A Critique of the Critics: How Ex Machina’s Viral Marketing Campaign Got Film Journalists to Abandon Their Audience

I’ve always found the subject of causal fans and critics failing to see eye to eye a fascinating subject. Many people have speculated on why these disconnects exist. Some say the critics are out of touch; others feel the common moviegoer is lacking in taste. In all honesty, this phenomenon couldn’t realistically be boiled down to a single reason. Because critics inevitably watch every noteworthy film that goes their way, it stands to reason the odd, experimental titles would stand out more than the crowd-pleasing summer blockbuster – even if the former has glaring plot holes and the latter has no execution issues whatsoever.

However, I have to say that 2018 was a particularly strange year when it came to critical assessments. In 2017, I could count on the critically acclaimed films to be, at the very least, passable. Indeed, the weakest film I saw that year in theaters was Atomic Blonde, which wasn’t bad by any means, but had little to offer outside of its stellar action sequences. Not coincidentally, it had also amassed the least amount of critical acclaim of any film I saw that year. In 2018, however, I found critical consensuses to be all over the map. Several times would I walk out of the screening of a unanimously acclaimed film thoroughly unimpressed. One such disappointment was Ari Aster’s debut film, Hereditary.

Fortunately, it turns out I wasn’t in short company. According to CinemaScore, a market research firm that surveys audiences to rate their viewing experiences, the general public was unimpressed. Hereditary received a D+ grade, rivaling Drive (C-) and mother! (F) in terms of maligned critical darlings. Unfortunately, one particular Hereditary fan couldn’t leave well enough alone and saw fit to write an editorial on Variety about the film’s poor reception with audiences.

Not pictured: Humility

Yes, it gets worse when you actually read the article.

“You mouth-breathing cretins aren’t allowed to like anything unless I say so!”

The saddest part is that when I read this article for the first time, I assumed it was penned by a cinephile in his thirties who was just starting to develop his own taste in films independent from the mainstream. This is because it came across as something an educated, yet inexperienced person would write to prove how much they’re not like those people. Then I checked his Wikipedia page and learned he was 59 when he wrote this. That is too old of an age to be writing pieces like this – then again, so is 25. This particular one was so bad that someone who liked Hereditary called the author out on his blatant display of gatekeeping.

I get the feeling that if Mr. Gleiberman actually read this comment, he would probably dismiss the reader as a poseur.

Indeed, this poster, who goes by the e-handle taumatropo, makes a particularly interesting point that seems to identify one possible cause of these frequent disconnects. The stereotype of the ostensibly high-minded critic who believes their words carry so much more weight than those of the unwashed masses exists for a reason – even if they’re hardly in the majority. As taumatropo says, these critics can’t accept that people might think differently from them. Rather than actively challenging these dissenting opinions and trying to reach a better understanding, they choose to put up barriers. These people don’t like the latest A24 film? Guess they lack culture and celebrate their inhumanity on a regular basis. They can’t possibly have developed their own disparate taste in films over a lifetime of experience. No siree Bob.

However, the purpose of this editorial is not to rebut Owen Gleiberman’s post, as taumatropo sufficiently covered exactly what was problematic about it. No, instead, this think piece and subsequent reaction to it got me thinking. Exactly when did certain pockets of the critical circle become so openly hostile to their readers? Much like with the actual cause of these disconnects, I don’t have a definite answer to that question. However, I feel I can pinpoint one specific moment that, if not a catalyst behind where we are now, at the very least cemented the surprising lack of empathy certain film journalists have.

This story goes back to 2015 when South by Southwest, an annual conglomerate of film, music festivals, and other conferences, was taking place. On Tinder, one man named Brock was using the online dating app when he happened upon a woman named Ava. On her profile she claimed to enjoy drawing and was fascinated with busy intersections in cities.

From there, the two struck a mostly normal, if decidedly mechanical conversation, and Ava invited Brock to check her Instagram profile.  Said profile led to a poster for a film called Ex Machina. Ava wasn’t a real person, but rather a sophisticated bot. Her name was a reference to the artificial intelligence in that film. In other words, Ava’s profile was an elaborate attempt at a viral marketing campaign in order to raise awareness of the film’s existence, which was set to debut a mere few weeks later.  This is easily one of the most misbegotten marketing ploys ever devised. Did the ones who thought it up feel that the victims would forfeit their money to buy a ticket as a prize for successfully being catfished? The exact thought process is not clear.

