Movie Marketing Madness: G.I. Joe – Rise of Cobra

GI Joe Poster - TheatricalEvery afternoon for many of my grade-school years I would go to my grandparent’s house after school was over and immediately turn on the TV for what was, in my estimation at the time, the greatest hour of television programming that could possibly be created. I don’t remember which was on first and which second, but the back-to-back bill of “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers” cartoons was every bit as much of a daily double in my life as Bob Dernier and Ryne Sandberg on the 1984 Chicago Cubs.

In addition to be loyal to the cartoon I also eventually became attracted to the comic series from Marvel Comics. That series was notably darker than the cartoon, with characters actually dying and some serious battle being waged in addition to there just being better and more complex plotting and more interesting storylines. I collected them loyally ever month, riding my bike either to the comic shop downtown or down to the corner Rexall Drugs to pluck it off the rack while also maybe grabbing an ice cream sandwich.

And then there were the toys. Oh the toys. G.I. Joe toys were on my Christmas and birthday lists for year after year and were always catching my eye in the aisles of Toys ‘R’ Us and even the local grocery stores, at least the ones that stocked decent toys. Where my younger brother was always more drawn to the good guys I was almost always Cobra, collecting HISS Tanks and Water Moccasins. The Joes had some cool vehicles and characters, but I just liked Cobra better and my collecting was reflective of that.

So, as it should be clear by now and as is the case with so many movies these days, I’m very much in the target demographic for the new movie that’s being released, G. I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, and the campaign that’s meant to evoke more than a little nostalgia in me, something it’s done to a great deal of success.

That movie takes place in the near future and follows two things: The indoctrination of Duke and Ripcord – played by Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans, respectively – into the G. I. Joe team. At the same time a new terrorist organization is on the rise named Cobra that is threatening the world with its plans, with the task of stopping them falling to this small, elite squad of the best soldiers there are.

The movie’s very existence is likely due to the success of 2007′s Transformers, which showed that this sort of early/mid-80′s nostalgia was a viable segment of the movie going audience. So let’s see how Paramount is – or isn’t playing into that with their campaign for the film.

The Posters

The poster campaign was comprised primarily of three sets of character one-sheets.

The first set was pretty straightforward, with black and white, very slick shots of The Baroness, Duke, Ripcord and Snake Eyes. The posters had the movie’s title treatment and “2009″ but that was about it. This set was all about just showing off some of the most highly-anticipated characters and/or those that looked the best in tight black leather and/or those who were paid the most. All four of them fall into one of those three categories.

GI Joe Poster 1 - BaronessGI Joe Poster 1 - DukeGI Joe Poster 1 - RipcordGI Joe Poster 1 - Snake Eyes

The second set took a slightly more teaser-ish approach, primarily showing the character’s bodies but for the most part with the top half of their heads cut off. Again, Baroness, Duke, Ripcord and Snake Eyes were featured, this time with the addition of Scarlett (more looking good in tight black leather) and Storm Shadow (fan-anticipated character). This group was more bright, with all the characters getting some back-lighting and looking like they were standing amidst an explosion or fireworks display or something like that.

GI Joe Poster 2 - BaronessGI Joe Poster 2 - DukeGI Joe Poster 2 - RipcordGI Joe Poster 2 - ScarlettGI Joe Poster 2 - Snake EyesGI Joe Poster 2 - Storm Shadow

The same six characters got yet another series of posters, but this time in full-on action mode. All of them are set against some location from the movie (arctic landscape, falling Eiffel Tower, underwater lair, etc) and have swords at the ready or are aiming their weapons. These kind of come off as being reminiscent of the pictures of the characters that would appear on the front of the cards that G.I. Joe action figures were packaged in. You know…the ones where the character is posed against an explosion of some sort. The association is probably not accidental.

