I’ll start off, in the spirit of complete honesty and transparency, with an admission: I do not really share the “Speed Racer” cartoon as a cultural milestone with many of my peers. I think I might have caught it a handful of times in my younger years but it never held my interest to any extent. So while I’m familiar with the general concept (Young and extremely appropriately named young man tries to drive fast while assorted bad guys attempt to thwart him in his attempts to drive even faster) I cannot sing the theme song word-for-word, my first cartoon crush was not on Trixie (I would never cheat on you, Scarlett) and I just generally don’t know the world as well as some others of my generation do.
It’s that audience that Warner Bros. seems to be selling this big-screen adventure of Speed Racer to. At least it’s one of the audiences they’re aiming at. After all, nostalgia is a powerful motivator (cough, Transformers, cough). The movie, which has been directed by theWachowski Brothers of The Matrix Triilogy fame (or infamy depending on where you stopped watching), seems to follow the same basic outline of fast driving and outside interference as the cartoon. Emile Hirsch stars as Speed, with ChristinaRicci as Trixie and Matthew Fox as Jack Racer X, who must lead them off the island who seems to hold the secrets of the greedy corporate interests trying to derail Speed. If, that is, he ran on rails. Cars don’t generally. Unless you’re talking about theme park rides. I may be digressing.
The other audience being sought by Warner Bros. is actually young kids. Visually the Wachowskis have laid out a movie that’s like the trippiest video game ever, with the pumped-up brightness of everything in the film and a camera that never seems to stop moving so fast the background becomes a brightly hued blur. Also, the filmmakers delivered a finished product that’s been rated PG, meaning anyone can get in to the theater without a problem.
The only problem is that the lighter rating has the potential to turn off some of the Generation X audience who might be looking for something that’s a little darker or more violent in their nostalgia (cough, Transformers, cough). But it’s likely the combination of the two audiences could compliment each other, with enough younger kids coming in for the visuals to offset anyGenXers who decided to skip it and go see Iron Man for the second or third time now that they know to stay through the entire credit sequence.
Before diving into the movie’s campaign formally let me share something I said to Tom last week, something that might bode ill for the movie’s prospects: No one is talking about Speed Racer. At least it doesn’t seem to have a fraction of the online buzz Iron Man does. While that movie was positioned largely as an action flick more than a comics adaptation – at least to the mainstream audiences that was what the campaign looked like – it also targeted the same people who obsess over comics and related cultural trivia. And it’s coming just two weeks before Indiana Jones, which is also making a play for theXers who were teenagers when the last installment came out.
Unfortunately for Speed Racer there’s just enough of a lull after Iron Man for Indy to build some last minute momentum. So because it’s not first out of the gate and isn’t the return of an iconic film character Speed might suffer from the exhaustion of an audience catching their breath between gigantic campaigns. That unfortunately is borne out in numbers collected just days before the movie’s release that show it tracking very poorly and potentially losing the weekend to Iron Man should that movie remain strong.
But nothing is set in stone and I’ve been wrong before so let’s just look at the campaign WB put together.
The first poster appeared a while ago, showing just the title character’s mid-section as he grasped his helmet in his hand. No face or anything like that, just the helmet with the Mach 5 in the background. While this was very cool to look at online it was even cooler in theaters, where the poster waslenticular and moved as the viewer moved around it. Eventually Warner created a page that simulated that effect for the online audience.
It’s not much but it did certainly set the stage for the rest of the campaign, of which it was the first major element, I believe. The branding was there, alerting people that the movie was coming, and it conveyed the style of the visuals pretty well. The motion of the poster also set the stage for people to expect that speed would be the central focus of the push, with a campaign whose every element would try to include that sense of motion.
Next up were a series of character posters. There was one for Speed, one for Trixie and one for Racer X. Each one is color-coded based on the character’s wardrobe preferences and features their transportation of choice in the background. These were pretty good but, while they’re very exciting to look at with their popping colors I don’t think they do a lot to increase the connection between the audience and the characters. That’s simply because they’re the one character-centric component of a campaign that otherwise is focused on visuals. Still, they’re not bad and would definitely have been a noticeable omission if they hadn’t been created.
