Almost two decades ago, a fate worse than being lost in the woods befell a clever indie smash. The Blair Witch Project shifted tickets wildly, but it met with a foul four-letter put-down from doubters.
This year, Hereditary raised the same spectre when reviews out-scored audience ratings. More recently, The Hollywood Reporter asked if Nicolas Cage-starrer Mandy could match up to its feverish Sundance buzz. Did these films suffer from – whisper it – hype?
Look closer and the word ‘hype’ starts to seem slippery. The cases above are miniscule-to-low-budget films, which managed to secure rivers of excitable buzz. In this context, the weighting of the word hype depends merely on whether you liked the films.
For those who didn’t, good publicity will always be hyperbole; for fans, hype is just good buzz. Either way, the word becomes so relative as to be of debatable use.
In another sense, isn’t hype a potentially positive force? Sure, you could argue that the internet has empowered hype to a Thanos-powered degree. And yes, hype isn’t exactly always the most nuanced measure of merit.
Yet in a market where big studios squeeze out smaller films for the same screening slots, it’s hard to chastise indie distributors for building a big, audience-reaching noise on top of loud word of mouth.
Sure, the pre-release ear-bashings lavished on tentpoles by studios can be wearing. But if savvy audiences can spot an aggressively publicised crock when it lands, then they can surely distinguish between the PR heat behind a blockbuster and the hot buzz stoked by festival break-out hits.
Even if reviews produced in festival situations can be feverish, written on foundations of caffeine and fatigue, that kind of anti-cynical passion can sometimes be refreshing.
Most film writers do the job because of an exceptional excitement for films, not because they’re out to harsh someone’s buzz – and if that makes them engines of hype, it isn’t because studios or indies are paying them for it. It’s because when films as (largely) thrilling as Hereditary or Mandy land, you want the hype to roar a little, not whisper. Or is it just me?
Each month our sister publication Total Film magazine argues a polarising movie opinion and gives you the opportunity to agree or disagree. Let us know what you think about this one in the comments below and read on for more.