So naturally, with this highly unethical marketing scheme brought to light, film journalists did the right thing by calling out it for what it was.

Just kidding. Most of the film journalists who wrote about A24’s marketing campaign had nothing but praise for it, displaying an amorality eerily similar to that of those who concocted it. A common thread among them was highlighting the similarities between the film’s plot and how Brock and any other man who had the misfortune of swiping right on Ava’s profile were fooled into believing the bot was a real person. None of them mentioned how immensely creepy this was.

To be fair, the fans weren’t any better.

The piece that stood out to me the most for all the wrong reasons was written by one Mark Ritson for Marketing Week. I’m just going to let it speak for itself.

The takeaway is that Mr. Riston was a complete a loss for words as to why people would respond negatively to being catfished and virally humiliated on the internet. I feel as though I shouldn’t have to explain why this campaign was morally reprehensible, but in light of the overwhelming evidence, I apparently must. A friend of mine cut right to the chase when he pointed out that had the distributors implemented a male bot and tried to rope women into seeing a film, it wouldn’t have gone over nearly as well. These very same people who had nothing but positive things to say about the Tinder campaign would have been furious – and rightly so. Indeed, in such a scenario, it would be a miracle if whoever came up with the campaign didn’t get arrested. But no, it was a man using Tinder who got punked, so it’s a brilliant, avant-garde marketing technique.

Even taking gender out of the equation, there is still an egregious double standard at play. If Ex Machina didn’t resonate with critics so deeply, there is little chance they would have kind things to say about this marketing campaign. Could you imagine anyone being pleased if, for example, Michael Bay’s marketing team had resorted to a similar stunt to promote the latest Transformers film? I know it would be far more likely for these exact same journalists to scoff, and I can imagine some of them going as far as using it as evidence that the true art of filmmaking is dead, humans are getting dumber, the end times are coming, or whatever pessimistic narrative they happen to be pushing in a given week.

Thankfully, there were glimmers of common sense to be found in this debacle.

While I don’t necessarily think that the Ex Machina viral marketing campaign directly caused this severe divide, I can believe it was one of the earliest instances in the internet age of the critics actively choosing to throw their audience under the bus because the film they loved came first. It’s a real shame because the art of film criticism is extremely valuable. When it’s done well, it can give the audience a greater appreciation for what they just saw. However, none of the people in the above screencaps seemed interested in treating their audience with respect. It’s as though they want people to bow down before opinions, accepting them without question. Though I won’t deny the many times fans have acted out of line, it’s arguably worse when those whose opinions carry a significant amount of weight don’t appreciate the responsibility that comes with such a position. Credibility is the lifeblood of any good critic, and the exact second they praised the viral marketing campaign of Ex Machina, much of it was left to spill.

13 thoughts on “A Critique of the Critics: How Ex Machina’s Viral Marketing Campaign Got Film Journalists to Abandon Their Audience

  1. There is a lot to unpack here and I don’t know if I’m in the right state to respond to all of it. In anycase:

    1) I think there has been a divide between fans and critics since forever but it has gotten worse with the internet because anyone can be a critic now. The internet provides a soapbox for all and provided you yell loud enough you can become one that has some power in the industry (Harry Knowles, etc..). A growing sense of elitism has crept in to professional critics over this time as they felt threatened by these new critics that often did their work for free. The least secure in their stance took the pompous approach of knowing more about film than these Johnny Come Latelies and associating them with the unwashed masses that flock to see the latest blockbuster release.

    2) Home video, the business of movie making, and the economy have caused a shift in movie watching. Film fans will head out to the theater to see anything and everything however most people won’t. They head to the movies a handful of times a year because movies are expensive to see in theaters. Most people will choose to make one of their few trips to the cinema based on trailers and when the trailer doesn’t properly convey what to expect then there is backlash. Hereditary was sold as one thing, it delivered something different and when it is costing you $20+ to go to see a movie, you want what you were sold.

    3) I actually don’t mind the Tinder bot marketing and think it is actually pretty clever. Tinder is already crawling with marketing bots for porn (as mentioned in one of the article snipets you utilized), marketing for a film is no less agregious and I feel more an issue that Tinder themselves should address. Is it unethical? I mean, sure you could make that argument but then we need to get in to the bigger discussion of how Western culture actively encourages this kind of exploitation. If there is an opening no matter how nefarious it may be and you don’t take it, you are left behind.