GI Joe Poster 3 - BaronessGI Joe Poster 3 - DukeGI Joe Poster 3 - RipcordGI Joe Poster 3 - ScarlettGI Joe Poster 3 - Snake EyesGI Joe Poster 3 - Storm Shadow

The final theatrical poster took four characters from each side of the conflict and put them on opposing sides of the title treatment and credits block, which divides the poster in half with a diagonal slash. At the top is Cobra, including Storm Shadow and Baroness, whom we’ve seen before, and a Viper soldier and The Doctor/Cobra Commander, who is not a big presence in the campaign. At the bottom are the Joes, including all four characters that have dominated the poster campaign so far and no new additions.

I’m surprised the final poster doesn’t take more of an action angle. A bunch of people standing around – especially when four of them are wearing non-descript, identical black uniforms – doesn’t seem like the best way to sell an action movie. And the appearance of The Doctor on the poster and not Destro, who has appeared in all the trailers and TV spots to date, just seems like an odd decision. It’s an alright poster from a design point of view but it seems full of choices that are inconsistent with the rest of the campaign.

The Trailers

GI Joe PicFor the longest time there was radio silence on the video portion of this campaign. The only component released for the a while was the Super Bowl TV spot that I’ll get into below.

That changed when it was announced that the first full-length trailer would appear attached to Paramount’s first major release of 2009′s summer season, Star Trek. But it wound up being officially released online via MySpace’s trailer park a full week before that, likely in an effort to ward off cell-phone pirates and the resulting low-quality bootlegs that would be spread online as a result.

The trailer that was eventually released is a mixed bag at best. It starts off by focusing on Cobra (we presume – this is never stated but we can assume that the glowery bad guy talking about warheads followed by Baroness and Storm Shadow and such means we’re getting our first glimpses at the organization) and how said anonymous bad guy is setting out to impact the whole world.

We then see the Eiffel Tower being destroyed by some sort of substance, with that attack being the catalyst for showing us the assembling of the Joe team, including the newest recruit Duke, who is soon outfitted – along with his partner Ripcord – with the Accelerator suits that speed up their reflexes and which come in handy in the following hand-to-hand action sequence.

Mixed in with that – as well as more of vehicles being consumed by the mysterious green substance, more explosions and Sienna Miller’s cleavage – is footage from the scene everyone is anxious to see, that of the sword-fight between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes. But that’s unfortunately brief, despite the little bit of action we see hinting at just how bad-ass these two are.

There are a number of things that strike me about the trailer and since this is the only one – that’s right, there was just one full-length trailer released, something that’s not at all encouraging – I’ll go ahead and mention them.

First off, there’s no attempt to identify any of the characters. The only name that’s said aloud is Dennis Quaid identifying himself as General Hawk. While we can certainly assume the red-headed chick is Scarlett and many of the others are identifiable by their costumes, the anonymous characters are too rampant. Who, if I hadn’t been reading the media coverage and already know this, is the guy that says, “I’m in.” Who’s the bad guy at the beginning? For a franchise with so many great characters, this trailer identifies almost none of them.

Second, there’s no attempt made at a plot explanation. We can assume that the green melty substance is something that the bad guys want to use and the good guys want to stop, but there’s nothing here about what’s going on. It’s all explosions and cleavage and sword-play.

Third, there’s an unfortunate disregard for human life. The Eiffel Tower collapses on a bridge and likely kills or injures hundreds. Pedestrians become casualties of the missiles aimed at the Joe pursuers at the end of the spot. I’m all for movies that make it clear real things are at stake, but this sort of “wow…look at how many people just died” kind of porn isn’t all that attractive.

As I said there was just this one trailer created and released. There were a couple of shorter (90 seconds or so) spots that weren’t really trailers and weren’t really TV spots but they largely mined the same material, just cut out a few scenes here and there.

Online

GI Joe Pic 2The movie’s official website opens up by immersing the visitor in one of four 360-degree panoramic environments, either the MARS Corridor, the Pit Control Room, an Urban Environment or Flight Control. You can then switch to any of the other options. Clicking on various items launches a video or other feature. You can scroll around the room with your mouse and then zoom in with your keyboard.

