“Spider-Man: Homecoming” and When Studios’ Marketing Plans Can’t Get Out of Their Own Way

Spider-Man HomecomingSony Pictures/Marvel Studios

Here’s one for you: Sony and Marvel have been keeping a tight lid on their upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, the first time the two companies are working together on one of the most prized pieces of intellectual property that exists anywhere. While the marketing people have been putting out stellar trailers that have been pretty good about not giving too much away, they have also been incredibly cagey about details that should, by all rights, only come to light inside the theater, after the movie opens on July 6.

Ah, but the best-laid plans, and so on. Suddenly, last week, a rather major spoiler was revealed by the movie’s novelization. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to go anywhere near the substance of this spoiler, as I have actively avoided it myself, but that’s far from the point, isn’t it? The fact that different aspects of the studios in question couldn’t get their act together to ensure that nothing important would be revealed? That the film division goes to such extensive lengths to keep plot and character details a secret, only to see a different division — in this case, publishing — let them loose? It’s sort of appalling, most definitely blundering, and bordering on downright incompetent.

Part of the value of these IPs is the numerous other ways the studio can make money, aside from the box office grosses. With the action figures and lunch boxes and beach towels and T-shirts and movie tie-in books and on and on, these properties are worth billions of dollars to the companies that control them. But, see, it all sort of comes down to the movie itself, which is the impetus behind the rest of it. If the movie is harmed by one of these other divisions, then what’s the point of keeping storylines a secret in the first place?

This is not a new phenomenon. It’s been happening in the comic book world for years, as certain Event Stories are often spoiled by the toys and action figures the companies sell in conjunction with these tales. The way it works is, any kind of comic book-related item — be it a book, a T-shirt, an action figure, a signed and numbered bit of memorabilia, whatever — is solicited about three months before its release, giving consumers a chance to pre-order the item in question and assure they can possess it.

Because of that, though, there are sometimes unintended leaks, as a particular action figure that ties in with a key part of the story (perhaps, say, the reveal of a villain’s identity, previously kept secret) is solicited, which, of course, results in a fanboy uproar that can best be described as volcanic and overwrought, complete with wailing, rending of clothes, pulling of hair, and gnashing of teeth.

Toy companies often catch an enormous amount of heat for this, although, interestingly, it’s hard to really blame them too much for it, simply because of how the business works. You can’t really ask companies to wait until the last minute to put out their product, because that means they’re not doing any marketing at all, and the name of the game is brand awareness. Indeed, it’s sort of a problem without an easy solution, unless the companies just wait and put out potential spoilers after the fact, but then, they might be too late to the market for consumers to care about them anymore.

Force Awakens C3POLucasfilm

It’s not just comic books and the movies that go along with them, either. It applies to any major piece of IP, such as the Star Wars universe. Just look at The Force Awakens, in fact, wherein C3PO has a red arm, which was shown in the toy solicitation, but never explained in the movie (but was in one of the comic book tie-ins, which I admittedly missed). In this case, it was a misdirect and not a significant part of the movie’s plot, but still led to a whole lot of speculation that was very clearly unnecessary. I mean, it’s not like a movie that is the highest grossing domestic release of all time (and third-highest worldwide) added a single dollar to its total because someone was curious about what happened to the droid’s arm, right?

Another way to look at this, of course, is to discuss the bloggers who picked up the novelization in the first place, with the intention of going through it in search of details that either were direct spoilers or could be perceived as such. To be fair, most of the ones I noticed made it very clear that there were “MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD,” but the fact that they put it out there at all was disappointing, simply because it meant that the sites in question knew that they were going to draw traffic because of it. Which means that we are far too obsessed with this kind of thing for our own good.

I think, in fact, that this is what sets the trades — like the one you’re currently reading — apart from the smaller bloggers: discretion. Whereas every little thing seems to be fair game for bloggers and smaller sites, there is a definitive line in the sand the straight trades don’t cross. There is such a thing as journalistic integrity, and it used to be that we needed more than innuendo to publish. Those days are long in the rearview mirror, though, as people race to post things before others do, in the hope that it will draw a few extra eyes to the site in question. That’s pretty much how we ended up here.

Ultimately, I think there are a couple legitimate takeaways from this. The first is that, when a studio is so secretive about its product, thus buying into the very idea of Spoiler Culture, it cannot be nearly as careless about the marketing and licensing attached to said product. To be otherwise is, as Sony has learned, to shoot oneself in the foot.

The second is that, obviously, Spoiler Culture is rotten and people shouldn’t take this stuff nearly so personally. That people are so desperate to find out what happens in a movie before they actually see it defeats the whole purpose of going to the movies in the first place, and is just monumentally stupid on more levels than I care to count.

Being realistic, though, the first item is far likelier to change. Which is sort of a shame.

Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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