    4) I don’t agree that if a manbot was doing this to a woman that it would have been instantly decried. Marketing preys on both men and women in disgusting ways and both men and women generally accept it almost gleefuly. Ultimately this Tinder marketing is no worse than a hidden camera prank that the “victim” doesn’t need to share if they feel too embarassed that they were fooled by a bot.

    5) You are spot on about the acceptance of these marketing campaigns though. These critics wouldn’t be celebrating or looking past the nefarious nature of the marketing if it was for something they didn’t enjoy. If this was for Michael Bay’s Megan Fox is an Android (which doesn’t exist but totally should) then they would crap on it fully. As the one writer said in one of those examples, anything to get the word out for this film (that they liked) would be acceptable.

    6) The online critical film community has only gotten worse and I refuse to engage with it for the most part. My co-host, Jeff, keeps an eye on Film Twitter (a collection of pompous critics that think they know everything about film and tastes) and when he tells me some of the nonsense that goes on there it hurts my head. How a group of people that claim to love film can be so nasty to themselves and then somehow worse to casual movie fans is beyond me. And I’m a pretty grouchy guy.

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    • 1) I think I was mostly basing that off of how when you look back at the most acclaimed films of a given decade up until about the eighties or so, you get a lot of films that were hits with fans and critics alike. After that decade, it seems like critics went off in their own direction, leaving fans behind. On some level, I can understand that because it was the era in which films were being made based off of how money they could generate than by giving directors total creative control. Then again, giving directors total creative control directly caused this shift; directors would often churn out products with monster budgets, yet would flop in the box office – think Apocalypse Now only if the laws of reality didn’t take a vacation and the ramifications for such a product were allowed to manifest. However, some critics would argue that fans failed to evolve with them, and I don’t think that’s an accurate assessment – at best, it’s a gross and unfair exaggeration. In fact, I kind of think film critics are in a similar spot as Hollywood nearing the end of the New Hollywood era wherein unchecked attitude and ego caused the whole thing to come crashing down.

      2) Yeah, as someone who goes to see these acclaimed films to see if they actually live up to the hype, I realize I’m an outlier. Personally, I feel A24’s marketing tactics have done a good job getting them in the news, but I can’t imagine what they’re doing is going to work out for them in the long term. If enough people begin to realize that a film bearing A24’s brand may not be what it seems, they’re eventually not going to give their films a chance. That’s not to say this kind of marketing can’t be done well. I remember the marketing for Side Effects being very effective because it only shows scenes from the first half of the film. But there is a difference; the people who distributed Side Effects caused their audience to draw incorrect conclusions about what it was without presenting things out of context whereas A24 just flat-out lied about the kind of film Hereditary was.

      3) I can’t really deny that it’s clever (albeit in a scheming, Machiavellian way), but you also have to keep in mind that not everyone is going to see it that way. Indeed, I’m sure most of the men who were swindled wouldn’t be thinking “Wow! You got me good! You deserve my money for your clever marketing!” but rather something along the lines of “Hope you don’t like money because you’re not getting mine!” – you know, except with more swear words involved. As it stands, I mostly wanted to focus on the critics’ reaction to the campaign rather than directly critique Western culture’s approach to marketing (which is another can of worms). I feel that by approving the campaign, there’s a possibility that they may have given the marketers a blank check to do worse things in the future.

      4) It’s admittedly difficult to know for sure, but I do think it wouldn’t have been as universally praised. Furthermore, it’s important to know that it’s not ethical just because it’s not worse than a hidden camera prank. Indeed, if the prankster got punched in the head as the result of a hidden camera prank, they would have no one to blame but themselves. A similar principle applies to the Tinder campaign.

      5) Now, that is one thing I am completely sure of, however; if Ex Machina was considered a bad film, these journalists would’ve (deservedly) handed the marketing team their ass. In fact, I would argue this fiasco highlights another problem with the critical circle: confirmation bias. They just can’t let go of a film or narrative, regardless of how problematic it is, as long as it ultimately conforms to their viewpoints. Personally, I feel if a work has a message you can get behind, you should be ten times tougher on it. Even the best message looks bad if it’s not expressed eloquently. Also, I have to admit I’d want to see Michael Bay’s Megan Fox is an Android; I’m sure it would be nothing short of fascinating.

