We all have our own personal experiences with dreams. Some of us dream in black and white, some in full Technicolor with Dolby surround sound and eye-popping special effects. Some of our dreams are pretty boring and deal with driving to work while others meld together different areas of our life into one disorienting (especially when we wake up) new reality. What always struck me as fascinating, though, is that according to most people we don’t remember 90 percent of our dreams. They’re just gone and don’t leave that residue others do when we wake up.

But what if someone could invade your dreams? Not only that, what if they could manipulate them to an extent that they use those dreams to penetrate the recess of your mind and learn whatever secrets you hold?

That’s the premise for Inception, the new movie from director Christopher Nolan. Seeking to extend the enormous goodwill from both audiences and critics he has following 2008’s The Dark Knight, Nolan has created another highly-glossed thinking-man’s thriller. The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an agent of a company who has the ability to invade anyone’s dreams, a talent his company puts to use by trying to steal the corporate secrets of their client’s rivals. Before embarking on the biggest job of his career, though, he seeks to recruit an assistant and potential successor. To that end he enlists the aid of his mentor (Michael Caine) and finds a young woman (Ellen Page) who may be even better at the job and he is. Cillian Murphy, another veteran who has worked with Nolan before, plays the mark targeted by DiCaprio.

Inception was pegged early on in its production as one of the most-anticipated movies of 2010 and one that, despite it being almost wholly original and not based in some way on an existing franchise or property, could be a break-out hit this summer. As we’ll see all that thinking will come up more than once in the campaign and publicity. So let’s take a look.

The Posters

The initial teaser poster presented a suitably, in light of the previously released trailer, surreal image. DiCaprio stands knee deep in water in the middle of a city street, seemingly perfectly calm. This sort of image has been used plenty of times before in movies from Vanilla Sky to I Am Legend. The copy at the top “Your mind is the scene of the crime” compliments that design nicely since it makes it more clear to the audience that this is a psychological drama and that we can expect plenty of such weirdness in the film itself.

The second poster actually comes off as more of a teaser than the first one, with the movies title written on the tops of buildings that the camera is looking down on. It sports the same copy as the other one-sheet, with both also not naming Nolan specifically (outside the credit block) but making the claim that this comes from the director of The Dark Knight.

The next poster put most of the cast on the street, but this time instead of being knee-deep in water for no apparent reason you’ll see not only are they standing on the street, but they’re standing in front of another street that’s rising directly behind them. That continues to tell the audience that this movie is going to be about shifting realities – or at least shifting perceptions of reality. Despite getting top billing, DiCaprio is not that featured in the design of the poster as he’s just as far away from the camera as the rest of the cast. That, combined with his face not being directly seen on the first poster, tells me the studio is selling the premise more than the star power, despite the formidable cast.

 

A fourth poster brought the cast more in to focus but continued with the reality shifting motif. Yes, the actor’s faces were more front and center and easy to make out but they were all at odd angles walking along the outside of buildings that were upside down or in some other way contorted. It’s as if they were all walking around a Salvidor Dali painting, only without the melting clock in the background.

A series of seven character posters were later released that featured each of the main actors from the film as well as an identifier as to what their character’s role is. So DiCaprio is “The Extractor,” Murphy is “The Mark” and so on. All of them had the actor’s face appearing amidst the bent, rolling sea of buildings that’s similar to what we’ve seen in the trailers. They almost look like photo mosaics and come off with the same sort of cool vibe.

The Trailer

The first teaser trailer definitely set a spooky and mysterious mood for the movie. It plays up the movie’s artistic pedigree, especially director Nolan’s involvement, and while it’s light on plot it’s heavy on weird visuals, from the two guys bounding after each other on the walls of a hotel hallway to DiCaprio gasping for breath after emerging from a bathtub to that cool shot of the glass of water that’s on a severe angle. Again, this is all about setting a mood and not necessarily telling anyone what the movie is actually about and on that level it works really well.

The second trailer went a little – but only a little – bit deeper into the story. Through narrated voiceover, DiCaprio makes it clear that this is a psychological battle being waged as he intones about ideas being the most persistent parasites and most potent weapons. All this while various trippy visuals unfold around him as city streets fold over on themselves, various people seem to drown and buildings collapse around our main characters. There’s also a bit about his character needing to steal an idea which, combined with the on-the-nose text about the your mind being the scene of the crime, makes it clear that much of the movie will take place outside the physical world and its constraints.

