Movie Marketing Madness: Cowboys and Aliens

Ever since 1991’s release of Unforgiven the Western movie genre has been forever altered. All of a sudden the stakes were higher, the emotions deeper and the overall gravitas just that much greater. Eastwood’s movie took a genre of film that had been a symbol for the American male ideal of stoicism and grit and showed its dark, painful underbelly. Westerns since then have also been, to varying degrees, about showing the emotional impact actions have on characters and not so much about the simple virtues of defending the weak and doing what’s right.

That’s not to say filmmakers can’t still have a little fun with the genre now and again.

Based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Cowboys & Aliens is a mash-up of the traditional Western with elements of science-fiction/fantasy, something you can probably get from the title alone. The story follows Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), who awakes one day to no memory of who he is or where he’s been but with a strange glowing blue gauntlet around one wrist. Stumbling in to town he eventually crosses paths with Col. Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a wealthy rancher who more or less runs the town and who has long-lived gripes with Lonergan. As Dolarhyde is about to take him away to exact his revenge, alien ships appear in the sky. It’s eventually reasoned that these ships have something to do with the mysterious disappearances of folk in the area and may hold the key to unlocking Lonergan’s memory. Together with Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) the two rivals must work together to solve the problems that plague both men and maybe do a little good in the process.

The Posters

The first poster certainly let the audience know what it would be in for even while the specifics were still vague. A lone gunman stands in the desert with his back mostly turned to the camera, a Winchester rifle in one hand and some sort of crazy blue-glowy high-tech thingamajig wrapped around his other forearm.

It’s a nice and atmospheric teaser poster that is all about making it clear the audience that the story is a mix of two genres, Western and science-fiction. Oddly, none of the movie’s stars are listed anywhere on the one-sheet though at the top of the poster we are told this is coming from “The director of Iron Man,” so it’s clear that it’s being sold based on the public’s affinity for that movie in lieu of this being a franchise entry itself.

The second poster took the more straightforward approach of trying to sell the movie based on its stars. So Craig and Ford are front and center, this time facing the camera and looking above it into the far distance, with cowboy hats on both of them and the weird glowy gun strapped to Craig’s wrist. It too highlights the fact that this comes “From the director of Iron Man” and looks consistent with the first in how the design and colors are used as well, making it a nice second entry into the poster aspect of the campaign.

A final poster would include Wilde and for some reason opt to ditch the cowboy hats, something that results in Ford’s hair looking kind of ridiculous. It’s an odd choice that seems to be about downplaying the Western aspects of the story, but not fully since Wilde is clearly in Western garb and the two guys are still sporting old fashioned pistols. It’s the weakest of the bunch, unfortunately

The Trailers

The first trailer for the film starts out with a jolt as Craig’s character comes to in the middle of nowhere, a strange object around his wrist. When he’s accosted by a group of ruffians he dispatches them handily before heading in to town, where he encounters Wilde, who he doesn’t remember, and the law man who’s looking for him. Also looking for him is Ford and his group of men. And that’s when things get weird as what appears to be a spaceship appears in the sky and starts blowing things up.

We eventually see Craig take down one of those ships with the doohickey that he’s wearing but the rest of the trailer is a little back and forth. The action cuts between the showdown in town and what appears to be a journey Craig and Ford have to go on since we see a couple shots of them on their own.

What the trailer does well is make the audience say “Wow…that looks cool.” There’s just enough of a story to get people interested but not enough to ruin anything. And there are just enough special effects to sell the movie as an action film. Some of the story’s conflict is established and overall it’s a very effective teaser.

The second full trailer (which debuted during an episode of “American Idol”) once again opens with an amnesiac Lonergan waking up in the desert, unsure of who he is, where he comes from and what that glowing thing on his wrist is. He’s thrown in jail and Dolarhyde tries to take him, which is when the alien ships start to fly around overhead, with the mysterious glowing wristband seeming to be the only thing that can shoot them down. The ships capture some of the townsfolk and the two, along with Ella, decide to work together to try and rescue them. Finding the survivors becomes not only the primary mission but also seems to hold the key to Lonergan unlocking his memory problems and discovering who he really is. So we get lots of shots once again of fast-moving ships in the sky as horses ride along the ground and we’re told there won’t be any survivors.