      6) Yeah, as much as people like to harp on gamers are so exclusionary, at least there is some semblance of solidarity to them. Sure, there they have some deep flaws they need to work on, but at the very least you can always find one mentally stable pocket of gamers that will accept you no matter how out of step you are. The film community, on the other hand, seems to be absolute anarchy; if you don’t like a critical darling, you’re pretty much doomed to be a pariah (just look at how they reacted to when somebody actually wrote a negative review of Lady Bird). Granted, I’m not nearly as familiar with it as I am the game community, but from what little I’ve seen of it, it’s kind of amazing they can agree on anything. Actually, what’s the funniest bit of nonsense you’ve heard recently?

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  2. Interesting… I’ve seen and enjoyed this movie but never heard of this campaign.

    Reading it on your post reminded me of another publicity stunt in New York again involving catfishing guys on Tinder. That one didn’t even really have any purpose like promoting a movie.

    You can find out more about it here: http://gothamist.com/2018/08/23/viral_video_union_square_tinder_stunt.php

    Regardless of what angle you view it through (gender, etc), promotions that seek to make people look and feel stupid or sad just seem counter-intuitive. Unless you believe that any publicity is good publicity…

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    • I’m eventually going to review Ex Machina, so I’ll save my thoughts for then. For now, I will say that I myself didn’t hear of the campaign until after I saw the film and I have to admit I probably would’ve skipped it if I had.

      Either way, I think the article you shared proved my point. When there was no artistic purpose being fulfilled in that catfishing ploy, the article was much more ambivalent compared to the universally positive ones written about the Ex Machina scheme.

      It’s interesting because a lot of people, marketers especially, operate under the belief that any publicity is good publicity. To some extent, that’s true, but I think that A24 is pushing that theory to rather unhealthy limits, and if they’re not careful, causal fans are going to lose faith in their brand, which would be an unfortunate loss for the indie scene. Their marketing team seems to operate on very amoral principles, which is hypocritical given they’re supposed to be an antithesis to Hollywood.

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      • I’m not in the camp that supports the Any Publicity… mantra. Any product or campaign that belittles or mocks its audience will automatically turn me off of ever considering it.

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        • I’m not either. In fact, I think the idea that any publicity is good publicity can be attributed to survivorship bias. We only ever hear of the cases in which someone rode their notoriety to success such as N.W.A. with their excellent Straight Outta Compton album. They were a success because people talked about them all the time and it’s still considered one of the best albums of all time; therefore, it means there is no bad publicity.

          We don’t tend to hear about the times in which it doesn’t work out so well for the subject because that’s where the story ends. Just take a look at Anita “Save Our Children” Bryant or Paul “I wwebsite as on the internet” Christoforo. Both received a level of publicity most marketers go their entire career without achieving. By the logic of the “Any Publicity” mantra, they should have been overnight, enduring success stories. In reality, both are living punchlines of countless homophobe and bad customer service jokes respectively. So while critics constantly praise A24 for disrupting Hollywood, I feel if they’re not careful, they could end up losing everything they’ve worked for.

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  3. I think this marketing stunt was downright cruel. Would be interesting to see if those critics would defend the same action if the genders were reversed. I suspect not, which would expose how hypocritical they are. The likelihood of that ever happening are slim however. How many advertisers would approve a campaign that tricks women on a dating site? Few if any, which I think says it all.

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    • As I’ve said in the past, it really is an “Emperor is naked” situation. At the very least, I know for sure that these journalists wouldn’t have been praising this scheme as avant-garde had the film in question been a turkey. Otherwise, you’re right, I am mostly certain they also wouldn’t have praised it had the genders been reversed, and the lack of empathy displayed by these journalists is quite shocking. Granted, an amorality had, to some extent, always existed in film criticism when you consider how many immoral people (i.e. Roman Polanski) they continue to put on a pedestal, but this was arguably the first time they turned a blind eye to their audience’s suffering rather than that of the actors/actresses who worked for said directors. It’s one thing when fandoms do this, but when critics, whose opinions are the most visible, are doing it, it just gives bad people motivation to be even worse in the future.

