The Hitman’s Bodyguard goes meta in new TV spot, but how effective is self-reference?
Movie marketing has reached new postmodern heights in the last few years. While fourth wall breaking and intertextuality are as old as cinema itself, in the past couple of decades they have also bleed into trailers and movie marketing. The TV spot for the upcoming The Hitman’s Bodyguard — starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson — is the latest example.
If the narrator sounds familiar, it is because the trailer is voiced by Jon Bailey, better known for his work in Screen Junkies’ Honest Trailers. The TV spot takes the format used to quote praise for a film and replaces the reviews with snarky comments from Reynolds and Jackson about each other, stressing the tension between the main characters, throws in a reference to Jackson’s history with the word ‘m*therf*cker’ and finishes with a remark from co-star Salma Hayek that hits towards homoerotic subtext as the punchline.
While it is difficult to see it as a particularly innovative approach, especially in the year after Deadpool’s marketing campaign took the world by surprise, it does add new layers to the meta-referential game in movie trailers and makes us wonder how effective self-awareness actually is for movie marketing.
Fourth wall breaking and self-awareness in works of fiction can be traced as far back as the Ancient Greek theater, but in film, and specifically movie trailers, the first examples are found in the middle of the 20th century. One of earliest is the trailer for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Narrated by Welles himself, the promotional film introduces the cast on set with some humoristic quips and describes Kane using reactions from the characters in the film, without giving too much away and inviting the audience to watch the movie to find out more about the controversial figure.
Two decades later, Alfred Hitchcock promoted Psycho in a very similar fashion. The original trailer featured the director guiding a tour through the movie set and detailing some of the plot, constantly stopping himself from revealing too much. The tour ends when Hitchcock pulls the shower curtain and unveils Vera Miles (standing in for Janet Leigh) screaming in horror while the title of the film shows on the screen — a reference to the movie’s iconic murder scene.
It is possible that Welles and Hitchcock promoted their classic films in such innovative and straightforward ways not only because of their own creativity, but also because they were fairly well-known at the time — Welles had already led several high-profile stage productions before Citizen Kane and Hitchcock was a well-established director by 1960 — and addressing the audience directly would be more effective than promoting the film with an average trailer. However, they also opened the door to new narrative possibilities.
Directors like Spike Lee followed the tradition of introducing the trailers of their own films — She’s Gotta Have It (1986). With the beginning of a new millennium came along more postmodern approaches, like Jerry Seinfeld’s 2002 documentary Comedian — the clip shows renowned voice actor Hal Douglas trying to pitch the voiceover for the movie’s trailer — or the European trailer for Brian de Palma’s Femme Fatale — which uses editing and frame rate to show the entire film in two minutes.
A decade later, the arrival of the internet and social media changed the relationship between the film industry and moviegoers, and practices like directly addressing the audience and capturing their attention with inventive marketing gained relevance once again. Extensive campaigns that covered everything from billboards to Tinder accompanied trailers that draw upon teasing — like Magic Mike XXL — or humorous fourth wall breaking — like Deadpool.
Self-awareness and meta-references have gone from creative innovation in film promotion to one of the marketers’ weapon of choice to draw attention, but its effectiveness depends on the quality of the movie they’re trying to sell. Comedian received mixed reviews, as did Femme Fatale (which can be considered one of De Palma’s lesser works, despite its cult status). On the other hand, She’s Gotta Have It launched Spike Lee’s career and it is possible that the candor shown in its trailer helped made its case. Regardless of its mixed reception among critics, Magic Mike XXL made eight times its original budget in the box office, and Deadpool was both a marketing and popular culture success.
This goes to show that, regardless of how meta-referential or witty your trailer is, it won’t hold up a film’s reputation if it doesn’t pay off the expectations you build around it — a fact that marketers sometimes forget while assembling large-scale campaigns.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard‘s TV spot takes on some of the traits that this trend in movie marketing carries with it since Citizen Kane and Psycho — such as the humor and the use of reactions — but it also banks on more modern aspects like internet culture and Ryan Reynolds’ newfound status as a fourth-wall breaking extraordinaire. But ultimately, as it is with any other film, the gimmick only works if the movie does.