In Praise Of The 'Mother!' Marketing Campaign

No matter what you think of Darren Aronofsky's movie, Paramount was bold to invest in it.
Paramount Pictures

Fewer and fewer movie releases feel like true phenomena these days ― a Marvel joint here or a “Star Wars” sequel there, with a name-brand killer clown tossed in to keep cash flowing as summer fades. Not even established franchise properties are guaranteed towering success, which leaves little room for original films to strike gold across the heartland, especially ones that aren’t animated or directed by Christopher Nolan.

As a result, the lead-up to “mother!” was thrilling. In an age when studios tease tentpoles’ plot arcs and character digests months in advance, here was a movie shrouded in mystery being given a blockbuster-size debut (nearly 2,400 screens nationwide) by a top-tier distributor (Paramount Pictures). It’s enough to give the most cynical cinephile a flutter of hope.

For several reasons, Darren Aronofsky’s efforts to conceal the details of his audacious project didn’t quite pay off, even with grade-A movie star (and girlfriend) Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role. “Mother!” ― which opened Friday, lower-case title and all ― made $7.5 million at the North American box office this weekend. Some headlines have called it a flop, which is misleading. For a challenging, arty movie lacking ties to an existing franchise, $7.5 million is hardly a flop. For something playing 2,400 theaters, however, it is admittedly lukewarm.

Of course Aronofsky cooked up something that alienates half his audience. This is, after all, the guy who made “Requiem for a Dream,” one of this century’s most unsettling gut punches. But he’s found commercial success before, so who’s to say he couldn’t again? Aronofsky’s two most recent movies, the irreverential biblical epic “Noah” and the ballerina psychodrama “Black Swan,” waltzed their way to more than $100 million apiece in domestic revenue.

“Mother!,” it turns out, was a different offspring altogether: wilder, more divisive, less accessible. Following premieres at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, reviews have been fierce and varied ― a true love-it-or-hate-it crucible. One person’s intricate interpretation is another person’s “that’s bullshit.”

Audiences leaned toward the latter reaction. The movie’s CinemaScore ― data compiled from opening-night reactions ― is an F. That sounds dreadful on paper, but it actually signals an interesting effect. As Screen Crush pointed out, films that audiences dislike tend to earn “C” letter grades; films that defy expectations get an F. (Only a smattering have garnered that score since the service launched in 1979, including “The Wicker Man,” “Bug” and “Wolf Creek.”) Most who rated “mother!” so poorly probably went in expecting a traditional home-invasion thriller and instead got a chaotic fever dream loaded with allegories about Judeo-Christian theology, ecological destruction and the artistic process.

“We knew that as soon as you throw a punch out at the audience, certain people get angry and punch back [...],” Aronofsky said when I talked to him at the Toronto Film Festival. “I think cinema, especially out of Hollywood, has gotten very narrow in trying to get as many people to have one experience as possible.”

Regardless of the splintered reactions from both audiences and critics, Paramount played its cards the right way. First, there’s the sheer mettle of investing in the sort of bizarre, uncommercial movie that most studios are too timid to support nowadays. Doubling down on that, Paramount built a fierce campaign around “mother!” The (excellent) trailers were slightly misleading for anyone who didn’t know to associate Aronofsky with brazen unpredictability, but how else does one advertise something that’s impossible to summarize with a straightforward logline? Rarely do we get wide-release titles that haven’t been promoted for months via Comic-Con panels, magazine covers and promotional tie-ins. The fact that “mother!” stoked whatever anticipation it could by way of secrecy is a refreshing sensation to behold. I’m of the mind that angered kickbacks are a good thing. People don’t often get fired up about movies without superheroes or magic spells.

Granted, I say all of this as a professional movie disciple who carouses with a lot of other professional movie disciples. Maybe the buzz only existed in our small bubble. But damn if Paramount didn’t work to extend that to a wider audience, plotting a strategic rollout. The first imagery ― an eyebrow-raising poster ― debuted on Mother’s Day, for Chrissake.

