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Movie Marketing Madness: The Day the Earth Stood Still

day-the-earth-stood-still-2008-posterToo often in the last five or six years we’ve been subjected to “remakes” that bear little resemblance to the original films other than the title, the names of the characters and the barest of plot semblances. I Am Legend is just one example of this, where the filmmakers or studio seems to have had an idea for a movie, looked at the existing properties they had the rights to and did a mail-merge to put the old movie’s character names into the new script because they shared a few plot characteristics.

That’s not necessarily a knock on the movies (I actually liked I Am Legend quite a bit) but it didn’t seem necessary to use that title for any other reason than to leverage the existingmindshare as part of the new movie’s marketing.

The 2008 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still seems very much to be part of this pattern. Based on the 1951 Robert Wise-directed classic (which, it should be noted, was only a loose adaptation of a short story by Harry Bates) the remake retains the notion that an alien named Klaatu has arrived on Earth to warn its inhabitants…and here’s where things begin to break apart. In the original the warning is for the nations of the world to put aside their warring ways and join an interplanetary association that enforces peace, a peace that allows the inhabitants to focus on bettering other technologies.

The new version, which swaps Keanu Reeves for Michael Rennie who played Klaatu in 1951, has not divulged much about the crisis looming over the Earth. Early reviews and some stories have said this time it’s not war that is the issue but potential environmental catastrophe. That’s fine, but it seems it would face some audience skepticism or even burn-out considering that’s been the go-to problem for a number of movies in recent years, from The Day After Tomorrow (and next year’s 2012 from the same director) to The Happening, which stunk up the box-office earlier this year. So it’s no surprise this driver has not been the focal point of the campaign since, if that’s really the case, it makes the idea that the inhabitants of the Earth would react so violently a little absurd.

But I feel like I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s look at the components of the campaign as we usually do.

The Posters

The first of the posters released made sure to try and sell the movie as being very much in the Independence Day mode, with a huge alien ship hovering over a crowd of people in front of a cityscape. If you’re not paying attention to the scale of the design you might think it’s actually hanging over the city itself but it’s not. Trust me. Everyone is milling about looking at this thing, apparently ignoring whatever rules there might be about not driving on the park grass. No characters were anywhere to be seen so this is very much a teaser and is trying to sell the movie as being a grand sci-fi epic and little else.

The second teaser introduced Gort, the robot that stands silently outside the landed spaceship, into the campaign. Looking a bit more streamlined than the 1951 version (CGI works wonders), he looms over the Earth with his eye laser blasting, looking very much like judge and executioner of the planet. The Earth is colored in the same way as in posters for movies like Transformers and others that feature Earth as the battleground in some sort of interplanetary battle.

The final poster ramped up the connections to Independence Day and other alien invasion flicks by showing the huge, globe-shaped ship once again, this time actually hovering over the city and with some sort of beam coming out of the bottom. Rushing toward it are a group of F-15s and other fighter jets, making it clear that this movie is about global conflict. Reeves this time gets sole billing on the one-sheet, where the first teaser had both his name and that of co-star JenniferConnelly.

The Trailers

The movie’s single trailer (really?) starts off with Connelly’s character arriving with a bunch of other people at some sort of makeshift military installation. Soon after she’s encouraged by someone she apparently knows, played by “Mad Men”‘s JonHamm, to not be afraid but that’s a cryptic warning since she doesn’t even know what is going on yet.

After that we transition to a scene of Reeves’ character being hooked up to a lie detector test and being asked if he knows about an invasion of the Earth, to which he simply replies that the tester should let him go.

The last half of the trailer is a mix of shots of light going through smoke (very Laser Floyd) in the wilderness, some sort of smoke engulfing and destroying everything in its path (including TheMeadowlands , which is being torn down anyway so that just seems excessive) and the occasional military action against the alien ship. At the very end Reeves warnsConnelly that if the Earth dies everyone on it will die but that if she dies the Earth will live. I’m sure that knowledge and the resulting decision will form a good deal of the emotional angstConnelly’s character goes through.

