Trailers for Box Office Bombs: Hindsight Speculation About What Went Wrong (Part I)

First, let me emphasize the anecdotal and subjective quality of the analysis to follow. The marketing campaign for a feature film is built of too many elements (print, teasers, trailers, press, tie-ins, promotions, reviews, release strategy, clips, website, standees, etc.) to distinguish which in particular missed the mark or let down the side. Add to that such uncontrollable considerations like marketplace competition, current events, weather, and zeitgeist, and you see that quantifying damage (or assigning credit) becomes an thankless and probably impossible undertaking.

That said, it is certainly possible and probably useful to consider, in hindsight, why a particular element of the campaign didn’t deliver as anticipated. I haven’t read the market research nor the screening evaluations, but the YouTube comments were illuminating. In this post, I’m looking at the official first trailers from five significant and financially underperforming releases of 2011 and offering informed speculation about how the choices made may not have been optimum. (In other words, what went wrong and what other approaches might have been preferable.)

Green Lantern

The source material for this film is less well known than that of other DC/Marvel graphic novels. The trailer sought (and succeeded in so doing) to tell the story of how Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) joins the intergalactic superheroes known as the Green Lanterns. Unfortunately, it’s an unfamiliar and relatively corny (silly? hokey?) story the trailer has to tell, anchored by unconvincing lead performances. (A green lantern? really? It was always a tough sell.) Had the trailer focused instead on the “wow” factor of the expensive special effects and sci-fi visuals, it might have attracted core fans to experience the “realization” of a cherished comic book, while appealing to other quadrants interested in spectacular, albeit light and predictable Summer blockbuster fare. While $219M in ticket sales is not insignificant, relative to its print and marketing cost of $375M this was a poor return for a full saturation campaign.

Conan the Barbarian

(Nota bene: I wrote copy for TV spots for this feature, so I had the opportunity to watch a not fully rendered version of the film. The first round or two of materials had not satisfied the distributors so an open invitation for spec submissions went out. It was understood that the project was “troubled.”) I enjoyed the film. It was epic in scale, mythic in story, and impressively produced in terms of visualization of the ancient world and the monsters/villains confronted by the comely and eponymous hero. I suspect, however, that the long interval between the last Conan (starring Governor Schwarzenegger) and the present one (starring Jason Momoa) meant that potential audiences were either indifferent to the material, unfamiliar with it, or resistant to yet another remake (what I call the “groan” factor.) Instead of acknowledging such challenges, the trailer sought to overwhelm potential audiences with spectacle and attitude, crammed into a 2:00, action-packed preview. I say “crammed” because I think the signal “mistake” of the trailer is that it is cut too quickly. The landscape, the fights, the monsters, the villains—even the romance—can not be assimilated or appreciated because of the speed with which they appear and are succeeded by other flickering images. The visual excellence (CGI, fight-choreography, cinematography) of the film is lost, although it’s precisely those qualities that distinguish it from its lower-production-value predecessors.

Mars Needs Moms

Gorgeous motion capture, monster budget, high-concept premise, and dismal box office. The trailer for this film seems to have forgotten what it is that the Disney “brand” means in the marketplace: emotion and character. The story as presented in the trailer is complicated, unclear, filled with action and characters about whom we know little and care less. Milo’s relationship with his mother occupies the first 25 seconds and thereafter, she disappears, leaving Milo in the hands of, well, some incompetent, overweight, trying-to-hard-to-be-cool dude in outer space who’s going to help him get her back. I’ve watched it a few times and I’m not sure which creatures are hostile Martians and which friendly aliens. I don’t know what happens to Mom (although I suspect she and Milo are reunited) and I don’t know where the action takes place, besides Earth and Mars. It’s frenetically cut and maybe just a little too adult in its tone, stakes, and attitude for the kids and families who would normally flock to this film, and then buy the DVD for the home library.


I don’t remember seeing, reading or hearing anything about this film. Blame the media buyers or the media spend. Perhaps the premise (a wealthy family living in a spectacular home in a gated neighborhood are subject to a brutal home invasion, against which they ultimately fight back) lacked resonance for American audiences enduring year four of recession amidst foreclosure, austerity and joblessness. If only the P.O.V. of the home invaders been chosen, some tickets might have been sold!?! Honestly, I thought the trailer perfectly adequate, although the tenor/tone of the voice over struck me as very “movie of the week.” But given the A-list stars (Kidman, Cage) and the important (if not necessarily acclaimed) director (Schumacher) I have to wonder how the film came and went with barely a ripple. Did someone need a significant tax loss or an investment vehicle for ill-gotten gains?

The Big Year

Let’s begin with the unusual and inexplicable opening sequence in which Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson appear as themselves, with Martin introducing the film and his co-stars with a lame and off-putting “gag” whereby he appears not to know who Wilson is. Then the MPAA green screen appears and the trailer officially begins. The premise is that these three men, each experiencing a different “life” crisis, are embarking together on a life-affirming adventure. (Think “Bucket List,” but without any authentic emotion.) It’s tough material, certainly: “mid-life,” “work-life” and “no-life” crises are inherently depressing and “negative” topics. The trailer (and perhaps the film, too) then neglects to establish the relationships among these men that might provide some emotional support to the action, or a point of identification with and entry into their journey(s). Add to that some generic and cliché’d copy (“when it comes to comedy, go big or go home”) and a scene of goofy dancing for a finale, and you’ve got the unmistakable signs of a lousy film. I feel bad for the trailermakers who were probably overruled in all their creative and marketing choices by a producer/filmmaker/distributor who presumed to know better and got the trailer he/she/they wanted much to the detriment of box office results.

Comments? Rebuttals? Nominations for other trailers advertising box-office disappointments?

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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