At Movies.com, John Gholson has a cautionary essay about his muted reaction to SXSW 2013 selection "You're Next." The highly anticipated film originally premiered to rave reviews at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was bought by Lionsgate, who quickly pulled all but one of its follow-up screenings at Fantastic Fest later that same month. Whether the exclusivity of that one remaining screening made the audience more receptive, or the movie was simply that damn good, reviews out of Austin were equally ecstatic. Then, for more than a year and a half: nothing. Lionsgate purchased Summit, absorbed its production slate, and pushed "You're Next" to the back of its release calendar (the film will finally hit theaters on August 23rd).
If Gholson's piece is any indication, Lionsgate may be in for more of an uphill battle with the film that they previously anticipated -- or than they might have faced if they'd released the movie in a more timely fashion. Despite the fact that "You're Next" is, in his words, "highly entertaining," Gholson still walked away from it feeling "disappointed." The reason: too much pre-release hype.
"The Alamo Drafthouse painted one of its masked killers on the side of the building as a permanent fixture until the building’s renovation earlier this year. One of my friends got a You’re Next tattoo. People who have seen the film have been beating the stump for Lionsgate to release this sooner rather than later, and the release date has danced around like a tease for those who haven’t seen it. Several people told me it was their favorite film of 2011.
Can a film be oversold? Can an overwhelming amount of positive buzz set anticipation levels to a goal that’s too high to be reached? Overselling isn’t quantifiable, but it can happen. We’ve all been in a position where a friend has told us that we’d love something, only to find that we didn’t, and we’ve been the friend hoping to get someone else excited by what we love, only to see them say that thing is 'just OK.' Is it the fault of the product, the fault of the enthused, or a little bit of both?"
Gholson ultimately places the blame for his reaction on himself, rather than the people who loved the movie in the first place. The conditions were certainly right for an overdose of hype: a few hugely positive reactions followed by years (literally years) of anticipation. Still, no one can build something up in your own mind but you. "As viewers," he writes, "we can desire a certain experience from hearing the opinions of others, but when the actual film doesn’t bear out in the way that we expect it to connect with us, it becomes too easy for us to dismiss it as the fault of the film or the fault of the opinion, when neither one is the culprit. We’re the ones that let our imaginations go with what we anticipated this unseen thing to deliver."
I saw "You're Next" at the same SXSW screening as Gholson, and afterwards, all I heard were reactions like his. Almost everyone I spoke to said the same thing: "It was okay, but something was missing," or "It was fun, but I thought it would be more fun," or "It was good, but not as good as I expected."
You can hardly blame director Adam Wingard for making something that people really enjoyed two years ago -- or for selling that something to a studio that let it linger on the shelf until it became a cult object. You might blame Lionsgate for pulling all but one of "You're Next"'s Fantastic Fest screenings, artificially inflating the reaction to that one screening by turning it into an event. You might also blame them for holding the movie for so long, and willingly or unwillingly creating this mystique that now threatens to become a burden rather than a selling point.
But ultimately I think we all need to take a page from Gholson here and point the fingers at ourselves instead of at others. The fault is not in our stars -- or our Twitter feeds -- but in ourselves, and in our culture's increasing institutional obsession with hype. More and more, it seems like the only thing movies are measured against are our preconceptions about them, and the question "Did it live it up to the hype?" is considered much more important than "Is it any good?"
Which is crazy! Excitement and enthusiasm are wonderful things, but I worry that Internet film culture based around studying trailers and casting announcements like Talmudic scholars is slowly turning cinephilia into anticipatephilia -- we look forward to movies not because we want to watch them, but because it's fun to look forward to things. There can be something beautiful and idealistic about that -- this "hope springs eternal" dimension that speaks to the core of any movie lover who always hopes the next masterpiece is just around the corner -- but this phenomenon has a dark side, too.
That's because we can invest so deeply in guessing plot developments and surprise villains and post-credits teasers and potential sequel storylines that we close ourselves off to any movie except the one we've invented in our minds. The pleasure of assumption trumps the pleasure of discovery, and we start to enjoy something only as long as it remains a hypothetical to be puzzled over. As soon as it becomes tangible, we nitpick it to death, explain what it should have been instead (based on our extensive, authoritative analysis of the hype), and move on to the next obscure object of our desire.
In this environment, the only kind of movie that has any chance to succeed is something like "You're Next" -- or at least, the "You're Next" the people of Toronto saw back in 2011; the movie that came out of nowhere (relatively speaking) to give the viewers a blast of fun and energy they hadn't expected. What happened next was all too predictable: it got seized by this hype machine. First came the reviews, then the news of the acquisition, then the news that Lionsgate was yanking its Fantastic Fest screenings, then more elated tweets and reviews, then the news about release date after release date, the debuts of new trailers, all followed by the endless, endless waiting. And just like that, a surprise hit becomes overhyped.
So what's next now? We make a choice: to either moderate our enthusiasm about upcoming projects (and our cynicism about things when they finally come out) or we accept this as the future of film appreciation: an endless cycle of building things up and then reflexively tearing them down, not because they're good or bad, but because nothing is ever good enough.
Say, that "Iron Man 3" trailer looks pretty great, huh? I can't wait for that movie. Why does Iron Man have Hulkbuster armor? Do you think he'll fight the Hulk? Oh man, I hope so. If he doesn't, the movie's going to suck.
Read more of "'You're Next' and Who is to Blame When a Movie is Oversold."