How Trainspotting went viral before “going viral” was a thing
Many of the movies discussed on this blog were surprising box office hits, or went on to cult status without making a big splash at the box office, but it’s quite something else to deal with a film everyone knew would be a success. 1996’s Trainspotting paired the buzziest filmmaking team working in the UK – director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and screenwriter John Hodge – with an adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s exciting and controversial novel. Many anticipated it would make a big splash. The problem then became how to get audiences to see the film. Marketing plays a large part in not only how successful a film is, but in how it’s remembered, and Trainspotting featured one of the most memorable campaigns of the 90s.
The first thing many people remember about Trainspotting, sometimes even before the movie itself, is its poster. The individual character posters and group ensembles were designed by Stylorouge, a design house known more for their album covers than movie posters, and that may have made the difference. The story goes that they were suggested every bad idea – from copying the Backbeat poster, to sitcom-style group shots – but without having a chance to see the movie before their shoot, instead drew inspiration from the book on which it’s based. Each character had a different, defined voice and personality in the book, so their posters would show the same. The sleek black and white design showed reality without controversially glamorizing drugs, and it was aided by each actor showing up to the photoshoot the day after the wrap party and some intense pickups. A unique look, gritty feel and perfect poses make this one of the most important film posters of the 90s, if not of all time.
The posters, the billboards and the (NSFW) trailer did the trick in the UK. Trainspotting was poised to run nearly alongside the much easier sold Four Weddings and a Funeral as one of the highest grossing domestic releases of all time. But it was going to be much harder to sell the very Scottish film to American audiences. Luckily the marketers had a few tricks up their sleeves.
One thing about Trainspotting that knows no borders is its fantastic soundtrack. Touted heavily on its American release, the soundtrack featured numerous popular electronic and Britpop artists, along with classic rock and 80s tunes (a hat tip to the novel’s era) that could appeal to all demographics. Boyle shot a video for their condensed version of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” (losing the original instrumental opening), which became popular in its own right. Underworld’s “Born Slippy” played over the end of the film, and anticipated the growing movement of techno and rave culture taking over the UK and picking up speed in North America. The soundtrack was popular enough to pull a Forrest Gump with the release of a second volume, and was undeniably part of the American excitement around the film’s release.
The other thing Trainspotting had in its corner on its American release was that Miramax was at the height of its Disney/Weinstein era power. Boyle’s previous film, Shallow Grave, had been a hit in the UK but didn’t make waves Stateside, so they didn’t want to make the same mistakes twice and what they had was a very Scottish movie about a Scottish problem. In a controversial, but frequently used move, the distributors had the first 20 minutes of the film re-dubbed in a slower, more American-friendly accent. This tactic had worked for award-winning Irish films like In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot, and worked well with Trainspotting, too. One also wonders if Harvey Weinstein, known for his “any press is good press” tactics, is responsible for someone like Bob Dole hearing about an arthouse hit and making news by decrying it publicly for glamorizing the “heroin chic” lifestyle, despite the film featuring jail, infanticide, and not one, but two instances of being covered in human feces. The perfect posters and soundtrack, and a slow arthouse roll out that allowed a buildup of word-of-mouth and press coverage led to a $16 million (US) American box office, and the Weinsteins’ influence no doubt helped the film get a coveted Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Trainspotting wasn’t an unlikely hit at all. It’s a wonderfully energetic, artistically unique and well performed movie, but the massive cultural impact it had, especially outside of its home market is something to admire. We never would have known about the film without its brilliant marketing campaign, which stands as an accomplishment nearly as interesting and artistic as the film itself. Stories about the making of a classic film and deep filmmaking only get told when a film is seen, and sometimes, in cases like Trainspotting, the “capital I” parts of The Industry do it right.