Even at seventeen years-old, I thought it was weird how many people were doing the camp-out thing for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace while sitting in an inflatable Darth Maul chair they bought at Target. Sure, Maul looked cool in the movie trailer, but I didn’t know he was cool yet. (And to be fair, that particular cool jury is still out.) This weekend, Guardians of the Galaxy opened, and depending on what feelings you’re hooked on, it’s been stamped a certified genre classic. But it was also specifically and meticulously pruned to get us all excited, well before it opened. And in the history of sci-fi and fantasy movies, why do we so often believe the hype?
My Phantom Menace example might be a little unfair simply because Star Wars was already popular in 1999 and had been away from cinemas (at least with new films) since 1983. But the hype-machine of the original Star Wars is in many ways the gold-plated standard for how you get a core audience excited about the release of a movie they’ve never heard about. It’s hard to believe there was a time when Star Wars was something nobody knew about, and its marketing played a big part in why so many people showed up on opening weekend.
The person credited with this primarily is Charles Lippincott, who saw the potential to get people in science fiction and fantasy fandom excited about Star Wars in 1976. He pushed for a Star Wars presentation at World Con that year, as well as San Diego Comic Con. Ralph McQuarrie concept art was on display, as were costumes, and even Mark Hamill. Can you imagine time traveling to World Con 1976 now? Walking around, casually checking out the Star Wars booth? (This sort of reminds of the recent news of Peter Capaldi hanging out at a comic book shops before people knew he was cast in Doctor Who.)
Star Wars was also aided in part by the release of a Marvel Comics “adaptation,” and a novelization, both which came out well before the film. Lippincott and Star Wars didn’t invent some of these marketing practices, but they did prove this sort of thing could work. Let’s also not forget that prior to the success of Star Wars, science fiction and fantasy—unless you count The Wizard of Oz—weren’t necessarily safe bets at the box office. So in addition to changing movies themselves, Star Wars also permanently changed the way genre films were marketed.
In the post-1977 Star Wars domination, everything from Battlestar Galactica to Tron was marketed both to the mainstream media and, more relevantly, directly to people who were assumed (often correctly) to be the fans. If this sort of thing hadn’t continued to happen, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now writing about this on a website dedicated to science fiction and fantasy. The brilliance of a good hype-machine is that it makes the fans themselves advocates for a film they haven’t yet seen—they’re almost more excited about the hype than about actually seeing the movie. So if you still haven’t seen Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s a chance (for some) that the anticipation is as good as it’s going to get. In the case of the classic Star Wars, the film surpasses and justifies the crazy good marketing hype. With Guardians of the Galaxy, were still kind of in the eye of that storm, and it’s a little unclear if this movie will “last” in the cultural memory for years to come.
According to some people, Guardians is “the new Star Wars.” Of course right now it is the new Star Wars, but then again, everything with good enough hype machine always is. We don’t know yet if it will last the way Star Wars has, and I think its true cultural cred and legit ability to jump generations can’t and won’t accurately be judged for a few years. Further, I’d argue, that its overwhelmingly positive reviews are still an extension of the hype machine doing its job correctly. Spoiler alert: the movie is of course, objectively fun and clever, it’s just that I believe the 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating is more a result of a hype-hangover than true classic-status. (Don’t think hype-hangover exists? Check out this softball review of The Phantom Menace in The New York Times in 1999)
But what about when none of this happens post-release? What about when hype backfires?
What about Cowboys and Aliens? What about Star Trek Into Darkness? Heck, what about Avatar? Call it the “countdown to letdown” effect, the notion that these sci-fi hype machines sometimes backfire. I’m not talking about how much money the films make, but rather the love they fail to engender critically and from the fans, post-release. Star Trek Into Darkness did fine in terms of making money, but I’m not sure anybody was super interested in cosplaying as the new Khan or Carol Marcus at Comic Con, particularly not after the movie came out.
Ditto for Cowboys and Aliens, a movie that followed the hype-machine formula to the letter, complete with a comic book that was released before the film materialized. Saying Cowboys and Aliens was a joyless eyesore isn’t the point, the point is, everybody was ready to love it. I was ready to love it. I wrote about how much I was going to love it right here on Tor.com. I didn’t love it, I hated it, and I felt betrayed. I use this as an example mostly because I’m a well-known contrarian, so sometimes things I either do or don’t like are considered “weird.” But I’m not totally crazy here: the general adoration for Cowboys and Aliens and Star Trek Into Darkness is nowhere near something like The Avengers, or even Man of Steel.
Plus, I know pretty much everyone felt let down by Green Lantern, but perhaps that’s because the tone-deaf marketing failed to disguise the inherent badness of the film. I mean, at least have a decent trailer. Even the trailers for all the Star Wars prequels are excellent. I’m no prequel hater, but I know they suck. But those prequel trailers? I still think they’re tops. And we all know Cowboys and Aliens had great trailers, too.
Obviously, Cowboys and Aliens was disadvantaged in the same way Guardians of the Galaxy kind of was. Who are these people? And please don’t tell me every last one of you has always been a huge fan of Rocket Raccoon and Star Lord, because though this title has been around for awhile, this current line-up of the “Guardians” is very 2008. To borrow from a fantastic Onion piece about Green Lantern: “Remember Star Lord? He’s your favorite?” These aren’t “classic” Marvel characters, and even if they were, that wouldn’t be why anyone is excited.
Ah, but there’s where the Guardians of the Galaxy hype was kind of great: it’s got that scene in the trailer where someone has NO IDEA who Star Lord is, so everyone feels good about it. No matter how you feel about the rest of the movie, I think that scene is awesome, because it makes me believe the movie is cool. The excitement and hype comes from perceived coolness, which are epitomized by these great trailers.
In many ways, the Guardians of the Galaxy marketing is a hybrid: it’s both really ambitious and really safe. It’s ambitious, because the characters are goofy and a regular person still doesn’t really know what it’s about.
But it’s safe too, because the casting choices are totally mainstream, and the sly appropriation of existing pop music makes the movie feel like something you’re already aware of, even though you’re really not. And though while a lot of people are calling the music choices in Guardians of the Galaxy “brilliant,” they are really the hype-man inside the movie, constantly waking you up to get excited about what you’re watching. The film, and its trailers and posters are referential to 1970s and 80s genre movies, but still seem to look sort of new. Guardians of the Galaxy’s brand identity is simple: if you see anything familiar here, this movie is probably for you, everybody.
I read a news story recently that Coldplay was sticking hand-written lyrics from their latest album “Ghost Stories” into books of ghost stories for children, in public libraries. I’m not sure this sort of viral marketing actually worked (“Oh hey mommy, this R.L. Stine book rocks. Hey, I think I might want to buy a Coldplay album.”) but it did remind me of Guardians of the Galaxy, insofar as it felt like overkill. The movie is making obscene amounts of money and everybody is freaking out like they’re a teenager at Beatles concert in 1964. Yet, we all know a lot of it’s down to cute/classy marketing ploys. We’re all cynical about these things to an extent, but when something manipulates us in just the right way—like Stockholm syndrome—we love it. And with Guardians of the Galaxy, that’s the sign of good hype. Or maybe, good art.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.