If last week’s Hancock was an example of trying to sell the movie of a superhero that is new, without an existing fanbase, Hellboy is an example of trying to sell comic book character that only the hardcore comics fans are likely to know about.
Hellboy is among the more obscure comics adaptations hitting theaters this summer, though unlike Hancock he does have an actual comics legacy to pull from and capitalize on. The character has been around for a number of years, after having been created by Mike Mingolla a while ago. And he’s already had one big screen outing, as well as a number of really, really cool direct-to-video features that continue the story of Hellboy and his supporting cast very well. So he’s an established movie character as well.
Still, the primary problem Universal faces this week is the fact that Hellboy is not Iron Man. He’s not the Hulk. He’s not Batman. And with so many big-time superheroes coming to the big-screen it’s going to be easy for people to forget about Hellboy, a problem that’s only accentuated by the fact that he’s a little darker and more mysterious, fighting not a bad guy per se but a whole underworld of monsters, an underworld he used to belong to and constantly has to fight the pull to rejoin.
Bringing him back to the movies is director Guillermo del Toro, the mastermind behind Pan’s Labyrinth and a number of other films that have a penchant for the supernatural, including the first Hellboy flick back in 2004, one of his first mainstream American films. The plot of Hellboy II is pretty simple – bunch of bad guys, in this case the spoiled heir to an underworld kingdom who was a preference for violence, are trying to disrupt the human world. So it’s up to Hellboy and his team to push them back where they belong, all the while throwing around one-liners and chomping cigars. Let’s dive in.
The first poster that hit the streets was released at Comic-Con in 2007. Very much a teaser in every sense of the word, the one-sheet showed nothing from the movie other than its title. Instead it was just a bit of artwork from Mignola that depicted Hellboy in his comics form, something that was designed almost solely to elicit “OMGs” from the fans of the character, whether they were in attendance at the event or just viewing it online after the fact. There was the slightest bit of plot hinting via the huge robot something that lurks behind Hellboy but that’s about it.
After that a series of character posters were released that sought to re-introduce the cast of the first film to us. Hellboy, Liz Sherman and Abe Sapien got posters all to themselves, as well as new addition Johann Krauss. These were released over a series of weeks and definitely did a good job of getting people excited about the second theatrical entry in the franchise. Plus, they were super-cool in terms of design, showing something of the character’s powers and overall being consistent with the look and feel of things like the website, creating that all-important brand experience.
It was a little while before another poster hit, but when it did it was big. Once again debuting at a Comic-Con event, this one-sheet had not only the hardcore comics fan allure going for it but also the fact that it was designed by legendary poster artist Drew Struzan, he of the Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter (at least the first few) franchises, as well as countless others. This one is..well…it just rocks. Hellboy, armed with his Big Baby gun, looks up at the towering hordes of robots that are coming at him out of a cloud of dust. It works well by combing great artwork with an image that captures the overall gist of the movie’s conflict in a single frame. Definitely a great effort.
The final theatrical poste r brings us back to a real image of Hellboy, who’s seen with gun in hand and with his other hand – the big stone one – smashing the ground. That part of the image is a little underwhelming, since his mighty punch seems to have disturbed barely more grass than I do when I’m walking in my yard, but that’s a minor quibble. It’s a good, fun poster that brings the character to the masses in a slick but darkly tinted way, a feeling that’s accentuated by the “Believe it or not, he’s the good guy” copy point that appears at the top.
Interestingly, this is the only poster I’ve seen that mentions the movie comes from del Toro. Actually it doesn’t tout that as much as the fact that it comes from the “visionary director of Pan’s Labyrinth” above the title. The reason I mark that as interesting is that this is a theme that will be hit upon heavily in the trailers. It almost seems to me Universal was hoping the trailers would find richer soil in art-house audiences, while the posters main audience would be comics fans who might not be as drawn to the legacy of Pan’s as they would be to art that was taken directly from the comics or which had a rich heritage in the sci-fi fantasy realm.
The first trailer skirted the line of being a teaser, spending a lot of the first part of its running time on setting up the mysterious world that lurks around and beneath ours, all of which is being brought to us by director Guillermo del Toro. It then gets around to showing us the main bad guy of the movie, some sort of royalty that’s going to destroy mankind. Eventually we’re shown Hellboy himself and the other good guys, with Big Red being shown as his usual heroic but slightly grumpy self. It sets up the basic story pretty well, showing how things are still the same for our band of paranormal investigators, still not existing and still scaring the regular humans as much as the baddies, despite constantly saving the day.
