J.P. Telotte on Selling Science Fiction

Q&A with J. P. Telotte on Selling Science Fiction Cinema

J. P. Telotte’s new book, Selling Science Fiction Cinema, explores marketing efforts in the golden age of science fiction. As science fiction transformed the way Hollywood did business, Hollywood transformed the meaning of science fiction. The marketing efforts, then, helped establish the genre of science fiction itself. Below, Telotte answers questions about the formation of the genre, early marketing efforts, and his research process. To learn more about the making and marketing of science fiction cinema, order your copy today.

How did the film industry and audience habits change during the time period your book looks at?

My book focuses on the period when the science fiction genre suddenly exploded on the screen and established its identity, i.e., from 1950 to the early 1960s.  In this postwar period both the film industry and its traditional audience were undergoing sea changes. 

Much of the film industry turmoil was in response to the government’s anti-trust actions, codified in what was known as the Paramount decision, which required the Big 5 Hollywood studios (Paramount, Warner Bros., 20th Century-Fox, MGM, and RKO) to divest themselves of one of the foundations of their monopolistic system, their theatrical holdings. 

Owning theatrical chains had meant that the studios were guaranteed venues for their product, guaranteed audiences, and practically guaranteed some level of profitability. Without that support, the film companies would have to compete—with the other large studios, with the smaller but powerful second-tier studios such as Universal and Republic, and even with small independent producers for both screen space and audiences.  In fact, marketing efforts would increasingly have to be geared to theater and theatrical chain owners, not just to the potential viewing audience. And popular trends—e.g., science fiction and teen-oriented issues—would have to be weighed and quickly responded to in ways that were not always the case before.

Audiences, meanwhile, were changing too, thanks in part to the postwar baby boom that kept many families at home, to the increase in disposable income—and mobility—among teenagers, and especially to the advent of “free” screen entertainment via television.  As a result, the film industry had to find new ways to appeal to those stay-at-home audiences, i.e., ways to lure them out to the theaters. It had to create narratives that featured young characters, even teens, in leading roles; it had to address issues that were a major concern of the culture, things such as juvenile delinquency, Cold War fears, the space race, etc.; and it had to offer an entertainment package that promised more—pleasure, excitement, visual spectacle—than television could at that time deliver.

What were some of the early marketing efforts that aimed to set science fiction cinema apart as a genre?

Interestingly, many of the early marketing efforts at the start of the 1950s did not aim to set science fiction apart from other genres.  Instead, it was initially marketed as like other narrative experiences with which audiences were familiar, such as horror, adventure, thriller, and suspense stories. The Thing from Another World (1951), e.g., was not advertised specifically as a science fiction film, but rather ambiguously. Its initial marketing offered little sense of its science fictional nature, the term “science fiction” was not used in any of its ads, and early reports on its production described it as a “mystery,” an “exploitation” film, or even a “pseudo-scientific melodrama.” The point was that audiences would feel more comfortable with story types that they knew.

It was only after the success of the first big wave of science fiction films in the early 1950s that marketing practices began to embrace that generic identity, pointedly framing these films as science fiction, as audiences became more familiar with the genre—thanks not only to the success of films like The Thing, but also to the widespread appearance of science fiction anthology programs and space operas on television, shows like Captain Video, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and Space Patrol

At this point we find much more of an effort at using traditional Hollywood “ballyhoo” (loud, brassy, sensationalistic) marketing efforts that unmistakably signaled something different, i.e., “science fiction.”  Actors dressed as space men would walk city streets, bearing signs announcing where you could see them in a film. MGM would send Robby the Robot, the robot from Forbidden Planet, to various exhibitors’ conferences, while also arranging for personal appearances on popular television shows.  Footprints supposedly from giant, mutated monsters were often stenciled on the sidewalks and streets outside of theaters.  Traveling exhibits—some scientifically oriented, but most pure sensationalism—would go from city to city, drawing curious patrons to the theater, as in the case of The H-Man’s 32-foot trailer that allowed audiences to walk through and experience “bubbling atomic pools,” ultraviolet lights, and eerie sound effects, all suggesting the sorts of things to be encountered in the film.

How did outside cultural factors influence science fiction marketing and the evolution of the genre?

