The stoner comedy is something that’s especially hard to pull off for a variety of reasons. First off, there’s the issue of whether or not finding comedy in drug use is appropriate or if it’s contributing to the glorification of something we really should be discouraging, especially among young people. Secondly, such comedies are usually written by people who are neither funny nor drug users, so not only do they get the culture wrong but they also are incapable of actually bringing the comedy. Lastly, the performances in these films too often are simply excuses for big name stars to act like idiots, which is vastly different from actually being funny.
The latest entry into the stoner comedy genre comes to us from producer Judd Apatow and stars two of his regular ensemble members, Seth Rogen and James Franco, who’s taking a break from emoting in the Spider-Man movies to stretch his comedic muscles. Franco plays a low-level pot dealer and Rogen a directionless slacker and one of Rogen’s regular customers. Things go from mellow to intense when Rogen witnesses a mob murder, leading to the pair going on the run so they don’t wind up being the next to get a bullet in the brain-pan.
If there’s a single consistent theme to all the posters for the film, it’s that of the characters being engulfed in a sea of smoke.
The first poster features Rogen, Franco and Danny R. McBride – best known lately for The Foot Fist Way, though he also appears in Tropic Thunder next week – striding toward us out of the haze, all heavily armed. Immediately the two major themes of the film are communicated, those of these guys being high as a kite and of them being in some deep trouble are made pretty clear It also manages to be possibly the most politically incorrect one-sheet I’ve seen in some time. While some posters have been subjected to criticism because they feature guns and others because they feature some sort of drug symbolism, this one manages to include both and for that I love it all that much more.
Looking at the expression on Rogen’s face, I’m actually reminded of something Steven Spielberg often said about Harrison Ford in the publicity push surrounding Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He said part of what Ford brought to the character was his unique ability to look completely and believably overwhelmed by the circumstances he found himself in, like he just didn’t know how he was going to make it out of this one.
I think Rogen brings something similar to his performances as the constantly clueless and in-over-his-head characters. The guy pulls off an expression of “Well this is not at all what I expected to be doing today” uncannily well, without looking at all like he’s acting. Since this is a common trait that his characters have that’s important and has worked to his advantage in making his characters relatable to the audience every bit as much as the actual writing and other contributions.
A few more posters were produced that would drop the guns but definitely keep the drug usage undertones. Individual posters were created for Franco and Rogen that featured simply headshots, with each of them looking stoned off their gourds. Franco is obviously a laugher when he’s high since his picture enables us to see far enough back into his mouth that we can tell whether or not he’s had his tonsils removed. Rogen’s character, on the other hand, is more mellow and he just looks like he’s so relaxed nothing would bother him.
The two were later combined onto one one-sheet.
All the posters make sure we know, via copy at the bottom, that this movie comes from “the guys that brought (us) SuperBad.” While that’s of course meant to attach to this movie some of the cool points accumulated by that one, that cache has been diminished somewhat in the short time since Superbad was released. A similar tactic was used by Sony when it was promoting the Luke Wilson disappointment Drillbit Taylor. While there’s certainly value to linking a current release to that movie since it was so almost universally loved by both audiences and critics, there’s danger in going to that well so often that it begins to lose its value. Each time a lesser movie seeks to build off the foundation laid by Superbad it chips away at that film’s reputation since it’s also now being associated with, in some cases, less beloved films. So overtime the usefulness of drawing such a line between the two becomes less and less since each subsequent is, by extension, not only brought to us by the guys behind Superbad but also a handful of films we didn’t like nearly as much.
Interestingly, the first trailer that was released was a red-band version, which shouldn’t be that surprising considering the movie is all about violence and drug use. The spot was pretty blunt (sorry, I’ve avoided that word this long and was beginning to cramp up) in showing Rogen and Franco smoking pot and engaging in other activities that might negatively influence the general audience.
After that there was a regular version released that cut out a lot of the more blatant scenes of drug use, toned down the violence a bit and took out most all of the coarse language that were the hallmarks of the red-band version. It starts off showing Rogen on his way to Franco’s apartment to score some smoke and then features some banter between the two. We then move quickly into the main plot driver, which begins with Rogen witnessing the assassination of someone by Gary Cole’s character.
