Movie Marketing Madness: Rango

We never know who we really are or who we really can be until we’ve been tested. There’s a process that we as individuals go through in truly trying times that brings out the best or worst in our natures, including bravery and fortitude that we may never have known or even suspected that we have. The best of these situations inspires not only ourselves but also those around us, whether they’re family, friends or even complete strangers whose lives are suddenly intertwined with our own.

One would imagine this goes for chameleons who happen to be actors as well.

The new animated feature Rango tells the story of just such a lizard. When Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) suddenly finds himself outside the home where he’s been a pet for years and thrust into the dangerous world of an old-fashioned Western town where he’s an outsider among people who don’t cotton to outsiders he has to scramble to just survive. But he soon finds that because he’s from outside the town the law-abiding citizens look to him to help them out from under the thumb of a gang of outlaws who terrorize them. Taking on the role of sheriff he must decide whether to rise to the occasion and along with that win the heart of Beans (voiced by Isla Fisher) who more than anyone is counting on him to save the day and become more than he thought he could be.

The Posters

The first poster was essentially a character introduction to Depp’s Rango. The character stands there staring at the camera looking slightly befuddled and worried. So we get a look at a small portion of the movie’s design look, conveniently in the form of a poster that highlights Depp’s involvement in the film.

The second poster fills in a bit more of the story by way of filling in more of the cast. The title character is still front and center, this time clutching the weird wind-up plastic fish that’s been so central to the campaign, with Depp’s name above him and above that the intonation that this comes from Depp’s POTC director as well. But this time behind him are all the townspeople, who are kind of staring wide-eyed at him.

It’s a nice poster that asks the audience how far they’re willing to buy in to the idea that Depp as a lizard with a plastic fish is funny. But it’s bright and colorful and will likely attract a few folks based on the promise that the film itself is mildly amusing.

The Trailers

The first trailer – an extreme teaser that was later clarified as being a website announcement more than anything – was, well, quite loopy. All it showed was a plastic wind-up orange fish slowly crossing a rural road. No dialogue, very little about who was in it or who it was coming from. It was all about, seemingly, telling the audience that they’re about to be taken on a trippy ride of some sort.

The first legitimate trailer is only slightly less confusing but certainly makes it more clear we’re not just going to be watching an 88 minute Salvidor Dali painting come to life.

We’re basically shown the movie will be a fish out of water story, with Rango walking through the desert and then being told by a toad to not be so conspicuous – a tall order for a green lizard wearing an orange Hawaiian shirt. The reason he shouldn’t stick out is the hawk that’s circling overhead is likely to see him as food, which it does. So Rango runs around for a while trying to evade being eaten.

The trailer’s second half expands the range a little bit, showing that Rango comes across some sort of old western type town of animals, none of whom are too happy to welcome a stranger. So he basically goes from one hostile environment to another with potentially comedic results.

The next trailer lays out even more of the plot. After opening with Rango running away from the hawk we see he escapes to the town of Dirt and kills said hawk, endearing him to the townsfolk. He becomes sheriff of the town and works to save them from the clutches of an evil snake that is terrorizing them. But his determination is bigger than his skill and he’s not exactly the smoothest sheriff the west has ever seen.

It’s an amusing and interesting trailer that’s all the stronger for how it finally gets into showing us what the movie’s story is going to be about, something that also gives the audience a bit more exposure to Depp’s voice work, which seems spot on and quite funny. Parts of the trailer almost play more like an old Looney Tunes cartoon than anything else and it’s funnier for that.

Online

The movie’s official website, launched early with the extreme teaser mentioned above, was updated a short while after that launch with interactive elements. Basically if you clicked on most of the objects scattered across the landscape – the fish, the guitar, the frog etc – they would react to you. If you clicked them enough they would jump up and play you a song or tell you to bug off or whatever. It was basically our first rough introduction to the characters.

Visiting it later and closer to release Mr. Timms, the wind-up fish, travels across your screen as the site loads. Once that’s done a video player unfurls that lets you watch either trailer or the Super Bowl commercial that aired. Closing that player then takes you to the same interactive elements that were there upon launch but then you can proceed to the town of Dirt by clicking on the sign to that effect.

Once you’re in town you can move the camera around to look up or down the street or enter either the Saloon, which has video, images and other information on the tie-in console video game or the General Store which is where you’ll find some online games to play.

