Like the plot of a dystopian fairy tale, the marketing campaign for last summer’s blockbuster “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” was a well-oiled machine selling a film about machines. We saw giveaway contests, multi-platform games, the requisite high-tech tie-in (LG’s new Versa), free movie posters with purchase, and Burger King kid’s meals with one of eight Transformers figurines. Fitting for a product that started as a toy, became a TV series, then a film franchise and a toy once again. Nothing surprising here; this is the studio marketing folk doing what they do, and doing it well.
These routine, sell-by-numbers operations inspire a certain nostalgia for the promotions of yesteryear. We look back with fondness on the horror movie posters stating ominous admission policies (no one admitted during the last five minutes, no pregnant women allowed at all) and begging the weak-of-heart to stay away. We remember a Hollywood where the studios launch much-publicized world-wide searches for the perfect unknown, and find, in the case of “Gone With The Wind,” Vivien Leigh; where producers like Michael Todd promise ever bigger screens and more colorful film techniques and smaller promoters counter with Aroma-Rama; and where William Castle sells titles like “Macabre” by taking out an insurance policy on each viewer, in case they die of fright, along with other inspired gimmickry (my favorite is the “Coward’s Corner” designated for any customer too afraid to watch the finale of 1961’s “Homicidal”). If today’s marketing machine represents the steady adult hand at work, then the barker with a megaphone in front of the nickelodeon would be this craft in its infancy and William Castle and his shenanigans would be the flowering promise of youth.
Less well remembered are the stumbling embarrassments of adolescence. What about these promotional duds, these misfires for non-starters?
On a hot summer day in 1983, a dozen couples gathered in a soundstage in Burbank to take part in a group wedding. One after another, they walked past a pair of futuristic soldiers in fanciful armor, down a red carpet flanked by strangers in folding chairs, and up to an altar made of faux stone. These were the lucky winners of a national contest sponsored by Columbia Pictures. They had penned the winning statements describing, as the studio’s press release states, “why their ‘Fantasy Come True’ would be to have a ‘Krull’ wedding in Hollywood.”
If you’re not familiar with the film, you’re not alone. The ambitious “Krull,” with a production budget somewhere between $45-50 million was one of the biggest flops of 1983, netting a meager $16.5 million. The more modestly budgeted “Flashdance” made nearly $100 million. The teen comedy quickie “Spring Break” brought in $24 million.
It’s difficult to describe just how bad this film is. There is something essentially off about it. Maybe it’s the clear calculation behind the characters and plot elements; maybe it’s the queasy feeling of watching a British film shamelessly masquerading as American. Whatever the reason, this is a film that even most film nerds cannot love.
For those few who’ve seen it, please forgive a brief description of the plot. On the planet “Krull,” civilization seems to have advanced to the middle ages, earth-time. Theirs is a feudal system ruled by a king. Horseback is the primary mode of transportation and the weapon of choice is the sword. The planet itself is eerily similar to ours, with mountains and deserts and forests and so forth. The biggest difference is that its inhabitants are under attack from an alien race. These aliens, called Slayers, travel in a ship dubbed the “dark fortress” which looks like a large pile of rocks and materializes here and there without warning. Slayer soldiers dress head to toe in dark armor and carry lances which occasionally shoot lasers. Their leader is a giant beast known simply as “The Beast.”
On the wedding day of Prince Colwyn and Princess Lyssa, the Slayer army attacks, slaughtering most of the royal family and kidnapping the Princess. Colwyn sets out on a quest to rescue her. He learns from the wise seer Ynyr that he must first complete a number of tasks, most important of which is finding the lost Glaive, a five-pronged boomerang-like weapon of yore. Along the way, he assembles a rag-tag army, including a cyclops, an inept magician, and a young boy named Titch. One of the few enduring points of interest is that the film features a young Liam Neeson in a small role.
If it sounds like Columbia Pictures was trying to mimic “Star Wars” and its attendant success, it’s because they were. (And they weren’t alone; MGM’s entry was “Clash of the Titans” in 1981, a film so poorly conceived it makes me think the only thing the filmmakers gleaned from “Star Wars” was the fact that Alec Guinness was in it.) Clearly a tent-pole film for the studio, “Krull” received the coveted summer release date of July 29th taking advantage of the summer movie boom kicked off on Fourth of July.
In rolling out this film, Columbia also attempted to mimic George Lucas’ groundbreaking marketing scheme. ”Star Wars” had introduced a number of new tools into the marketing playbook, promotional toys and tie-ins among them. Lucas had effectively changed the game, and the off-balance studio responded with awkward attempts to marry old-fashioned marketing with “fresh and new” ideas.
