Maybe you were reeled in by the "based on a true story" line. Maybe it was the real sharks. Maybe you believed some of the good reviews. Whatever the reason, you went to see "Open Water" and likely came out of it thinking the real villain wasn't a shark, but rather the two-headed beast of hype and buzz.
"Hype" and "buzz" are terms that have become an integral part of Hollywood vernacular. While they're sometimes used synonymously, there's actually quite a difference. Hype is created by the movie studio through the tactic of spending squadjillions of dollars on an exhaustive ad campaign and making sure that there's enough merchandising to fill a hundred eBay auction pages. Buzz is more organic, building often from successful festival showings, fan Web sites or even controversy.
Movie studios are always referring to their releases as "the most talked about" or "most anticipated movie of the year!" whether it's true or not. In fact, actual cinematic phenomena are usually relegated to about one or two a year, and those select movies rarely stand the test of time to become classics. Hype and buzz can be powerful fuel, but they often propel vehicles that don't go very far.
Hype as we know it today was perfected in 1989 when Warner Bros. unleashed "Batman" upon the world. Taking corporate synergy to previously unheard-of levels, Warner Bros. used every arm of its media empire to put out Batman books, CDs and, naturally, the source: DC Comics. Hundreds of licenses were sold on top of that, and for a time it was impossible to swing a dead rodent without hitting that bat symbol.
And, of course, it worked. "Batman" opened to record box-office numbers and went on to become one of the top grossing films ever, which is curious because it seemed as if nobody actually liked the movie at the time. "Batman" may have been visually stunning, but pretty much everyone — critics and moviegoers alike — agreed that its faults were many. The thin plot had enough holes to drive the Batmobile through, the acting was as leaden as the dialogue, the action about as exciting as a slap fight between two octogenarians clad in wet burlap. Director Tim Burton himself even admitted in interviews that scenes were made up on the spot and that storytelling is not his strong suit.
Still, despite bad reviews and terrible word of mouth, people continued to see "Batman," often numerous times. It was an unstoppable phenomenon. The movie set a new precedent for every big studio hype-fest, from "Godzilla" to the current crop of "Star Wars" product (yes, "product"). But it left a bad aftertaste in the public's mouth. These days, filmgoers' expectations have been lowered to the point where we expect the equation to be "the bigger the hype, the lousier the movie."
Buzz, on the other hand, is a different kind of animal; people tend to trust it a little bit more. While Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" made him a cult figure from the start, nobody was prepared for how his follow-up, "Pulp Fiction," would become the must-see event of 1994. But after unexpectedly winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie's kinetic mixture of humor, violence and whip-smart dialogue made it the movie that everyone was talking about. "Pulp Fiction" felt less like a movie than a really cool record that you discovered through a blurb in a fanzine or a song on college radio.
But the "Batman" of buzz was 1999's "The Blair Witch Project." The brilliance of the movie wasn't the film itself, but the concept and the deception. By pretending that the "found" footage of the three amateur filmmakers who get lost in the Maryland woods and never return was real, Artisan Entertainment benefited from a buzz of false pretense. The extremely low-budget, improvised movie, shot with an unsteady hand-held camera and often showing nothing onscreen at all, elicited vociferous audience reaction, both pro and con. Riding a wave of semi-confusion (many people truly fell for it) and that rare promise of a new filmgoing experience, "Blair Witch" had to be experienced, even if it was just so you could participate in the debate as to whether it was scary or not. As a result, the $40,000 movie grossed more than $130 million.
Earlier this year, another film became a buzzy sensation, but seemingly on the strength of its politics rather than its merits. No, not "Fahrenheit 9/11," but Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me." Certainly, the topics of American obesity, the fast-food industry and the triumph of marketing over common sense are worthy of a documentary, but "Super Size Me" was more about its filmmaker than the supposed issues at hand. Nobody could've been surprised by the results of Spurlock's personal experiment of eating nothing but McDonald's food for a month. Rather than shots of himself vomiting and shoveling Big Macs in his maw, wouldn't more interviews with Mickey D customers who eat there every day — because they're hooked, because they can't afford anything else, or simply out of sheer habit — have better illustrated the power of the franchise? Or maybe interviews with McDonald's employees about their regular customers and the effects of working in the grease-laden environment? As it is, the movie only has one interview with a McDonald's fanatic (and that guy isn't even overweight). It seems as if most people who claimed to love "Super Size Me" were reacting to their own feelings about McDonald's rather than the movie itself. Spurlock should've used Eric Schlosser's book "Fast Food Nation" as his template rather than a hot dog-eating contest.
By now, movie studios (yes, even the indies) have honed marketing to as exact a science as it can be. Lions Gate Films tried to create buzz by comparing the low-budget, digital-video "Open Water" to "The Blair Witch Project." The movie tries to create that same tension, to draw the viewer into the water with its similarly unlikable leads, and then send them off to discuss it at the water cooler. But buzz cannot be manufactured. "Open Water" represents hype without action figures, a hollow promise of an experience we've had before. The next time you're heading to the theater to see a movie that "everyone is talking about," ask yourself who started the conversation.
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