The general rule of thumb for sequels is that they have to be bigger than the original film. Cram more of whatever seemed to have work in the first movie into the second because hey, the audience responded to it the first time around so let’s just add more of it for the second outing. Throughout cinematic history (assuming history begins in 1978 with Jaws 2) when filmmakers and studios have looked at creating a sequel to a successful blockbuster they have collectively decided that it’s a simple matter of multiplying everything by two – or sometimes more. If the first film featured two explosions the second film has to feature five. If the shark was scary in the first one then you have to amp up the blood and dismemberment in the second, even if the reason the first one was scary was because you barely saw the violence, only the after-effects.
The funny thing about sequels, though, is that they’re rarely praised because of their embrace of the MORE MORE MORE philosophy of filmmaking. Instead you often hear the words “retread” or “unoriginal” or some variation thereof when people are talking about it. That’s because in addition to containing more of the same visual elements these installments also tend to put the same characters in the same series of situations they were before, so we wind up leaving the theater feeling like we’ve just watched the first movie again, only different.
When you have a movie as successful as Transformers was in 2007 it’s only natural for the studio and director Michael Bay to aim to create a bigger, more flashy sequel to a movie that already was about as big and flashy as they come. The original followed Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LaBeouf, as he became entangled in the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons, giant living robots that had recently come to Earth and renewed their eons-long war here. That’s about all the plot the movie had, with the rest of the running time being devoted to things blowing up and cool special effects shots of the robots transforming to or from their vehicular modes.
That sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, is now about to hit theaters as one of the biggest entries in the summer of 2009′s field of films. The film picks up shortly after the events of the first one and once again puts LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky in the center of the battle between the warring factions. This time, though, he alone carries something the Decepticons are looking for, the key to calling more of their brethren to Earth so they can complete their evil plans. The robots are bigger, they’re badder and there are more of them.
The movie is more or less a lock to win the weekend and will likely wind up as one of the film’s biggest grossing films. The campaign, therefore, doesn’t need to break a lot of new ground or make targeted appeals, especially not given the massive appeal of the first one. But that doesn’t mean that analyzing the tactics used and matching them up against the perceived goals of the studio isn’t still important so let’s get into doing just that.
When it was announced that the title for this new movie would be “Revenge of the Fallen” there was a ton of speculation around and investigation into just what that referred to. Turns out there is a character from the Marvel Comics series that’s been revived for this movie called The Fallen (warning – spoilers for the movie are behind that Wikipedia link) and the first teaser poster gave us our first glimpse at its movie incarnation. Granted, it was a very dark and shadowy look, but a first look nonetheless. If this was any indication the character is going to be very dark and glowy and menacing, which is probably pretty accurate. There’s actually not a whole lot to it beyond those glowing eyes, but it accomplished the goal of getting people talking and making the film’s eventual release date known to the general public so it’s hard to argue with how it looks.
That teaser poster was released pretty early in the film’s campaign – I’m pretty sure it was the first official marketing collateral made public – and there was silence from the print campaign for quite a long time after it.
That silence was broken with the release of three character posters, one for Bumblebee, one for Optimus Prime and one for Starscream (I think). Each one placed the character in front of an Egyptian pyramid, thereby not only showing off that character but also confirming that said pyramid would be the setting of a major action sequence in the film. These posters aren’t all that different from similar one-sheets created for the first movie and I’m not quite sure what the goals behind them were. It’s not like the look of the characters has been massively re-jiggered or anything, so I have to think this was simply a tactic to get people talking about the movie again and it seems to have done just that. That’s not to say they don’t look cool – they do – just that they’re conversation starters and don’t appear to have any larger communications goals behind them.
The theatrical poster once again featured that pyramid but also included another location where, as we’ll see in the trailers, another of the film’s major action sequences takes place – an industrial refinery. Place in-between those two images are the big floating heads of Prime and Bumblebee, with LaBeouf and Megan Fox down in the center of the design, in front of the pyramid. This very much mimics the design of the first film’s theatrical poster, which also had those two humans dwarfed by the conflict around them, and I actually really like that continuation of the branding, something that would have been easy to ditch with a big movie campaign like this that surely was designed by a large large committee.
