I’m an unabashed fan of director Tim Burton and have been since…well…I first discovered him. I love Edward Scissorhands, really dig Ed Wood and even like Mars Attacks!, a movie most people detest, largely because I don’t think they get what he was trying to do. I think the only Burton movie I haven’t seen is Planet of the Apes, and that’s just because it looks really, really bad. But everyone is allowed the occasional misstep and I don’t think it detracts at all from the rest of his body of work.
(On a side note, a friend of mine said after we watched Batman Returns, “Tim Burton really likes directing snow…” I think that’s such a perfect description of his style Burton should have it put on his gravestone.)
For Sweeney Todd, Burton reteams with frequent star Johnny Depp, who’s also joined him on Scissorhands, Wood and Sleepy Hollow, as well as doing a voice in The Corpse Bride. The movie is, of course, based on the famous musical from Stephen Sondheim about a vengeful barber who extracts his pound of flesh from those who wronged him earlier in life.
There are multiple marketing hurdles Paramount/Dreamworks will have to clear to get Sweeney to become a box-office hit. For one, it’s coming out in a very crowded Christmas season. For another, it’s a musical, but not the feel-good romp that movies like Chicago, Hairspray and others were. It’s also got to appeal to both Burton fans and Sondheim fans, groups that may not significantly overlap.
Over- or under-playing any of these hands and the movie will not connect with audiences. So let’s see how the studio(s) did with the campaign.
The first teaser poster was a bit odd, I felt, in how heavy-handed it seemed. Showing a man’s silhouette as he walks under a bridge of some sort, the poster is filled with signs that shriek to the audience that this is supposed to be scary instead of just being scary in and of itself. Burton and Depp are prominently mentioned, but the oddly on-thel-nose title treatment overwhelms any actual sense of foreboding or terror that the imagery might be trying to create.
Later on there were a whole batch of character posters featuring Depp and co-star Helana Bonham-Carter. There were a number created for each of the two of the but I’m not sure to what end. All were variations on the same theme, that Depp is the Barber and Bonham-Carter the Baker who disposes of his victims in a uniquely culinary way. All accomplished their goals with different levels of success, with some posters working better than others. The ones that I think work the best – and this should come as no surprise – are those that continue the same sort of brand identity from the theatrical one-sheet. But they’re all kind of cool and each one is going to appeal to a different viewer, it’s just that I’m surprised they created multiple posters for just two characters when the movie isn’t a sci-fi movie or anything that traditionally lends itself to character posters like this.
There were then, it seems two stabs taken at a final theatrical poster. At least that’s the way I viewed it.
The first put Depp in his own barber’s chair, staring vindictively at the audience. This is probably my favorite of the posters as it does the best job of presenting a clear, concise picture of the movie. You’ve got Depp, clearly plotting something and looking more than a little honked off. You’ve got the washed out grays and reds that look like they haven’t seen the sun in years, a visual style Burton has done before and quite well. I just love the way it sets the movie up, from the main character to his place of..ummm…business all in one image.
The next one took that image and put it way down at the bottom of the poster, opting to fill most of the real estate with Depp’s ginormous head. The red sky over the London skyline does a nice job of setting up the bloody nature of the movie, but I think that such a close-up of the actor in character kills a good amount of the terror. It’s obviously an attempt to make Depp the focus of the campaign and play off his celebrity but it winds up making it about 60 percent less scary than if he had been more in the background, or at least further away from the camera as in the character posters.
There was just one trailer that was created for the movie’s U.S. audiences. But it’s a very good trailer. It sets up the movie’s plot quite well, showing how the man who would be Sweeney got in the position he’s in after his wife was stolen from him by a corrupt judge. It then shows how he returns and plots his revenge with the assistance of Mrs. Lovett and how he carves his way the London citizenry. Despite the constant cries of some people there is plenty of music in the trailer, with Depp singing what seems to be one of the movie’s major set pieces. I don’t know how much more music would have satisfied people. I can only assume they were looking for a half-hour clip that was 75 percent singing in order to prove to them that they weren’t playing down the music in the movie’s marketing campaign.