On top of print and television ads, an Atari game based on the film appeared in arcades across the country. And the weddings weren’t the only promotions that the folks at Columbia had dreamt up. The press-book sent to theater owners, a thin pamphlet filled with ad art and short articles to plant in local papers, outlines a number of interesting promotional gimmicks. One suggests approaching the local bakery about creating special pastries in the shape of the Glaive and dubbing them the punny ‘Krullers’. “Everyone knows what a cruller is…a tasty glazed donut. Now comes the Kruller…a tasty Glaived donut.” Another elaborate scheme involved acquiring a dark van and driving it around town (“like the Fortress, it’s apt to be anywhere”), improbably evoking the dark fortress from the film and, more improbably, inspiring passing motorists and pedestrians to rush to their local theater and plop down $3.50 for a seat. My heart goes out to the pimply theater manager, paid a quarter more an hour than everyone else, who it fell upon to put these plans into action. It’s heartbreaking to imagine the sad tableau of this kid trekking over to Dunkin Donuts and the local Chevy dealership to lay out these precious concepts. (The other tableau that comes to mind is less heartbreaking but equally pathetic, that of the half-drunken hack in the basement of the marketing department, churning out these ridiculous plans.)
But unlike these poor souls, the participants of the “Krull” wedding promotion were volunteers. And they had more at stake than a crummy job. You have to wonder what would lead these folks to cement one of the most precious days of their lives to a “Star Wars” knockoff sci-fi/fantasy hybrid.
Sure, there have been many “Star Trek” weddings since, but there are some big differences here. For one, the couple tying the knot in full Federation regalia would have actually seen the films and television series that inspired the theme of their wedding. The “Krull” weddings took place a full week preceding the release of the picture. How could these people have possibly known that a “Krull” wedding would be their ‘Fantasy Come True?’ The Trekkie bride and groom, it can also be assumed, are familiar with the characters of “Star Trek,” and in all likelihood even know them better than their creators. Our betrothed would not yet have had a chance to fall in love with the irrascalble Ergo and his back-firing magic spells, or shed a tear at the death of the noble Rell the Cyclops. Moreover, “Star Trek” (or “Star Wars” or “World of Warcraft” or any of the other works that have spawned fantasy weddings) exists as an important part of the lives of the couple, often even from childhood. It is possible that all twelve “Krull” participants were fans of the science fiction genre, and thus of “Krull” in a very general way, but that’s as close as we’re going to get.
To understand their decision to participate in this blessed union of disposable advertising and life-long commitment, we have to look back on this distant decade and remember that these people lived in a time when blockbusters were a relatively new phenomenon, and they seemed to happen at a fairly regular pace. ”The Exorcist,” “Jaws” and “Star Wars” all went through the roof in the years before “Krull” hit the silver screen.
Imagine if you had been married on the set of the first “Star Wars” (or the fourth, depending on how you’re counting). You’d have bragging rights forever! Not only were you a part of something that big, but you were prescient enough (or lucky enough or blessed enough) to jump on that rocket ship before it blasted off into the blockbuster stratosphere.
Granted then, there was a speculative nature to these “Krull” nuptials. For all the couples knew, as they took their vows that day in Burbank, before God and a half-dozen soldiers in full Krullian armor, “Krull” could be the hit film of the summer and beyond, launching a multi-film franchise, a merchandizing empire, its characters and plot elements entering into the popular zeitgeist, more familiar than even the most well known fairy tales. And they weren’t alone in rolling the dice; the savvy folk who ran Columbia studios were betting it would be a smash, to the tune of $27 million. By comparison, 1983’s Return of the Jedi cost $32.5 (and netted a far more substantial $252 mil).
In the film, the wedding scene plays like this: Prince Colwyn and Princess Lyssa cross a grand room flanked by soldiers who pound their swords against their helmets in tribute. A bearded man in a robe stands before a cauldron. The Prince takes a burning torch from an attendant, and dunks it in the water, saying “I give fire to water. It will not return except from the hand of the woman I choose as my wife.” Princess Lyssa then dips her hand in the water saying, “I take fire from water. I give it only to the man whom I choose as my husband.” She lifts a shaky flame from the water and holds it out towards Colwyn. As he reaches to take it, the Slayers attack the castle.
On that magical day in Burbank, there were no torches, no cauldron. The man performing the wedding was a city commissioner and wore a simple jacket and tie, not a cape, and the armored guard had been downsized to six.
