Whatever happened to movie taglines?
Not so long ago in a cinema quite close by, I was leaving a Saturday night screening of a film (Midnight Special, an OK flick with a pretty ridiculous conclusion) when I happened to notice a poster for a forthcoming attraction.
The film in question was The Nice Guys, starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. What a cool poster it was too, boasting an eye-catching colour and interesting font to complement a picture of the somewhat-less-than-heroic leads. What really caught my attention, however, were the words towards the bottom: “They’re not so nice”.
A phrase usually comprising of just a few pithy words, a tagline is a neat, punchy device that works with other advertising tools – trailer, interviews and print collateral – to sell a movie. A slogan.
Yet it had been years since I’d even noticed one. The last time I’d really paid any sort of attention to taglines was before I even knew what one was, back in the 1970s.
I heard, read and had ingrained in my impressionable psyche, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, far away” well before I had a chance to see George Lucas’s sci-fi mash-up epic.
In those long-ago days of yore taglines had time to work their magic. They could filter down from the marketing types who invented them all the way to dorky suburban sci-fi fans such as me. They could percolate, infiltrate and resonate.
In the time before the internet, even before video, it took years before films of note reached television. (Compare this with the situation now, where movies of quite considerable stature often make their free-to-air debut on minor digital channels, and then might screen regularly there for a while.)
There were less big screens in the 70s. The big movie houses were mostly based in the city, and the suburban multiplex had yet to have its day. Most cinemas outside the CBD were stand-alone screens, or at best, doubles.
This meant if you wanted to see a popular film and not wait a good while, it had to be at the cinema. But the good news was you had time to do this, because if a film was decent, or popular, or both, it might stay on the big screen for months or longer.
Word of mouth was the most important form of recommendation, ahead of the judgements issued forth from the avuncular film critics of the day, such as Ivan Hutchinson or Bill Collins.
I remember my nine-year-old self thinking of the famous Star Wars (sorry, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) tagline: “Wow, if that was a long time ago, imagine what the technology is like now!”
Nowadays, many films might have just a week in the cinema, and even by that time, they are readily accessible on streaming services for those willing to chance the FBI knocking on their door. And courtesy of a global commentariat, we usually know a lot more about a film than a mere tagline can tell us.
I wonder if that’s why the most memorable movie taglines seem to date from the 70s and 80s.
“In space, no one can hear you scream”. That tagline worked a treat, its warning (a promise well kept as it turns out) drawing many to Ridley Scott’s dystopian creature feature Alien in 1979.
Ditto for “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water,” which ushered fans aplenty in to see Jaws 2.
And the same again for Poltergeist II’s “They’re back”.
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.” This said it all, really, about David Cronenberg’s icky The Fly, which really was rather gross. Here was a caution, but also a tease. “How bad could it be?” you might have wondered. A stunning performance made Jeff Goldblum’s career, and the film became a minor classic of the “mad scientist” genre.
It also brings to mind the taglines proposed by Dudley Moore’s character in Crazy People.
An advertising copywriter suffering a nervous breakdown (hence the film’s sensitive title), he decides the only way he can live with himself is to embrace a platform of extreme honesty.
This explains a tagline for a Jaguar car ad – “For men who’d like to receive hand-jobs from women they hardly know” – and for a horror film called The Freak: “This film won’t just scare you, it will f*ck you up for life.” The campaigns, of course, are wildly successful.
The best taglines are so effective they are forever associated with the films they were coined to promote. In the next category down are those that although funny and clever, you probably haven’t heard.
“Does for rock ‘n’ roll what The Sound of Music did for the hills.” It’s just silly enough to be the tagline for This is Spinal Tap.
Chicken Run’s “Escape or die frying” and Scott Pilgrim Saves the World‘s “An epic of epic epicness” are pretty cute.
“Love is in the hair” from Something About Mary is a strange one in that it requires knowledge of the film’s signature scene to make sense.
When a studio’s high brass aren’t impressed with a tagline, you won’t see it anywhere.
Now that I have become re-attuned to looking out for them, I’ve noticed that those that have received a tick of approval from the powers that be earn prominent positions on soon-to-be ancient artefacts such as posters and DVD covers.
Though, “The longer you wait the harder it gets” is an appropriate double entendre for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it perhaps doesn’t quite do the film’s genuine hilarity justice.
Before I saw the film, I hadn’t noticed “Action. Lights. Abduction” for the Coen brothers’ Hail Caesar! It’s brilliant!
Another tagline that passed me by was one for Central Intelligence, which stars the diminutive Kevin Hart and huge, muscle-bound Dwayne Johnson: “Saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson”.
How typical. Those Americans are always talking about their johnsons.
Great article Matthew! Some movie tags are a hoot.
Thanks Frank! I hadn’t noticed the huge variety until I started this piece. Thanks for your input.