Further emphasizing my point, it’s almost impossible to find any human beings on the final theatrical poster. The central component of this one-sheet is the Mach 5 as it speeds around a curved and looped track with Racer X’s car in close pursuit. The people are in there somewhere, but the focus visually is on the car and the track, with everything else being drowned out by those two items. Again, this is a good poster that conveys the movie’s central focus well, but it’s counting on snappy graphics to bring people in.
And right there I think you have a sense of how this movie is differing from most of the other tentpole releases this summer: It’s the only one that seems to be sublimating character for visuals. Iron Man, The Dark Knight, heck even The Incredible Hulk have all taken pains to make sure it’s the character every bit as much as the special effects that are drawing people in. I can’t help but think it’s this sterility in approach that’s contributing to the lack of buzz around the movie and its poor tracking. People are engaging with the characters that they’re seeing as more fully fleshed out rather than something that just looks wicked cool.
Unsurprisingly, the first teaser trailer (though it didn’t really tease much so that’s not a completely accurate description) opened with some cartoonish graphics and the first few bars of the cartoon’s theme song, making it clear this was going to be a nostalgia effort. After that, though, we’re thrown into the action. We get glimpses of all the major characters, including John Goodman as Speed’s father, SusanSarandon as his mom and Ricci as Trixie. The trailer gives off the impression that even the live-action elements are as much a cartoon as the computer-driven special effects that dominate the racing sequences. There’s a little hinting at some sort of conspiracy to keep Speed down by a corporate bigwig but that’s about it before the trailer is over.
The second and third trailers are virtually interchangeable. Neither one goes all that much deeper than the first one did into either character development or story points. Again, there’s a conspiracy that’s hinted at more than anything, with Speed intoning that he has “to do something” but what he’s railing against isn’t made all that clear. Racer X continues to act more than a little mysterious, but no reason is hinted at whatsoever as to why he’s such a shadowy figure. Each one features some new racing footage and it’s all very impressive but the live-action stuff is just about the same between the two.
The fourth and final trailer finally breaks out of the mold a bit. It starts off showing Speed as a young child in school with his teacher frustrated that driving fast seems to be the only thing he’s capable of thinking about. Believe it or not this is substantial character development for this campaign. There’s a little more divulged about the corporate powers that are intent on getting in Speed’s way of becoming the best racer ever, which also makes this trailer a cut above the rest of the pack.
Taken altogether, it’s really easy to cut out those middle two spots. They don’t add all that much more than the first trailer revealed and weren’t as meaty in terms of story revelation as the final one so they don’t contribute much to the campaign. About all they seem to be intended to do is show off the graphics and visuals of the movie, both of which you can see pretty clearly in the bookend spots or even on the posters. But the visuals are a major selling point for the movie so it’s easy to see why the studio would want to highlight them as much as possible, even if nothing is actually added to the audience’s understanding of the film in the process.
The first thing that appears on the official site – which is chock full of content even before you “Enter” – is the trailers and TV spots that begin playing as soon as the site loads. Two trailers and two TV spots are right there in the middle of the page player.
Also there is a Synopsis that actually dives into the story and characters more than I would expect, Downloads that include a handful of Buddy Icons and Wallpapers and a Gallery of about 20 pictures or so.
Also on the page is plenty of information on how to spend your money on the Speed Racer brand. There’s information on the movie’s IMAX release, something that’s likely to be a big draw for those really looking to experience the movie’s look and feel. Also is a link to the official site for the movie’s video game and a mobile store where you can find games and other swag for your mobile device.
Finally before we go into the main site is a link to the movie’s Facebook page. There’s not much there that’s all that exciting, just some wallpapers and other stuff you can download and big ads for some of the movie’s tie-in partners and a couple of videos.
OK, let’s enter the site.
You’re presented with two options for entry, one if you’re a kid one if you’re an adult. Going the adult route first you’re then shown the worst website background ever, a spinning red and white spiral that even caused me to feel like I was having a seizure in the two minutes it took for the content to load.
