Could We Ever Have A Surprise Movie Release?

Three things got me thinking today.

First, another listen of Frank Ocean’s new album Blonde. Great shit, not ready to call it a masterpiece on the level of Channel Orange, but something still dense and interesting and a rare thing that could live up to the expectations dropped on it.

But its release is still the most fascinating part. Here we have a major recording artist dropping one of the biggest albums of the year with no buildup and barely any marketing or a word from him. Just checked Twitter one afternoon and found out it was out. Seems to be the model most in use since Beyonce’s Beyonce.  Music as a business has seemingly adapted to the idea that the most potent form of sale is the “Holy shit, this is out?” rush. Which as a follower of the film industry is so odd these days. I know about movies that are coming out in 2020, but Kanye West may release an album tomorrow and I’d have no idea.

The second is the upcoming Blair Witch. The latest from phenomenal young genre director Adam Wingard, the movie spent the beginning of its public life as The Woods, a mysterious found footage film with rumblings under the surface that it would end up being something more from the early critics/journalists who got a look at it. At the first public screening at SDCC, the reveal that this movie was in the Blair Witch franchise was made with every poster being swapped out and a new trailer debuting online.

In a way though, I kinda wish they could’ve held the reveal a little longer, until maybe the Thursday night screenings. I get all the reasons why. There’s no way it would have stayed secret for long after the public screening, and I’m impressed the mystery lasted as long as it did. Plus, the marketing has been significantly helped by the word of mouth and existing market penetration possible for a new Blair Witch film.

There’s just a romantic in me that loves the idea of showing up to The Woods and having the reveal be a legitimate surprise, being a part of one of those first audiences and hearing the gasps of recognition. Walking out knowing that you were actually for once shocked could have been interesting. But we don’t just exist in that industry space.

Finally, this video from Ben Affleck:

This is the least lead-up for a major character announcement in moden comic book film history. That’s Deathstroke, Batman villain and deadly assassin and (most importantly) fan-favorite. Long speculated to be a major part of the DC Film Universe, this video appears to show off a live-action version of him with nary an actor announcement or even a hint that he might be showing up in a movie. But there he is, in full glory, right now rumored to be taking center-stage as the villain of Affleck’s The Batman, currently the only sure thing in the upcoming DC Films slate, besides maybe Doug Liman’s Dark Universe.

This of course has, in a few short hours, blown up the nerd internet sphere with speculation. My take? Cameo in Justice League with full villainy in The Batman. Either someone like Jason Clarke is playing him or someone wildly A-list, like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise.

UPDATE: I’m now convinced Deathstroke is being played by Joe Manganiello. He’s in London and recently followed Zack Snyder on Twitter, which is how we found out Rick Famuyiwa would be directing something. He’s been rumored for a while and could be an awesome presence in the part. Was hoping to see him as Shazam after Magic Mike XXL and Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, but I’ll take what I can get.

All of this is to say that we see this interesting phenomenon of play in the modern movie discussion space. Which has all led me to ask if we could have a legitimately successful surprise movie release?

I don’t mean along the lines of Blair Witch where there’s a two month lead time. Or an independent picture that gets bought up and suddenly released on VOD or in a limited release.

I mean a major picture with a major production and stars that gets released with maybe a day’s notice. One that is a blockbuster release and becomes a blockbuster along the lines of Beyonce or Blonde.

On one hand, it doesn’t seem possible. The fact that is that the realities of production mean that someone would see sets or some crew member would blab or the fact that celebrities have to necessarily cut public figures and them disappearing for a couple months with no reason would be noticed. Harsh NDAs and L.A. filming on entirely sets could be the only way, but the legal paperwork required and the funding infrastructure could surely be pulled from somewhere, not even speaking to the tendency of any major blockbuster production requiring enough crew and merchandising to be successful would surely get out.

But let’s say they did it. They film a movie entirely on a closed set under deep code names, come up with excuses for everyone involved, and manage to pull off getting through the editing bay with nary a peep. We then run up against the marketing and distribution problem.

You can’t just hand a film off to a theater and say “Trust us, people will love it.” Even if you’re Disney or Warner Brothers. Screen space is precious these days, and theater owners have to rent out what they think people will come to see. And bringing them in adds another potential leak to the chain.

Also, no matter how big the property, marketing does matter. Movies exist as an event, and a relatively expensive one at that (for most people). Even if they’re a bought and sold audience, they still need to be convinced this particular thing is worth their time. A surprise movie may get slaughtered opening weekend due to nobody knowing if it is, which can be a death knell for a film.

The reason we have surprise music releases work is because A) We do often know something is coming at some point, which means the music media often has their ears perked up for any hint and B) music can be made and released with much less difficulty. By that I mean, musicians can hide away in the studio and get something made with a much smaller crew than a film and with far fewer links in the chain. These days too, physical release is becoming irrelevant for music, which means that the digital release can be done without the necessary fanfare of pressing and packaging.

I don’t think we could ever necessarily have a true surprise release. I think something like Blair Witch is the closest we ever could actually get. A franchise film dropped with two months notice and a marketing blitz to accompany.

But in theory, a surprise release would have to be something that’s selling ice to an eskimo. A franchise property, in other words, that can be filmed on a lower budget and still look full-fledged. Something that a surprise announcement of would actually make people flock to the theaters and wouldn’t require as much of the marketing to get people excited, because people already turn out.

In other words, the theoretical possible surprise movie would be a Batman film. Think something like The Raid set in Arkham Asylum. No big effects, just tight action and Batman’s wits to get him out. It could be filmed on a closed set for lower-budget (to cover the costs) and would probably be easy enough to keep under cover with code names. Batman also has a certain cinematic stamp of quality at this point that gets people excited and turning out for his movies. If anything could ever come out with no lead time, that’s the one.

As we keep trying to find ways to get people to theaters again, I’m curious if this may be employed. If it is, you saw the idea here first.