Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Movie selling, hyping and shilling

That fine old phrase “truth in advertising” is not one you often find applied to the movies, and if you do, it’s probably a lie.

Perhaps that’s only reasonable, since movies themselves are, if not lies, at least a sort of conjuring trick. They’re made up of scenes with bits and pieces shot at various times and places and hooked together to present the illusion of a single stretch of time. I once made a 16mm film in which a character ducked through some bushes in the woods to emerge at a fancy garden party on a palatial estate. The only thing was the palatial estate was a good 20 miles from those woods and the scene he stepped into had been shot weeks earlier. That’s not the way it looks on the screen, but it’s the truth. In the case of the movies, it’s the illusion that matters. The truth is a distant second.

The selling of a movie itself is a strange business, because what’s being sold is less a product than an idea of a product that — as far as watching it in a theater is concerned — is transitory in nature. (The idea of actually owning a movie is a fairly recent one, at least where the general public is concerned.) What’s being sold is the opportunity to experience two hours or so of someone else’s dream that, for a price, you can share.

Brand names factor into this in terms of a star or a director, and those can be the featured selling point. But even this can be dicey. Consider the phrase you often see festooning trailers — “From the people who brought you.” That sounds very reassuring, doesn’t it? Well, in the words of the song, it ain’t necessarily so. In 1977 Ken Russell’s extravagant, operatic, over-the-top biopic Valentino had a trailer that included the phrase, “From the producers of Rocky.”

True enough, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff did produce both movies, but the two films couldn’t have less in common if they tried. The idea of selling the connection to last year’s big hit was too tempting, even if it was peddling an idea that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. Today, when they hand out producer credits like candy by way of contractual agreements, the selling point becomes comical. We now find movies emblazoned with the phrase, “From a producer of (insert hit movie title here),” and it means nothing.

Think you’re on safer ground with a star? Don’t bet on it. Take for example the movie being hawked in the picture at the top of this column — the image that boldly proclaims, “You’ll forget you ever saw Frankenstein and Dracula.” This one’s a peach of a pitch. Not only is the movie being hawked a B movie, dark house comedy called The Black Cat (1941) and not a horror picture, but the trailer was re-cut to prominently bill Alan Ladd. Yes, Alan Ladd is in the film, in a very minor supporting role. But in the meantime, This Gun for Hire (1942) had come out and made Ladd into a huge star. So why not rework the trailer to get the good out of that? By the time the hapless viewer realized that Ladd spent most of his limited screen time standing around in the background, he or she’d already bought a ticket — to a horror movie starring Alan Ladd, which in truth was neither.

And that was back in 1941. A few months ago, this same Black Cat came out on DVD as part of a collection called Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive. The more things change, the more they remain remarkably familiar. At least they didn’t build up Alan Ladd, but then he’s no longer much of a selling point.

Of course, no one really expects truth on a poster or in a trailer or, if you’re a critic, in a press-kit. (Hands up everyone who honestly believes that Rip Torn considered it an “honor” to appear with Tom Green in Freddy Got Fingered, even if the press-kit assures us he did). This is promotional ballyhoo, a carnival barker with a budget. Sometimes these things are even amusing. Take the announcer on the trailer for Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) breathlessly assuring us, “Here is drama completely strange!” Is there a large market for that?

Other times, a promotional classic is born, like the the tag line for Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) — “There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby: it’s alive!” Rarer still are those wonderful moments when the advertising boys simply have no clue what to do and desperation sets in — “See Ken Russell’s new film Lisztomania — You won’t understand it, but you’ll love every minute of it!”

This sort of thing has been with the movies for a very long time. Studios are all about the sell. When the Warner Bros. hired that grand old man of theatre George Arliss back in 1929—and to their (or more correctly, Darryl F. Zanuck’s) credit, they did allow him the freedom to make what he wanted the way he wanted—they naturally wanted him to make film versions of his greatest stage successes. It followed that a film of his biggest hit, Disraeli, would be made, but they really wanted to do something about that title. Couldn’t someone come up with something with a little more oomph? Arliss jokingly suggested Wild Nights with Queen Victoria—and had to withdraw the suggestion when he learned they were actually considering it.