The trailer sells the movie very much as an action flick in the same way something like The Day After Tomorrow was sold as an action flick. The characters only seem to exist in order to transition from oneCGI set-piece to another and aren’t really shown to be carrying any sort of emotional load.

While that was the only traditional trailer that was released there was also a five-minute extended compilation of clips put together. It featured expanded versions of a handful ofscenese first teased in the trailer, most notably the interrogation sequence between Reeves and his unfortunate questioner. It doesn’t wind up treading much new ground from the trailer or making a drastically different impression (not surprising since its footage is drawn from the same source scenes) but it does serve to emphasize the idea that this is a moody, atmospheric action movie.

Online

The movie’s official website opens with some fast-cutting clips and a “Menu” icon that floats around as you move your mouse around the screen. It’s not the worst design I’ve seen, but the clips get a bit repetitive.

First up after expanding the menu is “About” and the first section there is The Story. There’s a ton of blank space next to the picture that’s on this page but only about two sentences worth of description that doesn’t go into any detail at all other than that it’s a movie about an alien with a warning. Cast and Crew list the primary players on the movie and talks about their career and a little about the character they play. There are also some Notes that are readable (more on this later) as well as available to download as aPDF.

The biggest problem with this section is readability. All the text is written in what appears to be four-point or smaller text, meaning you really have to squint in order to make out what’s on screen. Awful, awful decision on the part of the web designers. I don’t know if this is a problem that’s unique to theFirefox browser but even if that’s the case it’s something that should have been resolved. I couldn’t read a gosh darn thingin the Notes and could barely make out some other parts of the text.

Anyway, next up is “Video” which contains the movie’s one Trailer and five TV Spots, all of which are labeled with the same miniscule text. There’s also a Clips section but it’s still labeled as Coming Soon so it will not be included in this review.

“Photos” looks like it’s going to have a lot of still pictures from the movie because of the slider on the right side but it doesn’t actually go anywhere, just sort of shifting the 12 pics that are there up and down a little bit. “Downloads” has Wallpapers,IM Icons, a Screensaver that’s not live on the site yet and a Mobile section that lets you grab a few Wallpapers or Ringtones of dialogue from the movie.

The studio created a game specifically for iPhones and iPods called (no, I’m not making this up) Aphid Attack. Apparently these are the things seen in the trailer eating up trucks and sporting event stadiums. The game allows you to guide the aphids through locations around the world. I’m unclear as to whether the game is actually available in the U.S. since the release came from a U.K. interactive firm and I couldn’t find the game in aniTunes search so I’d be interested to hear if anyone can find it in the iPhone App Store or elsewhere.

Also on the official site was a section called Gort Lives that solicited artwork from people on what they thought Gort should look like. Entries range from completely original works of art to variations on the original design to people submitting pictures of the “Battlestar Galactica” Cylons or Marvin from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Finally there was a largely unnecessary social networking component in the form of Earth’s Vital List. You could join the site and then list the people or things you thought it was important to save in the event of Earth’s demise. It’s not that it’s a bad thing but it would have worked much better as a subset of another social network and not something that needed to be its own site. You can read more about this effort at ClickZ.

Fox setup a YouTube channel dedicated to the movie that contained the five-minute clip, the International trailer and some faux news footage from around the world about the aliens’ arrival but not, surprisingly, the U.S. trailer or any of the TV spots or anything like that.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a big-budget tentpole release being sent to theaters in the middle of Awards Season, when audiences are in general turning their minds to weightier fare. So in order to position the film as escapist entertainment there was a heavy advertising campaign accompanying the release. A host of TV spots and even a significant presence on radio were bought and paid for in order to advertise the movie. If there was online advertising done I didn’t see it and no one was talking about it.