The second spot spent more time at first setting up the motivation for the bad guy in the movie, showing how he’s reclaiming his birthright, a process that involves him making his presence known to the upper world and causing a bit of mayhem. After that we transition to the action, with Hellboy and his crew bringing the fight to the bad guys, with gallows humor intact.
The third and final trailer is probably the most traditional one in the line-up, especially taking into account the fact that this is a sequel. It starts off by reintroducing us to the character and how we met him in the first movie, as a tiny little demon that is just so adorable and then as a big fighting machine that loves kittens. It then moves into a general plot overview of the new movie, with a general setup of the plot and the adversaries Hellboy and the other good guys will be facing. It’s a great spot that probably is going to have the most mass appeal since, by adding the setup to the character at the beginning, makes the movie just a tad more accessible than the other trailers. I’m not saying it’s the best of the batch, but it’s the most well-rounded and that’s important here.
Unlike the collection of posters, del Toro’s name is mentioned all over these trailers. Every one at some point intones that this comes from the director – often preceded by “visionary” or some other superlative – of Pan’s Labyrinth. Obviously the studio thinks this is going to bring in fans of fantasy films in addition to those that are looking for some cool sci-fi/comic-book storytelling. The cast of demons and creatures that are on display here back that theory up, making it clear Universal wants to convince Pan’s fans that this movie is the thematic, if not outright, extension of that film.
The movie’s main online presence is split into two main parts: The first is the site that’s meant for general audiences and which looks very much like a movie website. The other, labeled the “Production Site” is more functional and doesn’t have a look or feel that you would instantly recognize as being attached to a major studio release. I’m not saying it’s chintzy looking or anything – it’s still very slick and well designed – but it’s definitely meant for a different audience.
The official site, the one that is geared more toward a general audience, has some above-average content. It’s arranged with a main menu of content off to the side and some location-named sections at the bottom.
Before you enter the site, though, there’s already quite a bit of good content that’s offered. The third trailer is there, along with a pop-up that allows you to share the video on your own site or post it elsewhere. There’s also a widget you can grab that includes some of the site’s standard stuff, a link to the special iPhone-optimized site and a list of the promotional Partners.
First the main menu’s content: “The Film” has a pretty good stuff in the form of Production Notes, the Cast and Crew write-ups and The Story. The sections, when put together, provide a solid picture of the movie and the journey it took to come back to the big-screen. They’re well-written and entertaining and have the same sort of sense of humor the movie itself conveys, which is a good thing.
The “Video” section does exactly what I always think such sections should do, which is act as an archive of the video segments related to the movie. All three Trailers, a handful of TV Spots and a couple of extended Clips to enjoy.
“Gallery” is exactly what you’d think it is, though it is a tad more extensive than other site’s sections with a lot of pictures. “Downloads” has Buddy Icons, Wallpapers, a Screen Saver and all the movie’s posters, including both domestic and international varieties, a nice touch that often gets overlooked here.
The “Whack-A-Troll” game is not all that complicated but let’s face facts – punching demons with a big red rocky fist is fun under just about any circumstances.
“Explore the BPRD” is the same stuff that you’ll find at the bottom of the site. It basically provides an alternate entry point to the content, along with some new stuff, by taking you to locations from the movie. Each one features a different one of the main characters and clicking them will bring you to downloads and video clips related to that character along with some other stuff. It’s a nice navigation tool that extends the movie’s universe and brings visitors into it a little bit more.
There’s also a link there to the other, more functional Production Site I mentioned before. There you’ll find some more stuff like links to del Toro’s online presence as well as that of actor Doug Jones under “Links.” There’s also “News” that has all the major announcements regarding the movie’s production and marketing materials releases. A “Gallery” of production art and a sections of “Images” that contains posters and stills are also there. “HBTV” has all the trailers, TV spots and some Featurettes. “History of Hellboy” is a nice introduction to the characters in this universe and “Synopsis” is a good overview of the movie.