As far as marketing is concerned, a number of very obvious cultural factors influenced science fiction and its reception. The postwar period brought into being a new scientifically and technologically conscious culture, one wherein we couldn’t not think about and be concerned with the various memes of science fiction, things such as rockets, satellites, nuclear weapons, radiation, fallout, even the reshaping of society (i.e., utopias and dystopias). 

Moreover, the science behind these elements was often emphasized much the same way as in the serious science fiction literature of the day,with consultants such as Robert Heinlein, Chesley Bonestell, and Maxwell Smith ensuring an air of accuracy in the films. However, those elements also had to be treated with some caution, at least in the early part of the decade. Advertising for The War of the Worlds (1953), for instance, was refused by several television stations because, it was claimed, the film’s images of an atomic bomb explosion and of a Martian heat ray incinerating people would scare children in the television audience. 

Later in the decade, as such sensationalistic images became more common in popular discourse—and as movies increasingly evoked what cultural commentator Susan Sontag termed “the imagination of disaster”—science fiction marketing became far more open to exploitative tactics, especially in the use of saturation television ads that typically lifted the most sensationalistic images from the films and expertly edited them together to suggest the thrills that the film experience offered. In fact, the film genre and its marketing, together, began to take on much of the lurid aura that had attached to pulp versions of the genre in previous decades and that had spiced up those pulp magazine covers.

The final chapter of your book discusses Japanese science fiction. How did this subgenre come to be? What are the key differences between the marketing techniques used for marketing Japanese and Hollywood films to American audiences?

I thought it was important to emphasize one of the major challenges involved in marketing science fiction during the period when it not only burst forth as an important genre but also became an internationally popular form: the (re)presentation of those international productions for non-native audiences. And the most obvious place to turn for such an emphasis was to the variety of films produced by Japan’s Toho Studio, films such as Godzilla (Gojira), Rodan, Godzilla Strikes Again, The Mysterians, and Mothra, all of which had to be especially tailored in their marketing in order to reach a non-Japanese audience—and especially an American audience that, in the early 1950s, had proved very reluctant to embrace any Japanese films, even such widely acclaimed ones as Rashomon and Ikiru, which had also been produced by Toho.

Starting in the second half of the decade, American distributors began to take a chance on these kaiju, or “giant monster,” films, particularly because their exhibition rights could be purchased rather cheaply and television advertising could be used to attract American audiences that were growing more accustomed to science fiction spectacle. Distributors such as Joseph E. Levine often reshaped the original narratives by eliminating culturally specific footage and/or adding more action scenes, such as atomic explosions, and, as is famously the case with the original Godzilla, even inserting a new lead character (Raymond Burr in this instance). Such changes were designed to make the stories seem more global in their thrust, and the marketing, including the various trailers and pressbooks issued for the films, followed suit, with Japanese names typically missing from posters and ads and an emphasis placed on action scenes that could occur anywhere. 

Just as significantly, these films were marketed expressly as science fiction, and they were successful enough, thanks in large part to the increasing use of television to reach a popular audience, that they helped establish new directions for the genre.

Where did your research process begin?

The research for this project actually began with my prior study of the science fiction pulp magazines and their movie consciousness. For background, see my Movies, Modernism, and the Science Fiction Pulps (2019). In doing that research I became curious about the very absence of something that I assumed I would be able to find and study, namely, the ways in which science fiction films might be marketed to a specifically science fiction–savvy audience, the readers of those specialized magazines.  But I didn’t find those expected advertisements, at least not until the mid-1950s, which obviously correlated with the large wave of science fiction films that had begun to appear at that time. And even then, I was struck by the initial reluctance to give a name to the genre, and rather to frame it in the context of other, well-known film commodities.

At this point the research took on another dimension. It began to correlate the issues surrounding marketing with another problematic concern, the difficulty we have long had in saying exactly what science fiction is, what constitutes the genre. And this is a problem that seems to linger even today, particularly as our everyday experiences seem to become ever more science fictional themselves, and as we recognize the extent to which we inhabit a science fictional environment. The issues of marketing simply dovetailed with and set in relief this larger issue of generic identity.

J. P. Telotte is a professor emeritus of film and media studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the author of Animating the Science Fiction Imagination and Movies, Modernism, and the Science Fiction Pulps and a former coeditor for the film journal Post Script.