Movie Marketing Madness: The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code has a three year head start on most of the other major motion pictures being released this summer. Yes, we’ve heard about Superman Returns and X-Men III for a while now but none has the leg up the Da Vinci does. The astounding success of the book has been in essence one long build up to the film. Like books by John Grisham’s novels, anyone who read Dan Brown’s book likely could easily envision it as a movie.

The story is this. Tom Hanks plays an expert in symbols and codes who becomes involved in a mystery and coverup surrounding the true nature of The Holy Grail, a secret that, if exposed, could shake the foundations of the Catholic Church and other institutions. There are those who have a vested interest in keeping that secret and they chase Hanks’ character and his lovely assistant, played by Audrey Tautou, around Europe. Along the way the two protagonists peice together the clues, most of which are embedded in ancient works of art.

In truth the book wasn’t very good, but that didn’t seem to affect its popularity. Notice how not shocked I am by that statement.

The Posters

The first teaser poster released by Sony was almost an exact reproduction of the book jacket. It featured the Mona Lisa – one of the key items from the story – with a corner peeled back revealing text on the back of the print. That gave it instant brand familiarity with the fans of the book and served as an above average teaser. The plot wasn’t revealed at all but was hinted at in a way that engaged existing fans and intrigued people unfamiliar with the book.

The next poster released was not so good. It showed Hanks and Tautou standing next to each other against a red background and staring into the middle distance. Still no cast and crew credites but it really was awful. It was an obvious attempt to just put Hanks on the poster and tell all the rubes in the audience “A new Tom Hanks movie is opening and it’s your civic duty to come see it.” The background, which also contained some jumbled code-like text, just made it worse.

What seems to be the final theatrical poster was just as bad. Again, Hanks and Tautou are shown but this time it seems to be a still from the movie. Tautou is clutching Hanks’ jacket lapel like they’re hiding from something dangerous. Hanks’ skin also looks kind of weird – a little too brushed for its own good. Again, this is a very middle-brow poster. The two latter posters combined kill whatever class the teaser had managed to intill in the movie’s campaign.

The Trailers

The teaser trailer debuted last year and was pretty good if not exactly great. It set up the basic premise of a code being hidden in works of art that could change the world and reminded everyone to save the date. It was, if anything, a little over dramatic and should have served as a warning sign that this movie was going to take itself way too seriously. That feeling was enhanced by the voice over from super serious narrator guy, who intoned on just how shocked we would all be. Nothing of the movie was shown, likely because this was while they had not yet started filming.

The main difference between the first and second full-length trailers is primarily in tone. Yes, there’s a bit of difference in the footage and the actors get a bit more dialogue in the second one. The tone difference is important, though. The first makes the movie look very much like a character-driven drama about figuring out a mystery. The second, though, turns it into an action movie. Characters breathlessly race either on foot or in cars here there and everywhere as they try to figure out the puzzle/try and stop people from figuring out the puzzle. Did the marketing team begin to feel that more of a focus on action would appeal to a larger crowd? That doesn’t seem right. It makes the movie just one in a crowd of other action flicks instead of standing out as an actor showcase.

There’s also a host of TV spots that all pilfer footage from the trailers. Don’t worry about them since they’re all pretty bad.

Online

When you first get to the movie’s official website you already have a ton o foptions to choose from. You can view and download video clips, play the online game (more on this later), download mobile swag and a couple of other things. Entering the official website isn’t all that exciting. Been there, done that. There’s nothing there that hasn’t been on so many other official websites that it’s not really worth rehashing the content. If you want to check it out do so but not if you’re looking for anything innovative.

Sony also launched a blog for the movie. Oh, I know that SeektheCodes is supposed to look like the blog from a code-seeking enthusiast but let’s not bullshit each other, shall we? Especially since the blog’s URL was teased at the end of the first trailer. Look at the blog and look at everything that’s wrong with trying to setup fake fan sites/blogs. Let’s move on.

