Setting a story “in the not too-distant future” is kind of a great narrative get out of jail free card. You can still do whatever you want, really, but also don’t have to create a whole new world in order to tell the story. Cars are likely still cars and houses are still houses. And it’s possible to take something that’s widely accepted now and push it out a few years (whether or not you disclose how many is up to you and your tolerance for news stories when that year is reached about how wrong you got it) to where it’s not or some such and you’re pretty much golden.
One such movie that’s set just a few years out from our own is this week’s Real Steel. The movie stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a down-on-his-luck former fighter who’s barely been making ends meet since they outlawed human boxing and the sport shifted to giant brawling robots. Yeah, you read that right. One day at the very bottom of his fortunes he reunites with his estranged son Max (Dakota Goya) and the two work to piece together a hard-scrabbled fighting robot that just might be Charlie’s ticket back to the big time.
The first teaser poster sets up the movie’s premise to a pretty decent extent, showing just a robotic hand coming up and grasping the heavy metal ropes of a boxing ring. You don’t see the entire robot but you do get some copy that promises “Champions aren’t born. They’re made.” It’s pretty good and looks kind of cool.
The next poster at least showed the primary human star of the movie. Jackman appears in the foreground in a boxer’s pose with a large robot behind him mimicking his movements. The copy at the bottom “Courage is stronger than steel” gives us the hint that the story will cover an emotional arc of Jackman’s character that ties in to the part of the story involving the huge machines. It’s not bad but just looks kind of odd because of the manipulation of Jackman’s photo. Other than that it’s alright.
Four posters hit next that featured four of the robots from the movie, including Atom – the one that Jackman and his friends build – and three of the bots that it will presumably go up against.
The first trailer introduces us to the idea behind the movie’s world, which is that the sport of boxing has evolved to no longer feature human beings but instead has people using massive robot surrogates to fight in the ring instead.
That’s about all the information you’re going to get from this spot, though. Jackman’s character is obviously known in the professional robot boxing world but why that is doesn’t get explained. And while there are lots of shots of robots doing the fighting it’s difficult to tell if Jackman is actually controlling any of them and why he’s doing so. Still, it’s a decent first teaser that gives a look at the robots and is probably effective at generating some excitement among some audiences.
The next trailer is much more informative. It opens with Jackman’s character ducking the phone call of someone he owes money to. We then meet a woman and her kid as she tells him about the great fighter Charlie used to be, though now he’s obviously fallen on harder times. The boy convinces Charlie to help him find a robot and teach him to box and he does so, but with a robot that’s not designed for all out fighting. Eventually, though, the two of them turn out a winner despite the robot not being a traditional fighter.After a series of losses things turn around and we see this is, ultimately, a redemption story for Charlie and everyone else involved.
The movie’s official website starts by playing the trailer in full-screen video. After that finishes or after you click to skip it you’re taken to the main site, featuring the poster key art.
The first section in the left-hand navigation menu is the “Gallery,” which kind of tells you right off the bat the emphasis is on the visuals of the film. After that is “Downloads” which has several Wallpapers, a Screensaver and some IM Icons to save if you’re so inclined.
“Story” has a pretty decent overview of the movie’s plot. “Video” has the Teaser and Theatrical Trailers as well as a Featurette on the making of the movie. “Cast and Crew” has career biographies of the major players involved in the film’s making.
You can listen to snippets of songs featured in the movie in the “Soundtrack” section as well as buy it on iTunes.
After that is a link to “Join the WRB,” which there’s more information on below. Then there’s “Video Game” that takes you to the site for the official tie-in game. “Paper Models” is just what it sounds like – instructions on making your own paper version of the movie’s robots.
The Facebook page for the film brings over a lot of the official site’s features but adds some additional extended clips and more video as well as updates on the publicity and marketing.
An online-based ARG kicked off at the PAX East gaming convention, where attendees were given a paper version of the controller that’s used in the movie for the boxing matches. Each of those had a code on it that could be entered on the soon-to-be-launched site for the fictional World Robot Boxing organization. When the code was entered an achievement was unlocked and the user was prompted to register on the site to save that achievement, something that hinted at further tasks to come down the road.
The site did indeed continue to evolve, with more information (that you could unlock with additional codes, which were shown on the site) on the history of the WRB and how it was founded, became the most popular sport in the world and more.
That ARG continued into the E3 gaming conference where robot fighter trading cards were handed out that prompted people to visit a new branch of the WRB site where they could design their own robots.
After a brief period of inactivity things ramped back up in early September as more mailings were sent out that included cool movie swag as well as instructions on how to create their own robot avatars on the WRB site.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV spots started running in early September that of course focused on Jackman and his journey toward career redemption by building a plucky, less than sophisticated fighting robot that he would use to get back in the game. There’s nothing about the kid or any other relationships here, just lots of flashy visuals showing robots beating up on each other.
Outdoor advertising was done as well, with billboards that featured four of the robots from the movie with arms outstretched. And while other outdoor ads that were placed on the sides of buses were also run nothing matched the scale of having a Virgin America A320 plastered with an image of Atom.
There were a bunch of companies that were on board as promotional partners. HP, Virgin America and Bing were such companies, though the details on their partnerships are unclear. Partnerships with Del Taco and Royal Purple were more clear, the former running a sweepstakes giving away either restaurant or video game related prized and the latter running co-branded TV spots.
Media and Publicity
Some of the early press outside of marketing materials and such came in the form of a piece (Los Angeles Times, 1/28/11) that was meant to position the movie as a heartfelt and human drama and not just a sci-fi, robotic boxing movie that was more about the special effects than any sort of meditative story. Whether or not that positioning is accurate with the finished product remains to be seen but it’s an interesting early salvo in the press effort for the movie.
At the 2011 CinemaCon trade show for exhibitors Jackman and director Levy were in attendance to promote the film (Hollywood Reporter, 3/29/11) as part of Dreamworks’ overall presentation to attendees.
Stories began to circulate eventually that had the star and director talking about the tone of the film (Entertainment Weekly, 5/10/11) and how it’s not actually about the robots, who are just there to help the human characters along on their story.
Rumors began to swirl that Jackman would make a surprise, unscheduled appearance at Comic-Con 2011, something that did indeed happen (Los Angeles Times, 7/21/11) as he worked a crowd of folks that gathered in a parking lot to talk and answer questions.
The robots got some press in a piece (LAT, 9/1/11) that looked at the virtual fighting they engage in.
There’s a nugget of a great campaign here but I don’t feel like it’s fully realized. There’s some nice consistency between all the elements – it certainly feels like a nicely unified campaign from a branding perspective – but I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s no follow-through here, no final push to bring it home and put a bow on it.
But that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of energy thrown into the marketing. Everything comes off as very high-powered, something that’s exemplified by Jackman and the way he, as is usual, goes full throttle on promoting anything he’s involved in. Even that, though, can’t overcome the feeling that this is a summer movie that’s being marketed in the early fall, something that may wind up coming back to bite the film with audiences.