When Marketing Nostalgia, Showmanship Isn't Expendable

For Upcoming Stallone Movie, Lionsgate Keeps the Focus on the Star, and the '80s Flashbacks

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A banner ad for 'The Expendables' running atop YouTube today is a downright silly effort -- and perfect for the movie.
A banner ad for 'The Expendables' running atop YouTube today is a downright silly effort -- and perfect for the movie.

Successfully exploiting nostalgia in marketing is no easy feat (Orville Redenbacher, anyone?). Plumbing the richness of nostalgia in movie marketing, let alone movie making, is even harder. Every generation gets its often needless remake of an old chestnut (the '90s seemed particularly plump with big-screen adaptations of old TV shows, witness "Car 54, Where Are You?" and "Sgt. Bilko"). So with some dread I knew Gen X was next in line (especially after the half-assed TV redos of "Bionic Woman" and "Knight Rider" on NBC), and this summer my demographic was slapped with a remake of "The Karate Kid" and the big-screen transformation of "The A-Team" -- on the same weekend.

The box office to date eight weeks after each film's release ($76 million for "A-Team"; $173 million for "Kid") probably confirms some lessons about nostalgia. Such as: the original TV series "The A-Team" sucked. The reason "A-Team" appealed to dumb kids in the '80s is, well, we were just dumb kids back then. That doesn't mean I didn't think it was the greatest thing on TV since the "Six Million Dollar Man." But whatever fond memories I have for the show I can relive by seeing Mr. T pop up in the occasional commercial or when I say (ironically or otherwise), "I love it when a plan comes together." I don't need Liam Neeson and I certainly don't need Bradley Cooper.

"Karate Kid," on the other hand, passes the sniff test for what works when resurrecting the past for two reasons: The original 1984 movie gets airtime on cable every now and then, so it's not aged quite as badly. Sort of like being able to wear an old concert T-shirt from high school, assuming you can still fit into it; you're glad to still at least have it folded at the bottom of a musty drawer. But, more important, enough time has passed that I don't have to think about the movie as a Ralph Macchio vehicle, he of the Tiger Beat covers. The movie has become (and probably always was about) Mr. Miyagi -- or Arnold, from "Happy Days" -- Pat Morita. Those who put the remake together wisely cast Jackie Chan in the role and happily exploited him in the trailers and ads for the movie. Who doesn't love Jackie Chan?

But the '80s nostalgia porn isn't quite over this summer, and the real money shot comes next weekend when Sylvester Stallone's "The Expendables" opens. This isn't a remake of the '80s, it is the '80s. This isn't "Rambo" starring Jake Gyllenhaal. This is Rambo and Ahnold and Bruce Willis, aka John McClane aka Mr. Moonlighting himself. That these icons of my youth share the screen for less time than DeNiro and Pacino did in "Heat" doesn't matter.

What I love about the marketing for "The Expendables" (though I wish the title wasn't so deliberately reminiscent of the John Ford classic "They Were Expendable") is Stallone himself. After trying to pump a bit of new life into his old properties ("Rocky Balboa" wasn't at all embarrassing -- faint praise, I know -- unless you're Antonio Tarver), he's unabashedly continuing his nostalgia exploitation tour, and this time he's dragging his friends with him. The trailers for the better part of a year have wisely played up that you'll not only see the troika of testosterone but also Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts. (Oh, and those other cool guys Jason Statham and Jet Li.) Could you imagine how much Ben Gay (ahem) was needed on the set?

But Stallone is also hyping this old school by working his mouth as much as his muscles. He's been a veritable quote-machine in the media; his best line, from an interview with Geoff Boucher in the Los Angeles Times, was a knock on Michael Keaton and Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman": "The action movies changed radically when it became possible to Velcro your muscles on." (So, basically, the action-hero decade came to an end thanks to one of the '80s more ubiquitous product icons. Or as the Times' headline put it: "'Velcro muscles' made old-school stars expendable.") That quote alone has made Sly a trending topic and brought him and the movie a ton of free media, and that all-important brass ring, buzz.

"The Expendables" already had buzz going into the summer-movie season. But after the relative disappointment of "The A-Team" in June and the inspired genre wonder that is "Inception" in July, Stallone has a tough battle in August, never the best time to open a summer movie. That he's even following "Inception" and, to some extent, "Salt" speaks to how tough it is to market real nostalgia and simultaneously stir buzz. Stallone appearing as a trending topic -- by speaking through the media -- is probably more effective than Ashton Kutcher's Twitter followers.

So give studio Lionsgate some credit for not trying to get all 21st century in its efforts. The movie's website comes with the requisite Facebook Connect games and not some highfallutin ARG. It's your standard video, download, photos site. And also credit the studio, along with Visionaire Group, for a wonderfully cheesetastic play on YouTube today. "The Expendables" is running a banner atop the video site that takes you to the movie's channel. It's a downright silly effort -- and perfect for the movie. Listening to Stallone encourage virality -- "Don't forget to share" -- shows maybe the old guy doesn't get how this new-fangled technology works ("It needs to be more organic, Sly") but captures the spirit of the film.

OK, maybe the effort is a bit sad, but no sadder than trying to figure out which one is the "real" Sly Stallone on Twitter. Still, for my walk down this '80s memory lane, I'd rather see Stallone goofily loving the spotlight again and hawking his movie like a used-car salesman than tweeting out "Yo, 'Cobra 2' in development. Meet the cure... again!"

Actually...

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