One of my favorite ad campaigns of all time was the one for The Matrix. Everyone remembers the movie for the red pill/blue pill bit and bullet time. Before that hit though, there was the radio commercial. The film was getting some advance buzz for being different and then I remember hearing Laurence Fishburne’s voice coming over the car radio on my way to work. He didn’t tell me what The Matrix was. He told me that it had to be seen to be understood and that didn’t tell me a darn thing about the movie. Of course that made me want to see the movie even more.
Then before the first scene is even shown, the big WB logo turns green to some funky graphics and deep bass reverberates through the theater. It’s now established that you’re in for a ride. After that, The Matrix spends a lot of time making us want to know JUST WHAT IT IS. You get a quarter of the way through the movie and don’t even know what the hell it’s about. You’re dragged into Neo’s head and wonder just how deep that rabbit hole goes. The story freaks us out and blows our minds in a way that continues to deliver on that advertising and makes the whole thing a continued experience. It’s a feeling that the second and third movies couldn’t retain.
Many trilogies seem to undergo that slump. The first movie blows our mind, the second assumes too much while the third grasps for redemption. It happened with Indiana Jones (let’s ignore that Crystal Skull thing). The first two Spider-Man movies were terrific and the third was horrific. The same story was true with Shrek. Genius the first two then the writers were kidnapped by aliens and replaced by unknowing clones. Come to think of it, the Alien movies fell into that pattern as well.
It’s not always possible to capture lightning in a bottle and keep that streak alive. There has to be originality mixed in and a real press to innovate even if it’s in the framework of what’s come before. When you don’t, then people catch on rather quickly. That’s the case with some of the Disney “blockbusters” these days. Think back to the first Pirates of the Caribbean. Johnny Depp was quirky in a way he really hadn’t been before and there was a light-hearted air of swashbuckling-ness to the whole production. Then the next two in the series completely lost the newness of the first and just tried to be the same thing while making no sense at all. Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer dropped from a strong 79% fresh to 33% and 44% for the following two.
Disney continued down the same path with John Carter and The Lone Ranger. John Carter had a reported $100 million marketing budget which tried too hard to make us think it was an exciting blockbuster. I saw it on Showtime last week and it had the opening logo turn Martian red a là The Matrix then seemed to feel like a Pirates retread on Mars. The Lone Ranger tried so hard to be Pirates that it cast Johnny Depp just to get his name in the production and was directed by Gore Verbinsky. The commercials even showed the Pirates logo and told us it’d be just as fun. The problem was that they meant the second two Pirates movies, not the first. Both of these shows were resounding bombs.
While those are examples of going too far and phoning it in, there are plenty of cases in there where you could see continued innovation while giving people more of what they want. Alien(s), Shrek I and II, Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 all took the creativity which made the original good then arguably made it even better.
The moral of the story is that it takes a lot of work to come up with an original idea and package it up so people want it. Then you need to put in just as much work to stay true to what you’ve created. An original sales story which gets you in the door will fall flat if you don’t tie the story to your customer. A generic approach isn’t going to cut it when you can do better and people will pick up on it.