The long-delayed, highly-anticipated sequel to the 2017 film Wonder Woman finally hit screens both big and small on Christmas Day. Wonder Woman 1984 opened to mixed reviews, but it would have been hard to live up to its predecessor.
The original film was a commercial and critical blockbuster, earning over $820 million and a 93% Certified Fresh rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Wonder Woman did well for many reasons, including a strong performance from lead actor Gal Gadot, a solid script, an empowering female-led cast and crew, and good special effects.
Less attention has been paid to the savvy grassroots marketing of the film, which effectively harnessed social media and media outrage. A closer look at the situation through the lenses of media literacy and critical thinking reveal a fascinating — and fabricated — story.
Content is king, but engagement is queen
The most effective marketing campaigns are those in which the audience willingly (or even enthusiastically) engages with the brand. American media consumers, have grown up in a world cluttered with commercials and jingles, and are largely jaded and cynical, so the vast majority of advertisements are ignored. But now and then advertisers strike gold, finding ways to make audiences do their work for them, sharing their memorable message on social media in ways that marketing dollars often can’t force.
One way to give your advertising campaign longevity is to piggyback it onto a topic that people already care about and, ideally, consider themselves activists for. Instead of creating a demand and then selling your product to fill that demand, demonstrate how your brand aligns with their pre-existing worldview and concerns, and let the social media public promote you.
Which is just what the Alamo Drafthouse did. A small theater chain founded in Austin, Texas, in 1997, part of the Alamo’s appeal (and its fame) is its quirky cinemaphile focus. Patrons are not merely discouraged from talking or texting during screenings, but have been removed from the theater for doing so! Toddlers are restricted to certain showings, and audience members are often encouraged to participate by dressing up for themed occasions. The chain has 40 theaters across the country, half of them in Texas.
The “clowns only” It screenings
In 2017, and again in 2019, the Alamo held “clowns only” screenings of the horror movie It (parts 1 and 2, respectively) featuring Pennywise the clown. Non-clowns (or at least those not dressed as clowns) were (supposedly) barred from the screenings. A writer for GQ attended the 2019 event and noted that bits of clown attire (such as red noses and funny hats) were available at the door for people who showed up without the “required” costume.
But in fact no “clowns only” policy was enforced. The September 9, 2017 “clowns only” screening merely requested that “all attendees should arrive dressed as a clown.” It was just a silly publicity stunt that got the desired national media attention. Few questioned the truth of the advertising claim, or the news media’s reporting of it; after all, it’s not like any non-clowns were upset at being excluded. A couple years earlier, however, it had been an entirely different situation.
The “women only” Wonder Woman screenings
When it came to scaring up controversy, Pennywise had nothing on Wonder Woman. As successful as the “clowns only” screenings were, the Alamo had been more successful at courting publicity by advertising an all-female screening of Wonder Woman — not only would female patrons be the only ones admitted, but, “Everyone working at this screening — venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team — will be female.”
Given the Alamo’s well-known and strict intolerance regarding violations of theater policy, the idea that it would hold female-only screenings sounded plausible. Most people took it seriously, and misunderstood what was going on. Dozens of journalists jumped on the bandwagon, smelling a great story.
When the screenings were announced, they were greeted with widespread approval. The first sold out in hours, and additional screenings were slated. The stunt worked perfectly, generating controversy and sympathetic news headlines, while scoring female empowerment points and endearing the theater chain to legions of fans. A handful of people complained, sparking a predictable backlash of outrage that garnered the theater millions of dollars in further free publicity.
But unlike the noisy, mostly-anonymous online trolls, one person took it to a whole new level and actually filed a formal complaint with the city of Austin. The Alamo’s many supporters on social media greeted the news with a mix of outrage and mockery. Who was this angry incel, this misogynist who couldn’t stand to let women have their own screening?
It was Albany, New York professor, Stephen Clark, a gay attorney who deals with sexual orientation and employment law. “I’m a specialist in anti-discrimination law, so I was fairly certain that this was not lawful,” he told The Austin-American Statesman. “If they were trying to do a gay-only Brokeback Mountain, I would feel the same way.”
Alamo fueled the flames of controversy by characterizing online complaints as completely baseless, misogynistic, and malicious. Clark found that attitude “brazen” and dismissive:
I understand the reason for creating a women-only event, but the equality principle is fundamental …. There are men in Austin who would like to celebrate women’s empowerment. There are women in Austin who would like to go to this event with their gay best friend, and they can’t under this rule.
Once lawyers got involved (and after publicity and profits had been garnered), the Alamo decided to come clean. First it admitted that the women-only Wonder Woman screenings were a prank, something they had led people to believe they would do, but never actually did, and had in fact never planned to do. “The chain’s director of real estate and development, Missy Reynolds, said … that the theaters would not, in fact, have turned away any men who bought tickets to the screening,” the Dallas News reported.
In a letter to the city, the Alamo apologized and admitted they had made mistakes, violating Austin’s anti-discrimination laws. It read, in part, “Respondent did not realize that advertising a ‘women’s-only’ screening was a violation of discrimination laws … Respondent has a very strict non-discrimination policy in place, but this policy did NOT include a specific prohibition against advertising.”
The Alamo agreed to revise its anti-discrimination policy to comply with local ordinances, and the matter was done. When the dust had settled it was clear that the imagined hordes of angry men pounding on the Alamo theater’s doors never existed, except as virtual boogeymen in the skewed online world. But the myth wasn’t created by accident or coincidence — it was a golem cobbled together from scraps of advertising gimmickry, social narrative, clickbait outrage, and superficial journalism.
“The entire controversy could have been avoided with a simple tweak in the theater’s advertising,” associate law professor Stacy Hawkins, of Rutgers University, told The Washington Post. “You try to make sure you demonstrate this is an event for and about women and, most likely, men aren’t going to show up.’” Conversely, off course, if you tell people they can’t do something, then suddenly they want to do it — just to prove a point. The Alamo understood this bit of psychology, and deftly used it to its advantage.
Maybe surprisingly, Wonder Woman wasn’t the first movie, even in recent memory, to generate free publicity (and millions of dollars) in such a way. The 2014 James Franco/Seth Rogen film The Interview sparked controversy when its studio, Sony Pictures, was warned not to release it — presumably at the behest of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who in the film is not only mocked but is also the target of an assassination plot.
Apparently giving in to censorious threats, Sony reportedly canceled all plans to screen The Interview, on the premise that it was better that no one saw the film than anyone be injured or killed by a terrorist act at one of the screenings. This led to an outpouring of public support, with moviegoers proudly announcing their determination to see The Interview, in an explicit effort to spite Un. Sony came under fire for caving in to terrorist threats.
But just like with the Alamo screenings, Sony’s critics were reacting to misinformation. As The New York Times noted, Sony never planned a total blackout of the film — they had left the choice of whether or not to screen it up to theater owners — who had simply chosen not to.
A version of this article originally appeared on the website of the Center for Inquiry, and this abbreviated version is published with permission.
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