Sense of Wonder: Rec Stealth Campaign

[REC] is a little foreign-language film from last year that has built up a buzz among the few lucky enough to have seen it. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, instead of being released into U.S. theatres, the film has been remade in English as QUARANTINE, which is due out later this year. In a post detailing his attempt to track down a screener copy of [REC], Arbogast on Film quotes a strange letter:

I am afraid for you to see it — mainly because if you blog about it, it then starts to diffuse the near perfect experience of watching it. The less you know about this film the better. [...]

But I fear for the film once it gets into your hands. I would beg — BEG you not to give frame grabs or synopsis or criticism. BEG you. Endorsement? Yes. Anything else, I fear would flatten the impact this puppy delivers into genre formula comparisons. Please don’t. [...]

So let me get this straight. We have a film that almost no one has heard of. It is not getting released in the U.S., but in a few months everyone will know the entire plot from watching the remake. But we should not write anything about the original because that will gave away too much and ruin the experience of the film.

To me, this sounds like an almost perfect formula for ruining any chance [REC] has of finding any audience at all in America. People who have seen it should be writing voluminously about it – and not just “It’s great but you have to take my word for it.”

The movie’s gimmick is that it is shot from the point-of-view of a new crew that happens to be on location when an emergency crew answers a 911 call from a woman trapped in an inner city high rise. Obviously, it sounds a bit like BLAIR WITCH, CLOVERFIELD, and DIARY OF THE DEAD. Since we’ve already seen those movies, why should we see this one? Well, apparently there’s a lot more going on that the tiny plot description reveals, but if the film’s supporters insist on keeping everything under wraps, nobody is going to care enough to check the film out.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

4 Responses to “ Sense of Wonder: Rec Stealth Campaign ”

  1. As a longtime reader of Cinefantastique – and you, a longtime author for it — I am frankly shocked, not just at your attitude towards the practice of not giving away anything about a movie in order to sell it — after all, wasn’t this the demand of filmmakers like Hitchcock with PSYCHO for example? — but the sheer language of condescention and outright superiority with reference to the letter in question and Arbogasts acceptance of the request. The idea that you must plaster a review with spoilers and frame grabs from every single set-piece a film contains does not sell a film — it spoils it — “spoilers” remember? Methinks you are under a gross misunderstanding of what selling a movie is all about. The fact that [REC] doesn’t have a US distributor might have something to do with the contractual fact that it HAS been sold for US remake. Ever consider that? As far as I know, [REC] has received its fair share of genre recognition and wasn’t in trouble finding a US home. And the fact that the US trailer for the remake ruins all the shocks is, as far as I am concerned, a problem that QUARENTINE will have to deal with. If a film is good, people will want to see it — if all the gems to be found during the experience of watching the film are ruined ahead of time, then what is the point of seeing the film? What are the chances of impact on the audience? If I recall correctly, when I saw ALIEN for the first time in ‘79 it was quite a while until the press started even giving away key scenes from the film — the uncertainty of what you were going to see was the reason to see it — not that I knew all the images and set-pieces ahead of time. It is entirely your choice to feel the way you do, but to refer to the sentiments as “strange” and to take the tone you have with regard to Arbo’s consideration of the request has only interested me MORE in seeing the film and have forced me to question your position here with this blog.

    You say, “Well, apparently there’s a lot more going on that the tiny plot description reveals, but if the film’s supporters insist on keeping everything under wraps, nobody is going to care enough to check the film out.”
    Well, I think it may be time for you to review the history of cinema promotion and the success of mysterious mainstream cinema –and recent cinema at that! – ie. CLOVERFIELD, BLAIR WITCH — both films that kept EVERYTHING a secret from the press and went on to be smash hits both critically and financially. Isn’t there an expression “word of mouth”? Isn’t that what creates sleeper hits?

    Thanks for letting me voice my shock and disappointment – but in anyone else’s world, you’d owe a few people an apology — unless you enjoy being known as a cinema fascist.

  2. Nothing in my post implied that articles shouled be filled with spoilers. I objected rather to the paranoid fear that writing about [REC] would almost inevitably ruin the impact of seeing it – that the only way to see it was knowning nothing about it. I don’t think it’s a big logical leap to conclude that if people know nothing about it, then they will not want to see it. It’s a question of walking the fine line – revealing just enough.

    Your statement that “If a film is good, people will want to see it” is a bit optimistic, I think, Cinema history is littered with examples that contradict it. As for the point of seeing a film when all the gems are already known to you, I can only point to the many examples of fans viewing their favorite movies multiple times and continuing to enjoy it long after they know the twists and surrpises.

    As for CLOVERFIELD and BLAIR WITCH, those examples do not really support your point. There were big promotional campaigns for both films. Everybody knew that BLAIR WITCH was about some documentarians who disappeared in the woods while making a film about a witch. Everybody knew that CLOVERFIELD was about a monster that attacked New York while some young people were throwing a going-away party. Word of mouth did not turn CLOVERFIELD into a sleeper hit; it made most of its money the first weekend, thanks to the way the film was sold. After word got out, the box office actually declined rather sharply. (I’m not saying there is a cause-and-effect relationship here, just that we can’t pretend CLOVERFIELD was turned into a sleeper hit by fans who “discovered” it.)

    Do you really believe that anyone is doing [REC] a favor by keeping it so far under wraps that it is almost off the radar? I don’t, and that hardly makes me a fascist. Fascism implies a mindless allegiance to a dictator or political party that forcibly represses opposition and criticism. Trying to prevent people from writing about the film comes closer to fascism (though hardly close enough to justify using the term). I’m just making a case for singing praises with lyrics that extend beyond “Just trust me – it’s great.”

