Few things freak me out more than movies or stories about viruses. It’s not that I’m a germaphobe – though I do carry some sort of hand sanitizer bottle with me just about everywhere – it’s that the idea of an unstoppable pandemic that sweeps across borders in no time scares me on a fundamental level that even more straight-ahead horror flicks can’t even come close to.

So this week’s big release, Contagion, is likely going to have me reaching for the plastic and duct tape to seal up the windows. Telling a bunch of interconnected stories the movie is about how the world reacts when a virus that kills quickly starts sweeping through the population. While the CDC and government officials try to track down how it started and therefore how to cure it the camera also turns to how a single family deals with the death of a wife and mother. Directed by Steven Soderbergh – and therefore a safe bet to at the very least be well made – the film stars Matt Damon, Gwenyth Paltrow, Lawrence Fishburne, Jude Law and other high-name-recognition actors in what’s sure to be a terrifying story.

The Posters

The movie’s first poster is made to look like a biohazard sign and indeed a “Biohazard” piece of red tape is shown along the top of the design, holding up a sign that has the names of cities listed on it, presumably the ones that have been impacted. Spelled out vertically using random letters from those city names is the movie’s title, all of it adding up to a nice design that makes the movie seem very scary and very interesting.

After that came a series of six character-centric one-sheets, each of which featured an extreme close of the actor in some sort of action pose that was appropriate for their character.

So Damon looks like he’s freaking out, Paltrow looks like she’s dying, Fishburne looks like he’s having a stern phone conversation and so on. Not sure why Law looks like he’s been cast as Mr. Freeze, but what are you going to do.

All six of those images were later combined into one poster that continued to feature cracks, rips and fading that made it look like it had been hung out in the sun too long and in not a particularly good neighborhood. That, obviously, was done to convey the sense of danger that’s trying to be sold here. It doesn’t play up the fact that it comes from Soderbergh, which is either by design because he’s not a household name director yet or because he is but he’s too often associated with high-end experimental movies and his presence might be an impediment. Either way he’s just in the credits block and not called out within the design.

The Trailers

The first trailer for the movie was enough to freak just about anyone out. We see Paltrow’s character coming home from a trip a little under the weather. It’s nothing until she collapses in her kitchen and her husband has to rush her to the hospital, only to later be told she’s died. We also see officials of some sort (CDC?) discussing the spread of the disease she brought back with her, a disease that has no cure. We then back and forth between Damon and the events on the ground as cities are quarantined and emptied and Fishburne and his group of scientists and public health officials as they track the disease’s spread on multiple continents.

It’s enough to make you never want to go out of the house again.

Online

As the official website loads you see the rising counts of the dead displayed across a map of the world, which is disconcerting in and of itself. If you can get past the trailer that attempts to auto-play after that countdown (I had to bypass it since it was not playing and keeping the site from loading behind it) you can access the main site content.

First up there is “About” which has a Synopsis that goes into a fair amount of detail about the film’s story as well as Cast and Filmmaker biographies and film histories. There are also Production Notes you can download for a deeper look at the movie and its making.

I’m honestly not sure what’s in the “Videos” section other than the one trailer since it, like the front page, just hung up and went nowhere for me. But the “Photos” section is so robust I stopped counting after 30 or so. I’m sure there are over 50 stills from the movie here. “Downloads” meanwhile has the teaser and theatrical Posters to grab in addition to Wallpapers and Buddy Icons. “Soundtrack” lets you listen to samples of the movie’s score. “Promotions” lists the sites that have participated in giveaways and such

“Are You Patient X?” is a Facebook-based tool that simulates what role you would have in spreading a global pandemic, which is probably as much fun as you would imagine it to be. Similarly, the “Nothing Spreads Like Fear” site that’s listed next is some sort of Facebook game that I didn’t play so can’t speak to authoritatively. Finally there’s an “Interactive Trailer” that lets you click on spots in the trailer to learn more about how viruses spread and other fun stuff.

The movie’s Facebook page has lots of updates on the marketing and promotional activities around the movie, including lots of video and more information on how diseases spread.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

The TV spots that began running in early August play like condensed versions of the first trailer, bouncing quickly between the individual story of Damon’s family and his journey and the broader story of what’s happening around the world as people work to fight the virus. There’s some new footage in some of them that hadn’t been seen previously that shows more of the same and, again, they’re very good and very frightening.

Media and Publicity

Some of the first publicity was in the form of a story (New York Times, 8/28/11) about how much the movie tried to create a realistic tone while at the same time attracting a high-profile cast that made a virus movie into more of an event.

The film was then scheduled to have its debut at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, something that some press (Los Angeles Times, 8/31/11) saw as a mimicking of the awards path taken last year by The Town.

Overall

One thing is for sure, at least in my opinion, and that’s that the campaign sells a slick, professionally made movie that’s sure to scare the bejeesus out of you and have you reaching for the Purell. Everything about the campaign is designed to emphasize the drama that can be wrenched (by a talented director working with a good script) from people either getting sick or trying to figure out why other people are getting sick.

Aside from that the audience is assured of seeing lots of big name stars working toward the top of their game, maybe not in material that’s award worthy but which has an interesting story to tell. The posters and trailers work nicely in tandem to sell it as a mainstream bit of scary entertainment and the website (overlooking the technical problems I kept having) is nicely consistent with those other two elements.

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