The teaser trailer doesn’t muck around for very long before getting into the explosion porn. There are brief shots of a couple locations – a city street and an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean – that are quickly broken up, literally, by the falling to Earth of what seem to be massive amounts of asteroids. Those asteroids or whatever they truly are also land in the Egyptian desert right next to a pyramid. We then cut to a robot crashing through someone’s apartment and transforming into a sleek sports car as it races down an alley, with three smaller robots/vehicles in pursuit. After that it’s a bit of the rampage caused by a huge, two-wheeled bad guy at the refinery, with a couple scenes of LaBeouf and Fox running away from things thrown in for good measure.
There’s no attempt at showing any of the movie’s actual story in this initial spot since it’s unlikely the audience is going to care all that much what that story might be. It works in that it’s honest about what it’s trying to do, which is simply show people that the Transformers are returning to theaters and that there are bigger explosions, more exotic locales and new robots to check out.
The theatrical trailer, to its credit, does start off with more of the film’s plot being laid out. Sam is about to head off to college and 1) Isn’t bringing Bumblebee and 2) Has given his girlfriend – who works on motorcycles by straddling them while wearing incredibly short cutoff shorts and a torn t-shirt that…I’m sorry where was I? – a webcam, which kind of seems very 2005. It’s as he’s unpacking there that a shard of the Allspark falls out and imprints itself or something on his brain. That causes him to force the screenwriters to copy/paste Richard Dreyfuss’ role from the middle section of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, meaning his character starts scribbling weird symbols uncontrollably everywhere he goes.
That actually leads to the best part of the trailer, which is where John Turtorro’s character shows up. He’s apparently gone off the deep end of the conspiracy theory pool but has the clues to help Sam figure out what these symbols mean.
After that it’s back to being all robot action and humans being in the path of danger, with Megatron being resurrected, Prime hitting things and Sam and Mikela running away from or being pinned down by various bad guys.
This one works pretty well, largely because it takes 45 seconds to let us get invested in the characters again before jumping back into the action sequences. It’s fast-paced to be sure and it’s hard to make out some of the shots as they fly past, but it does give the viewer a good overall sense of what the movie is going to be about.
The one thing neither of the trailers addresses is the issue of The Fallen. There’s no attempt to try and explain who he is, nor is his presence ever acknowledged. It’s just a tad surprising this isn’t covered at all in either spot since his name does appear in the film’s title and all. I can only guess that the decision was made to consciously not show him since in all likelihood the audience wouldn’t notice, what with all the other things going on.
There’s just a ton of stuff that hits you about the face when you bring up the movie’s official website – and that’s just the landing page. First off, one of the soundtrack’s songs plays automatically but I couldn’t find anything that lets you stop it or turn off the volume. You’re prompted to either watch the video for that song or watch the latest trailer by clicking one of the video boxes in the upper right hand corner.
Just below that is the Robotize Me feature. It’s not much, just the latest tool to upload a picture of yourself or a friend and have that face added to the body of a robot of your choice.
To the left is a “Fan Art Gallery” that includes everything from hand drawn works to fully rendered computer creations to tattoos to logos people have stuck on the side of their cars. Whatever each individual thing is, it’s cool when studios provide this kind of showcase for fandom.
Toward the bottom are promotions for the first movie’s DVD and Blu-ray as well as the “Transformers Music Shop” which is the microsite for this movie’s soundtrack. Below that are icons that allow you to share the site via various social bookmarking and networks as well as a “Grab the Transmitter” button that lets you snag the code for a widget. You can register before you do that if you’d like for that widget to include some exclusive content.
Finally there’s a row of logos that brings you to more information on the film’s promotional partners, a topic we’ll cover later.
With all that behind us let’s go ahead and Enter the Site.
First up, as is only befitting a movie that emphasizes visuals above all else, is “Video.” There you’ll find both of the trailers as well as the Super Bowl commercial and six other TV spots. That’s not the entire roster by a long shot but is probably an adequate sampler for the general public.
There are 20 stills from the film in the “Gallery.”