When you pull up the movie’s official website the first thing that greets you is the same picture of Depp that was used on the second (and lesser) of the final two posters. Right below his visage is a graphic triumphing in the movie’s four Golden Globe nominations.
Off to the right are links to a variety of things to do if you’re just passing through. First on that list is “View the Trailer” which brings up the trailer that was released. Included there is a “Share this Video” option that lets you send it as an email or grab code to embed it on your own site.
Next is the “Cut Your Own Trailer” feature that lets you create your own Sweeney spot using provided audio and video files as well as other assets like transitions, graphics and title cards. Once you’ve done that you can either email it, embed it or just grab a permalink to that video, which might be my favorite option since it makes it very easy to spread the word simply and efficiently, just like any other webpage.
Finally (overlooking the “Register for Updates” option) there’s a link to the Sweeney Todd MySpace page. Unlike a lot of MySpace pages, this one actually seems to do something – to have some purpose. Much like the “Cut your Own Trailer” feature on the main site, here you can take some provided material and use it to skin your own MySpace profile page. After doing so you can enter a contest to win a MacBook with Final Cut Express software already on it.
There are actually a few more things before diving into the site. You can send a Christmas e-card with a Sweeney-bent that can be customized. Here’s what mine looked like.
There’s also a link to buy the official companion book from Titan Books. That little rotating GIF also eventually prompts you to find out how you can throw your own Sweeney Todd party on Facebook. That’s accomplished by adding the Party On application to your profile, which then gives you a number of themes to choose from, Sweeney Todd among them.
So let’s finally get into what lies underneath the “Enter the Site” prompt.
The first thing to note is that songs – complete songs, not just snippets – from the movie’s soundtrack play over the site as you click around. You can skip to new songs or stop the music altogether by hitting the “Audio” button at the top. Right next to it is “Players,” which is a series of character profiles. On all of those profiles there’s some sort of interactive element. Scroll over a window and someone appears, scroll over a candle and it goes out…that kind of thing. There’s also a character description, seemingly in the form of a lyric from the production or something like that.
To the top left of the screen is a Menu that drops down allowing you to navigate the site’s main content.
“The Film” contains a brief Story synopsis, some fairly extensive Production Notes and backgrounds on the Cast and Crew. “Video” has the Trailer, a handful of Clips, all four TV Spots and a couple of Studio Sessions showing the two stars recording some of their songs. Those videos were released by the studio about a month ago, just as the “They’re downplaying the music” backlash was really gaining steam, which was a smart strategic move.
“Downloads” contains Wallpapers, a Screensaver and Buddy Icons you can grab. There are also some Takeaway Banners that, when you bring them up, give you the embed code so you can grab them and put them on your own site without eating up your bandwidth. That’s a really great move and I like it a lot.
“Music” is pretty self-explanatory. it lists the songs on the soundtrack and lets you select them to sample out. There are also links to buy the album on Amazon, iTunes, and, most interestingly, Nonesuch Records. That last one I’m picking out because of the recent announcement that Nonesuch would allow you to download a free digital copy of every CD you buy, making it that much easier to get a physical record and put the songs on your portable player at the same time.
Considering Paramount/Dreamworks has about six niche groups it had to appeal to, the campaign did a pretty good job of selling the movie. There was plenty in there to connect with fans of Burton, Sondheim and Depp, its three major target groups.
But this is one of those cases where the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts. Each component is very strong, from the trailer to (most of) the posters to the website. But when it’s all added up the campaign just feels kind of…slight. There’s little substance to it, as if the studio was too busy putting a sheen on everything that it forgot to actually let people into the movie’s universe through the campaign. I can’t point out what it is – and I’ve been thinking about it – but it seems like the campaign was designed to be very tasty but not stick to your ribs in any meaningful way.
But that shouldn’t detract from some of the good stuff in each part of the push. The emphasis on spreading the word, through links, embed code and more on the website is great to see. And the trailer is a lot of very dark fun. It’s just that there’s little connective tissue to those components, resulting in the movie not having as strong or as weighty a brand identity as it could have.