“Trailers” contains a scant two trailers, one of which is the International version that caused so much of a ruckus when it was released a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure why all the trailers wouldn’t be there, but that seems like a silly place to skimp, especially with all the money that was likely spent on that background that keeps spinning around and around. You can download both trailers, which is a nice touch, but it’s not enough to make up for the lack of content.
Seven posters are included under “Posters,” including two character one-sheets that I hadn’t seen before. For a change you can actually download these by clicking on them, which opens up a pop-up, and then right-clicking.
“About” contains both the same synopsis we saw earlier and some Production Notes. While the Prod Notes look great, it’s impossible to read them with that stupid swirling going on in the background so I couldn’t honestly tell you if they’re any good or not. You’ll find the usual Cast and Crew notes under “Bios” and a list of site updates (but no RSS feed) under “News.”
“4 Min. of Footage” is exactly what it sounds like, a four-minute clip from the movie.
The same gallery of pics we saw before is contained under “Photos” while “Art” has some cool Concept Art and Storyboards you can check out. “Downloads” is again pretty much what we saw before, but with the addition of iPod-ready videos you can grab.
Rounding out the site is a section leading you to all the promotional “Partners” of the movie and a “Coloring Book” that seems oddly out of place on the adults section of the site.
If you go back to the main page and re-enter the site, this time choosing the Kids option, you’ll get more or less the exact same content. Only this time it’s presented with an old-school Turbo-esque video game look to it. You can access content at random by clicking on the billboards that you speed past or just mouse-over the car’s dashboard and select from the labeled button and levers you see there.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
For Joel Silver, the producer of the movie, the realm of product cross-promotions is relatively untrod territory, largely because he’s used to creating R-rated action movies that don’t lend themselves well to such efforts. But in his first outing he’s gone all out, including giving partners access to movie artwork – specifically images of the Mach 5 – early in the process, something that let them get a jumpstart on their individual efforts and give the studio more time to provide feedback.
It should come as no surprise that the partners that signed on to help promote Speed Racer in the hopes the positive brand association will rub off on them skew heavily toward companies related to the automotive industry. There are others, to be sure, but the automobile vertical is heavily represented here.
AutoTrader.com helped out in a big way. The site ran a sweepstakes that awarded the winner $30,000 to use toward the purchase of a car on one of its sites or through one of its print publications. The site also gave tickets for the movie to those buying a special kind of premium ad listing and even created a fake ad for the Mach 5 that ran on the site. It also took a replica of the Mach 5 to three Major League Baseball ballparks in the weeks leading up to the film’s release.
Also in the automotive realm was the deal with B-K Motorsports and Yokohama Tires. B-K’s Mazda LMP2 car was decked out in movie logos and the drivers even sported uniforms meant to resemble that worn by Speed. Yokohama was using the deal for its part to promote its high-performance tires – indeed they were named the “official” tire of the Mach 5 in the same way such racing deals are done – in an effort that included a co-branded commercial you can view on the Yokohama site.
Insurance company Esurance had its own efforts going. A co-branded site featured the movie’s trailer as well as other video content including an exclusive collection of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the movie’s cast. As with many of the rest of the promotions there was also a sweepstakes with prizes including a trip to the movie’s premiere.
They also created a co-branded TV spot that pitted esurance’s spokes-cartoon Erin against Speed Racer’s Mach 5 in a race to a movie theater.
It would make sense for the race car circuit to get in on the game as well, wouldn’t it? Well that’s just what happened, with Bobby LaBonte’s #43 Cheerios car sporting Speed Racer paint at the Crown Royal 400 race a couple weeks before the movie’s release.
One non-auto-related company joining the cross-promotional push was shoemaker Puma, for which this was the first major movie-related deal they’d struck. Puma created a Speed-Racer branded shoe and promoted that shoe – and the movie – in-store with trailers and signage, as well as its own sweepstakes.
Warner Bros.’ corporate sibling Time Warner Cable did its part to promote the movie by tying it to its RoadRunner high-speed internet service. TWC started running spots that pointed viewers to a Speed Racer branded site where they could view view trailers and other exclusive movie content as well as play games and enter a sweepstakes to win a Mazda Speed 3. TWC could also access a 20-minute fake documentary on the Racer family that was put together by the studio and which will be available on DVD exclusively at Target stores.
