Generating buzz with a big name on a poster comes with drawbacks
The trailer for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark—a big-screen remake of the 1973 TV movie of the same name—is like a patchwork quilt made of past works by acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro. Gothic architecture? Check. Nightmarish creatures? Check. Plucky female protagonist? Check and check. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, which comes out Friday, bills itself as "A Guillermo del Toro Production," and it appears to fit del Toro's directorial pattern like a glove.
There's only one problem: del Toro didn't direct it.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark , which hits theaters Friday and stars Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes, is the latest example of an ongoing, troubling trend in movie marketing: giving all of the credit to the most famous name involved in the film's production. In the case of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Del Toro is one of two credited screenwriters (which means he wrote at least part of the film's screenplay) and one of seven credited producers (which means he was involved in generally overseeing the film's production). But his most prominent—and most perplexing—credit forDon't Be Afraid of the Dark can be read immediately before the title on the film's poster: "Guillermo del Toro Presents."
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What does it mean to "present" a film? In a recent interview, del Toro defended his ill-defined third role in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark:
"I only presented three movies, one in Spain and The Orphanage internationally, and this is the third time. I only do it when - (a) I am introducing a filmmaker to the world, but (b) I endorse and say I believe in this movie very, very strongly. For whatever reason, it's a more risky proposition in one way, but it's one that I believe needs to continue to support first-time filmmakers. . . . I only do it when I fully believe I was involved in the product in a way that is meaningful."
The "Guillermo del Toro presents" label certainly helped The Orphanage, which became the third-highest grossing foreign language release of 2007. The Orphange drew exceptionally positive reviews in its own right, but its marketing campaign piggybacked on the massive critical acclaim for del Toro's similarly pitched Pan's Labyrinth, which won three Oscars on its way to becoming the fourth-highest grossing foreign language film in U.S. history just a year earlier.
Will the strategy work again for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark? Del Toro isn't the only famous filmmaker whose role has been exaggerated for marketing purposes. Last February, Sanctum was sold to audiences as a movie "from executive producer James Cameron, creator of Titanic and Avatar," with "Cameron," "Titanic," and "Avatar" emphasized in bold (though given Sanctum's poor reception, actual director Alister Grierson should probably send Cameron a thank-you note).
Cameron and Del Toro are just the beginning. As audiences have become increasingly cinema-savvy, certain directors have become household names, and Hollywood studios have been quick to capitalize on the "brands" that certain directors represent. The most extreme example came in the form of Chinese martial arts epic Hero, which was "presented" by Quentin Tarantino for its 2004 release in the United States. Unlike the roles played by fellow "presenters" Guillermo del Toro or James Cameron, Tarantino was involved in no aspect of Hero's production whatsoever; it could just as accurately have been released under the title Hero: A Film Quentin Tarantino Liked.
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It's hard to fault Tarantino for his enthusiasm, and his name undoubtedly drew many of his fans to Hero's American release. But when Quentin Tarantino's name is at the top of the bill, it means that someone more deserving—say, Hero director Zhang Yimou—is overlooked.
The name that you don't see in advertisements for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is Troy Nixey, the film's actual director. Del Toro is a safer name to peg a movie on than Troy Nixey, whose only existing credits are for writing, producing, and directing a del Toro-esque short film called Latchkey's Lament. Del Toro liked Latchkey's Lament enough to bring Nixey onboard for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.
In many ways, Nixey represents the best possible use of bait-and-switch Hollywood marketing. Latchkey's Lament shows a lot of promise, but it's unlikely that Miramax would have given the untested Nixey a feature film like Don't Be Afraid of the Dark without del Toro's support. Del Toro used his clout to give a young, promising director the opportunity to become a well-known Hollywood director.
But there's a downside to his generosity, too. If Nixey needs a cautionary tale, he should look no further than Henry Selick—arguably the greatest victim of bait-and-switch marketing in Hollywood history. Selick is the director behind cult favorite The Nightmare Before Christmas, a stop-motion film that has alternately delighted and terrified children since its release (and kept Hot Topic in business for the past five years). But when The Nightmare Before Christmas was released in 1993, it was hot on the heels of three hits directed by Tim Burton: Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman Returns. Though Burton had only story and producing credits onThe Nightmare Before Christmas, his name was too valuable to waste, and the film was released under the full title Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. In 2006, Burton directed Corpse Bride, which owed a heavy debt to the trail Selick blazed with The Nightmare Before Christmas. Selick has had a successful career, but almost always in Burton's shadow; his most recent stop-motion film, 2009's Coraline, was commonly criticized as a Tim Burton rip-off.
It remains to be seen whether Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a success or failure (early reviews are mixed), but it's clear who's responsible either way. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and Guillermo del Toro's efforts as a writer, producer, and mentor undoubtedly went a long way toward shaping Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. But "presenting" a film isn't the same as directing it. In the end, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is Nixey's film. You'd just have to squint at its poster to notice.