This isn't about any particular site or writer, if it were then the problem wouldn't be big enough to write about. The problem is one of a culture that becomes more pervasive by the day and that has, I believe, begun to seriously undermine the two artforms that I love: film and film journalism. I see this problem becoming mutually parasitic; undermining the quality of journalism and making it harder to enjoy the films that journalism is about. The problem is hype.
I grew up in the 90's. The internet existed, but I only began using it in 1996, aged 15 and while it seemed miraculous to me then it was, at that point, largely an achingly slow collection of Geocities pages and lo-res pictures. Frankly I was better served for movie information by magazines and the Cinemania CD-Rom (think Encarta, but for movies). I love the internet. It has given me incredible opportunities as a writer, introduced me to and enabled me to stay in touch with movie loving friends worldwide and given me a lot of good laughs, but while I've no desire to come off as an old fart (especially as I'm only 32) I sometimes miss the dark ages.
Hype has always been part of film journalism. I respect that as a journalist and I used to enjoy it as a film fan. The thing is, hype has fundamentally changed since I was younger and those changes have, in my opinion, made both journalism and films worse. Growing up I consumed film magazines. Each would have the same few stills from upcoming releases and while they might sometimes cover the same films (though the late, lamented, Neon often went more off the beaten path; they put Buffalo 66 on the cover) they did so in ways that felt individual and had distinct voices. The key was anticipation. This was all the info I would be getting on a film; one story per mag. Between each end of month binge I was left to hanker after the next glimpse of what I was hoping to head to the cinema for later on. It built excitement, allowing me to see and to know enough to be intrigued but not enough to feel like I would be walking into the film knowing more than the flavour of what I would be getting. This is what the internet has, seemingly for all time, killed .
Hype fills a gap. It dons the same clothes as news and occasionally it genuinely is news, but the end result is always the same whatever the type of story or the tone of it; it is hype. This hype circles most closely around the films that audiences are most anticipating. In recent times we've had The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, various Marvel based films and now we're beginning to ramp up for the hype machine's biggest push ever: Star Wars Episode VII. A certain amount of hype is not just worth doing, it's essential. If Disney is spending $200 million on a film it would hardly be wise to not let the moviegoing public know that it is coming out; awareness creates desire and desire sells tickets. However, I feel there is a balance to be struck, that that balance is now tipped heavily in one direction and that the imbalance can be blamed, at least in part, for the lacklustre reception of many recent blockbusters.
The first example that comes to mind is Prometheus. For the longest time we knew very little about Ridley Scott's Alien prequel (there was even some doubt about whether it was really supposed to be an Alien prequel). This all changed in the three months or so leading up to its release. There were the typical trailers and posters, the mass of stills, but what really made an impression were the 'viral' promo videos; short films connected to the film and featuring its characters, but not actually using scenes from the film. There were so many of these and other promotional items and they so dominated many film fans social media streams that the film was soon dubbed 'Promotheus'.
Prometheus is not a good film, but I believe that it was damned by that media strategy to an even worse reception than it might otherwise have received. By the time audiences got to see the film it seemed many of them were no longer anticipating it, in fact many appeared actively bored of the world, so overexposed had it been in the previous few months. Between the trailers, the posters and the virals most of the film's most striking images were overfamilliar even before the film was out. The world and the characters held few surprises. It was, perversely, more like seeing the final iteration of the film's advertising than much of a film.
For those of us on social media (which I never was until 24FPS began to gain an audience), hype isn't just something generated by official channels, it's a self-perpetuating entity. Each thing that gets written about a highly anticipated film, each trailer that comes out, each clip, still and poster, gets multiple bites at the cherry through retweets, reblogs and comments on the story or item. One casting rumour can already dominate a Twitter timeline for hours at a time as more people learn about and offer commentary on it (see recent whispers about Chiwetel Ejiofor being in Bond 24). Studios know this and they take advantage, making hype ever more piecemeal because they know that every little bit will be seized on and discussed, increasing awareness of their product. This piecemeal approach has led to what I consider to be the most asinine trend in film promotion right now: adverts for adverts.
