Changing Cinema: The disastrous marketing campaign that caused ‘Babylon’ to flop

A drawing of the beginning of a movie trailer in a theater, showing the green screen that says “the following preview has been approved for all audiences by the motion picture association of America. The film advertised has been rated PG-13; parents strongly cautioned.”
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

The first time I saw the trailer for “Babylon,” I was deeply confused. I had been a big fan of director Damian Chazelle’s four prior directorial efforts, so when I heard that he was directing a film about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to audio dialogue, I was ecstatic. That was until I saw that the film’s lackluster marketing campaign relied on name recognition of the cast instead of a concise depiction of who the characters were or what the actual plot was.

The official trailer for “Babylon” does a better job at generating excitement for the film, yet most of the YouTube ads and TV Spots consist of a dancing Margot Robbie and a mustache-laden Brad Pitt doing an early 20th century transatlantic accent. The marketing content for “Babylon” all follows the odd phenomenon of starting with a five-second montage — essentially serving as the trailer before the trailer. Montages may be a good tool to hook the viewer and prevent them from skipping the ad, but it fails to work in this case simply because the trailer for Babylon feels like a longer, more exhausting montage.

Not wanting to spoil a film is a valid factor to consider for marketers –– many trailers for blockbuster films have the issue of revealing too much, such as the trailer for “Jurassic World” in 2016. However, marketing campaigns must strike a balance between not spoiling the plot and giving audiences a basic understanding of what the film is trying to do. For certain films such as “Tenet,” directed by Christopher Nolan, audiences can expect the trailer to be more vague than others but will still watch it because they know the specific themes and narrative tools that Nolan employs in his films.

I ended up watching “Babylon” in theaters, which made me even more confused about the film’s marketing. All of the trailers, TV spots and advertisements for this film use footage that is only in the first 40 minutes. Moreover, articles about “Babylon” in pre-production gave false information about the film, like how Tobey Maguire was supposed to play Charlie Chaplin. Instead, he ends up playing a random, creepy Hollywood drug dealer.

All of these elements make me assume that Chazelle changed the plot several times, resulting in marketers having the impossible task of advertising a film that was still unfinished both narratively and production-wise. “Babylon” ended up being a box office flop, grossing only $63 million despite having a $110 million dollar budget.

To truly understand Babylon’s marketing fiasco, we can compare this film with “Skinamarink,” an indie horror that had a $15,000 budget yet grossed $2.1 million at the box office. Much of the success of “Skinamarink” comes from the incredibly creepy trailer that captures the essence of the film without revealing any plot points at all. The trailer is recorded on a VHS camera, uses sound in an impactful way and effectively creates suspense about the story.

“Skinamarink” understands that its appeal comes from its mystery, similarly to how the interest in other horror films like “The Blair Witch Projectwere generated through confusion about whether the found-footage element of the film was fiction or fact. The director of “Skinamarink,” Kyle Edward Ball, has a history of creating short horror videos on his YouTube channel “Bitesized Horror,” which surely informed his ability to garner audience recognition for this.

Although “Babylon” and “Skinamarink” are drastically different films, good marketing comes from an awareness of what the film is trying to achieve and how it goes about packing people into theaters. The marketing team for “Babylon” needed to create more clarity about the plot of the film instead of only using the audience’s recognition of the director and actors to articulate what these Hollywood regulars are bringing to the table. Without an audience understanding of what Brad Pitt or Margot Robbie are specifically doing in this film as actors, the marketing materials end up looking like a Super Bowl commercial where recognizable faces are phoning it in for a paycheck.

On the other hand, “Skinamarink” was able to thrive in its lack of clarity, creating an intrigue that can only be achieved through a more secretive, grassroots marketing campaign. “Babylon” is a much more serious film than it was marketed as, making me believe that the misdirection of the advertisements was an intentional tool to get audiences to sit through a three-hour drama about the Hollywood industry’s exploitation. As long as Chazelle and his marketing team can understand where they went wrong with “Babylon,” I’m definitely looking forward to his next film and, more specifically, the next film’s trailers.

Peter Dien CM ’25 is from West Covina, California. He enjoys listening to midwest emo, watching stand-up and playing Go with his roommate.

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