A somewhat less amusing—and even troubling—side of movie promotion comes in the form of the “break-out” quote. These are lines of praise (presumably) culled from reviews and slapped onto posters, newspaper advertising and occasionally trailers.Here the studios go outside their ranks—or so it seems—to find a review that says their movie is Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz all wrapped into one—and at popular prices. Theoreticaly, this assures the viewer that a disinterested party loves the movie in question. It’s a reasonable theory, but it can—and often does—fall apart in impure practice.

The “break-out” quote is only reliable if the potential customer knows the critic. You’re on pretty firm ground if, say, Roger Ebert or Andrew Sarris or David Edelstein has raved about the movie. On the other hand, you know—or you should—that if the best the studio boys could come up with is a quote from someone on a 6 a.m. local morning news show, they were scrambling for anything they could find. The studios know that you likely know this, too, and that’s why they’re very fond of an entirely different kind of critic—the quote whore.

Quote whores are nothing new. There have long been critics who have sought fame—or were willing to settle for notoriety—by gushing enthusiastically over almost everything that comes down the pike. In the 1950s and 60s (though she dates back the 1930s), it was rare indeed not to encounter a four star review from Wanda Hale of the New York Daily News in all manner of advertising. In fact, she became something of a joke among film students, who would offer the response, “Four stars—Wanda Hale,” when asked for an opinion on a film. The alternative to this—at least in his earlier days—was Rex Reed, who at one time could be counted on to enthuse with unseemly hyperbole. Indeed, “I loved it—Rex Reed,” was the proper film student rejoinder to the Wanda Hale assessment.

They’re still around, of course. You can spot the tendency to almost constantly wax ecstatic in certain critics—especially, when he or she is virtually the only voice of support. Sure, all critics have their moments when they’re going to be wildly out of step with the concensus, but it’s not hard to tell the sincere alternate opinion from the one in search of being quoted in the ads.

Not content with this, studios have also invented reviews—and even reviewers and newspapers—when all else has failed. Sony Pictures found themselves on the bad end of a law suit when they created the fictional critic “David Manning” to heap praise on a few of their movies in 2001. When you’re looking for someone to say nice things about the Rob Schneider stinker The Animal that’s kind of understandable, but why they felt it necessary with the generally well-received A Knight’s Tale is harder to grasp. Again, this wasn’t exactly unprecedented—Bob Hope had pulled the stunt years earlier with an utterly bogus review for one of his TV specials, but since that could only be laid to vanity and the desire to make NBC think he was still a hot commodity nothing came of it.

Now, of course, we have the Internet and that’s opened a new can of worms for the studios to court. Just take a look at Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News. Having set himself up as a hip trend-setter on the internet, he’s become the darling of the movies as someone to be relied on to promote movies with the abandon of a water buffalo in a fine china emporium. His ethics have been called into question, owing to being taken on expensive junkets by the studios, but he charges on in his inimitable—and improbably vulgar (to see the nadir of criticism, Google his review of Blade 2 (2002))—style.

The most frightening development brought about by the democratization of the internet, though, is the apparent emergence of the studio shill. These aren’t reviews in the strict sense. These come under the heading of “user comments,” which are reviews posted on websites by supposedly “regular folks.” But are they? It’s hard to believe. They’re almost always written in a style intended to suggest as much, though just as often they read like someone’s idea of how young people talk.

It’s impossible to say just how rife the practice is, but a trip to the Internet Movie Database will reveal an improbable number of glowing user reviews posted by users who have never posted anything other than the review at hand. (This is easily ascertained by clicking on the user name, which reveals their posting histories.) In addition, the reviewer has almost invariably “just returned from a special screening” of the film. Whenever you see that phrase—or some variation of it—a degree of skepticism ought to set in.

The surprising thing about this is how few people seem to be skeptical. The IMDb provides a feature allowing readers to vote on whether or not they find a user review “helpful,” and the number of voters who find these decidedly suspect raves useful is often shockingly high. Yes, I know Mr. Barnum had a saying about this a long, long time ago. All the same, credulity seems to be at an all-time high these days.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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23 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Movie selling, hyping and shilling

  1. I Chase Chickens

    Great column once again, Ken. Are the “Screening Room” installments running in the print edition? Regardless, always enjoyable.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Thank you. And to answer your question, the Screening Room columns are strictly in the online edition and likely to remain so, considering the not inconsiderable amount of space the movie section takes up in the print edition already.