From there it turns into a chase movie, with Rogen and Franco on the run from the hitmen who have been put on their tail by Cole, one of whom is played by “The Office”’s Craig Robinson. But even through this – including a shot of Rogen diving off a catwalk to land on a bad guy, perhaps the most ridiculous shot ever captured on film – it’s the interplay between Rogen and Franco that is the focal point, with the two of them bantering back and forth even while on the run for their lives.
Both spots do what I’d call an above average job of conveying the main selling points of the movie, albeit in different ways and to different audiences. Where the red-band trailer is definitely meant to be more impolitic and appeal to fans of R-rated stoned violence, the green-band one does a good job of presenting the movie as an action-laden comedy. Both rely heavily on the audience’s desire to see more of the Judd Apatow School of Well Written Curse Words, Male Bonding and Extended Adolescence genre, but considering that’s been quite popular lately that’s an alright appeal to make.
Its inclusion in the trailer even helped the song “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. become a hit well after its release.
In looking at this movie’s official site compared to the one for Step Brothers – another Sony comidy – a couple of weeks ago, it’s easy to see where the studio put the majority of their efforts. This official website is certainly a step above that one, something that may speak as much to the studio’s enthusiasm as to the input of the creative talent behind each film.
Before entering the site proper, you can view the general audience trailer as well as sign up for updates and gain access to “restricted” content, a section that contains not only the red-band trailer but a series of clips from the film that feature some harsh language, drug use and more stuff that it’s been decided you need to at least be 18 to view.
Entering the site, the first option is, interestingly, Mobile, where you’ll find some free voicetones of audio clips from the movie to be downloaded to your device of choice. You can sample the audio clips by actually viewing the clip from the movie it’s taken from. The reason I think this is such an interesting placement in the site’s hierarchy is that it alone speaks volumes about the perceived target audience for the movie, an audience that apparently is young, digitally connected and mobile.
The next section over is “The Film,” which contains a halfway decent Story synopsis, Cast profiles that consist seemingly exclusively of clips of that actor from the movie and a list of the Filmmakers.
“Videos” contains the movie’s general audiences Trailer in both standard and high-definition flavors, a batch of clips from the movie and all half-dozen or so TV Spots, all of which take a slightly different tack but which all emphasize to varying degrees the same themes we’ve seen in the trailers of violence, insanity, male bonding and other topics.
There’s a decent, if not exactly mind-blowing, collection of stills under “Photos.” “Animated Soundboard” gives you access to a batch of audio files from each major character.
The “Downloads” portion of the site is actually one of the more robustly stocked such sections I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s loaded with eight Wallpapers, four Iron Ons, a Screensaver, a handful of Icons to grab and even some really kind of funny Avatars you can snag. Some of the Avatars reimagine Rogen and Franco as pixilated-looking video game characters, which is actually quite funny to look at.
There also a game, which is laughingly titled “Sweet Game” that’s essentially Donkey Kong, but with a little animated Seth Rogen trying to avoid pineapples on his way up the ladders. It’s more fun than it has any real right to be.
Just below the main menu of options is a secondary list of content. The first spot there belongs to “Buy the Soundtrack,” which takes you to the soundtrack’s MySpace page.
Let me pause here briefly and state why Pineapple Express might just be the Most Important Film of 2008: Its soundtrack features a new title song by Huey Lewis & the News.
Oh that’s right. I’m a Huey fan and have been since 1984 or so. Seen them twice in concert, most recently on their 2006 co-headlining tour with Chicago, something that brought together both of my longtime favorite bands. I’m comfortable admitting that in public.
Pineapple Express’ director David Gordon Green reportedly sought out Lewis and his band for the soundtrack, looking for them to provide his film with a plot song, something that was in the vein of “Back in Time” from the Back to the Future soundtrack. He wanted HL&N’s brand of vibe and their ability to write a song that would tell the movie’s story in verse. His embrace not only of the News but of their place in movie and music history might just make him my latest Most Favorite Person Ever.
