Last week the hype for Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, moved into top gear with the launch of a clever and mysterious publicity campaign. On Thursday the 19th of May the official website became active, only to reveal nothing but a black screen and the sound of chanting. By the following morning, the most dedicated and geeky intelligent of fans, had filtered the noises through various ingenious programmes that visualise sound waves, revealing the Twitter hashtag #TheFireRises. To cut a long story short, the more people that Tweeted the hashtag, the more of an image from the film was revealed. Eventually a genius with time on their hands managed to expose the whole picture, giving the world its first glimpse of Tom Hardy’s beastly Bane.
As exciting as all this was for fans eager to learn about the sequel to The Dark Knight’s phenomenal success, such high concept viral marketing is not a new idea. Christopher Nolan in particular should know this, after previous films of his have utilised the growing trend for such campaigns. Most notably, last year’s Inception generated enormous hype with lots of vague waffle about the “architecture of the mind” doing the rounds on forums before any plot details had emerged. The official Facebook page for the film released clues to the whereabouts of Inception merchandise and tickets, sparking races across British cities for the treasure. There was also a special app for the film.
Even The Dark Knight had seemingly legitimate websites, both pro and anti Harvey Dent, calling for support in the Gotham city elections for District Attorney. But the undisputed king of mystery, minimalist marketing is Lost creator JJ Abrams. He produced 2008’s Cloverfield, which was perhaps the first project to truly embrace the public lust for speculation and a hunt for clues. It was promoted with the merest slither of information and talked up as a story that blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction, claiming to be comprised of “found” footage from real home videos. Lost too, made the most of secrets to stir debate amongst fans.
Abrams is the director of this summer’s much anticipated Super 8, which is co-produced by the tantalising team of him and Steven Spielberg, and the trailers have adopted the same old tricks which we’ve come to expect. During the flurry of Super Bowl trailers earlier this year, Super 8 remained the only real enigma amongst a pack of blockbusters, which undoubtedly made it stand out. But there are also drawbacks and limitations to such cryptic and vague promotion.
A few weeks ago a select group of journalists and critics got to see the opening 20 minutes of Super 8. And whilst many of them had positive things to say, those that have already written about their snippet of Abrams’ creation pack their articles with questions and a tone of scepticism as they look to extract the substance from the chorus of theories. Several commentators have said that the uneven blend of a heart warming buddy movie, a scary alien attack and effects heavy blockbuster, doesn’t satisfy the hype.
Without all the frustrating teasing, perhaps the writers would have been more inclined to focus on the film’s positives. How can the product ever live up to unrealistically heightened expectations? The trailers have already been ripped apart, frame by frame, for the slightest of clues. Cinemagoers with regular internet access may have heard of Super 8, but by the time of its release its barebones promotion may have left them either uninterested or so frustrated that they seek out an idiot who has leaked detailed spoilers.
Such saturation of the web certainly gets people talking and immersed by the ideas of a film. But it’s not a standalone guarantee of a box office hit. For one thing, despite its all conquering swell, the internet still does not reach everyone. Even some of those that use it may not wander into areas dedicated to film or have the time and desire to unravel marketing mysteries. Other media such as television and newspapers remain a vital tool for more instant advertising reach, rather than a slow burn.
There have also been failures that are too reliant on viral campaigns, even when those campaigns are successful. Disaster epic 2012 caused such a stir about the end of the world that NASA had to set up a special page to reassure people. But after it bombed with critics and the public, the big budget project was still a flop. Countless low budget releases think that cheap online methods will assure sufficient publicity but without a breakthrough in more traditional media, most of these languish and pass unnoticed in the cyber shadows, even when they have their merits.
The fact remains that viral marketing often only helps increase the hype for an already much anticipated film. The Dark Knight Rises will be a box office success regardless but the occasional prod from the filmmakers will cause sizzling talk to increase the takings still further. JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg are names that will attract attention because they are accomplished storytellers, not marketing magicians.
In the case of Abrams I would hope that the motivations behind his teasing details and whiffs of mystery are noble; he wants his audience as absorbed as possible by his fictional world and genuinely surprised by its twists and turns. Abrams, Spielberg, Nolan and others know that what matters in the end, after the hype, is the film itself. Get this wrong and the publicity will be a curse rather than a blessing.