Tuesday, January 14, 2014

When the Marketing Sinks a Movie, Or, Reasons to See 47 Ronin

I'm not going to claim to be an expert in marketing or how the whole Hollywood money machine works. I mean, I'm not sure anyone can actually really claim to be an expert in that. So much dark magic involved. So much.

Anyway, I don't really understand how it works in its entirety, but I do understand a little, and what I know should help to explain something that's bothered me: Why did 47 Ronin, a movie that is seriously freaking amazing, tank at the box office?

Let me tell you a thing.

Movies are marketed based on a very confusing system (that I only vaguely understand), based around "quadrants". There are four quadrants - teenage boys, teenage girls, adult men, and adult women. Children are kind of another thing entirely, which is why you will see only kids' movies marketed at kids' movies and never shall the twain meet. Which is part of a lot of other problems. But back to the quadrants.

Each of these quadrants represents a hypothetical subset of moviegoers. It's all very self-explanatory, and while it is overly simplistic to assume that these groups have such wildly different taste, it gets the job done. Now, here's the problem.

No one really wants their movie to appeal to just one quadrant. You want everybody to go, right? Make as much money as possible. So you want to make a "four quadrant movie", right? Pack the theaters in with people excited to see your product. So what is a "four quadrant movie?" I think you can probably guess, but I'll spell it out for you. A "four quadrant movie" is a movie that appeals to teenage boys. Why? Because the theory goes, that what teenage boys will watch, teenage girls will watch and adult men will watch it because they want to feel young again/they never matured in the first place, while adult women will watch it because they have to drive their sons to the movie theater.

Take a long moment to let that sink in. According to most popular marketing firms, the best thing a movie can do is stereotypically appeal to teenage boys.

Now, let's watch the trailer for 47 Ronin again. I've got a link to it right here.

There are a lot of assumptions going on here, and we'll break them down, but first, allow me to totally blow your mind (maybe): that trailer is possibly the least representative explanation of the film they could have possibly made. Seriously. The movie was nothing like that. Every scene in there is out of context, they make multiple characters out of thin air, misrepresent the actual plot of the movie, and generally cock it all up.

And here's why.

The idea behind teenage boys as the standard for a popular movie is about more than just the general belief that teenage boys have disposable income and are sexist against movies with female protagonists and demand explosions and decontextualized nudity. The real assumptions are actually more disturbing.

By placing teenage boys as the arbiters of our cultural taste, we imply that not only do teenage boys represent our monolithic movie taste, that taste is white, male, young, and middle-to-upper class. As a result, any movie that is not about young, white, male, middle-to-upper class characters must be redefined so that it can be about them. Marketing believes that we all are or want to be those things, and therefore we will only watch a movie if it is or claims to be about that specific demographic.

And, as you might be able to recall, most movies that differ from this very specific formula are defined by their deviation. Think of Twilight, Hunger Games, Divergent - now these are all reasonably different films, adapted from YA fiction, and have a female protagonist. And all of them are "teenage girl movies." Hunger Games has transformed into a more mass appeal property, sure, but at their heart, all of these are about girls. They are defined by how about girls they are, at least in the marketing, aren't they?

Katniss Everdeen, is, after all, the Girl on Fire.

Similarly, any movie that is primarily about non-white people is defined by how about non-white people it is. It's a black movie or a Hispanic movie or an Asian movie or whatever. It's not just a movie, it's a movie about race. And so on and so on and so on. Movies that differ are defined by their differences.

Which brings us back again to 47 Ronin. Like all of you, I saw the trailer fourteen kajillion times this year, and I figured that since I love Keanu Reeves (haters gonna hate) and Rinko Kikuchi, I'd go give it a shot even though it looked sophomoric and kind of terrible. 

To my utter and complete surprise, the movie turned out to be a beautiful, thoughtful fairy tale, in which Keanu Reeves is not the main character, there is no pat Hollywood happy ending, the story stays remarkably true to Japanese folklore and myth, and there is much less fighting and a lot more character development than seemed likely. Basically, it's a completely different movie.

So here's what 47 Ronin is actually about. (SPOILERS)

The movie is based on a well-known Japanese myth, and follows the story pretty closely. In the movie, Ôishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is a samurai in the service of Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), the kindly and thoughtful ruler of Ako. When Ôishi and Lord Asano find a young boy in the woods, Ôishi wants to kill him, as he has the signs of a demon on him, but Lord Asano spares his life and takes the boy into his home. The boy, Kai (later played by Keanu Reeves), grows up an outcast, both because of his weird origin, and because he is only half-Japanese. Ôishi hates him for the dishonor he brings on Lord Asano's house by existing.

Years pass. Kai grows up, and Ôishi becomes no more fond of him. But Lord Asano's daughter, Mika (Kô Shibasaki), does. She loves Kai, and Kai loves her, and it's all very tragic and noble and chaste. Until the Shogun visits, that is, and brings with him Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano). Lord Kira is not a nice guy. Such not a nice guy, in fact, that he brings with him his concubine - who is really a witch (Rinko Kikuchi). Lord Kira and the Witch conspire against Lord Asano, and seek to take his lands. Actually they seek to take all the lands. And they're darn good at it.

