Film News

The Don Jon Conundrum-Marketing a Film About Porn Addiction By Ignoring That Whole Porn Addiction Part

How do you market a film about a man who has become unhealthily addicted to watching online pornography?  You mostly just ignore that whole porn addiction part, of course.

In the end, what else could they really do?  When distributor Relativity Media won the bidding war at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut Don Jon, they had to know they were buying a film which posed obvious marketing challenges.  Yes, it is not only directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt but also stars Gordon-Levitt (who wrote and produced as well) and Scarlett Johansson, both actors who’ve starred in supporting roles in some pretty huge hits (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises for him, The Avengers for her).  Yes, it was incredibly well-reviewed and warmly received at Sundance, and the bidding war became so intense Relativity ended up winning out by guaranteeing the film a wide release with major marketing behind it.  However, it premiered at Sundance under the title Don Jon’s Addiction for a reason – the main character’s addiction to online pornography is a major component of the film’s plot, the instigating element which keeps the romantic leads apart and sets the titular character on a journey of self-discovery in the second half of the narrative.

Of course, Joseph Gordon-Levitt would argue with me, downplaying the importance of pornography to the plot and emphasizing the film as actually being about the way we allow pop culture to shape our expectations in romantic relationships.  That’s true, but there are still enough scenes of man-watching-porn-on-computer-screen in Don Jon that they had to be cut down significantly to get an R-rating.

Do you get any sense of that, whatsoever, from these current ads running on TV?

Or this one?

Or this one?

To be fair, this ad highlights a comedic scene which likely taps into every porn viewer’s worst nightmare – being walked in on by your spouse:

Plus, the full-length trailers have not completely shied away from that portion of the film.  However, TV advertising is generally considered the most important venue for marketing new movies to filmgoers.  Based upon that, Don Jon is shaping up to just the latest film to surprise audiences by being a very different kind of movie than the advertising had led them to expect.

For example [SPOILERS, RUN AWAY NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW], according to Sundance reviews of Don Jon Scarlett Johansson exits the story around half-way through, at which point Julianne Moore’s character enters into the mix and the film takes on a more dramatic tone.  It’s great that the advertising, for a change, is not giving that away, but Johansson fans are being sold a starring film when in fact she’s a co-star you say goodbye to at the halfway point.  Beyond that, there is the aforementioned tonal shift away from comedy to drama in the film’s second half which is now guaranteed to take most audiences by surprise [END SPOILERS]. Will this be a delightful surprise, or will audiences feel slightly cheated?

DON JON
Will Julianne Moore’s heavy presence in the film’s second half feel like a bait-and-switch for audiences?

Not every film is going to fit nicely into a neat little box, presenting continual marketing challenges.  The choice to market Don Jon as a edgy comedy about a somewhat oafish muscle-bound Jersey guy who has finally met his match in a statuesque blonde who purposefully withholds pleasure is an obvious compromise, as nothing about it is untrue and comes off as the first romantic comedy at the domestic market since we can’t remember when (this was a very long summer of endless action films).  However, is it possibly doing the film a disservice?  Or are audiences savvy enough with enough resources (like, for example, this very website) at their disposal that they can’t be fooled by misleading marketing?  To that last point I would offer a rebuttal, “Then why does my local theater have to display a huge sign informing audiences that Instructions Not Included is in Spanish with English subtitles, or going back a couple of years a sign informing people that The Artist was a silent film with subtitles.”

On one hand, I applaud Gordon-Levitt and Relativity Media for revealing astonishingly little about the film in the advertising, the full-length trailer only acknowledging the film’s basic set-up: boy meets girl, girl won’t have sex with boy, boy watches porn, girl catches him doing it, he argues porn is no worse than romantic comedies, they fight.  However, this is not really a discussion about advertising giving away too much plot, but instead marketing which is intentionally hiding a major part of the movie.  For lack of a better analogy, it’d be like seeing a trailer for Harry Potter which makes it appear like a poor kid who goes to a big new school and makes new friends as well as some enemies only to get to the theater and discover, “Holy crap, they’re all witches and wizards!”

Then again, what the hell else was Relativity Media going to do?  They simply could not lead with the porn addiction angle, as that would stigmatize the film and also mis-characterize it (there is way more to it than just that, including the counter discussion of the influence of romantic comedies on the female view of real life relationships).  Plus, there are obviously content restrictions based upon which timeslots they run their TV spots during.  However, I foresee quite a few people leaving screenings of Don Jon its opening weekend and joking, “That was pretty good, but did you know it was going to have so much porn in it?”

What about you?  Is there any movie you saw which ended up being a totally different kind of film than the advertising had promised?  If so, was this a good or bad thing in your experience, and what were some of these films?  Let us know in the comments.

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