JACK THE GIANT SLAYER: Is this Un-enthusiastic Marketing?

About the prospects of Jack The Giant Slayer, (slated for June of ’12, but pushed back to March 1st), Box Office Mojo had this to say: “Unfortunately, Jack now faces direct competition from Oz The Great and Powerful for family audiences, and Warner Bros‘s unenthusiastic marketing material makes it appear too childish for older audiences. There’s a very slight chance it winds up beating last March’s fantasy debacle John Carter ($73.1 million), though it won’t go much higher.”

I suppose B.O.Mojo has access to tracking date that suggests audience disinterest, since my anecdotal review of print and a/v doesn’t bear out its characterization of the marketing materials as “unenthusiastic.” After all, this is big budget filmmaking by heavyweights Bryan Singer & Toby Emmerich (among many others), with a strong cast (Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson) and a massive crew, based on well-known source material in a visually appealing genre (i.e. fantasy adventure). It’s rated PG and pitched at a broad demographic, including family audiences, with action for the video-gaming set and romance for them as likes it. In my Hollywood neighborhood, the print campaign is and has been both visible (bus shelters, bill boards) and dynamic, insofar as the teaser posters have given way to theatrical ones, just as the teaser trailer has heralded 2 official theatrical ones, a featurette and some advance clips.

Having just watched the #1 Official Trailer, I’m inclined to think that the fault–if such there by–lies not with the marketing campaign, which if not brilliant is more than serviceable, but with the film itself. (The release delay speaks to that more than anything!) The 2:25 official trailer is the usual quick-cut, tell-all, fire all the engines kind of preview that audiences expect and research demands. It establishes characters, conflict, plot complications (beyond the troublesome giants, farmer Jack has an ambitious, aristocratic rival) and tone while demonstrating the special effects, production wizardry and big-budget production values expected from Summer blockbuster (sadly re-scheduled here) fare. It also proposes an elaboration of the beloved and well-known fable, a detour through familiar “Disney-esque” fare including intrepid princesses and the battle for a kingdom.

Where it departs from best practices is in the rhyming voice over (is that Ian McKellan reciting the specially written verse?) that opens the trailer. Though one of the cardinal rules of copywriting is to avoid rhyme, exceptional situations occasionally demand it. Here, the lines don’t scan well (they’re sing-songy and metrically forced) and are presented with a ponderous gravity and seriousness that ill-befits the footage that follow. Beginning, appropriately enough, with the Giant antagonists, the copy repositions the story of the magic beans as if it were the giants themselves who’ve been avidly awaiting their delivery into Jack’s naive hands in order to gain access to the human world and human comestibles below:

“Fi, fi, fo, fum / Ask not where the thunder comes/ Between heaven and earth is a perilous place /
Home to a fearsome giant race / Who hunger to conquer the mortals below / Waiting for the seeds of revenge to grow.”
(See what I mean about the meter? But then, it’s not easy to write or recite doggerel!)

Beneath the V.O., a bass-heavy, synthetic fog-horn sounds an ominous alarum. Although it is effective in establishing threat and tension, it’s the same sound cue I’ve been hearing in trailer after trailer after first noticing it in Inception. Yes, it’s a great sound; but no, audiences don’t forget that quickly. The dramatic strings that follow are also (unbelievably) from Inception. Late we hear the stirring (though cliched) vocal choruses, punctuated by loud smash cuts (is that redundant?) to black. It’s not that these editorial and auditory choices are wrong or inappropriate, but they are overly familiar, formulaic if not already hackneyed. Have I just made Box Office Mojo’s argument? Perhaps “unenthusiastic” translates into “formulaicity?”

To it’s credit, the visual world looks splendid. The giants are varied in appearance and developed as characters. While Jack (Nicholas Hoult) seems a unobjectionable fellow, he has a mentor/partner in Elmont (Ewan McGregor). Regrettably the princess seems consigned to victimhood and prize, whether for the Giants of for competing suitors. (I thought Brave was supposed to put a stop to this conventional typecasting?

The fable has long been one of my favorite, without the contemporary embellishments added by screenwriters Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney. It’s exciting and gory and magical and ordinary, in a way that children have loved for centuries. While the trailer reserves a role for the quick-growing vine and the beans from which it sprung, that wonderful concept seems subordinate to others we’ve seen all too often. As hard as the trailer works, formula or no, it may not be enough.

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

The tagline, “if you think you know the story, you don’t know Jack” (on the posters as well) deserves special mention. Though brief and punchy, it simultaneously acknowledges expectations about a well known fable and gives them a contemporary twist through the use of a double entendre “Jack,” which both names the protagonist and means “nothing.” In other words, You don’t know this story and you don’t know this hero. That’s economical and effective.

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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