Today I received an e-mail from Empire Cinemas here in the UK, alerting me to the fact that I could now book tickets for Fifty Shades of Grey, a movie that isn’t due out in the UK until – wait for it – 13 February 2015.
Once I’d got over the shock of being sent such an e-mail a good three months before the movie’s release, I began to wonder why the wonderful folks at Empire Cinemas were doing such a thing in the first place. Sure, Fifty Shades of Grey – in novel form at least – has become a cultural phenomenon, but to open the box office before anyone has seen the finished product (and yes, I’m assuming that’s the case), and before anyone can make a qualified judgement on it, just seems a tad optimistic. But then, if you follow the booking link, the Empire Cinemas website only lists two showings per day that the movie can be seen. Two showings? With all the effort involved in alerting the great British public, there’s only two screenings?
Perhaps – and despite the inference that UK residents are really eager to see the exploits of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele – there’s actually a bit of hedging going on here, with Empire Cinemas dialling back their confidence that the movie will be the big box office success they expect. But even if that’s the case, why on earth are they opening the box office now? Just how many seats do they expect to sell a full four months before the movie opens? And who’s likely to book their seats so far in advance when anything could happen to disrupt their plans in the meantime?
Here in the UK, booking cinema tickets is a fairly straightforward process. Programmes change each Friday, with “advance” booking available from the Tuesday of the same week. Occasionally, and depending on the cinema – I mean you, BFI IMAX at London’s Waterloo – you can book weeks in advance for a particular movie (I’ve had my ticket for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies for a week now)… but months? No, that’s not usual at all.
Unless… unless it’s yet another example of marketing gone awry, an attempt to boost attendance figures and “pre-sell” the movie before it comes out and audiences realise that E.L. James’ “mommy-porn” exercise has been translated into one giant turkey (the latest trailer certainly avoids showing anything too memorable or original). If that’s the case then anyone who books now and not much nearer the time of the movie’s release will have played right into the hands of Universal’s and Empire’s assumption that there is a built-in audience that won’t be able to wait to get their hands on a ticket. (If you’re reading this, and you’re living in the UK, and the idea of grabbing a ticket so far in advance is making you want to grab your masquerade mask and indulge in a little light spanking to celebrate, then stop a moment and ask yourself this: in this day and age of over-priced ticketing and poorly projected movies, will it really make a difference to be one of the first to book a ticket to see Fifty Shades of Grey? And what will differentiate you from someone who buys their ticket, say, the day before the screening?)
Advance word about future movies, and advance screenings, and carefully disseminated information about the movies the studios want us to see at the cinema, are all becoming more and more important to the way in which movies are marketed and advertised. With Fifty Shades of Grey having a fanbase that Universal hopes will translate into big box office returns, this particular degree of advance warning seems entirely unnecessary, but it is indicative of a growing trend in Hollywood (and one I’ve previousy looked at in X-Men: Apocalypse and Cinema’s Dependency on Superheroes). Even Disney/Pixar aren’t immune from it, having recently announced the release in 2017 of Toy Story 4. It’s like having the identity of a Xmas present revealed by an eager relative who can’t wait for you to see what a great gift they’ve bought you – except it’s a present you won’t get for a couple of years or so.
On a personal level, I don’t see the point of revealing movie releases so far in advance, or offering advance tickets long before a movie’s release, or leaking plot details in infuriating dribs and drabs, or creating a viral ad campaign on the Internet – promote a movie, yes, but nearer the time it’s due to hit cinemas. On IMDb there are currently fourteen movies slated for release in 2020 (including a Green Lantern movie – yikes!), but do we really need to know now that they’re on the way? (In case you’re hesitating, the answer is No.) What it all boils down to is the studios trying to tell us what to see, and what to like, and when to do so. And while I know that’s what marketing and advertising and trendsetting is all about, it still doesn’t mean I have to like it, or go along with it. And neither should anyone else.