So, let's say that you are the producer for a major studio, who due to a combination of luck and planning, is preparing to release the latest blockbuster superhero movie. But you want to be smart about this. You know that the film is good (think Spider-Man, not Catwoman), but you're worried about how best to market it so that everybody comes and sees it.
So what do you do? Do you go for a traditional ad campaign? Or do you try something a bit more clever and sneaky?
It's all the more appropriate because these films will probably have more in common than most people think. Both have killer talent attached to the project (The Dark Knight has Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Maggie Gylenhal; Iron Man has Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, and a possible appearance by Samuel L. Jackson). Both star a multi-millionaire industrialist who uses his own personal skills and high technology to fight crime. And both are driven by a personal need for vengeance.
And from a purely fan-boy point of view, they both look awesome, and will both have lots of cool toys inspired by the gadgets and gear the heroes use in each film
But the marketing approaches for the two films couldn't be much more different.
The Dark Knight has relied on forcing fans of the franchise to be as much of a detective as Batman himself. Most of the marketing has been done online, through hidden clues and contests, as fans have tracked information left by the Joker from one website to another. Photographs of the Joker appeared on IBelieveInHarveyDentToo.com and then on WhySoSerious.com long before they were released to any print publications. Through scavenger hunts fans were able to see the footage from the film that appeared with the IMAX release of I Am Legend. And even now, the only time the trailer for the film has appeared on television was during news coverage of the death of Heath Ledger.
But it's worked. While the average person walking down the street may not have a strong awareness of The Dark Knight (more than one of my co-workers found out that there was a sequel to Batman Begins and Heath Ledger would play the Joker only during the coverage of Ledger's death), fans have been rabid in their efforts to discover more about the film. Message boards have devoted an unimaginable amount of bandwidth to discussion of the film and speculation about what the latest clue means. People are excited to see this one - even while still knowing almost nothing about it.
Iron Man has gone the other route, with the trailer for the film being prominently displayed on Marvel's website, and even purchasing time during the Superbowl to air the latest trailer. If you wanted to know what Iron Man's new suit of armor would look like, Hasbro has the site showing the toys in detail available at your fingertips. The Mark I suit of armor was on-display at the Consumer Electronics Show for anyone to see, and director Jon Favreau kept a production blog that fans could read along with.
And it hasn't backfired for Paramount and Marvel. There's some serious buzz behind this film, much of it focused on the movie's lead, Robert Downey Jr. Aside from being an incredible actor, his history with substance abuse made many fans think that he was the perfect fit for the alcoholic Tony Stark. And the trailers have been tons of fun. We all know that we will be able to expect a lot of high-energy action in the film, combined with some amazingly quippy lines from Downey.
So which approach is better? Honestly, I'm not sure either one is. Both have some advantages and some drawbacks. I think that the viral marketing for The Dark Knight wouldn't work for Iron Man. With The Dark Knight, you're working with a known quality. People know Batman. Batman Begins was a huge hit that clearly left the door open for a sequel starring the Joker. And even if you didn't see that film, you still recognize Batman and the Joker, just as a result of their pervasiveness in pop culture. Also, Batman is a shadowy figure, so the viral campaign fits for him. A big market blast of Batman might be enough to kill the excitement for The Dark Knight. On the other hand, Iron Man needs to be introduced to audiences, and Paramount's approach has certainly done that.
Come back in two weeks for another look at what's happening in superhero film and television that goes beyond the surface. Until then, "It's Clobberin' Time!"
What do you think is the best way to build hype for a superhero film? Leave your thoughts on our forums! And if you have a topic you'd like to see explored here, leave an idea on the forum, or e-mail me at [email protected].