Don’t let the trades fool you: the most important thing about Terminator Genisys isn’t that audiences didn’t go see it in theaters. The most important thing is that they already saw it months ago, on their laptops and on their TVs, and for once the studio won’t even be able to blame online piracy. They can only blame themselves.
Alan Taylor’s film, written by Patrick Lussier and Laeta Kalogridis, was intended to jumpstart the long-struggling Terminator series by shaking up the whole sci-fi timeline à la J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. The film takes the story we already know and introduces one time travel twist after another to set the stage for future sequels in which – for once – anything could happen.
It’s an understandable approach. James Cameron’s original two films may have argued that there was no fate but what we make for ourselves, but they based themselves around a bootstrap paradox that required the same events to happen over and over again, more or less exactly the same way, every time. That just didn’t leave future filmmakers much to work with when they tried to expand the plot beyond Terminator 2: Judgment Day (which itself already repeated most of the same story beats and plot points as the original).
So Alan Taylor & Co. probably thought they were being very clever with their take on the Terminator mythos, sending Kyle Reese back in time – as he did in the original film – only to discover that the plot as he (and we) knew it had changed dramatically. Sarah Connor no longer needed saving, and in fact she had teamed up with a friendly Terminator of her own to take down a liquid metal T-1000 over a decade before it was supposed to show up in the timeline.
And they probably thought they were geniuses when they came up with the biggest twist of all: John Connor, the supposed savior of humanity, siding with the evil computer Skynet and becoming a cyborg intent on destroying humanity all over again. Not one but two twists that could change everything we know about the series and give audiences a real unforgettable shock once they got into the theater.
So these filmmakers were probably pretty pissed off when they discovered that the marketing department ruined both twists in the trailers, TV spots and even the posters for Terminator Genisys. Their entire storyline was predicated on surprise, and the surprise was ruined months ahead of time. No wonder so many people didn’t bother seeing it. For all intents and purposes, they already had.
When I asked screenwriters Lussier and Kalogridis about the marketing debacle, they were very tactful. (In their defense, they pretty much had to be; it was at the official press junket.) “I am not in charge of marketing,” Kalogridis repeated.
But although they were diplomatic about the decision to completely spoil Terminator Genisys, arguing that it’s the marketing department’s job to get butts in seats and that they probably knew what they were doing (except obviously not, as we would eventually learn this weekend), they claimed that it’s the screenwriter’s job to focus on the characters and the story. Patrick Lussier said that as screenwriters, “You’re not writing it with [the marketing] in mind.”
And after a lot of thought, this is the idea I am forced to take issue with. Movies, and particularly big budget studio entertainments, cannot be made without considering beforehand what the marketing department is going to say about it. Especially films like Terminator Genisys, which are based on surprise events that happen early in the film.
Consider, for a moment, what a marketing department was supposed to do with Terminator Genisys if they weren’t allowed to give away any of the twists. Without revealing that the timeline has changed, they would be forced to try to convince audiences – purely in the spirit of trickery – that Terminator Genisys was just a straight-up remake of The Terminator. That way, when audiences got to the theater they would be shocked to learn that it was not.
But that would have been a lie, and what’s more, a straight-up remake of The Terminator that exactly replicated the original but with new actors, adding nothing new to the storyline, wouldn’t have been appealing enough to attract a summer blockbuster audience in the first place. The marketing department simply had to reveal that twist or they would have had nothing to work with.
And that should have been obvious to the filmmakers, but instead of considering the fact that most of the audience would already know what the movie was about, they structured the first third of Terminator Genisys around methodically restaging the events as we previously knew them, as if nothing different was going to happen, before finally – FINALLY – getting to the point. It takes a pretty long time for the film to catch up with what the audience already knows, an experience that becomes increasingly frustrating as you sit in the theater and repeat a silent, hopeless mantra: “Get on with it… Get on with it…”
What I now call “The Genisys Effect” is something I used to called “The Red Eye Effect,” named after a 2005 movie by director Wes Craven that had, essentially, the same problem. Red Eye starred Rachel McAdams as an airline passenger who meets a nice man played by Cillian Murphy. They flirt and get along famously at the airport. Funnily enough, they’re also sitting next to each other on the same flight! The twist is that it’s not a romantic comedy. He’s actually an evil bastard who kidnaps her in mid-air.
Like Terminator Genisys, Red Eye is centered entirely around a twist that happens late enough in the film that it’s supposed to be a surprise, but early enough in the film that the movie can’t be marketed without at least mentioning it. It’s a dramatic structure that works great on paper, when the reader has no preconceived notions, but one that is functionally useless in the Hollywood studio system, where every film attracts an audience by at least giving them the gist of what they’re going to see. You couldn’t advertise Red Eye as a nice film about a nice woman meeting a nice guy: the audience that campaign attracted would feel betrayed by the thriller that followed, and the audience that would only see that thriller wouldn’t go to a film that looks like just a corny romance.
And what’s worse, you can’t market what actually happens in either movie without putting the audience way ahead of the plot. We know exactly what’s going to happen a long, long, LONG time before the characters do. That’s not suspense, that’s an interminable game of catch up.
It may make a little less sense that the marketing department for Terminator Genisys would reveal early on that John Connor was now the movie’s villain, complete with nanobot enhancements. It’s a twist that occurs halfway through the film, late enough that the marketing seemingly could have given the audiences the basic thrust of Terminator Genisys without spoiling it. But that too was rendered the studio’s only option by the film’s actual content. After all, you can only show so much of an action movie without revealing the bad guy.
There might have been another solution on the marketing department’s part. Terminator Genisys could have simply played up a new T-1000, played by Byung-hun Lee, as the latest villain in the series. But again they were faced with a rather obvious dilemma: telling audiences (falsely) that Terminator Genisys only had the same sort of bad guy we already saw defeated over 20 years ago, or showing off that there’s a new bad guy, with different and unusual powers that could excite the fanbase. And there was no way to do the latter without showing his face.
By ignoring the obvious and relatively simple demands on the marketing department – giving the audience the basic gist of the plot, and showing off what’s exciting and different about this particular movie – the makers of Terminator Genisys essentially shot themselves in the leg. They developed a plot that was designed to hide the obvious selling points of the movie, forcing the marketing department either to reveal nothing (and give the audience no reason to see it), or reveal everything (and give the audience every reason to think they’ve seen it already). The only way Terminator Genisys could have worked as intended would be to hide all of its selling points, and that’s just not how marketing works.
Movies don’t function that way, especially big movies with multimillion dollar ad campaigns. You may be able to build word of mouth around a low budget independent feature over time, but a major Hollywood production needs a strong opening weekend to make its money back, particularly in a busy summer season. Marketing will have to show off the goods, and if showing off the goods ruins the movie, maybe you shouldn’t make that movie, at least in that particular way.
Filmmakers, take note of The Genisys Effect. You have to consider the marketing of your film before you make it. If you don’t, the marketing can unmake it. I know this sounds counterintuitive to everything we like to think about art; that artists should be free to make what they want and let the money people figure out what to do with it later. But when the only option you give the studio is to sully your art in order to sell it, at least part of that is on you. It’s not like you didn’t know there would be trailers. If your film has nothing but spoilers, there’s not much else the studio can do but spoil them.