There were, surprisingly, no cross-promotions of note either. That actually struck me as quite odd considering it would have raised the profile of the movie significantly, I think.

Media and Publicity

Not much outside of the usual round of press. The stars did appear at Comic-Con earlier this year to promote the movie to the geek crowd and assembled press there, an appearance that netted SpoutBlog’s Kevin Kelly this fantastic interview with Reeves, so that was totally worth it.

In a last minute effort to drum up some publicity for the move, 20th Century Fox announced that, through the Deep Space Communications Network at Cape Canaveral, the movie would become the first feature film to be broadcast into space.

The release actually got sent to a number of people I know in the PR industry who then sent it to me with their own commentary. A sampling of their reactions:

David Parmet: “Klaatu Barada Help Me.”

Kevin Dugan: “The day the pitch stood still.”

Peter Shankman: “If the movie gets panned, can it rightfully be called ‘space junk?'”

Daniel Lally: “And the ET textbooks will need to be rewritten: ‘Earth is populated by hairy bipeds, whose emotions range from A to B.’”

DVD Re-release

The best part about the appearance of the new movie is that it prompted Fox to re-release the 1951 original.

Re-watching the film via a review copy provided to me of the new two-disc special edition, I was struck by just how great this movie is. It’s not epic or intensly personal along the lines of classics like Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind or others along those lines. But it is just a really, really good movie that captures the feelings of the era it was produced in while still remaining relevant to contemporary audiences.

In the movie, Klaatu arrives on earth with the robot Gort, landing in a Washington D.C. park. Taken into custody after he’s mistakenly shot by a trigger happy soldier, he explains he has a message of importance to the entire world and rejects attempts by single countries to dominate his presentation. Eventually he escapes the hospital he’s being held at and assumes the identity of Mr. Carpenter, trying to get to know what the citizens of the world are like as opposed to their arrogant and short-sighted rulers. He becomes involved in the lives of a single woman and her young son and through them meets one of the leading scientists of the day, who conveniently lives just down the street, and tries to convey to his colleagues the message he has come with from the other inhabited planets.

Everyone knows the movie was an allegory for the international unrest enveloping the world at the time, the beginning of the Cold War and not long after World War II, and that’s certainly true. But let’s also look at the name Klaatu gives himself: Carpenter. The fact that he comes with a message of peace for the world, is mistrusted and hunted by the authorities, dies and comes back for a short period in order to finish his mission gives him kind of undeniable Christian overtones as well. I had never really caught that until watching it this time and now it’s a notion that I can’t shake.

The DVD special edition transfer looks fantastic. I’m by no means an expert in pixels and compression rates or other matters but the picture to my eye was crisp and clean and looked great. The first disc also contains a pair of audio commentary as well as – and this is super cool – an isolated audio track that allows you to listen to the legendary theramin-dominated soundtrack all by itself.

Both discs also have between them a handful of documentaries and retrospectives that focus on everything from the movie’s production history to the decoding of the movie’s legendary command phrase to how science fiction films serve as cautionary tales in their respective places in history.

Overall

I don’t know. For what has to be a major component of Fox’s late-year release schedule this seems like a sparse and almost accidental campaign. One trailer? A web presence that seems to be more focused on a clever social networking strategy than actually communicating the appeal of the movie? I have this feeling like the studio kept forgetting this was coming up, saw they had a deadline coming up and then just rushed something out and then went back to forgetting about it.

I’m actually at a loss to summarize this campaign since it seems so hap-hazard. Honestly the best part of the campaign was the new edition of the original movie on DVD, though that’s likely to only foster comparisons between the two versions of the story, not all of which will be favorable.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

  • 1/12/09: While the point of the Earth’s Vital List component of Fox’s campaign for the movie was questioned by some, it did result in apparently decent usage. More importantly, Fox and Moxie Interactive, which created the tool, were able to track user engagement and see how people were using it.
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