Historical comedies are a mixed bag, to say the least, especially when you dive as far back as cavemen, Roman gladiators and basically anything else that puts the action anytime around or before the birth of Christ. Sometimes you hit a homerun – I’m thinking A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the first few segments of History of the World Part 1 – and sometimes you don’t – I’m looking at you Caveman and One Million Years B.C, even if you do star Raquel Welch and therefore provide a crucial plot point to The Shawshank Redemption. My point is that for every solidly funny prehistoric comedy you’ve got a handful of duds and serious movies that wind up being unintentionally funny.
The latest entry in the early civilization comedy is Year One. Starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, the pair play a couple of cavemen, but they seem to be living in Biblical times as they also encounter the Roman Empire and other things that seem to be a few millennia later than what you would normally associate with the quest for fire period. I’m sure this is explained within the movie, but as we’ll see it’s not made clear how all this happens in the campaign.
In addition to a stellar cast – Cera and Black are joined by David Cross, Hank Azaria and others – Year One is directed by one of the all-time comedy greats, Harold Ramis, who is also credited with developing the story and as one of the film’s screenwriters. It’s also being produced by Judd Apatow, so the behind-the-scenes talent is impressive on top of the actors.
Surprisingly, I’m just seeing two posters that have been created and released for Year One, and neither of them are all that intriguing.
The first one, the teaser, just features Black and Cera standing next to each other clad in their caveman outfits. Black has an expression that looks like he’s trying to figure out some sort of con or other scheme, which is more or less what we expect of the characters he plays. Cera has a blank, overwhelmed and somewhat confused expression, which again is more or less what we expect of his characters. So this one plays into the brands that these actors have built up over the years. The “Meet your ancestors” copy at the top makes it clear we’re supposed to cringe at the antics of these characters because, hey, we’re related to them. That’s a bit on the nose, but I don’t have a huge problem with it.
The theatrical poster uses the same photos of those two actors but crops out everything below the shoulder, showing just their faces in close-up. The same copy point is used, so the only real change between this and the teaser is the inclusion of the credit block between the title treatment and the actor’s faces. There’s not a whole lot of additional commentary that’s possible since it’s not that different from the teaser.
The single trailer – again a bit surprising that there was only one – works pretty well. We start off with an introduction to Cera and Black in their tribe, a tribe they’re eventually exiled from after eating the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
After their exile they wander around, bumping into Cain and his brother Abel, who are as dysfunctional as you’d expect them to be. Then they get to a Roman city and are captured and sold as slaves and, while they’re there, they also try to save a young woman who Cera’s character has been longing after and who has also been captured and sold into slavery.
There’s a bit of comedy in the trailer but overall it comes off kind of flat to be honest. I get the sense that they included a bunch of “jokes” from the film but that much of the actual humor lies in the smaller, in-between moments that exist in the film. At least that’s kind of what I’m hoping for right now.
Load up the official website and you’re immediately greeted with the movie’s poster art, with the guys parted a bit more than they are on the one-sheet to make way for a couple of items you can click on. But if you don’t click something quickly enough – by which I mean within 10 seconds or so – a 30-second TV spot for the movie begins playing. You can still go “Back” though and see the options that were presented, or you can Enter the Site.
Before we do that let’s look at those initial options. There’s “Watch the Trailer,” which starts playing the commercial we just discussed. There’s also “Worldwide Release Dates” and the option to “Register for Updates,” neither of which is remarkable.
What’s worth noting is the “You’re So Year One” section.
The You’re So Year One micro-site is basically a Twitter feed, pulling from and feeding to the @SoYearOne Twitter account. It’s actually kind of a fun combination of Twitter and social voting sites like MyStarbucksIdea, since people can Submit their own “oh snap” type comments along the lines of ” You’re so Year One, you remember when the dead sea was just sick!,” which then show up in that Twitter feed. On the site people can comment on other’s submissions or vote them up or down. Visitors can view submissions either by Most Popular or Most Recent.
I was initially skeptical about this, seeing it as yet another Twitter execution that didn’t quite stack up. But taking another look at it I think it’s actually pretty cool, allowing for a good amount of community participation. I especially like the voting aspect since it gives people a stake in the results. At the bottom of the page there are buttons that allow you to share the site on StumbleUpon, Digg, Facebook, Delicious and Reddit.
Moving on, let’s look at the content after Entering the Site.