A third trailer went even deeper into the plot. It more or less opens with DiCaprio recruiting Page into his operations, offering her a job as part of his sub-conscious intelligence gathering force. Much of this spot’s running time is spent hearing him explain what the job is and how it’s done to her, including the limited amount of rules that seem to exist for the job. Aside from and underneath that exposition we’re treated to all sorts of amazing visuals that represent the dream worlds that the characters create or have to navigate, from buildings folding up on themselves to entire seaboards collapsing. In addition to that there’s some brief nod to this being DiCaprio’s last job, or him hoping this will be his last job so that he can reunite with a lady love. At least that’s how it comes across in the trailer, though that aspect of the story is not fleshed out all that much.

Online

The landing page for the movie’s official website is quite different from those for most sites in that I’m not immediately assaulted by 17 options to click or view right at the outset. Instead the only prompt there aside from the Enter the Site button is an invitation to watch footage from the movie’s premiere and a performance of the score by Hans Zimmer and Johnny Marr.

After you do Enter the Site and it loads, the first thing you see is a recreation of one of the poster’s key art with Zimmer’s score playing over it.

The first section in the Menu is “About the Film.” The Synopsis that’s there does a better job in one paragraph of explaining what the movie’s about – at least from a plot standpoint – than all the trailers combined. There are also Cast and Filmmaker backgrounds and some PDF Notes you can download.

“Videos” has all three trailers and an extended spot that’s sort of a trailer called The Characters that introduces each of the main characters more individually. Unfortunately none of the many TV spots that have been running are here, which is too bad since some of them were quite good.

There are all the movie’s Posters, a Screensaver, a dozen or so Wallpapers and eight Buddy Icons in “Downloads.” About 40 stills, mostly from the movie but also including some featuring director Nolan, are found in the “Gallery.”

The “Sweepstakes” section just has links to the sites that have partnered on running sweepstakes in conjunction with the movie.

“Protect Your Thoughts” takes you to information from Verizon on the app they’ve created that is discussed more fully below.

The “Mind Crime Game” is kind of cool. You can play as either an Architect or an Extractor and, respectively, design your own maze or play someone else’s. If you play as an Extractor you run around a virtual city collecting clues to unlocking a safe with the mark’s secrets while trying not to be noticed by the pedestrians who populate the dream.

Finally, you can create your own poster by uploading an image to one of the templates and then having your image become part of the cityscape. Once you’ve finished you can share the result with your social networks or download it to admire forever.

The movie’s Facebook page is pretty standard, with updates on publicity and sweepstakes and such on the Wall and plenty of photos and more to view and download. There’s a heavy emphasis, especially in the last week or so, on the streaming (now archived) video from the movie’s premiere and other events. There are also a couple of tabbed sections such as Videos, Downloads and Gallery that are lifted straight from the official site, including the graphics and overall navigation.

An online ARG campaign that was pretty similar in execution to that of The Dark Knight though nowhere near that scale was run as well.

The first component of the ARG came when visitors to the official site in December realized they could click through to another site, YourMindIstheSceneoftheCrime, and after building and completing a maze game people were shown the first poster for the movie.

Next, a QR code included with swag that was handed out after Nolan’s appearance at WonderCon brought people to PasiDevice, a site that contained a user’s manual for the mysterious device used by DiCaprio’s character in the film.

The ARG continued with a video with researchers and scientists talking about REM sleep and the potential that exists for taking part in other people’s dreams in a more active and cognitive way than people participate in their own. Eventually a user’s manual for the PasiDevice was sent to Wired Magazine, who posted the pages online and asked readers to help decipher some of the instructions and clues that it included.

The game at that point moved further into the real world with outdoor posters and even TV spots that warned audience members about the dangers of mind crimes and dream theft and other issues that related to the movie’s plot. But the site QR codes on the posters pointed people to didn’t immediately provide clues or further the game, leading to some confusion among those actively playing along.

A very cool mobile game was developed called SCVNGR (MediaPost, 6/24/10) that asked people to get involved using their smart phones. Apps for iPhones or Android-powered devices were needed for people to check in at locations in 100 cities – including major landmarks and movie theaters – and then complete some sort of challenge tied to that location. In response players were given exclusive movie content and special badges. Some of those challenges involved taking photos and then sharing them across social networks, helping to spread the word of the movie.

There was also a Mind Crime Prevention app that was created exclusively for Verizon’s Droid (AdAge, 7/12/10) that was more about getting movie information than playing a game, though the corresponding website promised an experience in helping you learn how to protect your thoughts.

