The Avatar Effect: How Too Much Hype Can Ruin A Movie

Elsa Frozen Disney Movie idina menzel The Avatar Effect: How Too Much Hype Can Ruin A Movie

Hype is, by definition, a pretty great thing. It increases awareness and creates excitement. It brings people together and generates new understandings. It encourages new interpretations, inspires new ideas, and so on. Also, every once in a while, hype occurs because something is actually good.

When Disney’s Frozen was first reviewed ahead of its theatrical release back in December 2013, the general consensus among critics was that it was pretty decent. It was no Tangled, but it was nice to look at and apparently there was a pretty good song or two in there. All in all, it could count itself among the respectable additions to Disney’s catalogue. And that was about it.

Then something happened. Somewhere in the social-media-sphere, it was quietly decided that Frozen was the best thing to come out of Disney since one of its artists glanced at a computer generated animation from some partner company of theirs and thought ‘say, I wonder where we could go with this?” With that, the world went instantaneously hot for Frozen. It has remained a steadily growing sensation ever since, with cult references, merchandise and soundtrack-covers leaking into pop culture faster than a snowman in summer. It took $1.14 billion dollars at the box office, far outstripping both Toy Story 3 and Disney’s long-standing masterpiece The Lion King. Its long list of accolades is probably best summed up by its taking home of the Best Animated Feature Oscar, Disney’s first ever win in this category. It also walked away with the equivalent BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Critic’s Choice awards. Small countries could be fed on the revenue earned by “Let it Go” alone.

I will admit that I came to the Frozen party a bit late. But after several months of being steadily drip-fed the belief that it was spectacular, I was finally persuaded to take leave of my own senses long enough to go into it expecting a marvel. Thirty minutes found me still expecting. As did 102 minutes. It was only really on reaching the nine minutes of closing credits that the expectations could finally accept it was probably time to take the film’s advice – and Let it Go.

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Elsa frozen The Avatar Effect: How Too Much Hype Can Ruin A Movie

Going on the old adage that ten thousand lemmings can’t be wrong, the above facts and figures should probably just be the end of the discussion. But one brief post-viewing consultation with the internet revealed fairly quickly that I wasn’t the only one who had noticed that something was possibly amiss here. In addition to the fairly neutral reviews already mentioned above, there were many more that were not nearly as generous, including ones that accused Disney of simply wanting to squeeze something out in time for Christmas, that pointed out glaring plot problems, confusing indecision over character roles and – crucially – obvious plays for marketability (which, let’s face it, were pretty successful).

Of course, it is not that Frozen isn’t good – it is. But why did Frozen get this sort of super-reception when there was a lot of evidence to suggest that its predecessor Tangled, which did not, was a superior film in terms of script, characterization and even (if there was a keyboard function that allowed typing in a whisper I would be using it right now) soundtrack? Obviously nearly all Disney films and the like generate merchandise and can become a craze. In fact, entire social standings were won and lost on the basis of The Lion King cards possession across many a school playground in 1994. But the point about Frozen is how categorically etched on the public consciousness it has become. It is championed constantly in every direction, from social media to Broadway (it took The Lion King three years to get to Broadway – it took Frozen about three minutes), by young and old alike. Not to overuse the Frozen jokes here, but there has most definitely been a snowball effect.

In short, it would seem as though the answer lies in trending, or rather in what trending will become once popularity reaches that ultimate level of enthusiastic appreciation – hype. Hype is something different entirely. Hype can do things. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey achieved instant glory in some parts of the cinephile world, despite the fact that there were many who could list a fair few reasons to be disappointed with the long anticipated return trip to Middle Earth. Skyfall was loudly declared by many to be the best Bond film of all time, when actually it wouldn’t be entirely unfair on the basis of some questionable plot devices and the constant need to suspend any kind of even Bond-movie-level disbelief to review it simply with the phrase “….eh??” Bridesmaids enjoyed a period of being revered by critics and viewers alike as a complete reinvention of the romantic comedy genre, while it wasn’t actually all that difficult to find at least a few of the clichés that its popularity depended on it challenging.

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%name The Avatar Effect: How Too Much Hype Can Ruin A Movie

Perhaps the most obvious example of a film reaching stratospheric levels of praise while a few defectors hopped around in the background with their hands up was Avatar. It was given volumes of sterling reviews – mainly on the basis of its ambitious direction and blindingly absorbing attention to detail for which it certainly deserved them – but criticised soundly, again by many, for not actually achieving all that it intended or indeed claimed to have done in terms of narrative and depth. Even the most glowing reviews subtly admitted that it was really only to be called a masterpiece on the basis of its technical success.

