Hush-Hush: “Salinger” and 4 Other Films with Secrets

JD Salinger Portrait Session

Several weeks ago, The Weinstein Company began a marketing campaign for its upcoming documentary Salinger, based on reclusive writer J. D. Salinger who wrote The Catcher in the Rye, in which they pressed audience members to not spoil the film’s secrets for others. Dubbed the “Uncover The Mystery But Don’t Spoil The Secrets“ campaign, the intrigue over what exactly the film has in store for film-goers has created a wave of interest.

Directed by Shane Salerno and created over the course of nine years, Salinger is purported to reveal new information on the famous writer who died in 2010. The Weinstein Co. describes the film as offering “an unprecedented amount of unseen footage, photographs, and biographical information on the notoriously reclusive Catcher in the Rye author.”

Of course, if the saying goes “loose lips sinks ships,” it appears that Salinger’s ship might have already sunk. Chances are you’ve already read on one of the many news stories about the fascinating, and rather bizarre, news about J. D. Salinger — and if you haven’t, I won’t spoil it for you.

Salinger Poster

While the news being widely reported about Salinger isn’t necessarily the secret that the Weinstein Co. is trying to shield from prospective movie-goers, there’s a good chance it is. And if there are even more secrets to reveal? Let’s just say this film is heating up to be one of the most interesting films to come out in a while, spoilers or no spoilers.

That being said, the hush-hush campaign certainly isn’t the first time a studio has mounted a campaign to preserve a film’s secret. Marketing campaigns over the years have been a way for studios to score big at the box office, if done properly. Call it fanning the fire, but a successful secretive campaign can do wonders.

Just to prove it, here’s a list of four movies with similarly secretive campaigns and how the marketing ultimately impacted the film’s box performance.

Check them out after the jump.

1. The Crying Game (1992)

Crying Game

The Crying Game is the most obvious comparison to Salinger’s marketing campaign, especially given that Miramax, which was then headed by the Weinsteins, was the studio behind it. Producer Stephen Woolley grew increasingly concerned that the film would be spoiled by critics and decided to write a letter directly to the press in which he implored them to keep the secret of the film.

“For people to avoid giving away the twist, the film had to deliver. Audiences talked about it at dinner parties and on the factory floor,” Woolley told AwardsLine. “The film posed a real problem to advertise, up until the day of release.”

But lucky for Woolley and then-unknown Irish director Neil Jordan, the marketing worked. The Crying Game had a $101,000 opening, but ended up breaking out to the tune of $62.5 million domestic. The film also ended up scoring six Oscar nominations with a secretive campaign regarding the big twist remaining unspoken to the uninitiated.

2. Psycho (1959)

Psycho

Before we go giving the Weinsteins too much credit, let’s not forget that Alfred Hitchcock did something very similar over thirty years prior to The Crying Game’s release with his classic film Psycho, from Universal (NASDAQ:CMCSA). And here’s the spoiler: the main character, played by Janet Leigh, dies about 25 minutes into the film. That’s the kind of secret that blows a film-goer’s mind even today.

It’s important to note that even in his day, Hitchcock was the biggest name in film and was one of the few filmmakers who could draw audiences with his name as director. He is also widely regarded as having an incredible ability for self-promotion and was, at the time of Psycho’s release, coming off a television stint with Alfred Hitchcock Presents. With his name seemingly more ubiquitous than ever, Psycho would see Hitchcock’s ability for self-promotion put to the test.

So how did Hitchcock go about preserving such a huge secret? He mounted widespread marketing campaign imploring viewers to keep the secret. Luckily for Hitchock, he didn’t yet have to fear the spread of information on the Internet, but he ran print ads, recorded theater announcements, and released a six-minute preview in which he show audiences the Bates Motel and told them to keep the secret.

And it worked. The film became a phenomenon when it was released and even today the twist in Psycho is regarded as one of the greatest moments in all of film history.

3. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project’s brilliant marketing campaign is what led the low-budget found-footage horror film towards mainstream success. Made on a budget of only $22,500, the film ended up grossing $141 million for Artisan Entertainment, which later became Lions Gate (NYSE:LGF)

The mysterious marketing campaign surrounding The Blair Witch Project was built around viewer uncertainty as to whether what they were watching was real. The marketing team created fake websites posing as factual documents and, in a stroke of genius, even the actors were nowhere to be found during the film’s first several weeks in theaters.

Buzz was electric when The Blair Witch Project came out and everyone was talking about the film and whether it was real. Of course, if you looked closely the pieces didn’t add up — there was someone listed under director, there were actors, etc. But it didn’t stop moviegoers from crowding the theaters to find out what all the talk was about.

 4. The 6th Sense (1999)

(source sixth sense)

While the marketing for The Sixth Sense wasn’t nearly as deliberate on the part of the marketers as the other films on this list, the buzz was absolutely feverish for the film when it was released. And like the other films on this list, film-goers had to know: what’s the film’s secret?

It almost seems comical that the twist in The 6th Sense was such a phenomenon, but everyone had to tell their friends to watch the film and have their mind blown. Additionally, director M. Night Shyamalan put enough clues in the film to warrant second and third viewings for those wanting to pick up additional hints.

While Disney (NYSE:DIS) didn’t believe The 6th Sense would find much success, the film ended up making $294 million at the domestic box office, and their decision to co-finance the picture ended up costing them hundreds of millions of dollars.

There’s no marketing like free marketing.

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