“Games and Activities” has, of course, games and activities. Robotize Me is once again offered here in addition to the Starscream Showdown, a side-scrolling game that pits the Decepticon against the military and eventually Optimus Prime. Finally here is We Are Autobots…
“Downloads” has Decktops that use most of the stills we’ve seen in the film’s publicity as well as Buddy Icons and Screensavers.
You’ll find a few items that can help you spread the word about the movie under “Fan Kit.” First there’s the Banner Builder that lets you do just that – build your own, customized web banner for the movie that you can embed on your own blog or website. There’s also Tools, which opens up a new site that contains the Banner builder, games, profile skins, downloads and more content to help you engage with the Transformers movie brand more deeply and pass that on to others.
“Fan Art” gets promoted again and then there’s “About” which is a whole section devoted to a six or seven paragraph description of the movie’s story and characters, a tally that includes the long credit block at the end.
“Cast and Filmmakers” is still labeled as “Coming Soon” and finally there’s another section on the “Partners.”
The movie’s MySpace profile mostly contains content from the official site, including the trailer, photos, videos and features like Fan Art Gallery and Robotize Me. The Facebook page has photos, videos and a few other bits of content that, again, are duplicates of what you’ll find on the official site.
In addition to the “official” campaign there was an attempt made at a “viral” effort, largely focused around the idea that just a few people are paranoid enough to believe that Earth is being invaded by giant robots. The sites TheRealEffingDeal and GiantEffingRobots both claimed to have real reports and videos on the matter. They’re alright for what they are but I’m not generally a fan of efforts like this so it’s definitely not for me.
Finally, there was the We Are Autobots site. The fancy term everyone threw around for this site was that it was an “Augmented Reality” experience, but all it did was put Optimus Prime’s face over yours using the Active X plugin and your computer’s web cam. That means it’s effectively the exact opposite of the Robotize Me feature since it’s his head and your body instead of your head and his body. It was good for a bit of publicity but it’s not like it’s super useful marketing or anything.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
The central – and pretty much initial – component of the TV campaign was a spot aired during this year’s Super Bowl. The spot is basically a combination of footage found in the two trailers, but slimmed down to a mere 30 seconds of running time. So don’t expect context, just loud explosions and lots of special effects that were designed to get the attention of people watching the game. I remember actually being a little disappointed in the spot when I saw it during the broadcast, mainly because it seemed to go by so fast and leave little to no impression upon me. But it seems to work better after you’ve seen the trailers since you at least have a little bit of information that explains what it is you’re watching.
Eventually the studio began running TV spots, most of which actually featured footage that was new and hadn’t been included in any of the trailers released to date. As is often the case, many of them had a “theme” or focus about them, with some focusing on the mysterious signals that bring more robots to Earth and some just focusing on action sequences. The advertising push began around early to mid May, about a month and a half before the film’s release and kicked into high gear right around the time the campaign for Terminator: Salvation was waning after its release. Eventually, if my count is right, over 20 individual spots would be created and released, a ridiculous number even for a movie with as much riding on it as this one does.
There was also a good amount of online advertising done, beginning with square ads like this one that featured the teaser poster art of Fallen and continuing through to units that incorporated more of the characters and visuals from the movie and the campaign.
Moving on to the cross-promotions for the movie shows that things have changed more than some people would like in the intervening two years since the initial installment.
One of the biggest promotional partners for that first movie was General Motors. Made sense since it was their cars that most of the Autobots transformed into when they didn’t want to be robots. But it’s now 2009 and General Motors is in heeps of financial trouble. That means what should have been a full-throated marketing campaign in support of the movie – and by extension its cars – has been scaled back signifcantly. The cuts were announced a few months before release as part of the news that GM would be snipping $800 million from its overall marketing budget, including many of the dollars that would have gone to Transformers-branded spots. Instead of an all-out campaign the effort was reduced to a handful of print ads and not much else since the automaker did not want to appear to be squandering taxpayer bailout money on entertainment expenses.
A bit of promotional help they were able to squeeze in for the movie was an appearance at the Chicago Auto Show in February. There GM showed off Bumblebee and some of the other cars that appear in the movie. There was also a promotional video created that showcased the cars as they appear in the film that ran at the booth at the show as well as one that was much more industry marketing focused, talking about the design of the cars and how they came to be created and then integrated into Transformers.