This trailer has a little more story background in it but it’s still primarily about showing off the movie’s cool visuals and playing up the slick sense of humor that the film seems to have, something that’s most clearly displayed in the last sequence that’s shown. It’s fast moving and has the same sort of rock-and-roll beat that Iron Man’s first trailers did, so it’s clear that the trailers are making the same sort of appeal that those did.

A third and much shorter – just over a minute in length – trailer was released that only hinted at the mystery of the story in favor of lots of shots of alien ships, including what I think was the first look inside one of the ships as the cowboys try to find the people who have been abducted.

Online

The movie’s official website loads with,as the primary element, an invitation to watch the TV spot that debuted during the “Spike Guys Choice Awards” (more on that later) or view some Images, Video or Downloads right from the front page here. There are also prompts down at the bottom to do all sorts of things, including play a Coke-sponsored game, download an iPhone game or the special movie-themed Hipstamatic Facebook app and more, including an invitation to check out the conversation unspooling on Socialrama, an aggregation site.

Once you go ahead and Enter the Site the first section of content (after the alien ship crashes to earth) is “About the Film” which has a pretty good synopsis in The Story, lots of information about the people involved in “Cast and Crew” and then more information you can download in the “Production Notes.”

“Videos” has both the Theatrical and Teaser trailers, the Spike TV spot exclusive as well as a few other TV Spots and a featurette to watch. There are about 15 stills in the “Gallery” from the film’s production. A collection of Buddy Icons, Wallpapers and even a Twitter Skin can be found in the “Downloads” section.

The “Games and Features” has two things: The Landscapes, Lawmen and Outlaws feature is just another way to grab some wallpapers for your desktop while “Absolution Training Grounds” is a shooting game that has you taking out various alien ships.

There was also a tie-in site launched that let people send an old-fashioned telegram for free to someone with a customized message, something that’s a nice twist on the idea of encouraging people to mention a movie to their friends and which usually takes place on social networks nowadays.

The movie’s Facebook page ports over a lot of the official site’s features to its front page along with lots of graphics promoting some of the corporate marketing partners like Coke and 7-Eleven. Outside of that there are plenty of photos and videos and marketing updates, many of which are also published to the movie’s Twitter profile.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

The movie was one of the first to be pegged as being supported by a commercial during 2011’s Super Bowl, news that broke when Favreau announced on his Twitter account that he was cutting the spot.

That Super Bowl spot was pretty cool. It starts off in much the same way as the trailer, by showing Lonergan being confronted in a bar. After dispatching those who would arrest him the aliens start appearing and we see lots of ships flying overhead and snatching people up. It certainly plays up the action aspects of the film, which isn’t surprising. It’s fast-paced and all that, showing off to the broad audience that tuned in for the game a movie that looked like it was trying to live in two worlds. What’s unsure is how that then translates to audience interest.

Further TV commercials would play up the action aspects of the movie while still hinting at the missing identity story, with the first one even giving one of the first looks at the mysterious aliens that make up the movie’s title. More commercials would continue in this vein, including one that ran during the much-watched season finale of “American Idol.”

Then another, this time debuting during the SpikeTV “Guys Choice Awards” would make the movie look tougher than some of the previous had, with more footage of Craig’s character actually being the badass that everyone around him seems to think he is, something the previous trailers and spots haven’t emphasized very much.

There was quite a bit of outdoor advertising done as well, mostly with images of Craig aiming his wrist gauntlet gun, something that obviously became the most recognizable image of the campaign.

On the promotional front there was a partnership with 7-Eleven (MediaPost, 7/5/11), which developed a new “Alienade” flavor of Slurpee and offered “Wrist Blaster” cups that actually lit up with the same mysterious glowing light from the movie and featured the three main characters. The promotion there was supported with radio and other media advertising.

