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Posted at 2:45 PM ET, 09/15/2010

'Catfish': The challenge of marketing the movie's plot twists

By Jen Chaney

Nev Schulman in a scene from "Catfish."(Rogue Pictures via AP)

The new documentary "Catfish" -- which opens in limited release in New York, L.A., Austin and San Francisco on Friday -- raises all kinds of questions about social media, personal identity and what constitutes overstepping one's bounds as a documentary filmmaker.

But the film -- a destined-to-be-debated look at the relationship that develops via Facebook between a young New York photographer and an 8-year-old painter and her family -- also raises a more immediate, practical question: how do you market a movie whose impact relies almost entirely on the audience's fresh discovery of its plot twists?

The answer, it seems: the same way you market any movie, but with a bit more of what Will Ferrell as George W. Bush once called "strategery."

Rogue Pictures, the studio that -- in conjunction with Relativity Media and Universal Pictures -- is distributing "Catfish," has apparently taken a two-sided approach. The promotional tagline for the movie, which appears on the posters and on the official Web site, is "Don't let anyone tell you what it is," a warning to moviegoers that they should go into theaters as uninformed about the details as possible.

Yet, in the promotional material for the film, the studio tells us exactly what they'd like us to think the movie is: "A reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times." The trailer also plays up that thriller angle, which is enticing but -- having seen the film -- not an accurate representation of what this absorbing documentary is truly about.

Of course the co-directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and "Catfish's" star (for lack of a better word), Schulman's brother Nev, have been making the interview rounds, including an appearance today on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." (In yet another of the persistent mysteries surrounding this movie, video of that interview has been removed from the "Ellen" Web site.) And reviews -- most of them positive -- are beginning to spill forth on the Internet, too, all of which help to clarify what the tones and themes of this film really are. (Read: this isn't "The Blair Witch Project.") Yet, so far, the crucial, spoilery details of what transpires in the movie have remained largely under wraps.

Of course, the ability to play the plot close to the vest is a little easier since "Catfish" is a smaller film that most of the moviegoing public probably isn't even aware of yet. Most likely, people will first hear about it in the new old-fashioned way: through word-of-mouth buzz generated via social media. And yes, the studio is encouraging that, asking users of the movie Web site to request that the movie come to their towns -- much the way Paramount did last fall with "Paranormal Activity" -- and to follow Nev Schulman on Twitter and the movie's account on Facebook.

That's right: a movie that is, in some ways, a cautionary tale about Facebook is hoping Facebook will help convince people to go see it. Welcome to the increasingly complex world of movie-making and marketing in the year 2010.

By Jen Chaney  | September 15, 2010; 2:45 PM ET
Categories:  Movies, Pop Culture  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Ben Affleck: A case study in making a comeback
Next: Video: A look at Justin Bieber's 'CSI' performance


Wait! This isn't a bio-pic of the late pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter? Never mind.

Posted by: Nosy_Parker | September 15, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

I'm pretty upset about the HUGE spoiler revealed in this article. Why is there not a warning to readers at the beginning of the article? FAIL.

Posted by: kr1st3n | September 15, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

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