Movie Marketing Madness: We Bought a Zoo

“Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again” is a phrase that’s familiar to most parents. It’s usually recited after a toddler falls and skins their knee or has something similarly tragic happen to them and are in need of a bit of encouragement. It’s meant to convey in simple terms the same sentiment behind it not being our failures that define us but the way that we recover from those failures and move on with our lives.

We Bought a Zoo, the new movie from writer/director Cameron Crowe, is about just that kind of turning moment in a character’s life. Faced with the struggles of being a single dad after the death of his wife to a young daughter and teenage son Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) uproots the family and buys a rural house in the middle of nowhere. But upon buying it he finds there’s a zoo attached to it that’s facing hard times. The remaining staff, led by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johanson), though is very loyal and Mee and his family decide to make a go of running it themselves, a process that proves cathartic for all of them and has other unexpected (to everyone but the audience) consequences as well.

The Posters

You know what’s kind of fantastic? The first poster for the movie. Instead of using the very safe and predictable option of using the heads of the cast what is here instead is a tree that has as its leaves green versions of different animal’s paw prints, with a red kite floating above it. It’s original, it’s artistic, it’s creative and it works to convey what is hopefully the spirit of the movie and it’s attitude instead of just promising some attractive looking people doing something or another. Great stuff.

The second poster was markedly less awesome, showing heavily Photoshopped images of Damon with the little girl who plays his daughter on his shoulders and Johansson off to the side, all of them staring off blankly toward some middle distance object while the zoo’s sign is in the background. The top of the poster plays up the fact that it comes “From the director of Jerry Maguire” so it’s clear which part of the Crowe-knowledgable audience this one’s being aimed at.

There was also a poster featuring just a zebra with a bow around its neck that was released to make it clear to everyone that this was a Christmas release.

The Trailers

The first trailer starts out with Damon dropping his kids of at school, embarrassing his teenage son and getting hit on by one of the moms who is doing likewise, nicely setting up the fact that he’s a single dad. He’s struggling with how well he’s doing as a dad and with some other things in his life and encouragement from a friend to start over leads him to quit his job and buy a house that, they discover, is attached to a zoo. That leads to all sorts of complications but it’s clear from the rest of the trailer that it winds up being just the kind of emotional shakeup that everyone in the family needed. There is, of course, a romantic connection at this zoo in the form of Johannson’s character and it’s shown as being generally uplifting all around.

Online

The movie’s official website opens by playing the trailer again. There’s also an invitation to enter the “20 Seconds of Courage” sweepstakes that enters you to win a vacation to the San Diego Zoo.

Moving past that and going ahead to “Enter the Site” you’re immediately prompted to connect with Facebook for some reason that I’m guessing has to do with “The Zoo of You,” the first section listed in the menu bar at the top.

After that is “About the Film” which has a Synopsis, several sections of Production Notes and some background on the Music and how Crowe worked with an artist named Jonsi on the soundtrack for the film.

“Videos” has the Trailer as well as four extended film clips, all of which you can share in various ways online. The “Photo Gallery” has about nine stills from the film and the “Cast” and “Filmmakers” sections give you information about the cast and filmmakers, respectively.

The Facebook page has photos and videos as well as more information on the sweepstakes, soundtrack and more. There was also a Twitter feed that shared with Facebook updates about the movie’s marketing and publicity.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

I caught quite a bit of TV advertising that was done, with spots that emphasized the heart-warming nature of the story and such to make it as family friendly as was possible. The relationship between Damon and Johansson was emphasized in a couple of the commercials, most of which hit the same basic beats as the trailer.

Media and Publicity

The publicity for the film kind of started when Crowe joined Twitter and started sending out pictures from the shooting set.

The next big piece of news came when it was announced (New York Times, 11/16/11) that Fox would be doing a sneak-preview strategy to promote the film, showing it to audiences almost a month in advance of its release, likely in the hope that positive word of mouth would be generated that would be more powerful in the long run than whatever critics might say closer to release. That strategy seemed to turn out well, with most of the early reviews that resulted being pretty positive in nature.

Some more press was generated when a parody Twitter account was discovered (Los Angeles Times, 12/7/11). I’m not sure what made this one notable from the hundreds of other fake or parody accounts that surely exist for other movies, but it was eventually found that the creators of this one were fans who were excited about the movie and not anyone who was trying to take the film down in any way. That being said things did get kind of weird toward the end, there.

I’m sure the cast also make several appearances on TV talk shows to promote the film.

Overall

Well I like it but I’m more or less predisposed to like it being a Cameron Crowe fan. It might look quite a bit different from Crowe’s earlier movies – it certainly doesn’t look like a movie from the guy who brought us Singles though it does seem similar to Jerry Maguire. But the campaign is designed to make the film as attractive as possible to as broad an audience as possible and on that mark I think it succeeds rather well, even if it can’t quite complete on sheer volume with some of this week’s other releases. Quite a nice little campaign, though, for a movie that looks pretty good.

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