In the era of Lahren, O'Reilly, Maher and Yiannopoulos, outrage is all the rage. Outrage culture pulls in massive internet traffic, and gets people talking loudly on both sides of the issue. But we've seen it more and more in the world of film marketing in recent times. Just this year we have had the debacle of women-only Wonder Woman screenings, and Beauty and the Beast's "gay moment", resulting in bans and calls for boycotts on both. Because of their sudden divisiveness, everyone was talking about these films, and the idea that going to see them was going to help shut down bigotry was a real, tangible thing. Both of them went on to see huge box office revenue. It's hard to say whether the surge in interest caused the subsequent ticket sales, but it certainly didn't hurt. The question is, though: should we be encouraging outrage culture in film marketing?
It's not like outrage marketing is a new thing. The Moon is Blue, Monty Python's Life of Brian, Ecstasy (which was denounced by no less than the Pope), and The Last Temptation of Christ, all traded on their salacious reputations. The key difference between film marketing then and now is, as you've probably guessed, the internet. Social media virality enables ideas to spread like wildfire, even if they start on the micro scale.
We saw this with Mad Max: Fury Road. A relatively small men's rights blog called Return of Kings declared the film dangerously feminist and called for a boycott. Their minor (if stupidly misogynist) outcry was met with the hammer of overwhelming internet righteousness, and the war cry went up to enter the gates of Valhalla via screenings of Fury Road.
Now, I don't know about you, but I love Fury Road. I find it hard to get angry about anything that would make more people see this movie. However, the more I try and look at the situation impartially, the easier it is to worry about the direction outrage marketing is taking us. For three reasons: it increases the divisiveness of ideas and beliefs in the population; it can be used improperly to tank a film; and it allows our beliefs to be tokenistically and cynically used for financial gain.
First off, divisiveness. We already have a polarized society, particularly in America. This past year has shown that more than ever. David Wong at Cracked has written and spoken eloquently on the subject of the city-rural divide in the country, and how transgressive metropolitanism alienates people living outside cities. Outrage marketing can only reinforce that.
In the same way that hearing Beauty and the Beast was banned likely conjured up an image for city-slickers of the typical Neanderthal country-bumpkin, it likely did similar for people living in the more rural parts of America. Hearing the news probably made many think of the worst possible example of a liberal-hipster. They probably thought "How desperate are they to get the gay agenda across that they feel they have to force feed it to our children?" And instead of this "gay moment" opening up a conversation that lead to greater understanding on both sides, it devolved the debate into people shouting at each other on social media, and both sides calling the other out of touch. All this over a "gay moment" that was about as gay as Bruce Willis.
Secondly, outrage marketing can tank a film. Remember A Dog's Purpose? Probably not. It tanked at the US box office. If you do remember it, you remember it as the film that tortured a dog by throwing it in to water to get a realistic drowning scene. Horrific, yes? PETA called for a boycott, Best Friends Animal Society pulled their association, there was mild general outcry.
Except it was a hugely misleading story. Snopes explains it in more detail in their article on the subject, but essentially the dog was fine, just a last minute change spooked him for one take. All safety precautions were properly observed, and the dog was unfazed and unharmed. Of course, the TMZ article that created the uproar had already done its damage. With its reputation in shreds, A Dog's Purpose paddled in and out of American cinemas with little fanfare. Outrage media cuts both ways.
Finally, and most importantly, let's talk about the exploitation of our beliefs. Beauty and the Beast is a great example of this. We've already established that it's "gay moment" was about as mild as dollar-store salsa. In fact, before talk of the "gay moment" entered the headlines, the main debate over the movie was fairly mundane. Will this be better than the original? Is it just a cash-grab remake? Why is there so much auto-tune on Emma Watson's voice?
A lot of people were considering giving it a miss (in as much as it is possible to avoid a Disney movie). But with the "gay moment" in the headlines, suddenly the film became an LGBTQ battleground. If we didn't see it we were potentially helping bigotry, and undermining the cause's wider exposure in one of the country's biggest family taste-makers. By the time we found out how hardly "gay" it was, tickets had already been bought.
Whether the controversy was deliberate or not, advertisers, marketers, and so on, now know for sure that, even with the most token of token sops to a cause, they can galvanize a community and turn them in to box office dollars.
If promoters know that outrage marketing will work, they will use it. We as consumers have to be discerning, and if we're voting with our box office dollars then we have to vote for films that pay more than lip service to our ideals. Is it like Wonder Woman, where if a female-led, female-directed, female-gaze enabling movie succeeds it will lead to more of the same? Great! Vote away. Or is it a "gay moment" less gay than the Mariana Trench? Maybe save your money.
Have a happy blockbuster season!