MOVIE MARKETING MADNESS: SERENITY

I came to Joss Whedon’s world late. My brother-in-law had been chiding me for not watching

“Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” for a while until, toward the end of its sixth season, I finally relented. He loaned me a whole box load of tapes of the early seasons for me to watch and by the time I got to episode two I was hooked. Witty dialogue, interesting characters and a premise that did not appear as hokey in execution as it had seemed in description got me into it and then its spin-off “Angel” just a season or two before they each were cancelled.

And then, about that time, Whedon debuted his sci-fi/western show “Firefly,” set 500 years in the future. While I tried valiantly to keep up with the goofy out-of-order airing of the episodes (a decision by Fox Television) and played the “what night will it be on this week” game I only saw about four episodes out of the 11 they aired before pulling it. The show seemed really good but I couldn’t get in the groove with it until it came out on DVD and was able to watch it in order. Now I believe it’s actually a better show than either of Whedon’s “Buffyverse” shows.

“Serenity,” the movie based on the short-lived show, takes its name from the ship manned by Malcolm Reynolds and his crew of outlaws. The movie takes place shortly after the show ended and follows Reynolds and the crew of Serenity as they make their place in the universe while carrying a young woman, River Tam, whom the Galactic Alliance has a vested interest in recapturing.

The Poster

There were two posters released, one teaser and one theatrical. The teaser version just contained a Chinese glyph and the name of the movie. It was very cool, especially if you were familiar with the show’s conceit of having Chinese mixed in with English as part of the everyday language. It was on this one we also saw for the first time the “Can’t Stop the Signal” tagline, though what that meant was unknown.

The theatrical poster is much more graphically crowded but also more interesting. As it says in the tag at the end of this column, one of my favorite posters is the one for “Unforgiven.” The reason for that is the way dark and light contrast against each other while the graphic elements are arranged in a way that allows the eye to very easily move from one point to another, creating a sort of circle. This poster works in that same way, with the three main images all balanced very well. We see Capt. Reynolds scowling in the upper-right at River, who stands enigmatically to his right and then as we follow her dress down (and who wouldn’t want to do that) we come to the Firefly-class cargo ship Serenity herself. The blueish hue to the one-sheet lends it a cool feeling and at the bottom we’re told “The Future Is Worth Fighting For.”

The Trailers

It’s well known that Joss Whedon’s primary strength is dialogue. He has a voice that is unique and which leads to strong character definition and development. So the trailer is the perfect outlet for this strength since it’s there that what he has actually does shine through.

When I first saw the teaser trailer my jaw literally hit the floor. It’s fast-paced, contains a ton of humor, a good amount of action and does a nice job of accomplishing the main goal of this campaign: to attract an audience outside of the already existing fanbase. There’s nothing bad about this, or the theatrical trailer with which it shares a good deal of footage. Instead of describing it, let’s just look at some of my favorite lines from either one:

Wash: This is going to get plenty interesting.

Mal: Define interesting.

Wash: (driest possible delivery) Oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die?

Zoë: Do you really think any of us are getting out of here alive?

Jayne: Well, I might.

Mal: Do you want to be Captain?

Jayne: Yeah, I do.

Mal: (after a moment) Well, you can’t!

Mal: This is the captain speaking. We may experience some slight turbulence and then…exploding.

The Website

When the website for the movie was first launched it didn’t contain much. Just an image of the teaser poster, a link to “Join the Browncoats” – where fans could join a community of others and earn points to get free swag, and a blog. Now I’m a big supporter of studios incorporating blogs and such in their online offerings but this was poorly executed. It was updated I think a total of four times over the course of six or eight months and was eventually abandoned in lieu of the message board.

The site was relaunched a couple months ago and was now stocked with all sorts of goodies that play to both those coming to the universe for the first time and those who have been waiting for this flick since “Firefly” was cancelled. There is the option to go either Flash or HTML on the site. Much of the actual information is duplicated so let’s cover that first.

“Story” sets up the, well, story of this band of galactic fringe-dwellers and their struggles as they find themselves caught between the Alliance and The Reavers, a group of cannibalistic savages. “Notes” goes over just what Whedon and his crew went through to turn this small screen (ratings-wise but not creatively) failure into a motion picture. There are about a dozen images under the “Images” heading. The usual selection of wallpapers, AIM icons and a screensaver are lumped under “Downloads” and the bios of the cast and crew, along with a special message from Whedon are under “Bios”. Finally, “Video” not only contains both trailers and three TV spots, but also six clips from the movie. Most of these are extensions of scenes found in the trailers but they’re great if you’re looking for a taste of the movie.

The Flash-based site differs mainly in the “Explore Serenity” feature. You click on one of the navigation links for the different ship compartments and not only do you get a character profile of the person most likely to be found there (Wash in the cockpit, etc) but also some other fun stuff. Here’s a quick list: Cockpit: Wallpaper creator; Dining Room: Recipe book; Crew Quarters: Weapons explorer; Engine Room: Ship profile; Airlock: Horseshoe game (a lot of fun if you’ve played horseshoes for real); Cargo Bay: Browncoat trivia and finally Shuttle: Know Your Enemy. It’s these little things that make visiting the site fun.

Screenings

“Serenity” was supposed to be released in early 2005, right around the same time as “Star Wars: Episode III.” Probably because they didn’t want to get lost in the wake of that film’s opening and marketing it was pushed back until now. To tide fans over until then, and to build buzz, Universal held a number of screenings of “Serenity” across the country. The gamble seemed to have worked since reviews were almost all glowing and the fanbase was really enthused to have seen a sneak peak of the movie they were so looking forward to.

Then just a week or so before opening, Universal enlisted a number of A-list blog writers in the effort by giving them passes to screenings across the country. Various blogs created contests of any sort allowing people to win tickets to see the movie a couple days early. From the amount of buzz the giveaways generated the volume of traffic it created to these blogs it seems the studio really tapped into the grassroots by doing this. It was really remarkable to read all the stories on this and see how some blog-runners had to close their contests early because of overwhelming submission volume. Good on Universal.

Overall

I’m looking forward to this movie more than I was anticipating “Episode III.” I am this movie’s target audience and it doesn’t fail at all in building my excitement for it. The true test will ultimately come when the weekend numbers are analyzed and executives figure out if more people went to the movie than bought the DVD boxset. If so, that means it’s reached out into the general population and it can then be called a success. I love the grassroots effort via the blogs and the constant stream of screenings that happened. Great campaign for what I hope will be a great movie.

As moviemaking costs increase, the pressure to successfully market those movies becomes greater. In an attempt to show how marketers are trying to put the most hinders in the theater seats, Chris Thilk breaks down why some movie campaigns work and some don’t. The posters for “The Rocketeer” and “Unforgiven” remain two of his all-time favorites. For Chris’ ongoing movie journal and other various musings, visit his Movie Marketing Madness blog.




Posted on September 28, 2005 in Features by
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