The new thing in Hollywood is asking, telling, pleading with audiences and critics not to spoil plot twists. Except this is not a new thing; it’s the long shadow of that creep, Alfred Hitchcock.
Deadline reported that, in advance of the Cannes premiere of Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino has posted an open letter asking everybody to keep their traps shut about the movie’s details: “The cast and crew have worked hard to create something original, and I only ask that everyone avoids revealing anything that would prevent later audiences from experiencing the film in the same way.” The film’s Twitter account distributed it in retro form.
This is after the Russo brothers, directors of Avengers: Endgame, released a statement asking nobody to spoil their movie, and Marvel ran a hashtag campaign, #DontSpoilTheEndgame, on Twitter. Bloody Disgusting quickly noted the similarity to the marketing strategy for Psycho.
Psycho is structured around a series of shocking twists, most famously the murder of Janet Leigh’s character. Of course, the shower scene is now so famous that it obscures just how shocking it would have been at the time, because Leigh was the star of the movie, and yet she’s killed not even halfway through. This was potentially a problem; it’s a thriller, so they didn’t want big twists leaking out. Crew members signed NDA agreements, and the movie wasn’t screened for critics, the BBC explained.
But Hitchcock and his distributor, Paramount, went even further and, in a brilliant stroke of marketing, turned the need to preserve this hairpin turn in the plot into an entire promotional strategy: They publicly begged filmgoers not to spoil the SHOCKING DETAILS for others. Advertisements in local papers across the country relentlessly played this up, asking, “After you see Psycho don’t give away the ending—it’s the only one we have.”
It ran as a little signed note from Alfred Hitchcock himself, a personal request from the famous director. Some showings had a cardboard standup of Hitchcock, with a note explaining that once the show started, they wouldn’t let anybody in, no exceptions, for the sake of fairness and everyone’s own good. This video lays out the entire strategy in detail, including heavily promoting the showtimes and refusing to let people into the theater until the scheduled start.
Getting strict about the schedule was novel because at the time, people were much more casual about when they got to the theater—people were much more likely to wander in whenever, watch to the end, and sit through the beginning you’d missed. (You know, the way a lot of us spent the early 2000s watching action movies on cable TV.)
Of course, pleading and demanding that audiences keep spoilers to themselves was just a clever way of playing up the fact that there would be jaw-dropping details that everyone simply HAD to experience for themselves by ponying up for the ticket as quickly as possible. It’s textbook FOMO creation, and, if anything, the play has gotten even easier to run with the advent of the 24/7 hype cycle and the internet content machine. While the requests by the Russos and Tarantino suggests that the internet makes it harder to have some theoretical pure moviegoing experience, it also gives them a handy device for touting the fact that you’d better get to their movies as soon as possible because you don’t want to miss out.
The style and tone of the letters even sound a little like the requests from Hitchcock that ran in papers all over America.