Of course, a lot of what we’re talking about here is just the issue of divided opinion, and varying opinion is always valuable simply for its own sake. But – before I am hung, drawn and quartered on the internet village green at dawn – the problem is not that these films are not good. In fact, it is almost the opposite. They have been chosen for the fact that they perfectly demonstrate the point being made here, which is that hype actually has an effect all of its own and that this effect quite often causes the reception of films some serious problems. That is, all of these films are very good and are very good for the very reasons for which they are meant to be very good. But – they are not that good. Impressive visuals alone hardly seem the most solid ground on which to base more films of its type. And yet, off the back of the storm that was Avatar’s advent into the public sphere, Avatar 2 is on its way. As is Avatar 3. And 4. That’ll be one nil to the hype then. Or four nil, in this case. The hashtag, it seems, has a lot to answer for.

Hype will serve some films brilliantly by taking something good and making it – to borrow the hyperbole for a moment –awesome, and it is true that the film industry would not be where it is today if it were not for the sort of spreading of the word for which hype is mainly responsible. But it is as damaging as it is essential when it raises expectations of a film to the point at which the film simply cannot live up to them. All that happens in these cases is that audiences are being primed for disappointment.

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american hustle movie cast The Avatar Effect: How Too Much Hype Can Ruin A Movie

See, for example, the opinions on American Hustle from many of those who watched it late on in its release and, given its place in the awards race last season alongside heavyweight films such as Dallas Buyers Club and 12 Years a Slave, went in expecting something mind-blowingly incredible. A lot of the criticism revolved around the fact that it wasn’t as good as reviews were making it out to be. But this hardly seems a fair basis on which to judge a film. Whereas it might not be entirely wrong to be a little bit suspicious of its December release date, American Hustle is indeed a great film and shouldn’t be viewed solely as part of a ‘potential Oscar-winner’ group.

American Hustle happened to be more than capable of proving that its popularity was in fact deserved, but we cannot watch films waiting for them to fulfil their existing quota of award nominations. Surely one of the points of great filmmaking – and great film enjoyment – is that it is the other way around. But hype is currently increasing expectations in audiences to the point at which ‘not knowing what to expect’ because you know nothing about the film becomes ‘not knowing what to expect’ because it has been so talked up that apparently, the experience can be nothing short of opening the door to the cinema to find that they’ve secretly built a theme park with which to take you through each scene, complete with the actors themselves as the guides.

The answer to what could possibly be as good as all this is, quite frankly, nothing. In fact, not even those films that do have their own theme parks can expect to reliably survive being overhyped. Just ask Pirates of the Caribbean. Again we can use the phrase ‘they’re good – but not that good,’ only this time it feels like a real shame to say it. Film is still doing what it is meant to do, but often it seems as though we are perhaps expecting it to do something more.

There is also the risk that while looking for the obviously amazing, we are missing the more understated elements of films that display the sort of commitment and attention to detail on the part of the filmmakers that can add eons of power to a movie in single moments. How the diner scene is played in Heat, the light non-focal conversations between Leon and Mathilda in Leon, Frodo’s silent, expressionless tears over the catastrophic loss of Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, the inclusion of the brief but touching real life footage of James Hunt and Nikki Lauda at the end of Rush – all are crucial indicators that real filmmaking capability was present in these movies.

We have to hope that the volume of hype never reaches a pitch at which such aspects of cinema are drowned out. We need to make sure that while watching for the fireworks we don’t forget about the sparklers, because we all know that the sparklers are really the main event, right?

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Hangover II 2 The Avatar Effect: How Too Much Hype Can Ruin A Movie

Then there’s the situation in which hype causes films to actually damage their own selves. Here, the initial uber-popularity sets up terrifyingly high standards for any sequels, which then become their own undoing as they simply cannot compete with their own reputation. An obvious example of this is The Hangover franchise.

It all began in 2009 with a fun-sounding premise and a not-yet-reached-superstardom-cast. What was expected on this basis was not a great deal – an American buddy comedy of the older teen kind perhaps, preceded by formulas such as Road Trip and the like. What we actually got was something close to a game-changer for that genre, a well delivered comedy with a genuinely natural feel that gifted us with wonderful cult-status things such as Mr. Chow and waking up the morning after the night before and thoroughly imagining there to be a tiger in the bathroom. Much of the world fell in love with The Hangover.

