THE plot and THE genre (as in a typical trailer for a typical, narrative Studio film) are drawn from six different stories occurring in six distinct time periods and genres.

As such, they aren’t representative scenes, but rather snapshots. They can’t hope to posit conflict or motivation, although character–or at least character type– can be and is indicated and broadly sketched through dialogue, facial appearance, wardrobe and gesture. Further complicating matters, the cast play different roles in different time periods, sometimes protagonists, sometimes villains. So in one story and shot from the trailer, we see Tom Hanks as a conniving 19th century poisoner; in another, he’s a courageous 20th century scientist.

Rather, the trailermakers rely on music cues to associate and connect disparate stories through affective, emotional means; and, they exploit three of the four fundamental editing relationships — spatial, graphic and rhythmic–to establish patterns among the nested stories and to imply recurring themes, conflicts and resolutions thereof.

“Everything is connected,” is the tagline as well as the explanation for the trailer’s structure. Without knowing the plot, the viewer can’t hope to know what the movie is about, which B.O. Mojo considers the signal failing. Happily, telling the story is not the only way for a trailer to appeal to an audience. In this case, it relies also on provenance (the Wachowskis; Tom Tykwer, Warner Bros., David Mitchell, the author), stars (Hanks, Berry, Broadbent, Sturgess, Sarandon, Grant), spectacle (from the 19th century South Pacific to the space-age future and beyond) and curiosity about a preview that, if it does nothing else, signals its prestige, budget and painstakingly elaborate production value.

There are three music cues corresponding to the three acts (as I see it) of the trailer: The first, is developed on an arranged, orchestral recording of the Cloud Atlas Sextet, a fictional piece of music that is the subject of the second story, but which insinuates itself into the others. In the opening act, the music itself is the subject of dialogue and scene, rather than serving as “background.” Why, Berry asks, (as Luisa Ray, intrepid investigative journalist) is this music so familiar? Or how, Broadbent inquires, does the young composer (Sturgess) come to write the music of his dreams? The first third of the trailer advertises a story in which the subject matter is the transpersonal, transhistorical power of music on memory, experience and sensibility.

The second act of the trailer is introduced by the notes of the Sextet played on the piano, sounding separately and jarring, rather than soothing, and soon modulating into a note of suspense. This rising, synthetic chord is instantly recognizable as the signpost of an action thriller. The on-screen activity morphs accordingly into kinetic events of scale and consequence. Futuristic worlds, guns, car crashes, purposeful striding, assaults–all under a voice over that describes how the direction of a life can change suddenly and dramatically.

In this section, cards appear to underscore the big issues of “DEATH,” “LIFE,” “BIRTH” as well as to indicate the filmmakers responsible: “FROM THE CREATORS OF THE MATRIX TRILOGY AND THE DIRECTOR OF RUN LOLA RUN.” It closes on another chord of rising suspense as Luisa Ray’s car is knocked off a bridge, sending her plunging toward the water below.

Act 3 uses what I call Epic Finale music to herd the spectacular images from the various stories into a “call to action” montage. Quick cut, emotional, exciting and gorgeous scenes succeed each other on the basis of spatial, graphic and rhythmic relationships. The mounting action is captioned by the tagline, “EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED,” as the trailer builds toward the title reveal and the release date card. A voice over (voiced by Frobisher–Sturgess–the composer of the Cloud Atlas Sextet), intones: “I believe there is another world waiting for us…a better world…and I’ll be waiting for you there.” The sentiment evokes the idea of return and recurrence which the stories themselves disclose and by its fatalistic optimism, it elaborate the conceit that “everything is connected.”

I have long wanted to see the movie on the basis of the book’s reputation, a reputation that is built, interestingly (although I think undeservedly), on difficulty and inaccessibility. The Wachowski’s and Mr. Twyker understood what they were getting into –if they’re interviews are any indication–but they are not faint hearted not wary of daunting challenges. It’s perfectly conceivable that their adaptation has not done justice to the book or that the performance is not quite what they hoped. In that case, it may be that the promise of the trailer, which is not shy about the atypicality of the movie advertised, has not been met. Or, as I am increasingly obliged to recognize, it may be that there is not a mass-market audience for such fare, and that, I find, is extremely dispiriting.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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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