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Movie Marketing Madness: X-Men: First Class

xmen_first_class_ver6Prequels are a tricky game. The idea, of course, is to tell a story with characters and settings that are somewhat familiar to the audience but in a new way, with some new characters and situations being added in to make it seem more wholly original. This can help provide some interesting backstory to the audience that is supposed to add to the enjoyment of those original entries. It also helps filmmakers do new things with new actors playing the roles originated by increasingly older (and therefore less demographically viable) stars. The danger, though, is that something about the prequel’s story will upset the mythology applecart and either slightly or blatantly contradict what’s been previous established.

No, I’m not going to reference the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy here, though there are plenty of examples of those movies falling into the traps mentioned above. Instead I will mention, because it’s more closely related to the movie we’re discussing today, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Among other problems the movie, which sought to tell of Logan’s early life, had a young Cyclops encountering Wolverine, Emma Frost and others as he sought to extricate himself from the Weapon X program. For continuity obsessives like myself, the movie was just a mess.

Similar problems seem to be afoot in the new movie X-Men: First Class. The movie takes us back to the 1960’s and the foundation of the mutant movement. Charles Xavier (James MacAvoy) is determined to train and educate young mutants to serve humanity. When he meets Erik Lencher (Michael Fassbender) he thinks he’s found a kindred spirit and the two begin searching for mutant teenagers to train. Xavier and Lencher help the kids come to terms with their powers but the latter has a much darker view of the human race and begins to deviate from Xavier’s utopian view, a split that’s only increased by the group’s eventual involvement in government and military activities.

Sounds like a great idea for a movie, but the continuity problems it presents for the previous trilogy of films are substantial. What remains to be seen, though, is how much the average moviegoer cares about such things and whether the movie can prove entertaining enough in and of itself to make even people like me not care why Cyclops’ brother Alex Summers – Havoc – who appears in this entry is never reference in the other movies and other problems.

The Posters

The first teaser poster for the movie was pretty simple but was also clearly identifiable as a one-sheet for an X-Men movie and did a good job of setting the location. All that’s viewable is the emblem of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters with a giant “X” in the middle and, at the bottom of the symbol, “First Class.” It’s effective in how it conveys that basic information and is unique to itself while also being reminiscent of the posters for the first couple of X-Men movies.

The next two teasers were just 17 different kinds of awful. They’re so bad in fact at first I couldn’t believe they were actually real. There are two posters here, one for Xavier and one for Lenscher. We see silhouettes of the characters they will become – the wheelchair bound Professor X and the regal and helmeted Magneto – but within their torsos (actually closer to their crotches) are the faces of how they appear in this movie. I’m not sure what the decision making process behind these two posters was but this is seriously off track in terms of presenting a slick, well-made action flick.

 

With those making such an impression (and I’m not even mentioning the awful Photoshop hatchet jobs that were distributed as international posters and banners) it’s no surprise not only that people would create their own posters but that those posters would be so freaking cool.

The Trailers

The movie’s first trailer, which debuted just a few months ago, starts out setting the scene by juxtaposing the images Charles Xavier and Erik Lenscher we know from the first series of movies with their new incarnations here as much younger men. We then get the time set for us by seeing and hearing a speech by John F. Kennedy talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis. That leads to a montage of of the various characters, including Lawrence as Mystique, Jones turning to diamond as Emma Frost and just about everyone else. We see a couple of shots of military action along the coast of Cuba, action that the mutants are participating in as the swoop in on the Blackbird. It’s not clear what that role is but Erik lifts a submarine out of the water with his hands, which is pretty cool.

It’s a tight and intriguing trailer that, as I said, does a really good job of setting the audience’s expectations in terms of time and place. There isn’t a lot of time for performances or story to come out here but that’s not the point with this initial spot. Instead it’s about announcing to the audience that a new, previously untold story of the mutant community’s past is being told and that there are a host of new characters to latch on to as well as some returning ones.