The couples ranged in age from 18 to 66 years old. “A cross-section of men and women from the United States,” reads the press release. They included a nurse, waitress, U.S. Army Colonel, author, race car designer, plumber, electrician and baseball player.
As part of a promotional partnership, the brides’ identical wedding gowns were designed by Alfred Angelo — lacey get-ups inspired by the one worn in the film by Lysette Anthony (as Princess Lyssa). The men were decked out in very 70’s white tuxedos with broad lapels from the requisite pre-prom destination, After Six tuxedo rentals.
After the ceremony, the promotional tie-ins truly kicked in, and the couples were whisked away on Western Airlines to San Francisco where they would stay at the Hilton for a week-long honeymoon. They were equipped with brand new Pegasus luggage and a Kodamatic Instant Camera to record their memories. A pretty meager pay-off for selling one of life’s most cherished events.
This promotion was largely ignored by the press. The film had a poor opening weekend and suffered dreadful reviews. Variety called it a “blatantly derivative hodgepodge of Excalibur meets Star Wars.” The BBC chimed, “a sub standard space opera with pretensions to being a British Star Wars.” The idea of running a feature on the “Krull” Weddings, and photos of the participants, next to a scathing review of the film seems downright cruel. It is probable that the studio realized that rolling out some photos of folks getting married in the manner of a scene in a film that no one saw wouldn’t do much to resuscitate ticket sales. The promotion was dropped.
In the aftermath, the now-wedded couples would find their nuptials forever linked to a flop. And worse, to a forgotten flop. ”Krull” is no “Ishtar” or “Last Action Hero” — the subjects of ridicule, but also of persistent fascination. By illustration, imagine if you owned one of the model rocket ships from 1959’s “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” popularly acknowledged as one of the worst films of all time. Those models are infamous in cinema history, and to own them would be pretty cool. Now imagine you had one of the Glaives from “Krull.” That is not cool. It will never be cool.
One day, I hope to track down the participants of these weddings. And when I do, I’ll be ready, for I have prepared a questionnaire:
*How do you explain your wedding photos to friends? Do you keep a VHS copy of the film handy?
*Do you secretly dread every visit from family, sure that this will be time that the little one asks “where were you married, Gramma?” Will you answer, “on the planet Krull?”
*If you were to do it all over today, what unseen potential blockbuster would you model your wedding after? The next Batman? Transformers 3? Marley & Me 2: Puppy Love?
*Are there elements in the plot of the film that you see playing out in your daily life? Do you have a sage mentor like Ynyr who offers you important guidance? Who is the Rell in your life?
And, of course, the obvious:
*What the hell were you thinking?!
As telling as their answers may be, a more thorough study may need to be conducted. Should I fail in this endeavor, I suggest to future researchers that they examine the divorce rate among “Krull” wedding participants comparative to the general population. I’d also be interested to see the numbers on the average family size, to learn how long after the film’s debut their children were born, and how many of them are named Titch.
Many among us feel abandoned by pop culture, disappointed by the films and television series we have allowed into our lives on such an intimate level. To the fans of the early “Star Wars” films who disavow everything George Lucas has produced in the last decade, and the “Soprano” and “Seinfeld” fans who felt let-down by these series’ final episodes, I say this: look to the couples of the “Krull” Wedding! Has ever a group of people been so betrayed, so completely abandoned?
In many ways, the “Krull” Wedding represents one of the last gasps of the grand gimmick promotion. In the years following “Star Wars’” mega success, the anticipation of each new installment was successfully built by rolling out the promotional tie-ins and products. “7-11 has Boba Fett slurpee cups! He must be in ‘Empire!’” In the seventies and early eighties, the tie-in was new and exciting; today it is a matter of fact. That a fast food outlet would do a toy-giveaway with “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” was a given, the only possible excitement was whether it would be Burger King or MacDonald’s.
With the proliferation of multiplexes, lining up at Graumann’s a month before the latest “Star Wars” chapter is no longer necessary, it’s just part of the experience for some, a nostalgic flashback to simpler times.
In a way, the promotion has become the product now. While William Castle or Dino De Laurentiis might have dreamed up sending a bunch of people to live on an island for a month to promote their latest film, the producers of “Survivor” have cut to the chase; doing it has become the event itself, packaged and televised and sold as its own entity. The premise of “The Bachelor” might sound like a gimmick, but that’s beyond the point. And when a couple was married live on television at the climax of “Who Wants to Marry A Millionaire,” the show wasn’t promoting anything other than itself.
Perhaps when viewed in this light, the “Krull” weddings, a promotion tied so tenuously to its product and ultimately severed entirely from it, can be seen as innovative after all.