For the second outing then, there were a lot of expectations. But although reviews weren’t entirely terrible, it only really managed to deliver on the basis of the audience’s affection for the four idiots and their skill for losing people and for forgetting where they are. This left the third film having to do something completely different, which it did by taking a sudden plunge into stark reality. Mental illness, parental death, kidnapping and murder all featured among the main plot points and the feel of the film was entirely altered. The first fifteen minutes of The Hangover Part III is, compared to its predecessors, actually quite sad. No longer was this time spent in the company of the four people we’d secretly most like to go out on the lash with. This was something that any other number of films could give us and that by watching The Hangovers we were deliberately trying to avoid. This was something like real life. Expectations = effectively destroyed.

At least The Hangover understood when to call time. The Pirates of the Caribbean series, which suffered a similar sort of downward spiral of self-destruction after the major success of The Curse of the Black Pearl, was apparently out of the office the day that memo came round. By the time the third Hangover film was in production, there were admittedly some questions as to quite where this could be going this time, but it had been made clear that this was to be the final instalment and on that basis, most fans of the first film were generally prepared to see it through to the end.

The third film in the Pirates franchise, At World’s End, pushed audience loyalty to the brink. But instead of quitting while they weren’t so far behind, they went promptly – and somewhat bravely – on to make On Stranger Tides. Yet we can’t ignore the box office figures for these films; they claim decent or even top positions in the lists of highest grossing films and franchises etc. And whereas the fifth film may still be waiting for the official green light, it is very much in the pipeline. The main reason? Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow becoming an overnight sensation back in 2003, providing the perfect wave on which the Pirates ship would ride for at least the next eleven years, come hell or high water.

Let’s hope Disney wrote hype a nice thank you letter.

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twilight breaking dawn part 2 trailer The Avatar Effect: How Too Much Hype Can Ruin A Movie

But as powerful as it is, hype can’t always be relied upon to secure or maintain a film’s popularity. Twilight got off to a very good start back in 2008, and continued into a good second run with New Moon in 2009. With the advent of hashtag use as we know it today, Twilight became the set of films that, like their central protagonists, just wouldn’t die. But nothing was going to save it in the end from the laughable dialogue and painfully protracted action sequences that made up the majority of content in the next three films. This might be reading a little too much into it, but let’s just take a moment here to remember that before the films were made, the collection of books on which they are based was referred to merely as the Twilight series, not as the more weary sounding Twilight saga. Slowly but surely, audiences changed their minds about Twilight. By the time the second half of Breaking Dawn was released, all but the most diehard of fans made sure to be washing their hair that night.

Man of Steel also suffered through its pre-release anticipation, having to perform the cinematic equivalent of a U-turn, with audiences everywhere watching in horror as over a year’s worth of hope and excitement was dashed to pieces on the screen in front of them. Repeatedly. For two and a half hours. There are possibly very few other examples of how embarrassing it can be when good hype goes bad. And don’t even get me started on the neck snap scene.


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On the topic of negative press though, there are of course those cases where hype does the opposite of everything discussed above and encourages in popular opinion the vibe that something isn’t terribly good when actually it may have had a fair bit to offer. The most obvious recent example of this is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Whereas official reviews of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty generally ranged from favourable to very good, it appears on Rotten Tomatoes at 50% splat. It’s not forgotten here that Rotten Tomatoes is representative of a lot of views; clearly there were many who were distinctly underwhelmed by the film that Twentieth Century Fox hoped would be thought of as ‘the new Forrest Gump’.

It is true that Walter Mitty has its faults – most of which unfortunately appear within the first fifteen minutes – but given a chance it actually unfolds into something that many audiences have found to be really quite lovely. As well as reinforcing the point made above about pre-emptive hyping only causing films to fail before they’ve even started (we can almost see the marketing department at Fox just aiming the gun directly at their own foot here), Walter Mitty also suggests that it is just as unfair to approach a film expecting it to be bad as it is expecting it to be great.

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district9a 638x360 The Avatar Effect: How Too Much Hype Can Ruin A Movie

So having given hype a pretty good hammering, is it the case that no expectations at all are the way to go? It’s certainly true that we don’t have to look very far for examples of films where the relative absence of publicity surrounding their release actually seems to have worked in their favour. Little Miss Sunshine is an example of one such slow burner. Premiering on the indie scene at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, it was picked up from there by Fox Searchlight Pictures but initially still only given a limited theatrical release. Eight months later it won two of its four Academy Award nominations and was amassing more awards by the ceremony. Of course, word had spread that this little known film with the pretty well known cast was good, but very little about the film itself ever went truly mainstream. Basically, audiences were left to experience the rare delight of surprise.

