Sometimes, the ending of a movie is so shocking that spoilers can ruin the whole experience — but those movies aren’t usually documentaries.
The exception to the rule is, apparently, the forthcoming doc about the life of reclusive The Catcher in the Rye novelist J.D. Salinger. As Variety reported this week, the Weinstein Company, which is releasing the film Sept. 6, has launched a Mad-Men-worthy publicity effort to keep audiences quiet, dubbed “Uncover The Mystery But Don’t Spoil The Secrets.”
The movie is tied to a biography of the author by the film’s director, Shane Salerno, who has been working on the project for nearly a decade. The secrecy is an appropriate tactic, considering that Salinger’s own aura of mystery was a crucial part of his legacy, and those who have been able to see early screenings of the film have had to sign nondisclosure agreements about what they’ve learned during the two hours of Salinger. According to the Associated Press, that secrecy carried over to the production side too, due to worries that any publicity would cause interview subjects to back out.
We can’t say yet what viewers will learn from Salinger — but, if history is any indication, a secretive movie can really pack a punch.
The Crying Game: In his statement about the Salinger secrecy campaign, Harvey Weinstein told Variety that he hoped the movie’s level of mystery would be comparable to The Crying Game, the 1992 thriller that also used a keep-the-secret campaign. The Crying Game‘s surprise was so intense that, even when one of the actors was nominated for an Oscar for a twist-centric role, the producers still urged journalists to omit any details about the plot from their writing about the film.
The Sixth Sense: This 1999 thriller about a boy who sees dead people set the modern standard of mum’s-the-word movie-making. Though the film cycled through many taglines (several of which trumpeted its box-office success) one of them was “Can You Keep the Secret?” The surprise was so surprising that many moviegoers returned for a second or third viewing in order to look for clues.
The Usual Suspects: The unexpected twist at the end of The Usual Suspects is so extreme that audiences are still asking their friends to explain what they just saw. The mystery was amped up by a marketing campaign that teased the central question — “Who is Keyser Söze?” — and, nearly two decades after the 1995 film’s release, if you search for the answer you will still come across a warning not to read on unless you’ve already seen the movie.
Psycho: Today, it’s hardly a secret what happens to Janet Leigh in Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho but, when the movie was released in 1960, it was a shock. After all, Leigh was a major star and appeared on the poster, so audiences would have expected her to, well, star in the movie (we’ll say no more). The film’s original trailer warned potential moviegoers that no one would be allowed into a screening of Psycho once it had begun, and early ads read “If you can’t keep a secret, please stay away from people after you see Psycho” and “After you see Psycho, don’t give away the ending; it’s the only one we have.” Hitchcock would later credit that ad campaign with the tremendous success of the movie.
Uncover the secret here
As Psycho showed, though studios and distributors will say that maintaining the element of surprise is for viewers’ own good, it doesn’t exactly hurt a film’s numbers to have audiences salivating for answers — which is good news for Salinger. Unlike its predecessors, the mysterious documentary faces the challenge of keeping spoilers under wraps in the age of Twitter. But, until the dam breaks, paying for a ticket or buying the book will still be the only the way to find out just what it is they don’t want you to know.
The more you wonder about it, and the more you care about not seeing spoilers online, the more likely you are to show up on opening night.