If I were to write some lengthy treatise about how Mars has long captured the imaginations of the people of Earth I’d hardly be the first person to do so. From ancient stories to popular entertainment, Mars has always been part of our mythology because, well, it’s so red and so right there when we look above us into the night sky. And outside our own moon it is, I think, the only other part of our solar system we’ve actually put machinery on. I don’t want to get too deep into armchair philosophizing since that really isn’t my field but I think it’s safe to say that when most people think of exploring outer space, what they’re often picturing is Mars.
Into that pantheon comes The Martian. Based on the 2011 novel by Andy Weir (which I just finished reading and which is a lot of fun), the story revolves around the Ares III manned mission to Mars, the third such team to explore the planet. When a catastrophic storm hits their base the entire team has to abort the mission but leaves behind Mark Watney (played here by Matt Damon), who is presumed dead but who turns out to be not. Watney must rely on his skills and the materials available to him to try and survive alone on Mars while NASA and his crew weigh the odds of his survival and plot a series of rescue attempts. The movie, like the book, switches between Watney’s point of view – told through his journal entries – and that of his crew on the Hermes ship back to Earth as well as the NASA engineers and administrators who are making decisions back home.
The movie’s first (and only?) teaser poster does what it can to get the point across. It’s an extreme close-up of Damon’s face in the helmet he dons while walking around the Martian surface. Over his face in big bold letters is “Bring Him Home” like it’s some sort of public advocacy campaign ad. The title treatment and credit block appear at the bottom of the poster.
It’s pretty effective at getting the main message across, which is that Matt Damon is starring in a movie set on Mars and that it’s basically a rescue story. There’s not a whole lot to say about the graphic design of the poster since…well..there isn’t a whole lot. It’s the same basic idea as countless posters before it, with the example that comes most readily to mind being the poster for The Social Network that had Jesse Eisenberg’s face staring at the camera and the “You Can Make…” copy over it. But again, it does what it needed to do.
The theatrical one-sheet moves Damon’s face up toward the top of the poster and shrinks it a bit, so he’s kind of looking down at the viewer. Below him you see a solitary figure – presumably him – walking away from the camera across the red landscape of Mars. The title and credits are still at the bottom but this time the other copy is at the top telling us “Help is only 140 million miles away,” which nicely underlines just how on his own Watney is.
This one is slightly better but that’s largely because the copy isn’t quite as on-the-nose. It’s still not winning any graphic design awards, but again it conveys a simple message, this time honing in more on the movie’s setting rather than just focusing on Damon as the primary selling point.
The first teaser trailer starts out with Watney talking about mankind’s inherent desire to help those in need, those who have been abandoned in some desolate place, a situation he himself is now in. We then cut to Jeff Daniels as the NASA chief talking to the press about the aborted Ares III mission, including how Watney was killed. But we – and they – then see that nope, he’s still alive. So the rest of the trailer is about Watney doing what he can to survive until a rescue mission can be mounted, along with hints that the rest of his crew are going to go against NASA orders and mount just that attempt, which comes with risks of its own. The trailer ends with the same “Help is only 140 million miles away” copy that was seen on the theatrical poster.
It’s a pretty effective trailer that presents what amounts to a ticking clock story as Watney fights against the odds and elements to stay alive while everyone else works against the massive distance and other logistical problems to get to him. It’s clear here that Damon is in “cocky wise guy” mode, an attitude that helps keep the tone of the trailer light and not super-serious, despite the actual story elements.
The theatrical trailer hits many of the same beats, it just rearranges a few of them. We still get all the scenes of Watney trying to survive in a habitat that was only made for a couple months at most and NASA’s hand-wringing over whether or not to save him. But this one is less focused on setting up the initial parts of the story and showing more of the cool space stuff that the studio clearly feels will be the movie’s big draw.
That’s not to say it’s not effective – it is – but it’s a much different picture than the first trailer created, presenting less of a human-scale drama and more of an action picture with dramatic elements. That’s exemplified just by the opening narration, which in the first trailer was about the need to rescue your fellow human being but which here is about struggling to survive in the harshness of space.
One final trailer was released less than a month before the movie’s release. It’s not hugely different than the previous ones but that also means it’s just as effective, showing the reaction to Watney’s “death” and the discussions around whether or not it’s worth it to try and save him.
Online and Social
The official website for the movie opens with what amounts to a reproduction of the key art, showing a big version of Damon’s face right there when the site loads. As you scroll down from there the first section that appears is a call to action to buy tickets, which is a lot more direct than other sites, which seem conflicted as to how to get you to do that.
The “Videos” section that’s up next is really nice. The two main trailers are there along with lots more, including the in-world clips and videos that have been released over the last few months. It starts with the “Farewell” video that is like the crew being interviewed before making their final departure to Mars and keeps going through other profiles, fictional “archive” clips and so on. It also includes a “Bring Him Home” video that takes you around the world to see how the entire planet is rallying around Watney’s survival.
