20th Century Fox’s A Cure For Wellness is admirable in its ambition. It’s a two-and-a-half hour psychological thriller full of original world-building, built around a cast of characters that is wholly, deliberately unlikable. (Director Gore Verbinski’s execution of that ambition, as the film’s 34% Rotten Tomatoes rating suggests, may leave something to be desired.)
Nonetheless, Fox took a big gamble in handing a big budget to Verbinski (whose last movie was perhaps the biggest flop of 2013) to create something new and ambitious, without recognizable stars, with a hard-R rating. And while viral marketing schemes for movies that are difficult to market traditionally are commonplace these days, the tack taken by the studio to promote A Cure For Wellness goes places that, we hope, few other movies will attempt again, as Fox embraced the “fake news” trend wholeheartedly to spread stories that tie into the film.
“Fake news” is a term that’s been overused in recent months. The phrase was coined to refer specifically to websites that are created to look like authentic news sources, but which fabricated their stories with fake quotes and inflammatory headlines. A BuzzFeed report in November helped shed light on how these sites worked, and who was responsible for them (often, it was teenagers in the Balkans). Of course, you can’t introduce a term like “fake news” into the public consciousness in a divisive environment like, uh, the world in 2017 without expecting it to gain traction, and before long, the President of the United States of America was shouting “You’re fake news!” at reporters from CNN during press conferences because he disliked their coverage, and insisting that “any negative polls are fake news” on Twitter. Whether fake news swung the election, as some have asserted, is open to debate–what’s not open to debate is that there is an industry that was built around spreading fabricated reporting designed to look like the real deal in order to make some money off of ad clicks, and that the existence of those sites have furthered an environment in which the nature of truth itself is under question.
Which makes the decision by Fox to wade into the fake news game with A Cure For Wellness deeply unwise. The studio “partnered with a fake news creator to publish fake news,” according to a statement sent to Co.Create, and the sites–with URLs like HoustonLeader.com, SacramentoDispatch.com, etc–featured stories with headlines that veer from containing obvious promotional value (“Screening of Psychological Thriller Leaves Texas Man in Catatonic State,” which claims that a man from a non-existent Texas town was institutionalized after watching A Cure For Wellness) to the more insidious (“LEAKED: Lady Gaga Halftime Performance To Feature Muslim Tribute,” which cited “an unnamed source” who claimed that “Ms. Gaga will be using the world’s largest stage to discuss ‘a sickness inside us,'” a line that appears throughout the film).
Stories that appeared on the fake news sites spread the way that fake news tends to. The Gaga item was picked up by a right-wing Facebook group called “Boycott the NFL,” while another story claiming that Trump had banned vaccinations via executive order was debunked by fact-checking website Snopes last week (which didn’t pick up the site’s connection to A Cure For Wellness).
The appeal to creating fake news is clear: You can make a good living off of it, potentially swing an election, and maybe hear your fabrications cited by the President, if that sounds like a good time to you. Now, apparently, there’s another incentive, which is that a Hollywood studio with a poorly-reviewed film might pay you to spread more fake stories that have thematic ties to the movie’s plot in an attempt to drum up interest in the latest feature from the director of The Lone Ranger. That’s not great for a country that’s struggling with determining what “truth” is, and it just doesn’t make any sense for a studio who shares a parent company with an actual news organization.
As of today, the fake news sites designed to promote A Cure For Wellness are down. Visiting the URLs now takes you to a landing page for the film, which is an improvement (even if it does still mean you’re thinking about A Cure For Wellness, which is its own brand of unfortunate). Hopefully, there haven’t been too many people taken in by a Fox-funded campaign to convince you that Lady Gaga is talking about “a sickness inside us” or that there are people in catatonic states after watching a boring movie, but it was irresponsible for the studio to even create the possibility.