Do you know Tyler Durden? Bill Mechanic wishes he had never heard of him. In 1999 Fight Club debuted to the excessively seething criticism only the cinema elite can muster. It was billed as an action movie on par with Die Hard; blood and bare flesh locked in brutal conflict. Brad Pitt’s manic laughter and a fireball explosion would cut through the heavy house music of the preview – his face a ruin, covered in gore.
The film was a failure in all the ways 20th Century Fox wished it wouldn't be. Grossing a meager thirty-seven million dollars – after a production cost in excess of sixty million – the CEO of Fox Studios, Bill Mechanic, was asked to resign.
Today Fight Club is considered one of the greatest cinematic achievements of our time, selling more DVD’s than most blockbuster films could ever hope to. So what happened? How could what we now know as an anointed movie classic be tossed so easily into a box office dumpster? We could blame the critics for its theatrical collapse. It’s easy to do and they make great scape goats. No one really enjoys the endless and over-analytical tedium of grumpy old men; yet the mob of movie-goers has ignored them too many times in the past for the fault to be theirs - so if not the critics, who is the movie mangler?
The Shawshank Redemption hit screens in the fall of 1994; the majority of critics agreed it was a powerful and compelling film. Castle Rock Entertainment rejoiced. They began to churn out trailers for the ever eager public and the people responded. Their response involved a less than eight-hundred thousand dollar opening weekend. Critics’ reviews were futile against the mysterious grim reaper of cinema. The trailers portrayed the film as such mawkish garbage some were left wondering if Danielle Steele hadn't taken up screen writing. A light and airy flute played in the background and Tim Robbins whispered, “There’s somethin’ inside they just can’t touch – hope…” Cue the gagging, Mr. Darabont. It is here we see the devil in disguise, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the bad apple in the bag – marketing.
The Shawshank Redemption is as much about redemption, as Fight Club is about fighting, as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is about flying over a small yellow bird’s home. Yet when the marketing madmen grasped hold of Shawshank and Fight Club they colored them to be exactly what they aren't. These two movies are far deeper than their names describe and would not fit easily into the categories that make up the ideology and foundation of cinematic salesmanship. The decision to classify The Shawshank Redemption as a “feel good film” completely bastardized the moments made potent by the darker context of prison - just as the parade of violence masked the philosophical purpose of Fight Club. Viewers were deceived by the bait and switch - which the studios felt deeply at ticket time.
“It all comes down to trust…” as a professor of mine has been known to say - though he was specifically referring to writing. Just as a writer must trust the reader - those in marketing must trust viewers to understand and not distract them from the intent. In an effort to make Shawshank and Fight Club appeal to a broad audience, marketing teams at the two studios tried to give us what they thought we wanted. What we wanted were the movies as they really are. Both cinematic works are highly regarded by the film community today and all that was necessary was an accurate portrayal of what they were really about.
According to IMDb the two movies, Fight Club and The Shawshank Redemption, are ranked by watchers to be in the top ten greatest of all time, despite their dismal performances in theatres. I believe there is evidence enough for a conviction – marketing is guilty of almost ruining the movies. It’s just a shame we discovered this too late to help poor, old Bill Mechanic.