In terms of communication, Universal did a good job of putting some tools in place. There’s an old-school Webring you can join if you have a movie or Hellboy-oriented site you’d like to promote. The Message Board is pretty standard, but it’s nice to see it there. Finally, there’s an RSS feed you can subscribe to to get updates, something that, to be perfectly honest, is completely and utterly essential.
The final main portion of the online presence is del Toro’s Notebook, which contains his sketches the director made. It’s all narrated by del Toro and is great, completely relevant to his audience since this is the same sort of thing he did for Pan’s Labyrinth and very much in line with his overall reputation in general.
One thing that I didn’t think got enough play was a wiki Universal created just for the movie. The site featured information on the cast, the characters, the production and the other talent involved in the movie, all in community-editable format. I don’t see that there was a ton of participation on the entries – the ones I looked at all pretty much resemble the place-holders the studio put up there at launch, but I’d encourage Universal and other studios to keep trying this approach, especially with movies like this that are likely to have such strong online followings.
The movie also had MySpace and Facebook pages, of course. The MySpace page featured the third and final trailer, some downloads, a photo gallery and the Whack-a-Troll game. The Facebook fan page was a little more sparse, with just a couple of trailers and a photo gallery making up most of its content, as well as a contest where you could win a statue in exchange for becoming a fan of the page.
Also appearing online was an alternate reality game that featured a bunch of microsites. Universal created a bunch of sites, beginning with Hetfet.org, a site for the ethical treatment of fairies and trolls, and continuing on through TheSecretDevice.com and other sites. With each unlocked combination and such more clues were revealed and more content uncovered, including new design videos and more. I didn’t follow it extensively but between what I did catch and the recaps on sites like Comics2Film it seems to have been pretty engaging and fun, with rewards that justified people’s interest in the game.
Finally, there’s a short animated comic prequel that tells the story of the mythology that leads into the movie’s story, essentially explaining to Hellboy what the audience needs to know going in. In addition to being almost an essential viewing item it’s quite entertaining and definitely worth checking out.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
In a summer where advertising space for movies had to be tight, Universal seems to have gone all out. I’ve seen online ads for the movie pasted all over the Internet, and the outdoor campaign has, whatever its reach, gotten a good amount of mentions in the online press, especially when there’s something funny, like a Hellboy ad appearing on a billboard right next to a church. Hi-larious.
There have also been quite a few TV spots created, seemingly all of which can be viewed online at the production site. Player X also helped the studio out by creating, publishing and distributing clips from the movie to mobile devices.
One of the biggest cross-promotions – at least based on the amount I read about it – is with Adidas, who created a new Hellboy-themed line of shoes that are teh awesome. I don’t usually go for this kind of thing since I’m no long eight years old, but these would make me reconsider that thinking.
In perhaps the best movie marketing decision of the year so far, Universal tapped into the properties of a number of its sister companies to advertising Hellboy. They created a series of spots pairing Big Red with characters from shows like “Chuck,” “American Gladiators” and “Inside the Actors Studio” that had him in a variety of situations, most of which end up with him being well meaning but slightly inappropriate.
The official site also lists as promotional partners BigFix, an enterprise productivity platform company and Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s, though I couldn’t find anything on their sites or through a search on what those partnerships entail.
You know, the campaign we’ve just reviewed may not break any substantial new ground, but it does has the “fun factor” going for it in spades. The whole thing does a good job of conveying the gallows humor of Hellboy and his team and just comes across as being fast and loose, exactly the right image that needs to be portrayed.
There really aren’t any weak spots to point to. The posters are consistently slick and nicely designed, bringing a consistent brand message to audiences and definitely containing enough to appeal to the core target audience. That’s especially evidenced by the fact that two of the posters debuted at Comic-Con events, where the movie was likely to be among friends to begin with.
The trailers all contain enough stuff to appeal to a variety of niches, including the mainstream one, with messaging that is meant to get comics fans, fantasy movie fans and hopefully a few just general moviegoers into theaters. And the websites contain enough good stuff for anyone to satisfy their curiosity about the movie or the characters and leave really interested in seeing the film.
It may be the underdog comic adaptation of the summer, but Universal has put together a nice campaign for a movie that’s likely going to be a lot of fun.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- 7/16/08: Animation World News has some more details on unlocking the secret codes on the various sites setup for Hellboy’s second big-screen outing and goes into more of the story surrounding this aspect of the