“About the Film” contains a one-paragraph Synopsis that’s heavy on the names of the talent involved and, I’m fearful, is indicative of how thin the film’s plot actually is. Cast is here as well but contains just a still photo of that actor and not any information or anything about them, which is a bit odd. There’s also a Soundboard that has about 18 audio clips from the main characters, each of which lights up when you play their clip.
Next up is “Videos,” Which contains the Trailer and a Sneak Peek Video, which is an extended version of the scene where Black and Cera come across Cain and Abel, played by Paul Rudd and David Cross. There’s also a section for TV Spots, but there’s nothing there and it’s still labeled as “Coming Soon,” despite the fact that the movie opens tomorrow. Not sure when that was scheduled to be done, but I’m pretty confident that deadline was missed. It’s especially odd that this is vacant for two reasons: 1) That 30-second spot is featured on the front page of the site and 2) That 30-second spot was a commercial that aired during the recent Super Bowl.
“Gallery” has 13 stills from the film. “Downloads” has Wallpapers, a Screensaver, IM Icons and something I’m seeing more and more, which is Twitter Skins. That last one is basically an image formatted specifically for downloading and then uploading in the “Design” section of your Twitter profile. It’s not a whole lot different from what studios used to do by offering MySpace Skins, just the latest version of that sort of “rebrand with us” marketing tactic.
“Rock Paper Spears” is next, a Rock, Paper, Scissors type game that’s mildly amusing. Along with that is a link to watch a video, hosted on the movie’s YouTube channel, that introduces you to the history of this game. Nice touch, I think.
Also in the more interactive entertainment mold are the “Ancestor Animator” feature, which lets you upload a photo and then integrate it into an animated story that you create. Finally, there’s another link to the “You’re So Year One” site.
At the bottom of the page there are links to the film’s Facebook and MySpace profiles, both of which contain more or less the same material as the official site. There are also options to follow SonyPictures on Twitter or to share the site via social network, bookmarking and news services.
Advertising and Cross Promotion
Sony did plenty of advertising for Year One, both in the form of TV spots and ads both online, outdoor and, I would presume, in print. Most of the TV spots were, as in the case of the one that appears on the official site, simply slimmed down versions of the trailer. What I’m kind of struck by, though, is how much the Cain and Abel scene is played up and featured in these spots. Seems like this one scene is a focal point of much of the campaign. Not sure what to make of that, but it’s interesting.
The TV advertising actually reached a high point, in impact if not in frequency, five months before release when the movie had a spot – the same one that is on the front of the official site – air during this year’s Super Bowl.
That Super Bowl spot was extended by Sony on Crackle.com, with a sweepstakes to win various prizes and and basically explore more of the film in the form of a Sneak Peek, the same sneak peek that’s on the official site, though there are three other extended clips on that microsite as well. You’ll also find those same clips and a bit more on the movie’s FunnyOrDie profile page.
Media and Publicity
Aside from the release of the marketing materials, the first post-production media item of note was when it was announced that the MPAA’s Ratings Board was sticking the movie with an R-rating. That wasn’t the situation for long though, with the filmmakers making some requested trims to the movie and just a day later being awarded their PG-13 , which obviously will help them bring in a broader audience that includes the much-coveted pre-teen and teen demographics.
As you’d expect considering the level of talent involved in the movie there was plenty of other publicity, primarily in the form of interviews with the cast and crew. Unfortunately much of that publicity wound up focusing on potential future projects by those folks, with many of the interviews with Harold Ramis including as many questions about plans for Ghostbusters 3 and interviews with David Cross and Michael Cera coming around to what they know about a possible Arrested Development movie.
Looking at the campaign from top to bottom I can say that I more or less like it and think it accomplishes the goals of the studio pretty well. The comedy portrayed is going to be, I feel, attractive to the audiences being targeted, especially as they’re likely to be familiar with Black and Cera and the rest of the crew already. So on that level it works, particularly if you break the campaign up into its component parts.
But if you do look at the whole picture that’s been put together for the movie you get the same sense you do looking at a crowd scene in a movie like Gladiator: Only 25 percent of what you see are original elements and the rest is that same picture repeated over and over. Likewise this campaign seems to hit the same four or five notes across all elements. The shot of the guys riding the cart like it’s a roller coaster, Cain beating Abel to death with a rock, the stoning by the Roman crowd…they appear over and over again.
As I said before, I’m holding out hope that this is simply the creators of the marketing campaign picking out a handful of out-and-out “jokes” and reinforcing those time and time again, with the rest of the movie being a bit more subtle and funny. That might be in vein, but considering the talents of those both behind and in front of the camera I’m going to stick with it.