Later, on July 31, the first teaser arrived, less than two months before the movie would open nationwide. With Lawrence heard shouting “you’re insane” and “murderer,” it was inarguably one of the most electrifying, what-the-fuck-is-this promos in recent memory. The full trailer, which landed a week later, went even further with the cryptic madness, scored by a hair-raising strings arrangement indicating a full-throttle chiller. (It’s racked up a decent 8.7 million views on YouTube.)

Then, during the week of Aug. 14, major media outlets were sent a chocolate heart-shaped cake covered in blood-red icing (relevant, though we still weren’t sure why). Most promotional mail-outs that journalists receive are toys ― Spider-Man trinkets, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” wands, “LEGO Movie” novelties ― which makes a bleeding-heart confection a fun package to open.

The following week, Paramount unveiled a sleek poster mimicking “Rosemary’s Baby.” A film like this would usually start screening for press and industry folks within at least a month of its release, but, at that point, few had laid eyes on it. Those who had seen it reportedly signed non-disclosure agreements.

At the end of the August, Aronofsky invited a few friends to screen the movie, including famous chef Anthony Bourdain, who was permitted to share his reaction on Twitter.

Fast-forward a week and a half to the Toronto Film Festival. The “mother!” press screening was scheduled for a blistering 9 a.m., four days into the September fest, when fatigue and after-party hangovers might have otherwise encouraged the snooze button. There wasn’t a sleepy eye in the house. Upon entering the theater, the festival’s volunteers handed journalists card stock featuring a “mother!”-specific adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer, written by prize-winning author Rebecca Solnit. Again, this is not typical. The energy in the room was alive, even giddy. It was, simply, an event.

Ahead of the New York premiere on Sept. 13, Aronofsky similarly announced a cagey scavenger hunt that let fans win tickets by hunting for clues in downtown Manhattan. Lucky them: Patti Smith performed at the event, held at Radio City Music Hall.

Despite the flurry of tweets about cardiac cakes and doctrinal poems, maybe critics’ anticipation didn’t bleed into everyday moviegoers’, particularly ones whose appetite consists of only a few big-budget spectacles per year. (I get it, movies are expensive!) Alas, “mother!” loomed in the shadow of a far more familiar thriller, the mega-lucrative “It.” Studio executives tend to space out horror releases because when one hits it really hits, cannibalizing genre competition. Many who didn’t see the Stephen King adaptation during its record-breaking opening bow ($123 million!) were apparently compelled to catch up this weekend, to the tune of another whopping $60 million, per Sunday’s estimates.

(“Mother!” was originally slated for Oct. 13. Would it have fared better then? Tough to say, given it’s still hard to talk about the film without revealing spoilers. With a longer gap between festival premieres and the theatrical release, the secrecy would have been tough to maintain.)

On paper, the “mother!” opening was almost a stillbirth ― one-fifth of what “Noah” (another Aronfosky-Paramount collaboration) made during its debut in 2014. It’s the weakest nationwide launch of Lawrence’s career. Now it could struggle to turn a profit on its reported $30 million budget.

Yet Paramount was right to take a chance on this unorthodox flick. Now that leading studios take painfully few risks on original movies, it’s a blissful thing to see. We had to know it wouldn’t land with everyone. Even if you aren’t a fan of “mother!,” I’m not sure anyone can argue that Paramount is wrong to invest in boundary-pushing auteurs like Aronofsky. “Mother!” is a genuine conversation piece, much like “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967 and “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988, two major-studio projects that prompted beautifully combative cultural debates.

“Everyone wants original filmmaking, and everyone celebrates Netflix when they tell a story no one else wants to tell,” Megan Colligan, Paramount’s worldwide president of marketing and distribution, told The Hollywood Reporter over the weekend. “This is our version. We don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s okay if some people don’t like it.”

In the end, this is mostly a win, and Paramount should see it as such. People will be discussing “mother!” for years to come, even if they’re angry while they do it. Onward with the next movie like it ― and the one after that, and the one after that.

“Mother!” is now playing. You should see it.

You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Read more here.

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