    Sorry I phrased my post in a way that ticked you off.

  3. Thanks for the response, Steve. Fair enough. Though fascism literally means “a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control” and to be told “People who have seen it should be writing voluminously about it – and not just “It’s great but you have to take my word for it.”” sounded like an assertion of power to me. It also, I felt, unjustly antagonized Arbogast for respecting the approach the “strange” letter author asked for. The apology was actually suggested for Arbogast and the author of the “strange” letter. But I do thank you for your apology and explanation.

    In regard to [REC], it seems that, for a non-US made film and unreleased at that, it has indeed garnered quite a bit of positive chatter outside of it’s native Spain and that it’s temporary suppression of commercial success here seems, again, perhaps a contractual agreement by the perpetrators of the remake and the owners of the original. I would like to find out if this was the case. As far as CLOVERFIELD and BLAIR WITCH – the initial campaigns for both did not reveal the nature of the plots at all. The posters – one was some twigs or a portion of a face with a widened eye and the other was a NYC skyline with a damaged Statue of Liberty. I believe it was the reviewers zeal of over-revelation that made people aware of the plot. And it is a fact that everyone I have talked to (I live in LA!)had absolutely no idea what CLOVERFIELD was about before seeing it other than it even its title was a secret until shortly before release and that it might be about a giant monster. ALIEN’s ads were a mysterious catch phrase offering the promise of terror and a picture of SOMETHING that you had no idea of what it was. All the pre-release trailers for these films were equally abstract and mysterious with a faint indication of setting and circumstance.[REC] has a similarly mysterious ad and it has been doing just fine commercially abroad — it’s ultimate success lies in the fact that a company bought the rights to remake it in ENGLISH to ABSOLUTELY ensure the success of the story in the US — and as with the other films mentioned, the trailer campaign rides the line between too much and just enough. It’s brevity and lack of clarity as to exactly what is happening in the story may just do the trick. I simply agreed with the “strange” letter author’s plea to not give away key shock shots or sequence details. I still ask you, do you feel that filmmakers like Hitchcock who in the ads demanded that “no one will be allowed into the theater” either after the film had begun or during the last 15 minutes or whatever — that they were wrong in concealing the most shocking plot turns of their story from the ticket buying public? Initial campaigns for PSYCHO or William Castle’s HOMICIDAL definitely revealed nothing about details of plot or shock sequence. It was only after the mark had been made that they exploited the shower scene, etc. That, in itself seems to be great showmanship – the very understanding of their film’s relationship to an UNSUSPECTING audience.

    But it has been your JOB for years to either hype or ignore films to suit the commercial guidelines of your specific publication. I can understand completely why you would take this position. My point was simply to defend the idea that there are ways to advertise, promote and review certain types of films that protect and preserve their unique interaction with audiences and still generate maximum commercial interest. Word of mouth is still the strongest sell-point. In concordance with what you said about CLOVERFIELD, the one thing that people did reveal was that the filmmakers’ style made them dizzy and nauseous. So repeat viewings were out for some and first-timers may have been swayed against going at all because of this as well. Press – whether unpaid bloggers/reviewers or paid promotion/review publications have lost the art of subtlety and respect of the film that needs to be sold and the audience that needs to enjoy it.

    Many thanks, once again.

  4. An assertion of power? How was I going to assert this power? By sending my stormtroopers into bloggers’ basements and forcng them to reveal plot details of [REC].

    Your comments ocntinues to ignore the point I keep making: I never said we should spoil the surprise of [REC] or any other movie. I said that keeping it completely under wraps is not a good strategy. Surely writing about a film without giving the whole thing away is not too fine a line to walk.

    As for your comments about the “initial” campaigns for BLAIR WITCH and CLOVERFIELD, they are not good arguments for your position. Most if not all films start out with “teaser” campaigns; that is why the word “teaser” is common parlance in p.r.

    As for your friends not knowing what CLOVERFIELD was about, all I can say is that, before the movie opened, the studio released video online showing a big chunk of the opening seuqence, including the severed head of the Statue of Liberty, and a glimpse of a monstrous form moving about in the dust clouds kicked up by destruction.

    Same thing with ALIEN: the teaser trailer intrigues, but it was no secret the movie was about a monster loose on a space ship. I have a collection of magazine articles from before the film came out in which writer Dan O’Bannon, designer Ron Cobb, and director Ridley Scott spoke voluminously about the movie without ruining it. These are not just genre mags like CFQ or Starlog but mainstream publications like American Film.

    Even the lead actress of BLAIR WITCH was on the Tonight Show before the film opened, ruining the illusion perpetrated on the Internet that the film was a “real” documentary made by people who had mysteriously disappeared.

    Whatever the success of BLAIR WITCH and CLOVERFIELD, stealth campaigns are not a sure fire means of success. The ‘88 remake of THE BLOB keep the title character a “secret” before the release, and the film tanked. The ‘98 Godzilla (which actually hid the fact that “Godzilla” was actually a giant iguana) is considered a disappointment compared to expectations, even though it made more money than CLOVERFIELD.

    But is any of this really relevant to [REC]? The film is not going to receive any kind of promotional campaign in the U.S. that would compare to any of the films we have been discussing. And long before most U.S. viewers will have any chance at all to see it, the plot will be revealed courtesy of the remake. Under the circumstances, worrying that a blogger will give the details away seems misplaced.

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