Movie Marketing Madness: Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides

We do love a good anti-hero these days, don’t we? Back in the 70’s and 80’s audiences flocked to screen stories of lone heroes who defied procedure and all common sense to protect the streets of their city, defend a tower full of people from exceptional thieves or otherwise Do What Needed To Be Done regardless of the dangers to their own persons or the advice that more reasonable people were giving them to stop trying.

But somewhere in the early 90’s a trend started that continues to this day of heroes who are more conflicted or who at least don’t have the clear moral compass that their predecessors did. Some of those seemed to be doing what was right only accidentally or coincidentally because it matched up at the moment with their own selfish motives.

For the last several years audiences have been enjoying the anti-heroism of Captain Jack Sparrow and now he’s back in the new movie Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The fourth entry in the popular franchise isn’t so much a reboot of the series as it is a fresh start. While many of the characters from the first three movies are back gone are Elizabeth and Will and with them much of the convoluted plot that dominated the second and third movies. Instead we get here a much more straightforward story about Jack trying to find the Fountain of Youth at the behest of Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a quest that finds him crossing paths with Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and a whole host of new dangers that he will work to either charm his way out of or run away from.

The Posters

The first teaser poster for the movie followed the same pattern that had been laid out with the previous movies by showing a skull adorned with pirate decorations, with various things hanging off the bandanna that’s wrapped around the forehead and decorations in its long beard as well as two swords crossed in back of it.

Again, this is similar to the teaser posters for the first and second movies in the series, each of which had the same sort of pirate skull, though the one-sheet for Curse of the Black Pearl featured a less ordained skull and the one for Dead Man’s Chest had torches and not swords in the background. So, with the exception of At World’s End (which deviated from the previous branding throughout its poster campaign) it’s a nice continuation of the way the audience has been first introduced to the previous films.

Character posters were shortly thereafter released that featured up-close images of Captain Jack, Angelica, Blackbeard and Barbossa. Even the mermaids got their own one-sheet.

The next and final poster, a theatrical version, put Depp front and center on the one-sheet as he’s positioned standing in front of mermaids, burning pirate ships and more. This one is apparently designed to position Jack Sparrow as more of a hero instead of a conniving pirate since he looks like he’s readying to valiantly take on half the fleet, something that’s a bit unusual since the character is often more ready to hide behind something solid until he’s forced by circumstances to come out.

The Trailers

The first trailer sets up the basic outlines of the plot, that the pirates are now looking for the Fountain of Youth. That quest is at the instigation of the British monarchy

Honestly there’s so much going on here in an effort to convey the film’s scope it’s hard to keep up. We see Barbosa is now working for the British Navy. We meet Blackbeard, the most feared of all pirates. We meet Blackbeard’s daughter, who has a romantic history with Jack. We see Jack’s father make a brief return. We’re told – and we later see – there will be mermaids and zombies in-between the characters and their goal.

There are also plenty of shots of Captain Jack’s signature wit, which is the real drawing point of these movies even more than the spectacle of the adventures. So for a first effort this is a tight and yet sprawling spot that tells the audience there’s plenty of both new and familiar material for them to enjoy.

The second trailer is much more interested in setting up the stakes that are in play in the story. We’re quickly introduced to the fact that Jack and his band of cohorts are in pursuit of the fountain of youth, that he’s been conscripted by the British government in some regard and that Blackbeard is currently in possession of the Black Pearl, something that doesn’t sit well with either Jack or Barbossa. So the group sets out to find it, a task that in some manner involves a mermaid, which are beautiful but also apparently deadly.

We get glimpses of all the main returning characters as well as plenty of McShane as Blackbeard and a brief look at Keith Richards, who returns as Jack’s father. It’s a much better trailer overall than the first one, probably because it’s less about selling the audience on just having a rollicking good time and more on actually presenting the movie’s plot. There are some funny moments that are patched together by taking unrelated dialogue and making it seem like one’s a reaction to the other but that’s common and this is still a tight and amusing trailer.

Online

After the skull finishes burning as the official website loads it gives way to one of the trailers and after that’s done there’s a bit more loading that needs to happen.

The first section of content is “About” and that’s where you’ll be able to read a Story synopsis that lets you know we’ll be encountering characters both new and old on this particular adventure.

“Videos” is up next and is especially well stocked, with trailers, TV spots, extended film clips and exclusive video featurettes that go into the movie’s plot and locations. There are even promotional videos for the Lego video game tie-ins.

There’s information on who all the people in the movie are in the “Characters” section, which loads a brief background of that character and allows you to pick out some downloads specific to him or her.

Just (surprisingly) nine stills from the film can be found in the “Gallery” while the “Games” section is about promoting the online multiplayer game, the console editions or other versions. “Products” also has information on the video games as well as other stuff you can buy and “Activities” has stuff you can interact with either online or in the real world by downloading and making yourself.

The site finishes up with sections on “Community,” a place where you can check out Jack’s “Past Voyages” and more.