More straightforward was a 15-page preview comic that debuted on Yahoo! Movies that provided the lead-in to the movie’s story. We see DiCaprio’s character and his team engage on a mission that doesn’t go quite right but which then provides the lead-in to what we’ll see in the movie.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Despite the fact that this movie is not based on a comic book and not an animated kid’s film there was quite a bit of TV advertising done. A number of commercial spots were produced that more or less follow the format of the third trailer, introducing us to DiCaprio’s job and the weird worlds he deals in. Most of them also make it clear that it’s Page’s character who will be the audience’s “in” within the movie, the one who’s learning things so that we can learn them and the touch-point for the audience, giving us someone we can relate to as we’re shown one unbelievable thing after another.

Three later spots really upped the dramatic ante, making it clear that there were major stakes the characters faced and real consequences if they should fail to achieve those goals. They diverged quite a bit from the trailer’s format and showed much more action-filled plot elements, the better to lure in summer movie audiences looking for big guns and chase sequences.

In addition to more traditional outdoor ads that used just the title treatment or some sort of variation on one of the poster images, some really creative outdoor units were created in New York City that made it look like buildings were peeling or water rushing out of their windows. The photo below comes courtesy of Moishe Friedman.

Media and Publicity

Much of the publicity around the movie focused on just how big and different the movie was and how far director Nolan was reaching (Los Angeles Times, 1/13/10) with his artistic vision. Future features would follow suit (Los Angeles Times, 4/4/10) and be timed around the movie’s junket-esque appearance at WonderCon, where Nolan also spilled a few more details about the plot and showed up a clips package.

What was interesting was that since the movie was not, unlike so many others this summer, part of a franchise, the constant attention by the press on the director turned Nolan into the brand that audiences were expected and encouraged to latch on to. From those early stories through later features (New York Times, 6/30/10), Nolan was the hook in place of a toy line or comic book character that became the brand the publicity was rallying around and which the studio sought to turn into the familiar and nonthreatening audience draw.

There were even stories about just how hard the movie was to market (Hollywood Reporter, 7/9/10) and which made it sound like any comment about it being “brainy” or something similar was to be read as vague at best. The crux of this seemed to be an attempted level setting for the movie’s expectations in case it doesn’t turn out to be the smash of the summer that early buzz has set it up to be.

The supporting cast got a bit of notice as well as Nolan, as Page and Gordon-Levitt got interviewed (Los Angeles Times, 7/11/10) and profiled as being part of a group of young actors who are more concerned about their art and craft than in being on the party scene.

Whatever the primary focus, the overall theme in the press stories was that Inception was an unknown property (LAT, 7/13/10) and therefore represented a risky move by Warner Bros.

Buzz, of course, begets more buzz and the conversations around the movie spiked up in recent days (AdAge, 7/15/10) as people began to discuss the film more and more and anticipation began to mount.

Overall

The focus on Nolan in the publicity section of the push was, I think, a smart move since much of the rest of the campaign showed a movie that was potentially more challenging intellectually than the average summer blockbuster. So this was the attempt to make it clear to the audience that there was an accessible entry point for them in the form of the director of that Batman sequel they enjoyed so much a couple years ago.

But that puts a lot of pressure on the director and it’s extremely likely that within Hollywood the campaign’s emphasis will mean that the movie’s success is seen as a referendum on his future. If it winds up being a well-reviewed hit he will probably be able to write his own check on whatever  future projects he chooses. If not then it winds up tainting how he’s treated the next time he steps up to the plate, most likely when he starts revving up Batman 3.

Putting aside the issues of the movie not being based on an existing property, I really dig this campaign. Does it fully explain the movie? Not by a long shot. But it does something better: It actually has me anticipating the journey the movie will take me on. It’s not just selling me something I’m already inclined to purchase and then more or less enjoy. It’s making me want to see the movie because I want to figure out what the heck is going on. I’m anxious to see how the movie’s story unfolds and how it is going to engage me. That hasn’t happened in a long time with a mainstream Hollywood campaign and, honestly, it’s a feeling only truly original movies can create.

That’s also only created by an effective campaign and this very much fits that description. The posters are interesting and confusing, as are the trailers. The ARG is just fully-featured enough to be interesting without becoming overwhelming. While most of the rest of the online campaign is good as well, my favorite part is the prequel comic since with a movie which has dealt with so much “What’s it about?” conversation, any sort of table-setting it can do for the movie is a good thing.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

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