  3. Justin Souther

    If anyone wants a possible example of shilling, go check out Ken’s review of I KNOW WHO KILLED ME. I say possible, because I don’t want to offend one of our readers, yet at the same time, the idea that that many people absolutely loved that awkward piece of trash, so much so that they tracked down the review to post about how much they loved it and wanted to buy the DVD seems a bit far-fetched. But call me a skeptic.

    The only time I’ve ever seen a quote of Ken’s was on the inside cover of an original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE DVD re-issue that came around the time the CHAINSAW remake hit theaters. I’m hoping he’ll start quote whoring soon just so we can get a quote as ridiculous as E!’s Ben Lyons’ “ONE OF THE GREATEST MOVIES EVER MADE!” quote for I AM LEGEND.

  4. Ken Hanke

    “The only time I’ve ever seen a quote of Ken’s was on the inside cover of an original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE DVD re-issue that came around the time the CHAINSAW remake hit theaters. I’m hoping he’ll start quote whoring soon just so we can get a quote as ridiculous as E!’s Ben Lyons’ “ONE OF THE GREATEST MOVIES EVER MADE!” quote for I AM LEGEND.”

    I sort of ended up on the cover of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s PEOPLE WILL TALK, too. I think it had me calling it “a brilliant comedy.” Actually, it didn’t credit me, but only “Ashville Mountain Xpress.” Truth to tell, what I said was “Brilliant, brilliantly subversive anti-McCarthy comedy.” Oh well.

    As for quote whoring, I’m ready here and now to enthuse over the upcoming film MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, if only for greatest title ever.

  5. Dionysis

    Interesting article, alright. I’d always assumed that whenever a new film resorted to “interviewing” people coming out of the theatre singing a film’s praises (and no other endorsements to be found) that this was a pretty good indicator that the film was lousy. Is this a reasonable interpretation?

  6. Ken Hanke

    Exit remarks have varying degrees of reliability, but they’re usually associated with films that are presented as a kind of “event,” like a re-issue of GONE WITH THE WIND or throngs of folks coming out of the latest STAR WARS opus. In neither case can they be considered terribly weighty. Anyone going to GWTW has almost certainly seen it before and was predisposed to love it. And anyone who camped out overnight to be the first kid on the block to see the latest big thing is determined to love it if only to save face. However, if exit comments are all you encounter, then it’s probably a bad sign. Remember the interviews Chris Rock ran at the Oscars with people saying that White Chicks was the best movie of the year?

    By the way, I realized after the fact that I neglected an interesting piece of marketing concerning foreign language films. Now, personally, I think people ought to be tricked into watching subtitled movies — all too often they’re resistant to them out of sheer prejudice — but you’ll notice a marked tendency for subtitled movies to be “sold” via trailers that are entirely music and voice-over narration. If you see a movie that you think might not be in English advertised with no dialogue, chances are it’s going to have subtitles.

  7. Dionysis

    “I realized after the fact that I neglected an interesting piece of marketing concerning foreign language films.”

    This reminds me of the fascinating story of how Joseph Levine took the low-budget Italian film HERCULES, bought the rights for a song and proceeded to re-write marketing and the way films used to be distributed (open in a few theatres, develop a buzz, and then having it open more generally throughout the country) by saturation marketing and opening across the country at the same time.

    Personally, I’m not sure why so many Americans dislike subtitles; prejudice perhaps, although I suspect in some cases it’s simply laziness.

  8. Ken Hanke

    “Personally, I’m not sure why so many Americans dislike subtitles; prejudice perhaps, although I suspect in some cases it’s simply laziness.”

    This most common complaint I hear is, “I’m not paying to read a movie.” I never understand that because after a little while I completely forget I’m reading subtitles.

    I thought of another promotional peculiarity. I have a one-sheet poster around here somewhere for Don Siegel’s first film, THE VERDICT (1946). It shows stars Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre wearing natty pin-stripe suits and brandishing automatic pistols. Next to them stands leading lady Joan Loring in a floor-length cocktail singer formal. The title “THE VERDICT” is reproduced above them as if it had been rubber-stamped onto the poster. Reasonable enough except for one small detail: THE VERDICT is a period melodrama that takes place in gaslit Victorian London.

  9. Sean Williams

    Quote whores are nothing new.
    Now, he’s not really that old, is he? Besides, I think he prefers to be called “Mr. Travers”.