First their poison the samurai who will fight Lord Kira's samurai in the tournament. This will bring shame on Lord Asano, but Kai steps in and dons the armor. He's almost home free, too, until his helmet pops off and everyone sees that not only is this not a samurai, it's a demon-touched half-breed. Shame everywhere. Kai is beaten and Ôishi is furious.

Then, later that night, the Witch spells Lord Asano so he attacks Lord Kira. The result is disastrous. Lord Asano is forced by the Shogun to kill himself, Mika is given to Lord Kira in marriage (though she may wait a year for mourning), and Lord Asano's lands are given over to Lord Kira. Ôishi and his other samurai are banded Ronin (or, masterless samurai), and banished from Ako. And then, to add insult to injury, Lord Kira sells Kai into slavery and sticks Ôishi in a pit for a year.

Lord Kira is not a nice guy, okay? Also kind of crazy.

A year passes, and then Ôishi is up, feeble, and ready to take revenge. While he knows that they may die in the process, Ôishi is determined to fight to free Mika and regain the honor of Lord Asano. He also owes a debt to Kai, who realized that Lord Kira had a witch with him long before anyone else did. Ôishi wishes to see that debt paid.

And this is where in the story the action actually starts. But it's action with a purpose, and consequences, and stakes, and all those things that action movies really don't usually have. Plus, the ending of the story is true to the legend. The reward for fighting injustice and overpowering an evil warlord and his witch is simple: you may now die with honor.

There is virtually no nudity, there are only a couple of kisses, the violence is always plot-related and important, there is really only one white character in the entire film and he's not the protagonist, the two female characters (Mika and the Witch) talk to each other rather a lot actually, and the whole film is about the sublimation of self in the pursuit of honor, nobility and the greater good.

I guess I can kind of see why Hollywood didn't know what to do with this.

But really it just makes me sad. This is an amazing movie, guys. It's beautifully shot, the story is well written and compelling and tragic, and it's so delightfully different. This isn't an action movie, it's a fairy tale, and that's fine. Better than fine, it's great. How often do we get to see someone else's fairy tales, as in, non-European ones, on our screens?

The rub is this: 47 Ronin tanked at the box office. It tanked for two reasons: 1, the people who were expecting a big dumb action movie and did go to see it were bored out of their skulls and complained about how not an American action movie it was all over the internet, and 2, the people who were expecting a big dumb action movie and didn't go see it didn't go see it. And this is where our little example up above about how movie marketing works turns disastrous.

This movie failed because it was badly marketed. There is literally no other explanation. The expectations that were shaped in the leadup to its release were, frankly, full of shit. They had no bearing on the real movie, and as a result, the movie was a disappointment. I don't think I can say how sad this makes me.

So, please go see 47 Ronin, if you can. It's a wonderful movie that doesn't deserve to be punished for the shittiness of the market, and, really, don't we want to reward Hollywood for at least trying something different? I hate to say it, but if 47 Ronin bombs, it could be a long time before we get another big-budget non-western action movie again.

At least, one without Tom Cruise saving the Japanese from themselves through the power of white man magic. Because we all know how much Hollywood loves making those.


  1. I didn't finish reading your article because spoilers, but basically I saw the trailer and was super confused as to the plot, and wondered if Keanu Reeves was going to make it a saved-by-the-whiteness thing or if his half Japanese-ness would contribute to a legitimately interesting story involving hapa person, the latter of which I have interest in for obvious reason. I will put it on my very long list of movies I meant to see this winter and maybe get around to it at some point.

    1. You should definitely go see it. It's not really Keanu Reeve's story at all, which is surprising and rather nice. Mostly, it's just a good story, based comfortably in Japanese myth, with a Japanese cast and beautifully shot and well, it's good.

  2. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NeverTrustATrailer so of course I will go by a much more reliable standard. How about good ol' metacritic... oh, oh my. Ah well, Debbie says it is good.

    1. I am the best metric you could ask for, that's right.

  3. I really loved this movie. I was totally looking forward to it when I thought it was a ridiculous sword-slamming fest, and I enjoyed it when it wasn't. Maybe if you think all ads are lies to begin with, the odds of enjoying things more increases? No idea.

    1. I feel like there's a scientific study in there somewhere...

  4. I avoided watching this in the theater due to poor reviews. This was a much better movie than the reviews indicated. Basically, if a movie has a bummer ending aka main characters dying or humanity as whole losing or being shown in a negative light you can deduct roughly 20% off of the metacritic score right off the bat. If doesn't have constant action, tits and asses and or cheesy Hollywood humor injected into it every other line you can deduct another 20% for that. The only exception is if the movie is marketed as an art house independent movie then none of the above rules apply, but said movie is doomed to poor box office returns anyway due to being pigeon holes as an art house movie regardless of how positive the reviews may be. This movie basically got screwed because it strayed too far from pandering to the lowest common denominator without actually being an artistic movie.

    47 Ronin was better than 3/4 of the trashy tent pole movies I have seen recently, but because it strayed from the block buster formula it was doomed to failure which is sad. This was not the best movie but it was MUCH better than the reviews indicated. I would give it a low B which is higher than I would give most of the trashy super hero flicks that got MUCH better reviews than this did. This movie deserved a much better run at the box office and a fairer score by the critics.

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