A similar thing happened in 2009 when District 9 suddenly appeared on the scene, with nothing really other than producer Peter Jackson’s say-so and a cleverly ambiguous poster campaign to vouch for it. It too went on to sidle its wonderfully weird way into the Oscar nominations that year. This was even more of a surprise than Little Miss Sunshine; thoughtful and sensitive films with a gentle comedy edge are familiar to Oscar nominations – alien-filled, documentary-styled, South African science fiction films are not.

Interestingly, District 9 and its director Neill Blomkamp’s second film, Elysium provide a neat comparison for looking at what can happen to two films that are similarly handled, similarly written and even similarly cast (with the exception of adding Matt Damon to Elysium), but are presented in two different ways – one with the expectations and one without. District 9 came out of nowhere, made an instant star out of the highly talented Sharlto Copley and blew open the doors for Blomkamp’s future in directing. Elysium arrived via the more conventional route of mainstream speculation and the sort of long-range anticipation that District 9 had (largely) done without. And as good as Elysium was, it was no District 9. The reason for this is simple. Elysium conformed to classic sci-fi parameters – it did exactly what it said on the tin. With District 9 on the other hand, there was no tin. Sometimes there really is just nothing quite like not knowing what to expect.

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maleficent The Avatar Effect: How Too Much Hype Can Ruin A Movie

Overall then, hype – what is trending and what is not, what we are expecting and what we are not – is appearing to have its own effect on the place of films in the world that is entirely independent of the films themselves. Some films are glorified only to turn out to be spectacularly average. Extremely good films are left seeming to not deliver. Other films that are generally pretty decent are again sometimes shot down even while the popcorn is still hot, if the opinion that got out there first wasn’t on their side.

None of these comments about any of these films are in any way shape or form meant to be taken as absolute; film is highly subjective and everyone is never going to agree with everything. It is merely that the trouble seems to come when what is trending has a go at trying to make this the case. Looking briefly ahead into 2014 for a moment, Godzilla, Maleficent and Guardians of the Galaxy are easy to select from among the next expected blockbusters.

After the last attempt at Godzilla in 1998, most people would have gladly fed themselves to him on the roof of a car rather than sit through that sort of disappointment again. But human beings are endlessly forgiving, and there’s not much these days that eighteen years and Bryan Cranston can’t fix. Maleficent is also shrouded in barely contained glee, and just on the basis of the uncanny resemblance between this live action version and Disney’s 1959 animation it does look to be very promising. To say that Guardians of the Galaxy has no such basis for comparison is putting it mildly, yet Marvel’s most bizarre offering to date is making an enormous popularity bid ahead of its August release, a bid that parts of the movie-watching world are currently backing with great enthusiasm (although it might be possible to detect a hint of caution in the fact that many are stating ahead of time that its success or failure will depend mainly on a single character – one certain Rocket Raccoon). The hype is ticking steadily along, gradually building platforms from which all of these films may take devastating falls, possibly even whether they deserve to or not.

Yet, despite the fact that if we listen carefully it’s probably possible to hear whole populations of film-lovers quietly chanting about upcoming films “please be good, please be good, please be good…,” who isn’t excited to see what happens? Whatever challenges or unfair advantages over-exaggeration might give to films, realistically there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it.

We could attempt total isolation from the world, but where’s the fun in that? As much as it is important to the integrity and future of the filmmaking industry itself that films are received appropriately (Jack and Jill anyone?), film is meant to create opinion, however intense that opinion may be. It is designed to inspire, to transport, to delight, to repulse and to do everything in between – hype is the natural result of this.

A lot of people clearly love the films for which the world has gone crazy, the film company employees can all feed their children (and their children’s children) for the next twenty years, and no real harm is done. A few bemused viewers may be left wondering in some cases if they watched the same film, but part of hype’s job is to spread the word, for better or worse. The film industry would die without it. In amongst the gifs and memes and hashtags and retweets, some films may slip sadly under the radar, where others land directly in it when we all really wish they hadn’t (sorry Man of Steel), but generally, the talking about and the anticipation of new films are simply responsible for putting things somewhere where we cannot help but notice them. In this way, hype is the best agent in Hollywood.

For a full experience of the world of cinema, it is probably best to just accept the excitement and anticipation, while hopefully bearing in mind that a film is still a film is still a film, and that where some fall just short of the mark despite what we might have been led to believe, until they create actual virtual reality (ask me about all this again in ten years’ time), there are certain limits to how good films can really be. Our overall film enjoyment may well be greatly heightened by it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go watch 12 Years a Slave. I’ve yet to see it, but given that it has been heralded as ‘one of the finest films ever made,’ I am going to cheerfully expect it to be an enormous disappointment.