    Rarer still are those wonderful moments when the advertising boys simply have no clue what to do and desperation sets in
    I love the few unintentionally funny taglines that somehow slip past marketing directors. Remember The Reaping?

    “What Hath God Wrought? — HILLARY SWANK”

    As for quote whoring, I’m ready here and now to enthuse over the upcoming film MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, if only for greatest title ever.
    Oh, come on. Am I the only one who remembers Dracula versus Billy the Kid? What about The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell?

  10. Ken Hanke

    Now, he’s not really that old, is he? Besides, I think he prefers to be called “Mr. Travers”.

    Now that’s cold. I’m not saying it’s inapt, but it’s cold.

    “What Hath God Wrought?—HILLARY SWANK”

    ‘Twas the highlight of the movie — and that was the poster!

    Oh, come on. Am I the only one who remembers Dracula versus Billy the Kid? What about The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell?

    Gotta admit I never heard of the latter (though I seem to recall that the Stainless Steel Rat was a character in a series of sci-fi books), but I never thought Billy the Kid Versus Dracula was a patch on the title of its companion film, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Poor Jesse doesn’t even get to meet the real deal, just some relative. All in all, though, Midnight Meat Train amuses me more, and I’ve managed to plead, cajole and whine sufficiently that it looks like I’ve managed to get it booked locally (if only for two shows) in the next couple weeks.

  11. Sean Williams

    Now that’s cold.
    For Cthulhu’s sake, Ken, the man gave Pineapple Express 3.5 stars and Be Kind Rewind only 2.5. Death is too good for him.

    I never thought Billy the Kid Versus Dracula was a patch on the title of its companion film, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter.
    Plum forgot about that one. But I have a soft spot for B.v.D, what with the extras visibly wandering off the set and the plastic bat hanging from a wire and a red spotlight shining on Dracula’s face every time he uses his powers of mesmerism.

    I’ve managed to plead, cajole and whine sufficiently that it looks like I’ve managed to get it booked locally (if only for two shows) in the next couple weeks.
    Congratulations. Why do I have the feeling you’ll be camping outside the theater like a nerd before a Star Wars film? Hope Meat Train doesn’t disappoint on the promise of its title….

  12. ncain

    Interesting you should mention Ain’t if Cool News, as I just saw a thread on Slashdot where it appears that Lucasfilm muscled Mr. Knowles into pulling a negative review of some sort of animated Star Wars thing.

    And, I can’t belive you didn’t mention Larry King when talking about pull quote whores. He’ll endorse anything he gets a free ticket to. Surely he’s replaced Rex Reed.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Well, Mr. Knowles kinda has himself to blame, having made himself a little too quick pour on the praise. Still, if he was muscled over Star Wars: The Clone Wars, he has my sympathy. Actually, anyone who sees it has my sympathy. I sat through it tonight — and I’m not even the one reviewing it — and while I expected it to be bad, it never occurred to me that it could possibly be as bad as it was.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Congratulations. Why do I have the feeling you’ll be camping outside the theater like a nerd before a Star Wars film? Hope Meat Train doesn’t disappoint on the promise of its title….

    I don’t think I’ll go quite that far (actually, I’m hoping to pre-screen the film the night before it opens). At this point, I’m as fascinated by the studio’s apparent desire to simply bury the film (another story for another time), as I’m intrigued by its spectacularly loopy title. Actually, the trailer hints that it may have genuine merit. The very few reviews it’s gotten on Rotten Tomatoes are interesting, too, in that they’re almost exactly split — 4 good to 5 bad. That’s a lame sampling, to be sure, but that’s rather encouraging, since horror films almost invariably have a hard time of it in terms of reviews — not always without reason, no, but often it’s a case of being an easily dismissed genre.

  15. Sean Williams

    I sat through it tonight—and I’m not even the one reviewing it—and while I expected it to be bad, it never occurred to me that it could possibly be as bad as it was.
    Stang it, Ken, don’t tell me these things. I survived the New Jedi Order novels — all nineteen of them, those glorified penny-dreadfuls. Fierfeck, I even sat through the original Clone Wars miniseries, which has been scientifically measured as equivalent to the agony of forty-nine consecutive screenings of Pootie Tang while being deep-fried in dog excrement. Don’t tell me my dearest hopes for The Clone Wars will all disintegrate tomorrow at the multiplex. Could you at least lie to me until I’ve seen the movie, for Skog’s sake?