Just a little over a month before release the team released a video with the internet’s favorite scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, talking about the Ares 3 mission that was about to kick off. The in-universe video goes into the (seemingly real) science that would be necessary to send a manned mission to Mars while also touching on elements that are specific to the movie like the docking station in low-Earth orbit and such.
Those are really fun and well-produced and help flesh out the world of the movie, adding in some character and world-building details that they obviously didn’t have time for in the movie or which would have just bogged things down. I’m not usually a fan of this kind of in-world execution but these are particularly well-done.
The film’s Facebook page is…alright. There are lots of big promotional images that countdown the days until release, short videos of either the cast being interviewed or of a profile of one of the characters or something like that. And obviously in the last few weeks there are plenty of galleries from red carpet premieres and so on. The Twitter profile is much the same, though with a few additional things and a bit more retweeting going on. Same goes for Instagram.
Tumblr is a bit more interesting. It has the same crew profile videos that are found on Facebook but then there are images that trace the real and imagined history of Mars exploration. So that includes real-world events like the 2012 landing of Curiosity on the planet and everything that came before that as well as “future” events like the 2026 “Resource” prospector mission. That’s a nice touch that continues the world-building we saw on the official site and gives the Ares III mission from the movie some historical context we can all understand.
There was also BringHimHome.com, which let you upload your own photo and put some text over it in the style of the teaser poster, with the final image being sharable on various social networks.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV spots for the movie hit the same basic beats as the trailers, showing how Watney and his team are on Mars, then have to abandon it when a storm flairs up, with Watney left behind and presumed dead. There are some that offer a bit more context in the decision by NASA not to attempt a rescue and his team defying that order, but all in all they’re just condensed versions of the trailer and work for exactly the same reasons those trailers do.
There was a very cool promotion with Microsoft that created Bing Maps for the movie’s locations on Mars. So people could navigate the area that Watney finds himself stuck in, viewing a mix of both actual photos from Mars and clips from the film’s trailers. It also included HackingMars.com, which challenged people to solve one of the story’s key problems with some sort of technological development like an app, software and so on. People can work with tech experts via Skype (natch, since that’s owned by Microsoft) and compete for a cash prize for the most elegant and best solution.
One of the videos on the site had Watney exercising in what turned out to be a fictional commercial for Under Armour. The company actually is a promotional partner for the film with a micro-site containing not only that video but lots more about how the the company’s products are helping to train the Ares III crew and how you can be your best with UA fitness wear.
Media and Publicity
There was plenty of press about the movie as the cast and crew did the usual rounds of the media and talk-shows and such. But honestly, the most interesting stuff came where the movie intersected with real life.
First, a little over a week ago the crew of the International Space Station got an early look (Recode, 9/20/15) at the film, which they found inspiring and not terrifying. The latter would have been my reaction since it seems the equivalent of watching Alive on an international flight.
Then most notably just days before release NASA held a press conference announcing that there is evidence water exists on Mars in some form, a finding that kind of throws off a large chunk of the story’s premise (Wired, 9/28/15). Twitter of course blew up with jokes about how this was a pretty big stunt for Fox to pull to promote the movie and the studio even got in on the action with a couple videos, one simply tagging Watney’s “Surprise!” line that’s seen into the trailer onto NASA’s official announcement and the second with Damon as Watney talking about how he wishes he’d been able to find some of that water while he was up there.
The movie also did a few screenings at recent festivals, where it gained buzz as a people-pleasing potential awards contender. There were also stories like this one (Variety, 9/28/15) that played up how the movie was all about a love of science and trying to create that same love in the audience.
If there’s a weak spot to the campaign it’s the posters. But that’s because the weak design on display on those can’t reach the same fun heights as the videos and other portions of the push, particularly the fully-fleshed out in-world videos and updates that really help to add to the movie, making the audience feel a bit primed for the story before they ever set foot in the theater. Again, usually those kinds of executions come off as more than a little wobbly, but these work really well. And thank goodness they did because with thinks like this past weekend’s Super Blood Moon and then the “water on Mars announcement,” the stage had been set for the studio to break the fourth wall a little bit, even if I still find the distribution of those assets (fictional videos on a studio website marketing a movie) to be not great.
So overall this is a strong campaign that lives and dies on the charm of the actors involved. Thankfully those in-world elements make it clear that the entire cast from Damon on down are strong and seem to be in full “be as charming as possible” mode here, so it works. The trailers present a taut drama with plenty of action elements that promise to leave audiences tense and anxious, even if everyone (not just those that have read the book) knows how things will turn out. It’s a strong campaign for an early fall people-pleaser type of release.