Go back to the main street to access the main content via the “Take Me To” sign in the lower left hand corner.

“Saloon” is roughly equivalent to About the Film and the first thing there is “Cast and Filmmakers” which has profiles of the characters but not the people who play them and the Filmmakers portion of that section is still labeled as “Coming Soon.” There’s also a “Gallery” that has about 15 stills from the movie.

“Partners and Promotions” lists the companies who have helped the studio with some publicity and promotions for the movie.

A collection of Wallpapers, IM Icons and Screensavers were available under “Downloads.”

There seemed to be some sort of achievement tracker at the bottom of the screen that filled in little boxes after you played a game or watched a trailer or something. I didn’t complete all of whatever this was prompting me to since the site navigation was just so horrible but if anyone does let me know what happens when you fill in all those boxes.

The movie’s Facebook page has the usual assortment of photos, videos and updates on promotional activities. There’s also something called “Blend In” that isn’t described very well – or at all – but which seems to be some sort of feature that lets you take your picture with Rango or something. A little bit of explanation here would have been super.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

The movie advertising campaign kicked off when it got some commercial love during Super Bowl XLV with a spot that opened up with Rango and a young rodent trading insults but then gave way to claims of adventure, romance and more being part of the movie. It’s short (of course) but actually sells the spirit of the movie pretty well by playing up the different aspects of the story and showing off the playful visuals contained therein.

The movie also got a massively-multiplayer online game that allowed people to explore the world of the characters more interactively. Unlike most movie-based MMOs that are announced at the time the movie is released but not available until years later (Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean are two examples) this one is hitting on the same day the movie is released.

Also in the online marketing arena was a promotion run with Zynga’s popular Frontierville social game. Players were offered the opportunity to complete three Rango-related tasks within the game and, if they completed all three, they were rewarded with a Rango statue that could be placed on their property.

Most of the promotional partners were running some sort of sweepstakes. Amtrack had one going that gave away a trip to the Grand Canyon and both Mean Green and Biz Stain Fighter were giving away a hometown screening of the movie.

Hampton Inn and Suites just gave out some movie tickets to those who booked a hotel stay during a specific period of time. Finally PetSmart offered a coupon to those looking to buy a lizard as a pet at one of their stores.

Media and Publicity

In addition to the coverage of the trippy marketing materials, there was some initial press about how the movie was one of the first to come out as the result of a new effort by Paramount to turn its Nickelodeon brand into movie production unit (New York Times, 7/4/10).

The movie was brought to Comic-Con 2010, particularly in the form of an appearance by Mr. Timms, which is the name of the weird orange fish that glides through the announcement trailer. Mr. Timms got his own fan site, which really fails on multiple levels to be anything near approaching engaging, fun or viral. First off, it’s written in the worst form of broken English. It’s like the Mr. Sparkle commercial from “The Simpsons” only without the knowing self-awareness. Second, if you’re trying to create anything that is supposed to come off like a fan-created site then loading it up with corporate-written Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policies probably is a tell that something’s amiss. Despite my qualms, having a presence at Comic-Con was more or less essential and bringing the big wind-up fish there was a decent way to achieve that.

Technical achievements were the focus of much of the press as people buzzed about various behind-the-scenes videos or news stories (Los Angeles Times, 2/20/11) talked about the digital animators who made Rango and other character move in the way they do. Closer to release there were also interviews with Verbinski (NYT, 2/27/11) where he talked about the process he went through in conceiving the character and otherwise bring the film from its first few rough ideas to a final product.

Overall

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this campaign.

On the one hand you have it being sold as some sort of post-modern bit of deconstructed art where genres are torn down left and right. That’s the part of the campaign that’s built around Mr. Timms and the odd characters in the desert.

On the other you have it being marketed as a pretty mainstream action affair. This is the portion of the campaign that focuses on making sure we all know that it features Johnny Depp reteaming with Verbinski because hey, we all enjoyed all those Pirates movies.

What I keep expecting to find but never have seen is the part of the campaign that is meant to appeal more to families. I don’t think this is all Disney-fied sweetness and light but I was expecting some sort of pitch more directed to kids or other all-ages audiences.

Despite the seemingly scattered approach to the campaign there are core elements here that work rather well. More than anything, though, everything works well together, creating a consistent experience for the audience from one element to the next. So while the audiences or approaches might be varied, the overall look and feel of the campaign doesn’t vary too terribly much throughout.