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  • Chuck Sylvester

    Personally, I find being someone who usually likes everything he watches is a good counter for the hype machine. At least the first time I see an enormously hyped movie in theaters (Pacific Rim would be a recent example), it’s AMAZING. And then I just quietly fall off that hype train a couple days later. But I still loved it! Since that happens with most movies I see, the ones that entice me to purchase the Blu Ray immediately when it releases or the ones I’m thinking about months later (The Avengers, Cabin in the Woods are examples from 2012) are the ones that will firmly put into my favorite category. I like them all, I’m excited for them all, but I continue that excitement well into the future if they truly were great.

  • Jen

    I have to admit…with how everyone was talking about it…as I usually listen to movie goers reviews over critics…I was disappointed. It was good, it had a couple of cute moments, but like the writer said, it was no Tangled, which I thought was vastly more entertaining and emotion inducing. Flynn & Rapunzel had much more chemistry and funny moments than Anna & Kristof.

  • Bugbog

    Frozen I believe, based on it’s incorporation into Disneyland features, had already been decided as a hit. I agree with you in that I cannot understand why?!

    Inconsistencies abound in the script; after following the elder princess through the [literal] years it took for her to grow up, the main tale itself then takes place in some sort of weird “non-time” where you can’t tell if days, weeks, months or even years have gone by!

    I’ll admit, based on the pre-released footage of the snowman, I had some anticipation for the film, but after watching it, I instantly forgot about it and deleted it from my mental rolodex. It was decent, but nothing exceptional. So, imagine my surprise months later to find that it had crossed the 1Billion dollar mark!?

    Good for the makers? Yes. Deserving? Not particularly. Tangled and Puss in Boots were waaaaaaay better and more deserving in every single criterion, from script, to animation, voice acting, comedy/fun factor, remembrance (i.e. time in mind); Everything!!

    I’ve come to the conclusion, as I’ve gotten older, that hype, for certain things (like actors, singers, art, and, on point, films) is a pre-concluded quantity sometimes determined in advance (kinda like a money-saving lotto co-op; every so often each saver definitely wins the big pay out! All other times they take their chances with the minor prizes). But then, that’s the other side of ‘false’ hype, it tends to make one both jaded and cynical.

  • AaronSF

    I think what most critics miss with regard to Frozen is the power of telling stories through song. In some ways Broadway is popular now, but it’s recovering from about 20 years of people making dance-fighting jokes about West Side Story, and frankly, more than a little homophobia in the fear of being seen associated with something too fancy and not “gritty” enough. So the obvious reason for Frozen’s popularity can seem ephemeral when you aren’t willing to give credit where it’s due.

    That is to say, “Let it Go” was ingenious, and the pre-release was a very smart move. I have some issues with the execution of the song (thought it was a little belty, and the arrangement didn’t touch the darkness in it’s theme) but it told the entire movie’s story better than the entire movie. It married emotional narrative to plot and created a palpable character you wanted to root for in under 3 minutes. That’s the power of musical story-telling, there is almost no other genre that can pull that off and then have you repeating the story to yourself over and over afterward.

    When I saw Frozen it was a bit like watching the Phantom Menace, it was just more context to the story I already knew and wanted to see more of. There were some other good parts (wanna build a snowman?) but mostly it was just the extended version of the song which had already gone viral before the movie released. Imagine that movie without the song and you’ll see what I mean.

  • Cadince

    if you have a sister, then you understand how deep and loving that movie truly is. Don’t be so critical. That movie has a cult following for a reason. If something is popular, don’t just assume it’s because people simply hopped on the band wagon. That movie is an art. Don’t knock it. Accept it. And on an off note, that’s 1.14 billion dollars helping our shitty economy, which is currently comparable to a snowman in the summer.

  • Vanitas

    I thought Frozen was okay but most of the songs were shit and the infamous Let It Go has been so quoted to death everywhere that I fucking hate it now. The “hype” has killed it for me, as do the fans.

  • Observer

    Fully agree. Frozen made a lot of money, but the critics were right in the first place. I went in with high expectations, and was shocked at how average it was. Below in some cases. There were a couple of okay songs, very little actual adventure, and the most irritating plot “twist”. Which was just really the filmmakers lying to the audience about the one fellow’s sincerity before deciding late on; no, no clues or foreshadowing, he’s the bad guy now even though we just hardcore sold you the opposite.

    Still, the positive: its profitability means more opportunities for good roles for female protagonists.

  • juarhela

    I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch Frozen, simply because of the hype. I’ll watch it when people have stopped talking about it and I can just simply enjoy it without expectations.