The movie’s Facebook page promotes many of the interactive features of the official site in addition to hosting its own selection of video, photos and a list of updates as to what the latest information on the movie and its cast and crew are.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

The advertising push for the movie kicked off with a commercial broadcast during Super Bowl XLV that, unfortunately, wasn’t all that different in substance than the first trailer. We get to see Captain Jack again and are introduced to the mermaids, zombies and other obstacles he’ll encounter on this quest. An extended version was released after the game that was a bit better, showing more of Blackbeard in the extra 30 seconds it had to use and so that longer one comes off a bit better because of the extra detail.

A later TV spot would build largely off the second trailer, giving the audience hints about the Fountain of Youth and what it takes to get there and such. It’s not all that different from the earlier commercial, so it could generously be called “consistent” though “unoriginal” would be a less charitable reading. The “live forever” theme would also be hit in a commercial that ran during one of the NBA playoff games, giving the movie a pretty broad audience.

Further commercials would take narrower focuses, including on the mermaids and other specific facets of the movie.

The movie also got a new video game tie in, this time in LEGO form, becoming the latest franchise to get a brick-based incarnation.

Verizon was one of the promotional partners for the film, creating a site that allowed you download exclusive wallpapers, watch videos and more. Pirate’s Booty, the popular all-natural treat, created limited edition movie-themed packaging. Beauty brand OPI released limited edition finger nail polish that tied into the film and you could buy exclusive shirts and other clothing at Hot Topic, jewelry inspired by the movie from Swarovsky. Best Buy and Visa were also promotional partners but to what extent isn’t clear.

Media and Publicity

While rumors had circulated for a while about who would be directing, what cast would be returning and such, the appearance by Johnny Depp in full Capt. Jack Sparrow garb at Disney’s D23 (Variety, 9/11/09) fan expo in September 2009 was the first full-bodied confirmation a new movie was underway. At the same time the film’s title was released and a title treatment revealed, though little about the plot was spilled by anyone.

In April 2010 news began to circulate that Disney was keeping a tight hand on the budget (Los Angeles Times, 4/27/10), at least making sure it would not expand beyond that of the previous movie. That got bandied about a bit and some people wrongly inferred that meant the studio was cheaping out, but all it really indicated as that even people there realized the third film was kind of an overly complex mess that could have used a bit of trimming in a number of areas.

A filmed intro from Depp in costume and character was screened at Comic-Con 2010, with the actor teasing what the film would or wouldn’t be about, who might or might not be in it and otherwise clarifying things for the audience there. Served well to give the movie a slight presence at the convention and make sure the folks there were reminded the movie was coming in the midst of the onslaught there.

News broke that Disney had brought in a special marketing consultant (Hollywood Reporter, 9/7/10) for the movie, something that was widely seen as a vote of no-confidence in relatively new marketing chief M.T. Carney but which in actuality is probably not that big a deal considering this movie presents a number of challenges in its potential marketing.

Just before the release of the first trailer it was announced that release would be part of a huge movie-themed event at Disneyland (a Voce client) that gave fans special treatment and the first look at the first trailer in exchange for dressing up as pirates and other opportunities for an enhanced experience.

The release of the first batch of official photos became a press event (USA Today, 12/9/10) of course, since there’s so much anticipation for this movie. The timing of those photos was right around the release of The Tourist, another Depp film, though that may not have been the best idea considering the reviews that movie was getting.

There was also talk about how this was somewhat of a thematic departure for director Marshall (Los Angeles Times, 12/14/10), who was attracted to the project by the prospect of working with Depp and taking on a different type of story than he usually tackles.

The tie-in toys and other products for the movie were also among those debuting or otherwise making a big show at the annual Toy Fair convention (Hollywood Reporter, 2/10/11).

More events were held at Disney theme parks, which hosted nights where extended sequences of the movie were shown in 3D to park-goers, who were once again encouraged to come dressed as pirates for the screenings. The movie was also promoted to a more industry-centric crowd at CinemaCon 2011 (THR, 3/29/11), the exhibition trade show. More industry and promotional efforts were likely the impetus behind scheduling a screening (out of competition) of the movie at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (LAT, 4/14/11).

Inevitably the attention to turned to Cruz (LAT, 4/29/11) and how this was the actress’ first foray into big budget, effects-driven blockbuster territory.

Depp also would weigh in on how the filmmakers sought to simplify the story this time around (Entertainment Weekly, 5/5/11) and eliminate all the interconnectedness of the last couple movies, which you needed a proverbial pirate’s map to navigate.

Overall

There’s some good stuff here, but at some point like this the elements that work actually get drowned out by the fact that such a broad appeal is being made here. But with a campaign like this that’s trying to bring in as many people as possible that’s kind of the point. The audience needs to be convinced to come back for more adventures featuring these characters for the fourth time and after a four year hiatus.

The posters, as I point out, position Capt. Jack as more of a hero than he’s previously been while also working to introduce the new supporting characters and villains. The trailers only half-heartedly discuss the film’s plot while mostly being about promising a good, adventurous time at the theater.

As with the movie itself the campaign depends greatly on Depp’s charm, which is substantial. As the star of the film he’s been front and center in the ads, in the publicity and more as the public is wooed.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

  • 05/20/11 – ClickZ covers some of the online advertising, which was certainly sizable, that was done for the movie.