Monday, 4 August 2014

The Weird Marketing of Howard the Duck

We take a look back at how Universal promoted one of the first Marvel movies...Howard the Duck.

One might say that Howard the Duck is one of the most (unfairly) maligned films of the 1980s. Despite that, this article may contain spoilers for one of the biggest, most well-received films of 2014, believe it or not. If you're not caught up on your summer movie releases, perhaps this article isn't for you. It's just tough to discuss one of that decade's more ambitious flops without discussing one of this summer's biggest hits. Some of you may know why. Proceed at your own risk...
Recently, Den of Geek UK writer Wil Jones presented a terrific article about why you should give the Howard the Duck movie another chance. As something of a Duckologist myself, I couldn't agree with him more. The film is definitely stranger and funnier than you probably remember. So why was it such a bomb? Well, its flirtation with beastiality aside, I think one of the main reasons Howard the Duck flopped when it was released back on August 1, 1986, was that the marketing campaign was terrible. Let's take a look...

The first look audiences were given of the film is this bizarre teaser in which Lea Thompson's Beverly Switzler character coos about wanting to fornicate with a waterfowl. By judging the movie on this footage alone, you'd be forgiven if you thought that Howard the Duck was an especially kinky teen comedy. As they proved with their previous script for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, director Williard Hyuck and producer Gloria Katz were huge fans of wild tonal shifts in their work. For the second Indy adventure, the levity worked given that the film featured hearts being forcibly extracted from chests.
But seeing how Howard the Duck is, above all else, a comedy, it is especially jarring when things get bleak (i.e. the Dark Overlord brutally executes a state trooper). Couple this with the almost sex scene between Beverly and Howard, and you've got a marketing nightmare on your hands. And so Universal tried to pitch the flick as a wild comedic adventure for the whole family with the full trailer

During the summer of 1986, you could dial 1-900-410-DUCK and listen to Howard tell you about the movie, its characters and his adventures on Earth. Some of these calls featured "conversations" between Howard and his co-stars that had the duck interacting with movie dialogue a la the novelty songs of Dickie Goodman. The puns featured in these ads are beyond painful, and Chip Zien, the voice of Howard, seems outwardly hostile to callers. Every day leading up to the film's release a new recording was featured on the hotline...all of them equally terrible. Being a Howard the Duck superfan back in 1986, I would have lost my mind had I known I could call Howard and have him berate me for for $1.99 a minute. Alas, I didn't even know the phoneline existed until a few years ago when someone was nice/demented enough to upload all of the calls onto YouTube.
Believe it or not, this wasn't the oddest way Universal tried to market the film. That dubious honor goes to a promotional tie-in with Budweiser in which the King of Beers was named as Howard's drink of choice on a special movie poster that was apparently a big hit with beer distributors and second run movie theaters on Skid Row. Sheesh.
Then there was the soundtrack. A huge part of Howard the Duck's enduring appeal is Thomas Dolby's soundtrack to the film. From the great new wave of "Hunger City" to the low-rent Prince stylings of "Don't Turn Away" and the genuine earworm that is the title track, the music of the movie has earned its own cult following over the years. But did you realize there was actually a music video made for the "Howard the Duck" theme song?
Once again, Universal's hesitance to show off their lead is on display. Oddly enough, this clip was released around the same time that the film hit theaters, making their unwillingness to spotlight Howard even more confusing. By this time, the duck was out of the bag as it were, so why not just embrace his goofiness? Howard's loss was Tim Robbins' gain, as the future Oscar winner gets some valuable mugging time in front of the cameras here.
Universal's lack of confidence in Howard the Duck also resulted in there not being much merchandise based on the film. Other than the aforementioned soundtrack, a line of Topps trading cards, a candy dispenser, and some books -- including Ellis Weiner's smart novelization of the flick -- there wasn't much for Howard's few fans to puchase in the summer of 1986. Even from Marvel Comics, who crapped out an awful adaptation of the flick and a new, Steve Gerber-less, issue in which, irony alert, Howard finds himself coping with his new fame. (Note to Funko/Super 7: Can you right a wrong and please do a Howard the Duck Re-Action Figures line?)
So here we are, 28 years later to the day and Howard the Duck is suddenly a viable property again. Whether his appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy is just some quick fan service or a harbinger of a redemption that is yet to come, it is most welcome to have him back. Hopefully the powers that be will treat him better this time around...

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