Coca-Cola also was a sponsor of a movie-themed augmented reality game that awarded $5,000 in gold to the winner of a related sweepstakes. And photo app Hipstamatic offered a movie-specific version to users for a limited time.

Media and Publicity

Outside of the casting news, the first bit of news came (as was the case with Iron Man 2) from director Favreau tweeting out a picture from the set, in this case an image of Craig in costume, though he’s heavily backlit so you can’t make out his face or many other details.

A fuller view of Craig in costume came when the movie appeared at Comic-Con 2010, an appearance that included director Favreau’s bringing out both Harrison Ford and Craig, neither of whom had been announced and neither of whom had been to the convention before.

The release of the first poster and trailer generated the next swell in publicity about the movie, though with that came a bit of discussion about the movie’s apparent confusion-inducing nature. It seems audiences at some screenings where the trailer was shown started laughing (New York Times, 11/30/10) while the trailer played, seemingly thinking the title “Cowboys & Aliens” meant some sort of genre-mixing spoof or comedy. That audience confusion (initially noted by Aris at AdAge) was, in some respects, expected and much of the media outreach that’s been done has been to convey the fact that there are no tongues in cheeks in the film but instead that it plays both genres as seriously as possible, something Favreau has noted in numerous interviews.

A good chunk of the movie, about 40 minutes, was screened at the 2010 installment of Harry Knowles’ Butt-Numb-A-Thon festival, where it picked up some mixed and some fantastic buzz for its look and feel as well as its performances. That screening even produced legitimate press stories (Los Angeles Times, 2/5/11) about how Favreau, Howard and others considered that screening the “Iowa caucus” for the film, especially since the property itself was coming in with pretty low public recognition in the public.

A panel for the movie was held at WonderCon (THR, 3/31/11), the little brother to the bigger Comic-Con, where Favreau held forth on the film for the assembled geeks and press and showed off about 10 minutes of the film to the assembled crowd. The cast and crew continued to talk to the press (LAT, 4/25/11) about the tone of the film, how Ford was brought into the project and more about the crossing of the genre streams. Chats between the filmmakers and the press continued when Favreau dropped in to the Hero Complex Fest and continued to establish his geek credentials.

While it was certain that the movie would have some sort of big presence at 2011 Comic-Con it was nonetheless big news when it was announced (THR, 6/13/11) that the it would have its world premiere at San Francisco.

Overall

I can’t stop thinking of the campaign for Inception from last year whenever I’m looking at the marketing for Cowboys & Aliens. In both cases the movie itself is an original story (Yes, C&A is an adaptation but it’s not a sequel, superhero movie, franchise reboot or some such like that). But also in both cases the marketing has emphasized the fact that it comes from the director of a popular franchise, thereby attempting to create some sort of familiar ground for the audience. “You liked Iron Man so you should feel right at home here” is the message that’s being conveyed by making Favreau so prominent in the campaign in various ways.

Aside from that this is a fun campaign that, even with stars like Ford and Craig, still has a long way to go to convince people it’s worth their time and money to see. Genre mash-ups are notoriously hard to pull off and can confuse moviegoers who may not be completely on board with the conceit of the film, finding not enough staples of either kind of movie to fully latch on to and writing off the whole shooting match as too confusing. While film critics might love it and completely get what it’s going for because they are down with all those conventions the average moviegoer may just want to be entertained.

That being said, I think this campaign does a decent job of making sure the focus remains squarely on the adventure components of the film’s story, making the case that regardless of what genre talk there might be that this is a fast-paced ride with a mystery at its core, something that’s more understandable to the larger audience and therefore hopefully more attractive.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

  • 07/29/11 – Again we have Mashable taking a look at the use of social media in the campaign.
  • 08/02/11 – 7-Eleven was also chosen as a promotional partner for the movie’s tie-in video game.