How to sell meta-horror and why monkey marketers should stay in the basement.

The Cabin in the Woods, the recent ‘meta-horror’ co-written by Avengers helmer Joss Whedon, is a riot but a lot of people complained the trailer gave too much away.

Are these angry calls fair? Well, sort of, but as the film’s whole selling point is its postmodern play with horror conventions – in this case a pair of corporate suits setting up the deaths of a group of college-age archetypes in a remote cabin – it’s pretty much unavoidable to give that a mention in the trailer. Otherwise you risk making everyone think your witty horror movie is the standard kids-in-the-forest-getting-picked-off-by-mutant-hillbillies template that we’ve seen a million times before.

Movie trailers are always a challenge for the studios. Figuring out what to reveal and what to hide, and what has to be done to hook Joe Cinema Goer, are all serious questions that could mean the difference between making a billion dollars at the box office or pulling a John Carter and writing off the GDP of a small European country.

Unsure of how to sell The Cabin in the Woods, the Studio Boss may well have ventured down into the basement to visit the Marketing Chimp, recently promoted from the writing team to the publicity department when he couldn’t bear the thought of taking a scripting gig on Die Hard 5.

The Marketing Chimp sits behind a mahogany desk bought at auction from the set of Anchorman. He’s wrapped tightly in a silk dressing gown and puffs gently on herbal cigarettes as he tries to fit a monocle onto his small simian eye. The Studio Boss bows down before him and explains the challenge – how to sell The Cabin in the Woods to Joe Cinema Goer.

Considering the options, Marketing Chimp smiles wryly: “It’s a shame it’s not a romantic comedy. That way you could just paraphrase the entire story in a two-and-a-half-minute timeframe. Joe Cinema Goer doesn’t care about the resolution in those movies. The trailer can even show the guy and the girl kissing at the end.

“It’s all about the journey in rom-coms, the advice of the ethnically-diverse Best Friends, the various comic antics that the guy gets up to as he tries to impress the girl, and then The Serious Bit towards the end when a Hard Truth sort-of-but-not-really threatens to get in the way of their love.”

Studio Boss clarifies that this doesn’t help for a story about college kids suffering grisly fates in a remote cabin in the woods.

Marketing Chimp raises a simian hand to calm his boss. “Depending on the calibre of your cast, you have the option in the trailer of focussing on their performances; gentle, subdued moments that offer a window to their raw dramatic talent. Lingering shots of expressive faces and-”

He’s abruptly cut off as Studio Boss points out, in increasing desperation, that this project doesn’t have Shakespearean ambitions. Perhaps the marketing should be gently steered away from focusing on the human condition.

Marketing Chimp nods quickly, taken aback by the Studio Boss’ sudden outburst. “Why not make some script changes and have the whole thing more action-oriented? That way you can just kick out a trailer that has a barrage of images – very popular these days when there’s no real story to speak of.

“Things blowing up, characters in peril for unspecified but thrilling reasons, a single fleeting shot of people kissing to imply at least a few seconds of romance, and shots of guns being cocked with the all-important click-clack sound effect to show the villains are Very Serious and quite well trained. Finish it off with an extended shot of some massive CGI monstrosity about to wreak havoc on something as the alpha male offers a pithy one-liner…?

“Supernatural horrors are even easier. Shots of a Ouija board doing weird things, maybe a creepy girl in a night-gown slowly pointing a decomposing finger at something we can’t see, and a few shots of scared people in their pyjamas levitating on the ceiling.”

The Studio Boss stares at the chimp sitting opposite him and suddenly feels a pang of guilt for promoting a monkey rather than the UCLA marketing graduate. He wordlessly rises and leaves the room; time to seek advice from something further up the evolutionary chain.

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Nick Goundry
I'm a film journalist and comedy writer. Career highlights so far? Shaking Werner Herzog's hand, disrupting a David Cronenberg interview with an antique Dictaphone and getting chased by the Western Norway Film Commission in a speedboat. I also run the daily news blog at location filming specialist The Location Guide. Drop me a line at