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The rise of “casual games” came at the same time people were beginning to get faster internet access at home. Suddenly you weren’t just beholden to the extremes of either the low-rent Minesweeper or the high-end experience of Myst or other games that required multiple CDs and a doctorate in literature to play. These kinds of games – playing golf or go-karts or some such like that online – presaged the kinds of app-based games we now take for granted. But those app games morphed as well to become multiplayer experiences as we could suddenly play games with friends and challenge each other to show how good we were at chess, Scrabble or countless other games involving leaderboards.

The new movie Nerve is kind of about the next evolution of that concept, one where people aren’t just the players but also the pawns being moved around the board. Nerve is the name of a massively popular mobile game where you can either watch or play. One night Vee (Emma Roberts) is out with her friends and to prove to them that she’s not uptight she agrees to play Nerve, which opens her up to a series of crowdsourced dares from those who are watching. As part of the game she hooks up with Ian (Dave Franco) and the two of them become a pair in the game, inseparable because their success depends on sticking together. But what starts out as prankish fun gets very dark very quickly as it becomes obvious the watchers guiding their actions are giving into their dark sides.

The Posters

Two initial posters showed the faces of Franco and Roberts as if looking from the opposite side of the screen they’re engaging with. So the title treatment and the actors’ name is backwards. You see them making a selection between being a “Watcher” or “Player,” each one choosing “Player.” They’re good in the way the light on their faces setup the technology aspect of the story and we see the choice that defines the story and sets it in motion.

A half-dozen posters came next that weren’t about the main characters but instead showed a bunch of random people engaging in dares that, presumably, come from the Nerve community. All have “We Dare You” or some other text on them and all ask if you’re a player or a watcher. So it’s like they’re advertisements for the app itself and not the movie, with the latter interpretation being one only we, the audience on the other side of the fourth wall, are privy to.

Another batch of posters came out after that hitting a similar theme but this time making the action the player is being dared to do more explicit, both offering it as text with “Accept” and “Reject” options available and showing the character engaging in that dangerous or illegal activity. These continues the bright neon look of the other posters, extending the brand identity further and making them all nicely complementary to each other.

The theatrical one-sheet positions Roberts’ and Franco’s faces on either side of the title, with lots of neon lens flare and other effects giving the whole thing a vaguely futuristic look and feel. You can see them riding a motorcycle together in the middle there, which hints at some sort of fast-paced action that will unfold in the story. At the bottom is, once again, the “We dare you” copy that tells the audience some serious stuff will be going on here.

The Trailers

Things start off pretty simply in the first trailer, with a narrator explaining the premise of Nerve, that it’s like Truth Or Dare but without the truth. Vee is pressured by her friends to give it a try since they feel she’s too uptight and the games begin, with Vee  accepting the challenge to kiss a stranger, who winds up being Ian. Soon the watchers are giving them joint tasks but we start to get the sense that things aren’t as benign as they might appear. The watchers have stolen their identity and their money and the only way to reclaim it all is to finish the game, which may involve one of them not making it out alive.

I get what the filmmakers are going for here by presenting what seems to be a cautionary tale of anonymous people on the internet prodding people to be stupid for the lulz, but it might be a bit heavy-handed for that. Instead what this works best as is just a breezy goofy story about a couple young people who get caught up in something beyond what they were expecting. In other words, the cyber cautionary tale isn’t as interesting as just the idea of daring a couple people to do stupid stuff.

Online and Social

When you load the official website you’re greeted with a voice explaining what Nerve is and asking if you’re a watcher or a player. Those options are also available at the bottom of the main page. Choose “Watcher” and the trailer pops up. Choose “Player” and you’re taken to a prompt to download the Nerve app, which apparently displays videos from the “community” showing them engaging in all sorts of dangerous stunts, though there’s a disclaimer further down the site making it clear those people are professionals and that the ordinary person should not imitate them.

Back to the main site, the first section there is “Videos” which has the trailer and a few TV spots. “Posters” has most but not all the posters that were created for the movie, all but the middle batch that don’t feature either of the stars.

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The “Gallery” has a half-dozen or so branded stills that are formatted just perfectly for sharing on Instagram. Finally, the “Story” section has a short synopsis of the dangerous game Vee gets herself into.

Similarly, the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and obviously Instagram profile are all filled with square-formatted photos and videos, some just counting down to release some touting the thrill ride early audiences have gotten from the movie and more. There’s also plenty of promotion of the app and site, particularly to sell tickets.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

TV spots like this one played up various aspects of the movie’s story. Some focused solely on the relationship between Vee and Ian, some on the creepily mysterious nature of the people behind the dares they’re given, some on just the pure action and adrenaline of the story.

The studio also engaged in some sponsored content advertising, running this story on Mashable that purported to be an inside look at the app.

Postmates worked with the studio to offer free virtual reality viewers that could be ordered and which worked with the NERVE app, allowing people to view as a player or watcher. The studio also worked with an actual VR lab to create an immersive experience that takes viewers inside the stunts and dares of the characters.

Media and Publicity

It was announced just before the convention started that the movie would get a first look sneak screening at San Diego Comic-Con.That screening went pretty well, but wasn’t enough to result in a significant bounce in the word-of-mouth.

The movie became the focal point for a story on other films that have taken characters shoulder-deep into a game of some sort.

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Writer Jessica Sharzer talked in this interview about her background, her history writing “American Horror Story” and more about her screenwriting approach and how she crafted the story of these two young people on the run as part of a multiplayer game.

Overall

This is the rare movie that feels precisely of this moment in time. It’s not too far in the past to look irrelevant, like an adult trying to look hip by using slang that fell out of fashion two years ago and not of the future, like it’s trying sooooo hard to look prescient and is just making stuff up in the hope that it will come off as predictive of the next hot trends or of some terrible tragedy it’s trying to warn us of. Instead – and recent events around Pokemon Go, which have been wisely latched on to by both the press and the marketing team, have helped with this – it feels like this is us 15 minutes from now. That’s a hard trick to pull off.

To do all that the campaign has adopted a consistent look and feel that adopts some of the tropes the audience associates with “futuristic” like all the neon and other aesthetics and incorporates them into selling a story that’s based on technology. Nerve the game is sold here as something like what Anonymous would be if it decided to really use its power as a source of anarchy. Or if Reddit as a whole really went for the lulz by just messing with people for fun. In other words, the movie’s being sold as something wholly plausible that may just be around the corner, which a fun kind of sci-fi tightrope to walk.

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