When The Movie(Maker)s Get It Right: How Colin Trevorrow Turned a Huge Plot Leak For Jurassic World Into a Major Branding Coup For Universal

_1392673279

Something really unusual happened last week. Someone on the crew of next summer’s Jurassic Park sequel, Jurassic World (yes, they’re making another one), leaked a major plot spoiler to movie news site Joblo.com. The fact that there was a leak isn’t unusual; big Hollywood productions are leakier than a screen door on a battleship. No, the unusual part is that after these spoilers leaked, the film’s director, Colin Trevorrow, gave an interview to Slashfilm and CONFIRMED THAT THE SPOILERS WERE TRUE!

That never happens! Most filmmakers and movie studios try to guard these big budget tentpoles with methods so arcane and overbearing that the mafia thinks they’re too harsh. The studios want to discourage and prevent leaks, especially when a multi-billion dollar franchise like Jurassic Park is on the line. Any bad buzz prior to a movie’s release can irreparably damage the studio’s bottom line. Remember, Universal and Legendary Pictures are not just pumping an estimated $200 million into the budget of the film, they're probably spending another $100 to $150 on marketing. To recoup the production and marketing budgets, to pay off the theater owners, and turn a profit, this film will have to earn somewhere in the neighborhood of $700 million globally. And bad buzz can make that figure much harder to reach. So studios will wage all-out legal war against critics, fans, and the general public. Here’s a non-exclusive list of the kinds of things studios will do to head off an embarrassing opening weekend:

  1. Forcing cast and crew members to sign restrictive non-disclosure agreements
  2. Forcing actors to deny they’re even in a film before its release
  3. Forcing actors to read the screenplay in a heavily monitored and secure vault
  4. Firing and suing crew members that violate their NDAs
  5. Issuing cease and desist letters directly or through the DMCA to any outlet that runs a leaked image, video, or plot spoiler
  6. Placing film critics on an embargo to prevent reviews from being publishing too far before a film’s release
  7. Banning or suing critics that break their embargoes, even if a critic tweets that he liked the film
  8. Forgoing critic screenings altogether if they feel the film will perform poorly

The studio can get away with this too because A) they have more legal might than you, and B) they know the industry is so highly sought after that if you won’t sign an NDA or if you violate it, there’s 10,000 other people who are willing to sign it and keep their traps shut. These contracts are notoriously one-sided, but that’s the price of getting your foot in the door. Believe me when I say there’s a great deal of financial and legal investment wrapped up in making sure nothing prevents the audience from seeing the film.

So what happened in this instance? Why didn’t Universal deny deny deny, and then make a public showing of firing the employee who leaked the spoiler? Lord knows they had the legal backing to do so.

I have a theory. My guess is that Universal saw what happened with the Star Trek sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, and got scared that if they didn’t admit the veracity of the rumors, that would hurt them more than denying it. For those who don’t remember, J.J. Abrams dodged, manipulated, and outright lied about the name and nature of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in that film. He even forced his actors to lie in interviews when asked about it. This process of actively keeping information away from the audience (which Abrams refers to as “the mystery box”) turned off a lot of movie-goers and is largely believed to be the reason the sequel earned less domestically than the first film.

But keeping such critical plot information secret may also make sense in this situation. Trevorrow’s take on the franchise is bat-shit insane (I won’t run the spoilers here because you can find them pretty easily online). It’s the kind of unique that could be disastrous if the audience rejects it. I guess it’s a risk either way, and Trevorrow and Universal decided to bet that the audience would rather hear the truth than be given the run-around. For the record, I don’t think this signals a wholesale shift away from the tactics used by the studios in the past. Trevorrow himself said that he was disappointed that the leaks happened and wouldn't have discussed the plot if the leaks hadn't happened.

But this strategy of meeting the leaks head on shows that they’re trying to read the audience rather than lash out angrily. And if that’s the case, maybe, in time, they’ll realize they don’t have to sue their own staff for leaking information from set. The only way to see if the strategy works is to see how well Jurassic World does at the box office next June.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA