I used to be an expert on videogames. But then I went to grad school and got married and lost a job and had to scrounge for freelance work, and every step of the way I lost a little bit of my aptitude for gaming. Now I’m, at best, a gaming diletante, keeping tabs on a handful of favorite series, and mostly playing stuff I get as hand-me-downs from videogame journalist friends. The 9-year-old me who spent a year saving up his money to buy a Nintendo only to weep tears of joy when he won one in a raffle would be so ashamed of what thirtysomething me has become.
That’s a long-winded way of saying I’m not only behind on my videogames, I’m also way behind on my videogame lingo. So when the portmanteau “bullshot”showed up in my Twitter feed earlier this week, it was the first I’d ever heard the word, even though it had been invented by the website Penny Arcade almost 10 years ago. As best I can tell, bullshot hasn’t made any serious inroads into wider pop-culture usage, but it’s such a perfect term for a particular kind of deceptive movie advertising, that I’m here today to advocate for its use in a cinematic context.
For gaming simpletons like myself: A bullshot is a promotional image for a videogame that has been deliberately sweetened or enhanced to fool potential buyers into a purchase. Just as movies are anticipated by months or years of trailers and publicity photos, videogames are hyped by screenshots and demos at conventions like E3. Since the games are still under construction at that point, you would expect the finished products to look superior to the ads, but that is frequently not the case. Instead, the demos, which have been specially and specifically rendered to look their best, often greatly surpass the visual experience offered by the completed games. When that happens, the earlier, better images are dubbed bullshots—a combination of “bullshit” and “screenshot.”
A recent example is the movie-based game Aliens: Colonial Marines, which was widely criticized for delivering a gameplay experience vastly inferior to the ones promised in early promotional materials. The game’s designers denied any wrongdoing, but that didn’t stop many dissatisfied customers from accusing Colonial Marines of manufacturing and disseminating bullshots. (You can compare the early footage to the finished game here.) One unhappy customer even filed a lawsuit, claiming Colonial Marines’ creators had falsely advertised their work “by showing demos at trade shows like PAX and E3 which didn’t end up being accurate representations of the final product.”
What separates a bullshot from a crummy teaser or a bad game is intent, or at least the assumption of it. Gamers can’t prove they were purposely deceived (and game companies would deny it, even if it was true), but calling something a bullshot also implies that it was made expressly to fool someone. It’s not that they made a bad game; it’s that they knew they had a bad game while they were making it, and tried to disguise that fact however they could. Therefore, if we’re going to adopt this term for the world of film advertising, we have to use it the same way. A cinematic bullshot can’t just be any trailer that’s different from the movie it’s selling; it has to be (or appear to be) deliberately different.
There are many non-malicious reasons why a trailer might include scenes that don’t appear in a film’s final cut. Sometimes trailers are created so early in the production process they can’t take into account scenes that might get cut out during editing. Other times, reshoots necessitate the elimination of sequences that were originally intended to appear in a film. Comedy trailers often replace jokes from their ads with alternate takes so that the biggest punchlines aren’t spoiled in coming attractions. All of these cases might technically qualify as “false” advertising; they’re promoting something on the basis of images and lines that don’t actually appear in the final product. But in all of those cases, audiences are being “misled” with their own best interests in mind; the studios are trying to deliver the best possible film for their customers, and in doing so, they’ve had to remove or alter parts of that film. Therefore, none of those instances would qualify as bullshots.
A movie bullshot would have to be done as a calculated (or seemingly calculated) attempt to sell something in a way a studio knew wasn’t accurate. And there are definitely some examples out there. Consider this trailer for the film Predators:
The big money (bull)shot comes around the 1:20 mark, when Adrien Brody’s body is slowly lit up by the red laser sights of 15 different Predators. It’s a moment to give chills, and suggests the characters face an overwhelming alien force. But in fact, there are only a handful of Predators in Predators, and in the finished film, just one of them is targeting Adrien Brody in this shot. In 2010, Predators producer Robert Rodriguez defended the change in an interview with MTV, saying that he needed an image that would “crystalize the idea” that the humans were being hunted by multiple aliens and that he often shoots things specifically for trailers that won’t appear in the film “so that people haven’t seen the movie already but they get the feeling of what it’s supposed to represent.”
That’s all theoretically true, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Predators trailer intentionally teased a much more exciting film than Predators. The idea it crystallizes is far superior to its actual execution onscreen. That shot of Brody lit up by laser sights in Predators was way cooler than the corresponding shot in the final film. Hence, it is a cinematic bullshot.
There are several other examples I know of (the creators of Highlander: Endgame shot supernatural footage specifically for their trailer that was never intended to appear in the finished film), and probably many more you guys can cite in the comments section below. But for now, let’s raise a glass of vodka and bullion to our gamer brethern in acknowledgement of their creation of such an wonderful term, before we totally steal it from them.