Anyway, back to the movie’s campaign.
The film’s Facebook page contains a batch of Videos, some Pictures, a link to the mobile content, the Sweet Game and a bit more. The MySpace profile has most all of that in addition to Downloads and a link to follow some sort of promotional Smoking Car and its appearances at X-Games event locations.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Surprisingly, at least from my perspective, the movie received quite a substantial TV advertising push, with a number of spots being created. I say surprisingly simply because of the movie’s subject matter, involving drug use and violence. Most of the spots I saw include most of the plot’s broad strokes, though they tend to leap to the action sequences that reportedly are largely grouped in the last 30 minutes of the movie pretty quickly. So it’s positioned to mainstream audiences not as a comedy about a couple of slacker stoners but instead as a comedy about two doofuses that is also an action flick.
The smattering of online ads I’ve come across largely recreate the imagery from the posters, featuring the two leads and the haze of smoke the seem to live in.
A very cool outdoor billboard featured the main pair in the movie, with a pineapple that sports a distinctive stem between the two of them. What makes it cool is that the billboards actually came equipped with smoke barrels that puffed smoke in front of both of the guys.
As is now standard practice, the studio released a number of extended clips from the film online to give audiences a deeper feeling for the movie as well.
Of course anything involving either Rogen or Apatow nowadays s bound to generate a decent amount of publicity, especially since the plot of the movie very much played into the public’s perception of the two as the champions of denied adult responsibilities and of stoner humor.
It’s kind of hard to argue with any of the turns taken by the studio or the creative talent in the marketing campaign I’ve outlined. There are appeals both to the fans of R-rated comedies and the broader audience that has made Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow into mid-tier celebrities.
The posters and trailers are nice tag-team effort that convey the key elements of pot-influenced comedy that comes complete with more than a little violence. The official website does a little less of that in favor of highlighting actual footage from the movie in most of the sections, and those that lack video seem to at least contain some audio element. So it’s clear, when coupled with the strategy of releasing clips elsewhere online, that the decision was made that the thing that would best sell the movie was the movie itself and that providing un-filtered bits of it would attract the audience.
If there’s one thing missing from the campaign it’s an overall brand identity. While the posters and trailers are pretty consistent in their presentation of the film, the online stuff is a bit different. Not that what’s online is bad or completely out of left field, but there’s a sense of continuity that’s missing from the elements. I can’t, from a branding perspective, draw a straight line from the posters to the trailers to the advertising to the site. It’s a minor point, but from the perspective of marketing success it’s something that’s notably missing.
Still, overall this is a solid and funny campaign for a late summer comedy. More than that, it positions Pineapple Express as a very different option for your late summer comedy dollars compared to next week’s Tropic Thunder, another high-profile entry.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- 8/7/08: Some cultural critics say the trailers for Pineapple Express pulled a “bait and switch” by selling a movie that seemed like a good-natured chase comedy about a couple of slackers whereas the movie is something very different. I think they’re overstating their case, though, and that a lot of those concerns are addressed in the red-band marketing elements. But I can kind of see the point, though I don’t think it’s that much differnet than the way any other movie has been sold by creating a not-entirely-accurate portrayal of the plot and characters.
- 8/20/08: Huey Lewis shrugs off the writing of a title song as something that was both familiar and a fun challenge for him and the band, but also doesn’t expect it to launch the band back into the Top 40 or anything like that. He also lets it drop that the band is in the early stages of writing a new record, which is great news.
- 8/20/08: Promo Magazine gets around to the issue I wrote about last week, the debut of high-definition ads for Pineapple Express on YouTube. AvatarLabs, the agency that put together the new unit, created a similar takeover ad for use on MySpace.
- 8/29/08: Silicon Alley Insider becomes the latest site to pick up on the fact that YouTube launched a whopping new ad format for Tropic Thunder, something I mentioned quite a while ago. TechCrunch and BusinessWeek also mention it, as well as NewTeeVee and PaidContent.
- 8/29/08: Rob Walker also covers Booty Sweat and the rise in the creation of fictional products for movies.