Later on a 90 second trailer was released that featured not too terribly much in the way of new footage but did reiterate the fact that we’re seeing the origins of the leaders of the two mutant camps before they were rivals. Much of the emphasis here is on Erik/Magneto and the choices he makes to not take the path of the light side. There’s a bit of new footage shown here, including some of Banshee swooping through the sky over Cuba as well as some other battle sequences. it’s pretty good and certainly tighter than the previous one but we still don’t get much exposition aside from the theme that the two friends are going to go their separate ways in the battle to come.

The full theatrical trailer starts our in much the same way as the others, with Xavier and Lencher meeting and getting to know each other. They then assemble the team and test their powers. There’s some new stuff in here that could be called character moments, including one between Beast and Mystique and a little bit more before we once again get into the team’s involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It ends, then, with the seeds of the disagreement between the two leaders being sown. It’s probably the best of the trailers but still there’s only about 15% of new footage here so it’s not like it’s going on any untrod ground.

A series of character-specific trailers were created for some of the mutants, including  Havoc, Beast, Banshee (two of which were brand new to the franchise) and Mystique. Each of them showed some extended sequences from the movie that featured those characters, including some bits about how they grew comfortable with their powers. Mystique’s ends, naturally enough, with a bit hinting at the relationship between her and Magneto that we’d see more or in the later movies.

Online

The official website for the movie opens with one of the early trailers auto-playing as a stream of updates from the official Twitter account fades in and out along the top of the page.

Down toward the bottom are the site’s content sections, the first of which is “About the Movie,” which contains a paragraph long synopsis of the movie’s story and explains that, yes, Marvel’s Merry Mutants get all up 1960’s geopolitical events in the film.

Next up is “Downloads” which has a couple of Wallpapers, some Twitter Skins and a collection of Buddy Icons to grab is you’re so inclined. It looks like there are just seven stills in the “Gallery” and just the three main trailers (but not the plethora of TV spots and character profile videos unfortunately) in “Videos.”

“Characters” is a nice section that provides a quick introduction to all the characters that make up the movie as well as an overview of their powers and this area also houses the actor filmographies and histories.

The Promotions section off to the left of the bottom navigation has links to Get Tickets, check out the X-Men Extra App and view various things on the Facebook page.

On that Facebook page there was………There was also an opportunity for people to ask some questions of the “X-Perts,” which was the cast of the movie. Questions could be submitted ahead of time and then, it was promised the cast and crew would pick some to be answered later on down the road. There were also the usual array of photos, videos (this time with the character introduction spots) and more, including a section for the Farmer’s Insurance cross-promotion we’ll read about later.

An iPad/iPhone app was also developed that took people into the setting of the movie and strongly hinted that these mutant characters played some sort of secret role in many of the defining geopolitical events of the last half of the 20th century.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

One of the first bits of advertising done for the movie was in the form of standees and floor decorations that were put in theaters and which featured the same bit “X” symbol for Xavier’s school that was on the first teaser poster.

TV commercials were also created that largely repeated the footage and overall arc of the trailer but with some new footage as well. Mostly, though, we got the same look at Xavier and Lenscher meeting, Mystique covering herself with scales and other sequences. A few of them broke that mold and included elements of the stand off over nuclear missiles as well but by and large they stayed in the mold of the trailers.

Even more spots were later released that expanded on this quite a bit, showing off the team that Xavier and Lenscher put together and getting into the national conflict that team becomes a part of. So the focus shifted from selling this as a reboot of the franchise (though elements of that continued to be worked in) to just a straight ahead action flick with super powered characters.

Some advertising was done by the movie’s promotional partners as well. Farmer’s Insurance, which had already been running a TV campaign with an instructional approach, added Beast to one of their commercials and had one of their insurance students go over to act as a target for Havok to practice on.

Media and Publicity

While various rumors and reports had circulated around the idea (most rubbish) the first concrete plans came to light with the dual announcement (Los Angeles Times, 5/4/10) of Matthew Vaughn as director and June 3, 2011 as the release target date.