Also on the vehicular front is Aprilia USA, a motorbike company, that introduced a Transformers-branded bike that was introduced at one of the road races the company participates in.
One partner that didn’t jump ship was LG, which released a limited edition version of the Versa phone that came emblazoned with the Decepticon logo and with exclusive movie content pre-loaded on the device. LG also created a movie-themed microsite that made you part of N.E.S.T – the Non-biological Extraterrestrial Science Team (probably something from the movie) and which gave you access to games, downloads and other content you could add to your LG phone, as well as more information on the phone itself. LG’s activities also included a 30-second co-branded spot and sweepstakes and a Transform Your Home sweepstakes that awarded over $10,000 in LG home entertainment products.
Burger King acted as the film’s fast food partner, one of three movie promotions the chain is engaging in during the summer, all with Paramount. BK locations will include Transformers toys in their Kid’s meals and offer a new burger called the BBQ Double Stackiton (which is kind of awesome) for the duration of the promotion. Transformers director Bay will also personally helm a handful of TV spots advertising the chain’s tie-in, something he also did for the first movie.
For M&Ms there’s a ton of stuff going on. The candy brand’s microsite brings you into the M&M Trucking Co. and asks you to help them and Optimus Prime keep the candies safe from Decepticons. Something about an internet-wide search for clues that will help in your quest. That storyline is continued in the TV spots created for the movie promotion that show Prime rolling in and then tossing a truckload of candy out of harm’s way.
Also on the site is information about the co-branded packaging that’s being offered as well as the ability to watch the above commercial.
Kmart launched a fully-featured promotion for the movie. Beginning in early June and running through the Fourth of July, the retailer’s marketing initiative was largely themed around Father’s Day, which fell just a few days before the movie’s opening. In-store signage as well as co-branded TV spots offered two tickets to the movie with every $50 in menswear purchased as part of the “Transform Your Dad” promotion.
Kmart also put Transformers-centric “headquarters” with movie-themed merchandise at the front of their stores and launched a branded site where visitors could download movie content as well as buy movie products.
The retailer also tied in with many of the other promotional partners Paramount lined up, specifically Burger King and Mars Snackfood. Inside of BK’s Kid’s Meals were coupons for Transformers products that were redeemable only at Kmart stores. Mars, for its part, created displays and events at two New York locations that were branded with both the movie’s logo and Kmart’s.
7-Eleven is bringing the movie promotions fast and furious this summer, with Transformers 2 being the latest such deal. The convenience store chain pulled out the usual stops, offering a special “Bumblebee Blast” Slurpee flavor that you could get in one of four collectible cups and drink from one of four collectible straws that had removable robot action figures on them. In addition to those traditional cups there was also a mug in the shape of Prime’s head. Finally, they offered a DVD of the first movie in a case that transformed into Megatron that was pretty cool if you don’t already own the film.
Also on the retail front was Best Buy, which offered an exclusive comic featuring a lead-in to the new movie on DVD units of the original film as well as Disturbia and Eagle Eye, two other recent LaBeouf films. Along with that comic were access codes people could use to access exclusive movie content on a branded microsite created by the chain.
Just in time to help with the movie’s marketing was the re-release of the original “Transformers” cartoon series on DVD. In addition to individual season sets, the entire “Generation 1″ series was released in a massive 16-disc Collector’s Set that contained a handful of bonus features and a couple of extra items. It’s a huge set and obviously meant to appeal to the few folks that didn’t collect the previous editions from other studios from a few years ago and, I have to admit, the all-in-one set is pretty attractive to me, even if I don’t have the money to blow on Transformers DVDs. The first season set even got its own promotional trailer.
Those weren’t the only DVDs to get re-issued, of course. The first film got a new edition on both standard DVD and Blu-ray with a host of new features, including a heavy focus on footage both from the finished film as well as its behind-the-scenes making.
And of course let’s not forget the toys that have been released both to satisfy new fans and to pique the nostalgia of older fans, all part of Hasbro’s strategy of wringing new profit out of the properties it holds the right to, something we’re going to see again later this summer when G.I. Joe hits screens.
