Against an ominous score, we slide up to the check-in desk of a dilapidated motel that — if the language of cinema since 1960's Psycho has taught us anything — screams "don't go in there."
"Discover the truth," a title card reads, as images of cocking pistols and tear-streamed faces fly by, "behind one of the most terrifying events in American history."
This is an ad for Detroit, the new Kathryn Bigelow film about a massacre of young African-American men at the hands of racist white cops in the Algiers Motel during the Detroit riots of 1967.
As in Get Out earlier this year, the film mines nail-biting suspense out of helpless black men trapped against their will in confined spaces by white racists. But the similarities end there. Detroit is based on actual events — and there are no dark laughs or third-act escapes to help defuse the tension.
That puts Detroit more in line with wrenchingly violent historical dramas — a tricky sell for the marketing team at Annapurna Pictures, the fledgling studio behind the film. In TV spots, the company has leaned into the film's horror aspects. It's a bid to lure moviegoers who might otherwise stay away from such a depressing subject.
The sell is not quite a bait-and-switch. Mark Boal, Bigelow's frequent screenwriting collaborator, wrote recently in Vulture that "the story and characters took shape in a haunted mood of danger and sudden death, and I found myself working in horror-genre veins, except that in my case, the supernatural element was replaced with the all-too-real terror of racism."
Detroit is split into three acts: The first throws us into the chaos of the Detroit riots. The second — the part critics have likened to a horror film — takes place entirely within the Algiers, where Will Poulter (the English actor whose arched brows and smirk lend him a sinister air) plays a sadistic cop who oversees the torture and murder of a group of black men. The third act chronicles the doomed court case against the cops.
Noting Detroit's scares may not be enough, according to one veteran marketing executive. "As a consumer, the TV spots looks like a bunch of black kids get trapped in a motel and get killed," he said. "Two hours of really shitty white people doing really shitty, heartless things to young black people — that's just not a sell."
Annapurna's strategy appears to be similar to that of other Bigelow films: It launched the movie Friday in limited release — just 20 screens in 10 cities. It performed well, earning $365,000 for a per-screen average of $18,273. By comparison, Zero Dark Thirty earned $417,510 in just five theaters.
The bigger test comes this weekend, however, when Detroit opens Aug. 4 in 2,800 theaters. Tracking has been soft, with one service predicting a gross of $13 million. Zero Dark took $24.4 million upon expansion.
As bleak as they are, the tense TV spots are a safe bet, says the marketing expert. "I really don't know what you can do differently. They are spot-on. I've seen the trailer in theaters. I've seen the TV spots. I've seen [Detroit actor John] Boyega on The Tonight Show Jimmy Fallon. You see it everywhere, you know it's important — it's just a really tough topic to sell."
But embracing the horrific elements of the story could also backfire, turning moviegoers off. In its review of the film on RogerEbert.com, the African-American critic Angelica Jade Bastien writes, "I didn’t see a period drama, but a horror film. The horror of white filmmakers taking on black history...with an unwavering eye yet nothing to say."
Detroit's wide release is not necessarily the end of the story. Annapurna is already positioning Detroit for awards season, hiring veteran publicists Cynthia Swartz and Karen Fried to oversee its Oscar campaign. And it's there that Detroit finds itself aligned, oddly enough, with another white-knuckler about young men awaiting their deaths: Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.
"What will happen is that both films will be so draped in Oscars that you will end up having to see them," says the executive.