Perhaps the biggest online effort was that launched in conjunction with Google. A widget was created for a quest game that people could install on their personalized Google home page. That marked the first time Google had, in effect, allowed a marketer access to their highly-valued home page. But then the link to the game began appearing at the bottom of search pages, too, outside the usual block of paid and contextually relevant links. That deal paid off for Sony, who saw their web traffic double because of it. Here’s what I wrote a week or so ago when I found out about this, which I think bears a full reprinting:

Sony Pictures saw its web traffic nearly double to .0078 of all internet visits – read that again, ALL INTERNET VISITS – as a result of the Da Vinci Code Quest game it launched and made available on Google. When the promotion first began it looked like this was just a widget that you could add to your personalized Google home page. Subsequently, though, I began to notice it appearing at the bottom of the screen when I was viewing search results – and not necessarily contextual searches. When I’d search for “Kate Moss AND nikon” it would appear. Here’s a screen shot.

The story says that Google accounted for 30 percent of the referrals to Sony’s website, even 20 days after the promotion started. Yahoo accounted for .93 and MSN just .37 of referrals. That’s not only a fascinating insight into people’s searching habits (MSN sucks?) but also for how people are visiting the studio’s official websites. Before the launch, Google accounted for three percent of referrals to Sony’s website. So combined the three major search engines brought lest than four and a half percent of traffic to the studio’s sites. What was bringing the other 95.5 per cent? My guess is mostly blogs.

The reason I’m making that bit of speculation is that newspapers and magazines typically (and shortsightedly) don’t link out to the websites they refer to. There’s also a bit that likely comes from promotional partners and then the remainder, I’d imagine, comes from direct visits, people who visit the site regularly and directly to check for updates.

The implications for this are huge. If, by partnering with Google, companies can see their web traffic increase ten-fold than it’s a no-brainer. I’m not sure how this would measure against ordinary contextual keyword adverting buys. I’d guess, though, that separating the promotional link out from the rest of the paid ads Sony got higher click-through rates than they would have.

Hitwise provides, over at iMediaConnection, some perspective on how people were seeking out information on the movie and the book. It’s interesting to see what resources were being used by the general public, including the movie’s official website and the Google promotion.

Other Efforts

Actually there wasn’t too much else going on here. The outdoor advertising budget must have been huge, though, since I’ve seen Da Vinci material all over the place walking around downtown Chicago. That includes full-art on El trains around the city. There have been a few different taglines and a few different head shots used, some of Hanks/Tautou, some of Paul Bettany and so on. I’ve expressed my displeasure with the tagline used on some displays

And of course there’s been the controversy about the subjet matter. Instead of just shutting up and letting the movie pass in the night as a work of fiction church groups around the world have raised a big old fuss about the movie. This has been a dumb move that’s actually managed to give the subject matter some measure of legitimacy, as if it’s a valid point that must be rebutted instead of just a flight of fancy. Idiots.

And then there’s Sony’s hiding of the movie from the critics until just a few days ago at Cannes. The studio played it off as just wanting to make the movie an event but it also helped to quash much of the buzz that could have been built for the movie. Not a good move if you ask me. That hasn’t stopped some mainstream press outlets such as The New Yorker from running features on the marketing machine behind the movie. In the case of TNY it’s a look at how the studio is making the appeal to the Christian Evangelical audience.

Let’s not forget, though, that the book – which came out in 2003 – just was released in paperback a couple months ago. Just in time to put the book out there in front of people all over again.

Overall

It’s not a bad campaign, but it could have been better. What started off as a classy affair full of the classical imagery that liters the movie it veered to more closely represent the mainstream tendencies of director Ron Howard. The latter two posters were pretty bad and the trailers didn’t help much. It’s definitely a case of a big budget movie getting a big budget campaign that’s gotten its share of notes from a lot of people. It could have been better but it was designed to appeal to the middle of the road audience.

Will it succeed? I don’t know. I labeled it as being possible the one sure thing this summer, precisely because of it’s middle-of-the-road appeal and built in book fanbase. Now I’m not so sure. It will be very interesting to see how this performs in its first couple weekends.

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