Media and Publicity
As you’d expect from a film like this – and specifically from a director like Bay – his reputation and personality wound up being one of the focal points of the media coverage around the release. Unfortunately not all of that was positive.
First there was a flap over statements made by the director after Paramount went ahead and set a release date for a third installment months before the second even hit theaters. He apparently felt put out and blindsided by this and said he’d agreed to a date with the studio for 2012 and not 2011 like they said.
Then just a week before that release rumors started circulating that he was dropping out of the franchise entirely in favor of shooting small movies in the south of France or something. Those rumors were based on statements he made about wanting to do smaller projects but, as he later explained in his refutation of the rumors, they did not mean he was leaving the Transformers world behind him.
Of course Bay didn’t just cause the media relations department headaches. They were able to secure him a Vanguard Award for filmmaking excellence at the recent ShoWest trade conference, a major event attended by theater chain movie bookers and therefore a great audience to shill for the movie in front of.
Bay also helped his own cause by making the trip to BotCon, the annual gathering of Transformers fanatics. He not only put in a personal appearance but even took a new clip from the film there to debut to the faithful fans, something to get them excited about the movie and hopefully not only turn out themselves on opening weekend but also excited enough to tell all their non-diehard friends to go as well.
Bay also did his part to stoke excitement for the IMAX release of the movie by teasing that there would be additional footage in those prints that wasn’t in the standard prints. Of course some of his claims that Optimus Prime would be “to scale” on IMAX screens had to be taken with a grain of salt considering all the bruhaha over the size of those screens a couple months ago, but I guess he’s correct when it comes to the truly large IMAX presentations.
That comes on-top of the fact that it is, indeed, a sequel. And Paramount has other outlets for their marketing dollars, specifically Star Trek and G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra. Both of those are new (for all intents and purposes) franchises that need the attendant big launch so that they can turn into successful series. So if the movie lacked for intensity – and a case could be made that it does – it’s at least in part because the studio had other priorities on its 2009 calendar.
There are only two trailers, only a handful of posters and a website that doesn’t really go all that deeply into the movie’s universe or anything. Plus, none of those three address what the movie’s title is all about. That’s probably a strategic decision based on the notion that introducing anything new when people only want the familiar would be a bad move. But it’s notable and, for those of us curious about what The Fallen is, a bit disappointing.
The one area that continues to flourish is the promotional partner and advertising area, even with General Motors scaling significantly back on their efforts. Most of the partners there are putting up good campaigns, mostly co-branded with the film and including footage, something that’s always good for the movie itself.
Unfortunately the publicity end of things keeps being tripped up by Bay himself, a classic example of someone who should keep his hole shut and not create negative publicity where there wasn’t any.
Overall it’s alright but it’s hard to feel like this is measuring up to the push of the first movie, an opinion I was coming to even before reading Bay’s comments.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- 7/10/09: Optimus Prime visited “The Late Show With David Letterman” to deliver the Top 10 list one night.
- 7/10/09: Jordan’s, a furniture store that also has IMAX theaters at every location, promoted showings of the movie at those retail outlets with some online advertising.
- 7/31/09: Paramount worked with mobile platform operator ChaCha that had ads for the Transformers sequel iincluded in the text responses sent to the system’s users when they asked a question. The campaign, according to ChaCha, increased the movie’s audience awareness by 27 percent and drove significant traffic to the movie’s mobile site.
- 7/13/09: In response to the movie IDW is launching the first on-going Transformers comic title the franchise has had in years.
- 9/3/09: Rick Mathieson passes on the results from InsightExpress into the success rates of ChaCha’s mobile promotion for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The campaign, according to the research, increased awareness and intent for the movie across a number of demographics. I join Rick in his skepticism of the results and agree with him that the overall ad campaign blitz in the last weeks before releases certainly are skewing these results, at least to some extent. Still interesting, though.
- 10/9/09: Papa Johns is getting in on the promotional fun (Video Business, 10/9/09) for the DVD release of the Transformers sequel, an interesting move since they were a partner with 20th Century Fox for X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s theatrical release.
- 10/13/09: NASCAR is helping with the home video promotions as well, with Optimus and Megatron designed cars battling it out in an upcoming race and fans being able to choose their side online thanks to a tie-in with ESPN.com.