Truth In Advertising: Contagion and the Value of a Tell-All Trailer

A recent New York Times Opinion piece by the epidemiologist who consulted on the film CONTAGION, to ensure that the story was compatible with the science, makes a number of interesting observations about Hollywood representation and public health policy while commending Soderberg and Participant Media for insisting on an accurate depiction of a global epidemic.

But there’s more at stake than accuracy for accuracy’s sake: recent polls confirm that a majority of Americans obtain medical information from television  and film, so public health policy leaders and think tanks have been working to make sure that experts are available to consult with writers for screens both big and small.   (See the Lear Center’s Hollywood Health and Society Initiative, for example.)

In the recent trailer for Contagion, (and especially the interactive version, on the Warner Bros. website) specific, factual details of microbe transmission, infection rates,  dissemination, and CDC/Governmental protocols are used to establish the situation and sharpen the conflict.  Indeed, the pathogen in Contagion is no MacGuffin; it’s based on a virulent, avian strain that should legitimately inspire anxiety if not terror in the audience, as part of the vicarious thrill of watching the world fall apart from the safety and distance of a theater seat.

Even the trailer copy delivers a fact based, pared down recipe for illness and death:   ONE TOUCH / TRANSMISSION;   ONE INSTANT / INFECTION ;  ONE CONTACT /CONTAGION.   Yikes! Presumably, audiences can take comfort in the fact that “it hasn’t happened yet” since the trailer and the film are making the claim that the story is “not just a movie.”

The trailer, featuring an all-star, Oscar winning cast, is notable, not only for the data rich detail of its exposition, but for its bleak portrayal of the likely outcome.  The initial music cue is electronic-apocalyptic mood music, establishing the gravity of the situation; the second is a fever-dream, synthesizer track, followed by sound cues indicative of crisis and catastrophe.  The final  moments of the trailer show depopulated air terminals and litter-choked city streets, refugees and military convoys; it’s a slide show of devastation over what sounds like a muffled, dial tone that soon morphs into an insistent,  institutional alarm.  It’s the soundscape of the apocalypse alright and intentionally unsettling.  This is a tell-all trailer, and the “reveal” is societal breakdown, global panic and mass death.

The trailer raises the always interesting question (and marketing parlor-game) of what audiences are presumed to desire, since realistic accounts of our unstable tenure of this planet are not obvious contenders for “feel-good” movie going and escapist fare. Indeed, Gwyneth, the early-infected wife of everyman and audience proxy, Matt Damon, dies within the first half of the trailer, her face a rictus of agony. (See one the posters, for the image!)    Is it enough consolation to know that other female love interests and protagonists –including Marion Cottard or Kate Winslett—remain to fight and carry the film?

Given that the movie as written and produced is a cosmic downer (and realistic lesson in public health), why “spoil” the reality of the movie in the previews?   Why not seduce all those viewers interested in a global emergency epic featuring a fabulous cast from a blue-chip production team (Soderberg, Participant, Warner Bros, etc.)?  I think what market science and experience tell us is that audiences who aren’t warned what kind of movie this is, will be so irritated at having shelled out the ticket price for an unrelenting and all-too possible-pandemic film, that they will exercise their ultimate veto and slam the film to everyone they know—perhaps not as art, but presumably as entertainment.

For those who might be able to enjoy this kind of fare (a not insignificant population, after all—who enjoy films like On the Beach, The Sorrow and the Pity, An Inconvenient Truth, etc, etc.) then the pleasures of a front row seat for the coming plague will not be vitiated by having seen a dress rehearsal in the trailer.

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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