Ads for ads tend to take one of two forms. There is the more traditional 'teaser'. Until a couple of years ago the teaser was a self-contained thing. They tended to be short and feature little or no footage from the film, instead concerned with announcing that something was on the way, but they were a complete thing in and of themselves. Recently the teaser has become less self-contained, instead some films are now simply putting a few seconds of their trailers online early as a teaser not for the film but for the trailer. Just last week we got a twenty second 'sneak peek' of David Fincher's upcoming Gone Girl, as a precursor to the trailer launching. Who does that serve other than advertisers? At least full trailers and clips are advertising a thing, a trailer for a trailer advertises nothing but the next advert for a thing.
Perhaps even more asinine and irritating is the new trend for countdowns; weekly, daily or sometimes hourly graphics designed to pop up in social media counting down to the arrival of a film or, disipritingly frequently, a trailer. I believe that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 did a series of countdown graphics leading up to the teaser for the film's first trailer. That is, for those of you counting, a series of adverts for an advert for an advert. I remember there being much complaint about this, but simply by talking about it we were still doing the bidding of the advertisers and damning ourselves to more of the same.
Of course much of the social media comment comes about through genuine enthusiasm and the devotion of fans to their favourite thing. That's the last thing that I want to denigrate; if you like something, be it Polish cinema from the 1970's or Star Wars, great, feel free to shout about it, but I do think we should be aware of what the cumulative effect of all this commentary can be.
As a critic I do sometimes worry about shouting too loudly about how much I love a movie because I'm acutely aware of the danger of overhyping a film and therefore increasing the chance that it will disappoint someone seeing it for the first time. This is another place in which I'm wary of the cumulative effect of social media. Being a film critic and being friends with a lot of film critics means that my social media experience is very much geared towards film, so when a particular film starts to pick up critical traction it is very hard for me (and many other big movie fans) not to be acutely aware of that reception. We are all supposed to go into screenings with a completely open mind and while that's rarely, if ever, possible I do try. Advanced knowledge of a film's critical reception can colour that essential impartiality and I believe it sometimes makes films harder to enjoy.
The last time that I felt this became a problem was with Gravity. I skipped the screening at the London Film Festival as it clashed with something else I wanted to see, and which was not going to get a massive release within a few months. Thereafter, all I heard about Gravity was not merely that it was brilliant but that it was a game changer; the film to make the 3D sceptics (Hi) eat their words, a film that would be among the defining cinematic events of your life. I went and saw it and found... a good movie. No more, no less. It's 3 stars for me. It changed nothing, defined nothing, but even though it's a good movie the sense of disappointment was substantial because what had been promised was so incredible. The thing is, incredible is the word. There was no way that Gravity could have lived up to its (admittedly largely viewer generated) hype, because to do so would require it to have irrevocably changed the way I look at cinema. I've seen one new film that has done that (though only in relation to one genre) in the past decade and it was not Gravity.
Ultimately I think hype is degrading two things I love. It's not exactly making films worse, but I contend that it makes them seem worse by making us bored of them before they've come out or by building our expectations to unattainable levels. I do believe it makes journalism worse, not everyone is guilty and there are ways to cover a new trailer or bit of news and still write something interesting. Unfortunately more often than not I think it ends up being an excuse to bash out some quick copy and gain some hits (and certainly my stats might look a lot healthier if I covered film news or posted trailers). Writers and sites I like and admire get dragged on to this treadmill; a treadmill I think is slowly damaging what they do and the reason they do it.
So how do we combat this? I don't know that we can. The social media genie may change forms, but the chances of it going back in the bottle are almost non-existent. Sites and advertisers need each other and they need readers to see their content, so they will justifiably take any opportunity to make sure that content is thrust in our faces. Without disengaging from social media and the positives it offers this negative isn't going to go away. Of course I, like many others, refuse to watch the endless virals, to click on the endless links and to start reading every review that comes out, but as I said, once this material piles up you don't even need to engage with it to feel the effect of it. I think we're screwed, mostly because in another 15 years I can imagine pining for the time when hype was only THIS bad.