A few weeks ago I mentioned that I listen to a podcast called “How Did This Get Made,” which celebrates, after a fashion, Hollywood’s big-budget oddities. This week, host Paul Scheer excitedly declared that they would soon be examining a real find. It was a comic book adaption that tanked in the box office when released in 2008, called “Punisher: War Zone.” However, comedian Patton Oswalt, famously a comics fan, had discovered the film and it had delighted him. The comic tells of a brutally violent vigilante who wages a one-man war against crime from the sewers of a metropolis, and “War Zone’s” director, Lexi Alexander, had really indulged the violence of the comic book. People aren’t simply killed, they are shredded, blown full of holes, or simply broken by the grim antihero, played by Ray Stevenson.
“How Did This Get Made” was thrilled to announce that they wouldn’t just be revisiting the film, but would also have Patton Oswalt on hand to discuss his love for the thing. Further, director Alexander would sit in and offer her perspective. Further, Oswalt curates a film series at the New Beverly theater in Hollywood, and “Punisher: War Zone” would be part of a double-bill on Tuesday. Best still, Oswalt and Alexander would also be on hand for that.
This is ordinarily the sort of thing that would have me staring at the West Coast with green, gimlet eyes. However, as it happens, I am in Los Angeles just now, so I went.
The film really is extraordinary. While Stevenson plays the title role with no evident sense of humor and an emotional expressiveness limited to tightening his jaw when he’s upset, the rest of it is unabashed camp. The performances are oversized and winking, especially from “The Wire’s” Dominic West, who plays the villain Jigsaw with a weirdly wounded sense of vanity and an unfettered glee at doing evil, and his brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), who has a simultaneous penchant for breaking mirrors and biting people. Beyond this, though, the violence is played as camp. The Punisher is never satisfied to break somebody’s arm when he can also impale him with the splintered bone, and he’s perfectly happy to just fire rockets at villains as they leap across rooftops. The results are gruesome, but impossible to take — and not intended to be taken — seriously.
You can watch the film or not, as is your taste. I was most interested in the discussion afterward, in which Alexander puzzled about why the film hadn’t found an audience. She had, after all, based it on the comic book, with many shots in the film exactly matching frames in the comic book. Further, it’s unexpectedly gorgeous, benefiting from a director of photography named Steve Gainer, who I expect will one day be considered one of the best in the business. Most important, it’s legitimately funny. It seems like an awful film in a lot of ways, but its awfulness is volitional and smarter than it seems on first blush. I suspect it will gradually develop a cult audience, but why didn’t it find that audience when it was released?
Alexander worried that her comments would end up online. “I have no filter,” she said in her talkback, and after many comments she would roll her eyes and say, “I’m going to read this on the Internet tomorrow.” But I have no interest in transcribing what she said; instead I want to explore one of her critiques. She complained that she was ignored by marketing, and that they didn’t know what they were doing. Having seen the film, and having seen an entire theater respond to the film with unabashed pleasure, I am inclined to agree with her.
This would never have been a popular hit. There are superheroes who can cross over to a general audience, but I would be surprised if any filmmaker could create a Punisher film that wouldn’t end up alienating a larger audience. He’s a nihilistic character, a sort-of stripped-down, lunatic version of Batman. There are no gadgets, or costumes, or even ethics. The Punisher carries a big gun, hunts down bad men, and kills them. And in the world of comics, which has a particular audience that can appreciate a character that is simultaneously purer and more troubling than a mainstream superhero, there will be an audience for this. The character first appeared in 1974, so there has been enough of an audience to follow the character for more than 35 years. It’s a niche character for a niche audience, and that same audience was likely to appreciate a film that both followed the conventions of the character and slyly sent them up.
And this wasn’t the only possible niche. It’s a gruesomely violent film, and there is an audience for that sort of thing. Although they usually get their pumped up kicks from horror films, this same audience would likely find “War Zone” enormously satisfying. And they have their own magazine, Fangoria, so it’s not hard to get the word out that a film is loaded with inventive showers of gore. More audiences? They’re out there. There are people who enjoy camp, and this has it. They usually gave to deal with DVD dreck that is entertainingly terrible without being knowing. This is knowing, and all the more delicious for it.
But the studios promoted it like a blockbuster, which it could never be. They should have targeted the various niches for the film, and they didn’t, or, at least, not effectively. And they’re crazy for failing to do that, because we’re increasingly becoming a society of niche tastes and niche audiences. People are increasingly becoming used to organizing the world around their specific tastes. If whatever is in the theater won’t satisfy them, they can just go online and instantly watch whatever it is they want. At the very worst, they’re going to have to order what they want via the web and wait a week for it to arrive. And we’re in a post-scarcity world as far as mass entertainment is concerned. Anything you want is just a few clicks away, however obscure it may be.
But these niche audiences aren’t going to find a film if they don’t know that it will suit their tastes. It was ever thus — anybody who had any success in promotion knows that you’re going to get a bigger response from a paragraph in a church newsletter than a full-page review in a newspaper. Niche audiences are invested in a way that mass audiences aren’t, and when they are reached out to, clearly and directly, they often respond in large numbers. I have seen it myself. I was in a play called “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard quite a few years ago. The theater did not know how to promote the play, so I looked at the play’s various themes and asked whom they might appeal to. One of the surprising themes of the play was a field of mathematics that deals with chaos theory — not exactly the sort of thing that your everyday audience is going to look for. But there is an audience for this: mathematicians. And so I contacted the math department of the local college and offered to come over with actors from the show and perform a scene dealing with chaos theory. The show did unexpectedly well, and a lot of the audience members were mathematicians and math students, none of whom necessarily were regular theatergoers.
Best still, this sort of niche marketing has gotten increasingly easy to do, thanks to the web. How did the New Beverly manage to pretty much sell out their show Tuesday? Well, they promoted it themselves to their audiences, which consists of dedicated film geeks. Oswalt promoted it online. So did “How Did This Get Made.” All reached their own audience, and each produced people who attended the show. Almost all of this was done through social and online media; I would frankly be astonished if any money at all was spent directly promoting this show. And yet Angelenos came, in droves, to fill the theater and cheer the film’s excesses.
I expect one day Hollywood will figure this out. There is likely always to be blockbusters, but it’s also possible to shoot a small film for a few million dollars, niche market it to the audience that would most appreciate it, and make a respectable profit. But this can’t be done if you think about films in terms of blockbusters. It can only work if you think about films as having particular audiences, and that these audiences must be directly reached out to.
And, honestly, I think this is a lesson arts organizations of every stripe could probably stand to learn, or to be reminded of. If you don’t know who your audience is, or how to reach them, or what to tell them so they know you’re offering something they will probably enjoy …
Well, there’s a real risk of ending up with no audience at all.