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Filmmakers and Fans Plot to Keep Big Twists a Secret

August 22, 2014

Note: This story contains minor spoilers for the films The One I Love and Coherence.

Can you keep a secret? Better yet, can you keep a movie’s plot twists secret in the age of social media?

From The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the upcoming Gone Girl, it’s a challenge faced by many high-concept films these days. For the lower budgeted indie The One I Love — which stars Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss and The League's Mark Duplass and opens this weekend in theaters— that challenge has become an asset.

Already available earlier this month in an under-the-radar, video-on-demand release, the movie tracks a married couple working out relationship issues with the help of a therapist (Ted Danson) who sends them on a “perfect retreat” for the weekend. But you won’t find out much more about the film from its mysterious trailer, which features random snippets of dialogue (“It’s so weird here!”), shots of doors opening and closing, and blurbs comparing the film to the works of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation masterminds Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze. If the clip comes off as a bit elusive — well, that’s the point:

At a time when studios tease and prerelease as many images and details about their movies as possible, the opaque marketing campaign for The One I Love might strike some as peculiarly vague. “The reason why we’ve approached releasing the film the way we are is because that’s how we discovered it at Sundance,” explains RADiUS-TWC co-President Tom Quinn, who acquired the film for distribution at the indie showcase. “We hadn’t been bludgeoned to death with information about what it was [about].”

Groundwork for the stealth campaign was laid as far back as January, when the film made its Sundance debut. The festival’s shrewd program guide summary made The One I Love sound like a dime-a-dozen indie relationship drama — when, in fact, it’s a Twilight Zone-indebted bit of brainy sci-fi, complete with a rattling twist. But with the exception of a few stray phrases in the program guide’s description (which pegged the film as “dizzyingly bizarre” and “welcomingly unpredictable”), Sundance attendees were given little warning that the movie they were about to see took some strange turns.

"We felt [that], going into Sundance, our world premiere would be the only screening where people would have a pure watching experience of the movie," remembers The One I Love director Charlie McDowell. “That was the one [screening] where no one really knew anything going in. We always felt that was the best way for people to see the movie.”

As a result, Quinn recalls, “You [walked] out of the movie with your jaw on the floor. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could re-create that experience for the general public?’”

But preserving plot twists has always been a tricky game in Hollywood, and studios are generally dependent upon critics and journalists to withhold big-screen secrets from readers. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock removed that hurdle by declining to show Psycho to critics in advance, instead forcing them to attend showings with regular paying audiences. And in 1992, The Crying Game producer Stephen Woolley wrote a letter to members of the press, asking them to keep a lid on the film’s most unexpected developments.

Now, though, we’re in an era when people immediately tweet, share, and reblog reactions to anything they’ve seen, and plot points can be shared worldwide as early as the first screening. If The Crying Game opened today, the famous twist would go viral faster than you can say “and the nominees for best supporting actor are…”

After The One I Love premiered at Sundance, the filmmakers figured they wouldn’t be able to keep their story under wraps. “I just assumed our culture was one that keeping something secret would never survive,” admits Duplass, who also produced the movie and improvised much of the dialogue in collaboration with McDowell, Moss and screenwriter Justin Lader.

But something unexpected happened. Sundance audiences were adamant during postscreening Q&As that the film’s central twist shouldn’t be spoiled before the movie is released. Social media reactions were enthusiastic without spilling the secrets, and even the reviews were unusually respectful by not revealing plot points, or by including pronounced spoiler warnings if they did.

The trick, then, was figuring out how to extend that surprise to the marketing campaign. For years, the prevailing wisdom among film marketers has been to let audiences know exactly what to expect before going in. So RADiUS decided to hold test screenings to see how the film played for audiences who were shown a more revealing sample trailer and poster before they watched the full movie, and separate screenings for audiences who went in cold.

Duplass says that both screenings elicited positive responses, with one big difference. “The people who didn’t know anything about it came out, and it looked like they had kind of had their faces blown off,” he says. “They could not stop talking about it, and they wanted to tell people about it. We were like, ‘If the No. 1 commodity for an indie film is word of mouth, this is how it’s gonna work.’”

That led to the current cryptic ad campaign, including a trailer and poster boldly subverting every maxim of Hollywood marketing by withholding the movie’s best jokes and biggest reveals. Instead of blowing it all in two minutes, the trailer slyly hints at a mystery for viewers to discover on their own terms.

"In my brain, it’s the worst marketing strategy in the world," Duplass says only half-jokingly. "But maybe, in a marketplace crowded with independent films, it has actually become a way to stand out, as crazy as it sounds."

Earlier this summer, the well-received indie Coherence — about a bougie dinner party that quickly turns sinister and surreal — used a similar strategy to drum up attention. With a cast of mostly unknowns (the biggest star is Buffy the Vampire Slayer alum Nicholas Brendon), the natural play would’ve been to sell the story’s high-concept turns. Instead, filmmaker James Ward Byrkit and distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories kept them quiet.

"Something about a surprise or a twist or a reversal seems to really delight the mind of a viewer," Byrkit says about the appeal of the unexpected. "Reprocessing facts or images that you’ve already seen is one of the best things of all. That’s why The Sixth Sense or Fight Club are both emotionally satisfying and creatively delightful for the brain.”

As with The One I Love, Coherence was released on video on demand in addition to theaters — theoretically increasing the chance for spoilers, especially in the user comments sections of outlets such as Amazon and iTunes where the films are available for rental or purchase. Perhaps surprisingly, neither site currently contains spoilery reactions — not even from those who didn’t care for the respective films.

Instead, everyone from the filmmakers to the distributor to critics and early audiences seems to be enjoying protecting the secrets of these films, instead of spoiling them. That’s had a snowball effect: Part of the fun leading up to the release of The One I Love has been about keeping it mum, like a secret society. “It’s become this thing where people don’t want to be the one to ruin it,” McDowell says.

"I did trust that, ultimately, the people who love the movie feel what our campaign is," Duplass adds. " Most of the comments I see on Twitter are: ‘Holy s—-! See this movie! I’m not going to tell you any more.’"