      The sad thing is that many of these journalists likely lament that the true art film criticism is dying because everyone has a platform on which to speak thanks to the internet. I’d say it’s in the process of self-destructing based off of these pieces by actual professionals. There’s going to be a point where even cinephiles will stop taking them seriously, and if that happens, they will have no one to blame but themselves (not that they won’t try, of course).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I know this is a subject you’ve oft covered, but bottom line, where do you think that critical divide is coming from? I would think that film criticism, being less of an interrelated hobbyist field then gaming, would be less subject to that, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

    I despise gatekeeping, and the idea of there being a proper opinion on something so subjective as these creative works here. I’m happy to see it called out. The fact that movies, shows, games, books, music, whatever can resonate with different people in completely different ways is one of the most beautiful part of creative works, to me. Yet that view seems to be in the minority. A lot of people seem threatened by alternative opinions, as if it makes theirs less valid to have other people disagree with it. And that’s not a mindset I particularly understand.

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    • Yes, in fact, part of the reason why I ended up writing individual film reviews was because I kept remarking on the divide in my Reel Life segments when I should’ve been talking about the films themselves. This allowed me to make it the main focus here.

      Now, to answer your question. This is all purely speculation on my part because I’m less familiar with films than I am with games, but I’ll do the best I can. Personally, I feel the seeds of the critical divide were sown when the age of New Hollywood came to an end. The era is officially said to have ended in 1976, but I think the ramifications didn’t fully manifest until the eighties. During that decade, if something became a hit, you could count on executives to demand sequels – even if there were never intended to be any. As a result, it’s the era in which many critics will argue the auteur touch died in favor of pumping out blockbusters – in other words, the money came first, not the stories. There are a few critics who have detailed the best films of a given decade, and in many of these cases, there is a clear pattern; the highlights of a given decade are consistent with what the general public enjoyed. Only around the eighties do you start getting films few outside of the cinephile community have heard of in these top ten lists. On some level, I can kind of sympathize with them because that auteur touch is what made those films classics, but at the same time, it was that rampant ego and reckless spending that caused New Hollywood to collapse in the first place; in some respects, it was incredible it lasted as long as it did.

      Anyway, I think during and after the eighties, critics began slowly drifting apart from the fans. Again, I can sort of see where they’re coming from because there have been a lot of bad films that were box office successes throughout the eighties, nineties, and 2000s. Then again, to be completely fair, it’s not exactly a new trend – after all, The Birth of a Nation is commonly called the world’s first blockbuster and it was a complete turkey (even if critics won’t acknowledge it is). However, I think in the internet age, the moderate and realistic “some popular films are great and others suck” mentality eventually decayed into a “if it’s popular, it must suck” – even though I would actually argue that’s actually less true in the 2010s than it was in the nineties or 2000s. Indeed, a lot of “serious” critics treat the Marvel Cinematic Universe as their punching bag (Fun Fact: Owen Gleiberman, the critic I mentioned above called those films “cinematically dramatized Wikipedia entries”), yet they’re ultimately (and patently) on a completely different level from stuff like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Twister, or pretty much anything Roland Emmerich has directed.

      In the end, 2018 made me lose a lot of respect for film critics. Last January, I wanted game critics to become more like film critics. Now, as the year draws to a close, I don’t want them to ever be like film critics. As much flak as the gaming community gets for breeding gatekeepers, you can at least count on the journalists to call them out on their bad behavior. In professional film journalism, the gatekeepers seem to be the ones running the show. As such, I would actually argue the film community is, in many ways, worse than the gaming community because they’ve effectively normalized their bad behavior and rarely get called out on it.

      Long story short, film critics have lost touch with their audience, and as long as they continue to put up barriers and shout down the opinions of others (a subject I intend to write about in the future), they are going to lose more credibility by the day. In fact, film journalism as it is now reminds me of how the era of New Hollywood came to an end – the same rampant egotism and lackadaisical attitude is there. It makes me wonder what’s going to happen when they are eventually hit with a fatal backlash.

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    • I myself wouldn’t learn of it until after I saw the film in question. That so few film journalists are willing to call the immoral stunt out for what it is, to me, demonstrates how openly hostile they are towards their audience. This would be like if game journalists began praising microtransactions as a novel way for companies to make money.

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  5. Pingback: December 2018 in Summary: And so 2018 Comes to a Close | Extra Life

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