What’s in a Poster? by Ben Wagner

The feature I worked on for the last three years was released a few months ago.

It’s called DEAD WITHIN. You can watch it on just about any video streaming service, or you could run out to Walmart and buy it on DVD. 

DEAD WITHIN POSTER

I’m proud of this film. It was conceived as a small, experimental film exploring the dynamics of a toxic relationship. It’s an intimate, claustrophobic story about people in a painful emotional quagmire, metaphorically explored through zombie horror conventions. It’s not high-art, but it’s not a splatter-filled gore fest. 

Here’s the “key art” poster. 

It doesn’t exactly capture the art-house vibe of DEAD WITHIN. 

I’m not critical of the creative decisions by the film’s marketers. I am eternally thankful that they believe in the movie and took a chance on it. I agree 100% with their decision to release the film with this key art.

In fact, I don’t think there was a more effective way to introduce the film to audiences. 

The marketing rationale was simple:

  • The audience for “art-house” horror films is unfortunately very small
  • No one knows who I am, so “a film by Ben Wagner” only impresses my mom
  • Amy Cale Peterson and Dean Chekvala – the leads – are moving on to bigger and better things but don’t have cache to anchor box art yet
  • People will watch something labelled a zombie movie in their Netflix cue, especially if it has a pretty woman and the promise of gore. 

Because of this approach many people have seen my movie – many more than would have seen it with a subtler, more representative poster. 

However, many who see it are confused. They expect teenaged girls getting torn apart by zombies, not a slow-burn analysis of adult relationships. These viewers are rightly disappointed by a movie different than promised.

Many aren’t disappointed. They enjoy the twisting, ambiguous story. The number of those happy with this discovery is greater than the number that would have found the film with more thoughtful key art. At least I tell myself that when I look at  imdb and rotten tomato ratings influenced by those who were “baited and switched.” 

What’s the moral of this story, what’s the learning for a writer starting a new script?

Maybe it’s the observation that controlling perception is perilous. The masses en masse will sniff out a misdirection like rainwater in a storm finding the path of least resistance.

Or possibly: if you’re writing a genre story and you choose to ignore genre conventions, be prepared for a difficult journey. I doubt I would have convinced anyone with business-savvy in the horror space to finance my script (which wasn’t a problem since I shot the film in my kitchen with my friends on almost no-budget).

Though the strongest answer: be specific. 

Be specific in your narrative choices. Be specific in your characters and their motivations, and spell it out on the page. Your job as a writer is communicating ideas clearly and succinctly. Ambiguity and uncertainty can be explored in performance, camerawork, and editing. But what you write ultimately must to be distilled into key art that captures the spirit of your story. 

 

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