Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

The Unintended Brilliance Of Catching Fire

Recently my wife and I got into a heated debate over something that raised questions about filmmaking and storytelling for me. As a warning, this post is a bit of a deviation from the norm. The primary focus of my blog has always been on the technical and aesthetic side of cinematography and filmmaking. However, I think it is also important to take a step back and reflect on some bigger issues that impact us as storytellers and artists. Namely, should we worry about explicitly communicating our messages so that everyone gets it, or is it okay to communicate with more ambiguity, allowing room for interpretation, even if some people miss the point, and others co-opt our message into something else?

The recent marketing campaign for Catching Fire, the next series in the Hunger Games Trilogy, raises just those questions for me...

The Backstory...
In case you are not familiar with the Hunger Games, it is a trilogy of books written by Suzanne Collins. The idea for the books came to her as she was flipping through TV Channels late one night. She flipped between war footage featuring young soldiers and reality television with similar aged, young contestants and thought there could be a tie in there. One of the themes that this trilogy deals with is the oppression of people by the elite of society (the Capitol) who distract the masses by providing entertainment in the form of reality TV war games. Kids kill each other for entertainment, providing a "voyeuristic thrill" to the masses to distract them from what is really going on in their society.

From my perspective, one of the messages behind the Hunger Games is that we Americans should take a step back and re-evaluate our values. We are so disconnected from what we are watching on TV that we can easily flip from war footage to a commercial for erectile disfunction to reality TV without batting an eye or being moved emotionally. We watch a news report about another shooting in one of our cities over our bowl of Cheerios before heading off to work for the day. And we then casually chat about it as one of our talking points over the water cooler. News and entertainment blend together so closely that we have a hard time distinguishing between them. In an interview with Scholastic Suzanne stated:
"And that's what I find very disturbing. There's this potential for desensitizing the audience so that when they see real tragedy playing out on the news, it doesn't have the impact it should. It all just blurs into one program. And I think it's very important not just for young people, but for adults to make sure they're making the distinction. Because the young soldier's dying in the war in Iraq, it's not going to end at the commercial break. It's not something fabricated, it's not a game. It's your life."

In her books, Suzanne portrays the Capitol as the enemy. They are the oppressors, the manipulators of perception and reality. A few people enjoy riches and opulence at others' expense. They are not the people we should be cheering for, or emulating- they are the bad guy. When asked by Scholastic how far away America is from the world depicted in the Hunger Games, she said
"You’d have to allow for the collapse of civilization as we know it, the emergence of Panem, a rebellion, and seventy-four years of the Hunger Games. We’re talking triple digits."

While Suzanne may feel like we are triple digits away from the world of the Hunger Games, the success of the recent marketing campaign for Catching Fire may show otherwise. Billboards have begun going up in LA & New York promoting the high fashion of the Capitol Couture. A website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and YouTube channel are filled with messages and branding from the Capitol. This marketing campaign promotes the Capitol and its values, making it the "hero." And people are responding to the ads favorably with praise.

A billboard from the marketing campaign

What strikes me most about this finely crafted marketing from the firm Campfire is how seamlessly it drops into the fabric of our American society. It doesn't stand out like a sore thumb, or feel out of place. It is right at home. It is what I would expect to see in any high end fashion magazine. (It fits in so well, that some people completely miss the connection to the movie).

Capitol Fashion Ad
Vogue Fashion Ad

Do I think that Steve Coulson and the marketing team at Campfire are actively supporting the values of the Capitol? Or supporting the social commentary that Suzanne sets out in her books? Of course not. Their firm has one goal- to get butts in the seats come opening day. The more immersed and excited they can get the fans, the more word will spread, and the more people will show up to watch. That is it- nothing more. There is no big conspiracy; they are just doing their job at driving ticket sales (and they are doing it well).

The Debate...
This new campaign sparked a lively discussion between my wife and I. Though she is a huge fan of the books and movies, she feels uncomfortable supporting and promoting the Capitol Couture ads. They make her uneasy.  They seem to promote everything that we should be against- unchecked wealth and entitlement, opulence, oppression, injustice... [at least if you know anything about the Capitol]. And all that these ads do is to make the Capitol look cool, enticing, hip, and what we should be desiring.

From the Capitol Website

This is where the I see the unintended brilliance of the marketing campaign. The campaign was developed and implemented completely outside of collaboration with the storytellers- either Suzanne, the directors, or even the screenwriters. And yet, even though the goal is to get people excited and sell tickets, ultimately, I see it is as reinforcing one of the bigger messages behind the trilogy- that we Americans are much closer to the world of the Capitol than we may like to think.

As I look at how seamlessly the marketing campaign fits into the fabric of our society, and how much positive response it is getting, to me, that makes for a strong commentary on the state of affairs of the values of American society. So, even though the campaign is aimed at generating ticket sales, the unintended side effect is that it is also showing how close we are as Americans to the value system of the Capitol.

Regardless of if you agree with me about the messages of The Hunger Games and what the implications are for American society, this brings me back full circle to the questions I originally asked. As a visual artist, and as a storyteller, how much should I worry about everyone understanding the underlying messages of the story I'm telling? What if they don't get it? And worse yet, what if the "wrong" message is promoted to support my story? Should I worry about others co-opting my messages? What if the co-opting makes me more successful? Is it more important to make clear understandable statements to everyone that are easy to digest and require no thought, or is it more important to reach people at a deeper level, and encourage greater reflection, even if it means that I may be misunderstood and misinterpreted, losing people in the process?

Is what Suzanne Collins, Gary Ross, or Francis Lawrence meant to communicate getting lost in the marketing hype? Did they worry about people using their story as a means for furthering a message that they maybe didn't intend? Is the new marketing campaign for Catching Fire actually promoting values contrary to the intended message of the story? If I were the original content creator, would that concern me? How would I feel about it, and how should I engage with "the system"? I don't think that there are any easy or clear answers to these questions. But I think they are worth evaluating as we set out to tell our own stories.

Unfortunately, I think we do get one answer from Hollywood - that we need to spoon feed everything to our audience. It seems they believe complex thought and self-evaluation is not possible. We do not have the capacity for critical thinking. Simple stories are what sells, and what matter. Don't believe me? Just take a look at the plethora of re-boots. A little more than a year after the release of the final Batman movie, it is being re-booted with Ben Affleck. This fall's movie line up is filled with action movies that speak little to the human condition and the real struggles we face in this complex global community. We are being distracted by meaningless entertainment (hmm...sound like the Capitol anyone?).

So, while the marketing for Catching Fire may be intended to sell tickets, it does give me hope that those of us who choose to step back and engage our critical thinking skills can pause for a moment of self-reflection to consider the issues Suzanne raises in her trilogy. Even though the Hollywood system may want to dumb everything down to increase sales and profits, I think our stories will be stronger if we do not spoon feed our audience, and are not afraid of ambiguity, or of being co-opted.

By engaging our audience in a meaningful story, and allowing for the opportunity for critical thinking, we allow for the opportunity for deeper engagement, self-reflection, and possible change, more so than if we settle for simple spoon-fed material. Even if that means that we lose people in the process. As storytellers, we have the unique position to shape peoples' perceptions of reality. And, to quote another action movie that has been rebooted- "With great power, comes great responsibility."

What do you think? Is it more important to explicitly communicate a message or to convey deeper meaning even if there is room for misinterpretation?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!

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