We think it’s a terrible idea.
Advertisers have long been willing to cynically deploy political statements for commercial ends (case in point: this year’s Super Bowl; the Mad Men series finale). Generally, though, they have the good sense to appeal to nobler instincts like community, patriotism, and diversity. Not so for 20th Century Fox, who hired real producers of fake news (the same ones currently spoiling our politics) to create an ad campaign for their latest thriller, A Cure for Wellness. The campaign features lurid headlines (“LEAKED: Lady Gaga Halftime Performance To Feature Muslim Tribute”) from fake publications (NY Morning Post, Indianapolis Gazette), designed as clickbait for Facebook and other social media platforms. Most of the links have now been redirected to the film’s website, but not before garnering tens of thousands of engagements from credulous Facebook users.
As our very own Matthew Monagle predicted back in October, A Cure for Wellness’s box-office prospects do not look promising. The film will hit theaters Friday with a 38% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (though our Brad Gullickson enjoyed it) and is projected to gross an uninspiring $6–8 million in its opening weekend. One feels for the filmmakers: rarely does a studio sink so many resources into an original, non-sequel, non-IP, R-rated film; and director Gore Verbinski, whose horror chops on The Ring jumpstarted his career, seems to be returning to his roots after the colossal failure of The Lone Ranger. Under normal circumstances, this would be precisely the type of film we’d want to support.
But the line must be drawn somewhere. And if there is anything more precarious and in need of support than original filmmaking, it’s the state of truth in our country. I’m hardly the first to notice that the last few years have seen an insidious breakdown of the boundaries between entertainment, news, and advertisement. This is not precisely a new phenomenon – tabloids and hidden ads have been around for decades. But the culture of the web in general and social media in particular have created a uniformity in our consumption of various types of content and a resulting melding of that content into a single, attention-grabbing product. Even the vacuous word itself – “content” – implies a lack of differentiation between useful and useless, noble and ignoble, true and false.
As Martin Scorsese lamented upon the release of Silence, “We’re just completely saturated with images that don’t mean anything. Words certainly don’t mean anything anymore, they’re twisted and turned. So where’s the meaning? Where’s the truth?” The crucial feature of great cinema, as distinct from the mere “videos” that cover our billboards and web pages, is intention. No filmmaker worthy of the name aspires to create “content,” just as no journalist worthy of the name aspires for clicks. Naïve though it may sound, filmmakers and even film studios have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of our most influential cultural form. This cannot mean hastening America’s descent into madness in order to promote a movie about madness.
A Cure for Wellness could well be an exciting and original piece of work. But its advertising campaign perpetuates the very worst trends in media and politics at this moment, and seeing the film may not be worth the moral cost of rewarding that behavior. If studios really want to keep cinema alive, they should focus on the intentionality that differentiates it from the sea of clickbait we find online. Fake news and “content” are the sickness; journalism and cinema should be the cure.