In summer 2014 I was privileged enough to be included in a group of online journalists invited to the set of Terminator Genisys, the latest of the "soft reboots" (is that a dirty phrase, now?) that seek to both preserve the best of a franchise's legacy, while skipping over some of the messier examples of later sequels (see also: Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World). Even after seven or more hours touring the set, and seeing director Alan Taylor (Thor 2) lead stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney through a pivotal scene, we were still in the dark about the finer details of this new Terminator story - including who the villain was. That's how secretive the filmmakers were about the movie.
Low and behold months later, the second trailer for Terminator Genisys debuted, revealing a massive plot twist: John Connor (Jason Clarke) is the villain of the film, a human who has somehow been transformed into a terminator. Needless to say, a lot of fans were incensed about having their cinematic experience ruined in the marketing (trailers, TV spots, posters - everywhere), and wondered why the studio PR team chose to go in such a drastic direction.
As it turns out, someone pretty close to the film has been wondering the same: director Alan Taylor.
Here's what Taylor had to say to journalist Mike Ryan of Uproxx, when questioned about the decision to put the John Connor reveal in the marketing:
Mike Ryan: While watching Terminator: Genisys, I wish I didn’t know what was given away in the trailer.
Alan Taylor: Yeah, it’s funny; I certainly directed those scenes with the intention that no one would know. One of my favorite moments – and I think Jason Clarke did a great job with it – is when he walks into the hospital in 2017 and everything from there until the turn, you’re supposed to think, Oh man, this is great.
MR: John Connor is there to save the day, then it becomes a nice moment.
AT: I can’t agree with you more. I know there was kind of a challenging calculus going on in the heads of those who market this thing to decide that this was the right thing to do. I think they felt like they had to send a strong message to a very wary audience that there was something new, that this was going to new territory. They were concerned that people were misperceiving this as kind of a reboot, and none of us wanted to reboot two perfect movies by James Cameron. I think they felt they had to do something game-changing in how the film was being perceived.
MR: Were you consulted before that trailer was released?
AT: I had a few heads ups and a few unpleasant conversations where I squawked about this or that [laughs].
It is an interesting equation of marketing, when you think about it:
Preserving a big twist (< or >) Baiting people with new twist?
In the case of Terminator Genisys, it's fair to say that Taylor's assessment is not off the mark: we have a year or more-long archive of articles (see HERE), with comments that prove that a lot of potential viewers were skeptical about giving this film a chance. It did indeed seem like a reboot of Cameron's original Terminator, with a cast no one was exactly rooting for - save the return of Schwarzenegger. Early Terminator Genisys reviews have not been kind, though a few voices out there are calling it a suitable (if flawed) relaunch.
We'll never know for sure how things would've played with a different marketing decision; at the time of writing this, we don't even know how Terminator Genisys will do at the box office with audiences already knowing the John Connor twist. As ever, marketing a big-budget movie to a mass audience remains a tricky chess game, and having seen Terminator Genisys, it would certainly have been hard to market the film without showing off its primary villain. Just Sarah, Kyle and Schwarzenegger fleeing from nobody...
For his part, Alan Taylor remains quite outspoken, with two big franchise films now behind him (Terminator and Marvel's Thor: The Dark World). Taylor was quite candid about his problematic experience working with Marvel - and why he didn't want to repeat such an experience. Although, if Terminator Genisys underperforms, blockbuster film work may not be an issue Tayor wants to, or even has to, worry about for much longer...
Terminator Genisys will be in theaters on July 1st.