Surviving the Hype: Can a Blockbuster Overcome Word-of-Mouth Buzz?


It’s a disarming feeling. The lights in the theater come up, the credits roll on without end, and one by one, the other patrons get up and leave. The movie is over, and yet you’re still sitting there, unfulfilled, thinking to yourself  “this is it?” This is the event you’d been waiting for, and now that it’s over, you’re left feeling empty.

It isn’t unique to the movies. It’s the same feeling that you get sometimes when you finish the new album you’d been waiting for all year. And now, with the passing of summer, it’s a feeling that most people are familiar with. Summer is always the showcase season for the entertainment industry, and with it comes an endless amount of advanced press and hype designed to turn movies and albums into can’t-miss events. The problem, of course, is that when pre-release hype snowballs out of control, the actual experience is tainted.

A perfect example of the summer event machine gone awry is Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The film spurred a whirlwind of critical responses, documented brilliantly by New York Times writer A.O. Scott. According to Scott, the initial burst of overtly positive responses to Inception set a precedent that the movie was already a masterpiece, and thus clouded the ability for subsequent reviewers to criticize the film objectively without splitting themselves into positive and negative camps. The phenomenon then filtered down to movie watchers, who spent weeks hearing about how the film is seemingly an instant classic and then had their expectations raised to almost impossible levels.

The same problem happens in the music industry as well. In the weeks leading up to one of the summer’s biggest album releases, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, a raucous fury of buzz emerged, placing a mountain of praise upon the still relatively unheard album. BBC went so far as to compare it to Radiohead’s OK Computer, which is generally revered as a holy grail of modern rock music. Just like Inception’s early comparisons to Kubrick, it was a heap of unenviable praise that placed unmeetable expectations on the work. The story is the same across all forms of entertainment, and in the summer, it seems to be at its worst.

But how can a critic find a way to analyze and review with objective criticism while surrounded by advanced hype and buzz? More so, how can a reviewer manage to give critical praise to a film without going overboard and creating unmeetable expectations? Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr spoke with the Quad by telephone to help give a better understanding of how critics try to avoid and survive the hype machine, and how it affects critics and audiences when it does get out of control.

“I definitely do not read reviews before,” Burr said, describing his methods when seeing a film for the first time. “I try to go in cold.”

Sometimes though, the buzz around a film is unavoidable. Burr says he was on vacation when Inception was released, and didn’t end up seeing the film until a few weeks after its initial opening. Thus, he was put in the same position as mass movie-going audience.

On seeing Inception while buried in its insurmountable buzz, Burr said “My response was definitely conditioned by the hype I went into it with. Was I more negative than I would’ve been? I think I probably saw flaws I wouldn’t have seen.” But, he added, “you strive to stay objective.”

Burr also noted that over-hype of a film can create a negative response in a viewer, using 2008 Academy Award darling Slumdog Millionaire as a personal example.

“If I had seen [Slumdog Millionaire] two months later after the buzz, I probably would’ve had a much more negative view of it. You almost have experienced it without experiencing it.”

But what should a critic do if praise is warranted? It is the critic’s job to decide how far they let the reigns go.

“There are times you do want to be a cheerleader for a movie,” Burr said. “You don’t want to go overboard but you also don’t want to ignore it.”

Another criticism of over-hyped films and albums is that their well-regarded authors often seem the only reason for their free passes.  In the examples above, both Christopher Nolan and Arcade Fire have both become titans of critical acclaim in their respective fields, but should that affect how their new art is viewed? Because the expectation is that they will deliver, do critics automatically assign them the highest praise, thus leaving the audience to expect brilliance and nothing less? Burr said he tries to avoid this by separating the work from its creator.

“Every movie is it’s own success or failure. A movie either stands on it’s own two feet or it doesn’t.”

David Braga

David Braga is a 2011 Film Student focusing on Film Studies and Screenwriting. In no particular order, his favorite films are: Trainspotting, Aliens, Breaking the Waves, School of Rock, Kill Bill, 2001, and Wayne's World 2.

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