A few days ago, as part of the general sadness over the loss of The Dissolve, my Twitter pal Larry Wright made a joke about becoming a Hollywood star and feeding false information to all the movie news sites he didn’t like. The thought of a renegade director with film critic friends – a Duncan Jones or a Rian Johnson – actively working against the TMZs of the film community is a funny one; but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered why Hollywood doesn’t put more effort into misdirection and counter-intelligence.
And now I’m kind of sold on the idea.
The traditional approach in movie marketing – that you plan out your pre-release schedule to make sure your film is at its peak anticipation upon release – is slightly upended for unquestioned blockbusters like Star Wars or The Avengers. In theory, these films require less effort in getting people into the theater and more help in managing expectations once the movie begins. This is where a few well-placed lies can come in handy. If you’re a fan of any professional sports team, then you already know how powerful the art of misdirection can be as part of the business. Sportswriters, like Hollywood news reporters, are often under a great deal of pressure to get the information right first; meanwhile, teams, players, and agents use falsified information to help gauge the market, drive up salaries, and leverage their assets against those of their opponents.
Rather than treating knowledge like a binary system – where people either know or don’t know – studios have the opportunity to change the landscape of Hollywood reporting by actively misleading audiences on the content of their final product. The logistics of filmmaking have always required a few white lies on behalf of the industry; film canisters (back when that was a thing) go out with fake movie titles to discourage piracy while trailers often include working footage that might not find its way into the final film. This is, after all, an era where people will upload footage from Comic-Con with no regard for context or quality, leading people to make snap judgments based on a glorified Zapruder film. Why use a mystery box when you can just lie about the content of your movie instead?
Given proper planning, you might be able to convince an actor or director to play along with the misdirection. One of people’s favorite moments from the behind-the-scenes Star Wars footage at Comic-Con was the presence of Simon Pegg in an alien costume. While he may only appear on camera for a few minutes in the final project – and be completely anonymous to the casual audience member – the appeal of being part of the film in any capacity was evidently more than enough to satisfy the noted Star Wars geek. Find someone with the right audience credibility or an appropriate amount of loyalty to cast and crew and you may be able to leverage them as part of your broader efforts. Would I be upset if it turns out that Harrison Ford isn’t in the new Star Wars movie? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t affect my decision to see the movie and it might breakdown some of my preconceived notions going in.
Even if you have some misgivings about Hollywood studios actively lying to us about projects in development, the Hollywood rumor mill isn’t exactly known for its journalistic integrity. One of the other big talking points that emerged from Comic-Con was the fact that Bryan Cranston had never actually had a conversation about playing Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. We – consumers in the culture of casting rumors, internet blogs looking for traffic – decided that Cranston would be a great fit for the role, and the story took on a life of its own, even being reported as a done deal (with contract specifics) by Rolling Stone. Rumors and speculation have become part of the industry; perhaps the stigma of being intentionally misled by a studio would be enough to keep a few news items from running day and date.
Of course, there’s another, more persuasive option available, and this is the one I hope to someday see. Don’t just lie about your movie or television show: actively create false information.
A day after the cast of Game of Thrones ducked questions about Jon Snow at Comic-Con international, Kit Harington was back on HBO as part of the 45-minute special Seven Days in Hell. The short film – which wobbles between a spoof of sports documentaries and Samberg’s young-Adam-Sandler schtick – also offered Harington a chance to show off his comedy skills as the dim tennis protégé Charles Poole. And while much has been made of Harington’s real-life Wimbledon appearance, few batted an eye when it came to his physical appearance in Seven Days in Hell. The film had been released during both Wimbledon and Comic-Con to try and piggyback off people’s interest in both tennis and Kit Harington; due to the publicity photos featuring a fully bearded Harington in attendance, no one thought for a moment that Seven Days in Hell had any effect on Harington’s role in Game of Thrones.
But what if HBO had taken a concept like Seven Days in Hell and played it straight? Pretend that the first step of Harington’s post-Game of Thrones career will be a prestige comedy miniseries and you might convince a few fans that he has moved onto his next project.
And while Seven Days in Hell is a short film that actually exists, we are also used to seeing fake promotional material starring real actors pop up on a weekly basis. Some of these, like movie trailers created for episodes of Saturday Night Live or late-night talk shows, were never intended to be more than two minutes of comedy; others, like the Deadpool teaser footage that doubled as the film’s sizzle reel, are meant to secure funding for a film that will never actually exist. Regardless of the reason, fake movie and television trailers pop up constantly, often featuring recognizable actors in surprising roles. Killing off Jon Snow would be a lot more believable if you could also debut a trailer for Kit Harington’s “new” television series, one that might also give him a reason to keep his long hair and bushy beard. What is the cost of a short film compared to a secret being kept?
One thing’s for certain – as our own Scott Beggs recently wrote, Hollywood has entered an era where ongoing contract negotiations are in the public domain, and any film or television series that wishes to keep audiences on their toes is limited by their very casting decisions. If studios are going to maintain any degree of surprise in their upcoming projects, they need to start getting creative with the ways they market their films. And if that means lying – and, sometimes, putting together the cinematic equivalent of false flag operations – then, well, maybe it’s for our own good.