That news was doubly interesting. First because Vaughn was the initial director on board X-Men: The Last Stand before he abandoned the movie just before filming over the usually vague “creative differences,” ceding that director’s chair to Brett Ratner, who proceeded to defecate over large chunks of the best parts of the franchise and piss fans off in the process. Second, that date was just over a year from when the news hit, an incredibly ambitious timeline for a movie that was probably going to be largely effects driven but which had no announced cast, script or anything else.

With such a tight timeline, being quick with casting was going to be key. While some roles were filled relatively quickly (still about a month after the film was announced) there were hiccups in the process at well that spoke to potential problems with this relaunch of a potentially lucrative franchise.

After the calendar turned to 2011 things started to pick up publicity wise, whereas the latter part of 2010 was filled mostly with more casting announcements and the occasional set photo that someone was *sure* spoiled a huge plot point.

One of the first stories was an interview with Jones (LAT, 1/4/11) about taking on the role of Emma Frost, with the actress talking about how she tried to get inside the character’s head since because of her TV commitments it was tough to get in the kind of shape that the comics always portray Frost as having. Also focusing on the female stars were stories about Lawrence and the regimen she had to endure (Hollywood Reporter, 1/19/11), including hours of being painted blue, to transform into Mystique on a daily basis.

The tight production timeline continued to be a story-point, with Vaughn commenting on how this sort of schedule – where he’s racing to finish the movie in advance of a pre-planned release date – is absolutely the opposite of what he’s used to in the independent film world where production is complete and then there’s the waiting to find a distributor. Vaughn also expressed his confidence that X-Men, by virtue of being a more well-known franchise, would be the movie to beat in a summer that was chock full of superhero films.

There was also, of course, media around the fact that this was Bryan Singer’s return to the franchise he helped launch, albeit this time in the role of producer and not director. But it’s clear that in that capacity he helped to shape the movie’s focus and tone while also holding out hope (among fans) that he’ll come back and direct another X-Men movie that would be another sequel to the original and not a step back in time or a focus on a single character.

As is increasingly the case with tentpole movies like this, the studio built up some buzz not just about the release of of new marketing materials but with the announcement that, in this case, the first trailer was about to be released (Entertainment Weekly, 2/9/11).

After the debut of the first trailer, which absolutely lit up (THR, 2/10/11)social networks and movie blogs and fan sites, Singer talked more freely (LAT, 2/10/11) about the new characters that were being introduced or slightly revamped for the film and how they related to each other.

Press continued with exclusive covers and coverage in Empire Magazine (March, 2011) and reports in that story that the studio and producers were actively working on continuations of the original trilogy in addition to the other various mutant spinoffs and solo features. There were also some very cool 60’s-retro covers featuring the cast that were created for coverage in Total Film magazine.

While she was conspicuously silent in many of the movie’s trailers the focus on Jones was primarily on her wardrobe, both in the early and late (THR, 5/26/11) publicity for the movie as the studio tried to show off how hot she was in Emma Frost’s skimpy outfits.

Overall

So basically as long as you just completely discount the poster component of this campaign it works remarkably well, right? That’s certainly how I come away feeling. The trailers are uniformly strong, as are the various TV spots and other video elements. The online elements are all interesting and provide not only entertainment but also information for the audience that might not be familiar with the new characters in this entry.

As for my question of whether or not it’s entertaining enough for me to overcome my continuity issues, it’s not quite successful on that front but I don’t know that it ever could have been. I’m always going to have problems with the fact that this version of Emma Frost contradicts the Wolverine solo movie’s and that we never get that Mystique was originally trained by Xavier. But those are my problems to bare and the campaign does make the movie look very attractive (again outside of the posters) in its own right. And as I said, the mass of people who just enjoyed the first movies aren’t likely to be as worried about these things as I am.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

  • 06/01/11: No sooner do I publish this than there’s a story about some massively outdoor advertising Fox did for the movie.
  • 06/03/11: Andrew at AdAge goes more in-depth on the partnership between Farmers Insurance and the movie and how things kind of meshed nicely together.
  • 09/01/11: There was a cool outdoor ad created for the movie’s home video debut that not only included 3D holograms projected on the side of a building but also integrated Twitter and Foursquare components.
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