    Do you see what you’ve done? You’ve reduced me to employing fictitious expletives, kark you to boboqueequee!

    Sithspit.

    I’m as fascinated by the studio’s apparent desire to simply bury the film
    Well, the studio execs have insisted repeatedly (though not too vigorously) that they want the film to succeed. To me, their marketing campaign indicates otherwise.

    not always without reason, no, but often it’s a case of being an easily dismissed genre.
    Believe me, as a fan of science fiction, I sympathize with that dilemma….

  16. Sean Williams

    Mr. Hanke, I just remembered a question that’s plagued me for years: if a reviewer shills for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, does that make him a quote pastatute?

  17. Ken Hanke

    Don’t tell me my dearest hopes for The Clone Wars will all disintegrate tomorrow at the multiplex.

    The question is — did they?

    Well, the studio execs have insisted repeatedly (though not too vigorously) that they want the film to succeed. To me, their marketing campaign indicates otherwise.

    Let’s see…they pull the film’s already none-too-aggressive promotion. Then they opt to give it a limited release. Then they decide to dump it in about a hundred second-run theaters. They want it to succeed as what? The horror movie equivalent of The Hottie and the Nottie?

  18. Sean Moorhead

    The question is — did they?
    All right, I can finally answer that question.

    The answer is that The Clone Wars was cinematically inept, but it would have been endurable in the milieu for which it was originally intended: television. The choppy editing was obviously an allowance for commercial breaks, and the repetitive expository scenes would have served to update new viewers at the beginning of each episode.

    And yes, it would still have been silly even on television — but relatively more endurable. I anticipate enjoying the cartoon series in its own right.

    You know what really annoyed me? Disrespect for internal continuity. Ahsoka referred to Rex as a “captain”, but in Phase I armor coloration, blue chevrons indicated lieutenancy. Admittedly, Phase II armor coloration came to indicate military affiliation rather than rank, and the other 501st Legionaries appeared to be wearing blue, as well, so we can probably assume that uniform designation had already taken on a different significance during the second year of the War. Nevertheless, rank-based coloration seems to have remained in force among certain segments of the Grand Army as late as the Battle of Praesitlyn.

    Also, Anakin Skywalker never attained the level of Master, not even after his appointment to the High Council (there’s a significant line of dialogue to that effect in Episode III). Therefore, he was he unable to take a Padawan learner, and his military rank was equivalent to commander, not general. The title of Tan, meanwhile, seems a largely arbitrary appointment by the office of the Supreme Chancellor. (Thanks for the brilliant ad hoc, Abel G.)

    Furthermore, Anakin received the scar over his eye during his rooftop duel with Ventress circa 30 months A.B.G. After that duel and until the Battle of Boz Pity, Anakin — and, for that matter, most of the officers in Republic Intelligence — believed Ventress dead.

    Anyways, having firmly established my credentials as a studied nerd historian, I bid you adieu!

  19. Ken Hanke

    Anyways, having firmly established my credentials as a studied nerd historian, I bid you adieu!

    Yes, I was going to point out that you know far too much about all this…

  20. Sean Williams

    Oops, I used my other surname in the last post….

    Yes, I was going to point out that you know far too much about all this…
    Specialized knowledge makes the world spin ’round. That’s why I enjoy your reviews even when I disagree with them: you have such extensive knowledge of cinematography and its history, moreso than any other critic of whom I am aware.

  21. Ken Hanke

    Specialized knowledge makes the world spin ‘round. That’s why I enjoy your reviews even when I disagree with them: you have such extensive knowledge of cinematography and its history, moreso than any other critic of whom I am aware.

    Thank you, but I doubt I can lay claim to the depth of knowledge on any single topic you displayed above! I don’t suspect that I have more knowledge of film than either Roger Ebert, or Andrew Sarris. I probably just use it differently — that and I have a mind that, for better or worse, seems to want to cross-reference everything.

  22. Sean Williams

    Thank you, but I doubt I can lay claim to the depth of knowledge on any single topic you displayed above!
    Oh, it’s just Star Wars trivia, not information of any real importance! Besides, I have ninety-seven percent perfect recall, which is tantamount to cheating in this case.

    I have a mind that, for better or worse, seems to want to cross-reference everything.
    That proclivity adds depth to your reviews. There’s always this sense that you Know What You’re Talking About and can place any new release in perspective with the medium as a whole.

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