The more senselessly graphic and violent a horror movie is, the simpler its marketing materials should be.
It makes the movie seem that much scarier: the promise of bloody mayhem promoted with only a few key images, and one's own imagination. Recently, posters and billboards touting remake The Hills Have Eyes achieved this quite well, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, and even The Hitcher. The simple promotional images - just a character's twisted glance or a series of shadows - tell the viewer he or she be lucky to make it out of the theater alive.
In the past few years, however, we've entered an age of torture-porn horror -- and the marketing materials to go along with it. In a genre filled with movies such as Hostel, Wolf Creek, and the Saw franchise - neither its films nor its billboards leave anything to the imagination.
Captivity is another along these lines, and the movie's producing partner, After Dark Films, is paying for its laziness. In mid-March, 40 Los Angeles-area billboards and 1,400 New York taxicab tops for the Lionsgate-distributed film caused widespread outrage with their depictions of star Elisha Cuthbert (24's Kim Bauer) being kidnapped, confined, tortured, and "terminated." In less than a week, the images had been removed, replaced with either smarmy, chalkboard-style "Captivity was here" billboards or toned-down, MPAA-approved bus-stop panels. And through it all, After Dark CEO Courtney Solomon insisted that the campaign was both "a mistake" and not an accurate representation of the film. The wrong art went to the printer he repeated, to anyone who'd ask. This, he said, we'd never have run. For the sake of his company, I hope that's true. The ads for the Roland Joffe-directed film - yes, the same Roland Joffe who helmed pictures including The Killing Fields and City of Joy - included run-of-the-mill torture-porn tripe such as a black-leather gloved hand, a seemingly-severed bloody thumb, and a woman's face enclosed in some kind of white plaster cast -- with red tubes shoved up her nose.
How goth-rock, serial killer's damp basement of you, After Dark. Did you get the rights to a couple of Joy Division songs, too?
In a not-so-run-of-the-mill-move, however, MPAA not only demanded After Dark to remove its Captivity ads, but also suspended the film's ratings process for four weeks - a punishment which will likely cause real mayhem as its creators struggle to get it rated in time for a May 18 release. And After Dark will now have to submit not just marketing materials to the MPAA for advance approval, but also the locations in which they are to be displayed. (MPAA has never before required a film company to clear media-buy locations.)
"I certainly think this is an example of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) fulfilling its obligations to the industry and parents," MPAA's EVP of corporate communications, Seth Oster, told PRWeek. "It's a rare instance when this kind of situation arises, when a company so flagrantly violates the rules. It doesn't happen a lot. That's why the rules are in place."
It's not difficult to find a horror fan to complain about said rules, particularly not the kind of horror fan obsessed with pseudo-snuff involving an attractive blonde woman most famous for her role on 24. But breaking the rules did help Captivity generate the kind of publicity most low-budget slasher flicks only dream of. Still - even though After Dark's Solomon says Captivity has a terrific side story line about "female empowerment" - can that translate to big audiences and box-office receipts?
That answer probably depends primarily on the whether the ratings come through. Most theaters won't schedule unrated movies, and many chain video/DVD stores won't stock them. Sure, torture-porn fans who want to see Captivity will see it - but those are probably the same people who were going to, anyway. All this nonsense did was generate some extra press clips, a ton of paperwork, and a whole lot of aggravation.
Not a company content to leave screwed-up enough alone, After Dark is already taking steps to annoy another constituency with its next release, the suicide-themed black comedy Wristcutters: A Love Story. This film, about young adults who kill themselves and end up in Purgatory, has raised the ire of activist organizations including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Suicide Prevention Action Network USA since it premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. According to After Dark, Wristcutters promotional campaign - expected to roll out in mid-July, for the movie's August 31 release - includes signage of folks doing themselves in by hanging and electrocuting themselves, cutting themselves, and jumping off bridges.
Promote suicide? Wristcutters might even help prevent it, Solomon contends. Anyway, sample posters show incorrect cutting methods, so anxious parents need not worry.
If After Dark is prepared to approach its advertising "in a better way," MPAA is ready to work with them, "no problems," says Oster, of the company's upcoming projects. "But no matter what company you are, if you don't abide by the rules, there are consequences."
But maybe After Dark, after much failure, has discovered subtlety. Some of its marketing posters for Wristcutters resemble stop signs with a "no!" bar over them, feature little heart driplets instead of drops of blood in honor of the movie's "romantic" sub-story.
As far as I'm concerned, though, Wristcutters' imagery does sound like a step in the right direction - at least in terms of keeping things simple. I don't know that I'd hang the poster in my living room, but then again, Forrest Gump is simple, and I don't want that there, either.
PR Babylon is a regular column by PRWeek's Los Angeles Bureau chief, Randi Schmelzer.