Another Time-Warner property, AOL, also helped back in December when the trailer for the movie was set to make its debut. AOL’s Moviefone had the exclusive premiere of the trailer and on the same day the first real photos from the film were shown off at Cinematical, which is owned by AOL. In the days after that the trailer would be promoted on the AIM welcome page, with other sites in the AOL network also getting the word out about the trailer’s appearance.
Going back to Target, the retailer is the movie’s official retail partner and creating in-store and print ads that feature the Speed Racer products it’s selling as well as offering special gift cards that come packed with a USB flash drive pre-loaded with exclusive movie content.
In terms of pure advertising, the studio has been running a steady stream of TV spots and also doing a bit of outdoor advertising as well. Like I always mention, it’s dangerous to draw assumptions from personal experiences, but I don’t watch much TV and I’ve seen a ton of commercials. Likewise I’ve seen buses and bus shelters around Chicago sporting Speed Racer ads and character posters for the last month or so leading up to the release.
Speed Racer was also one of the movies included in Warner Bros. deal with National CineMedia that had the studio creating exclusive packages for NCM’s pre-show FirstLook block of content. Standees like this one were also placed in theaters across the country that, as you can see, take the movie’s poster and expand it into three dimensions.
MTV also worked with Warner Bros. on a promotion on MTVN’s cable properties that had two components. One was a text-to-win trivia contest, with winners being sent to the movie’s premiere where they could compete for a real Mach 5 by racing remote-control cars. The other part has MTVN channels speeding up the promos they run for other shows on the networks as well as “shaking” the sites for those networks while the movie’s trailer plays.
It’s hard for me to contextualize the Speed Racer campaign. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it or with any particular component of it. Far from it I think there’s some excellent stuff in there. Yeah, the trailers were too many and the website gave me an extra-sized headache. But those are minor stylistic quibbles.
I won’t belabor the point of Iron Man sucking the wind out of Speed Racer’s campaign, but it’s certainly a factor that has to be considered when it comes to buzz and word-of-mouth surrounding this push.
But the campaign, when judged on its own merits, is a good one. It hits most of the notes it needs to for the audiences that are trying to be reached and does so with the best selling points it has to offer. I’m not sure it’s great, but there’s certainly nothing “wrong” with it that could be identified. Yeah, the trailers got kind of repetitive and the website design gave me a whopping headache, but those are aesthetic quibbles that certainly don’t have an objective point of view.
If anything, I think I would have liked to have seen more things you could do online with the Speed Racer brand. Some more interactive features that really got you involved in the world of the movie and the characters would have gone a long way to creating the very connection that seems to be lacking from many of the campaign’s components in favor of a focus on the car and the visuals.
Other than that it’s a completely serviceable campaign that, unfortunately, seems to have failed to break through the clutter caused by other movies and other entertainment options in general.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- 5/27/08: Something interesting has popped up in the wake of Speed Racer’s sub-expectation performance at the box-office. Warner Bros. now finds itself in the position of needing to appease promotional partners that got far less exposure than they were hoping for by attaching themselves to the movie. The studio could even wind up offering “make goods” to those partners to get them the level of audience exposure they had been promised when it looked like Speed Racer was predicted to be a hit.
- 5/27/08: Make goods are common in the television world when shows that are promised at the upfront as potentially huge successes wind up flopping, resulting in a lot of bought and paid for ad time that never winds up happening or doesn’t reach the audience guaranteed by the network. They’re just one reason I believe the upfront model to be flawed.
- 5/27/08: The problems with maintaining partner relationships are going to be much more prevalent for those who paid for placement in the movie itself than with those who just did co-branded advertising deals.
- 6/18/08: Anne also has a good post-mortem on Speed Racer, identifying problems that plagued Warner Bros. in marketing the movie. There’s a hefty list of reasons, ranging from not deciding to embrace the 14 year olds the movie was clearly made for to the fact that those 14 year olds had no idea what Speed Racer was, all of that with a movie that was obviously aimed at younger kids.