Moving on to the site’s content, first up is “About the Film” where you’ll find a Synopsis that recaps the film in a brief, brief way and Production Notes that actually are pretty well written and dive into various aspects of the film’s genesis and shooting.

After that is Videos, which has the Trailer, the Super Bowl TV Spot and, presumably since there are sections labeled as such, more TV Spots and some Film Clips. The “Gallery” is actually pretty cool, laid out like a grid that you click various boxes on to bring up the pictures. It would be cooler if the boxes had thumbnails, but that’s a small gripe.

“Downloads” has AIM Icons, Desktops and, interestingly, iPhone Wallpapers you can grab that I’m surprised aren’t part of the iPhone app that’s offered.

“Cast and Crew” is pretty much your basic overview of the players both in front of and behind the camera. “The Game” is just a promotional section for the console game – it looks like there’s a game to play but there’s not.

“Fan Kit” is kind of interesting. Mouse over one of the heroes or villains or the branded section and you see what there is to download that’s related to that character. So mouse over Snake-Eyes and you’ll see there’s a teaser poster and a theatrical poster with him to snag. This probably could have gone under Downloads but that’s a small point. I guess when I see “Fan Kit” I expect a little bit more, but whatever.

I’ll get into “Partners” below.

Toward the top of the screen there are prompts to grab the “Basic Training” iPhone App, an app that offers two games, a Firing Range sharpshooter test and Hand-to-Hand, where you can test your close-fighting skills. There’s also “G. I. Joe vs. Cobra,” which offers information on each character such as what their preferred weapon is, what their background is and some of the downloadable material related to that character.

The movie’s Facebook page has some photos – mostly the posters – as well as a handful of discussions about the movie and more about the iPhone App. The MySpace page has the trailers, photos and the Widget but that’s about it.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

GI Joe Pic 3The first mass-audience shot across the bow by the campaign was a commercial run during this year’s Super Bowl. It does its basic, rudimentary job of showing off the movie’s major action set pieces, including some of the green disintegrating microbes destroying the Eiffel Tower and soldiers in exo-suits jumping through a train. There’s a little of Baroness, Snake Eyes and other characters, but the highlight is certainly the scene between Destro and Hawk, where Destro asks what the unit’s and Hawk reminds him he didn’t volunteer it. Especially of note is Quaid’s canary-eating smile in his response.

The spot actually worked pretty well when taken in the context of the Super Bowl. It’s fast-paced and definitely more action-oriented than the trailers – at least it didn’t try to even things out with any sort of ridiculousness. Or at least any more ridiculousness than is inherent in such a movie.

That was followed – but not until late May or early June – by a series of more conventional TV commercials. Most of them followed the same basic format as the trailers but some dived into a specific aspect of the movie, such as Duke’s background before joining the team and other things along those lines. Even these, though, are aggressively anti-storyline. Instead of info about the plot the idea seems to be that the premise of a super-secret black ops team should be enough to lure the audience in. That might be true in some cases but for those of us who might actually be interested in finding out what the story is it can get a little frustrating.

GI Joe Ads - OnlineThere was, along with all of this, plenty of online advertising going on. Most of the banners and tower ads I saw were full motion units, with footage that was familiar to those who have seen the trailer playing until it resolved into the title treatment. There were also executions that took portions of the key art from some of the posters and reused it for huge ads, ads whose size became a story in their own right in many of the advertising industry’s trade publications for their size and visibility. The story there was that publishers – ESPN is in the example I include to the left – were willing to go extra big for advertisers in these hard economic times and Paramount was taking them up on that offer to advertise the movie.

GI Joe TieIns - Slurpee StrawsRight after Transformers left G.I. Joe took their place in 7-Eleven stores. As the chain has been doing for the last summer or two they launched a promotion that included action figures attached to special straws, a handful of collectible cups and a limited time Slurpee drink concoction called Liquid Artillery. There was also a coffee component to this one, though, with collectible coffee mugs and a “Go Joe” Cappuccino. The effort was supported by in-store signage – including character standees – and radio spots as well as an online sweepstakes.

Since comic books and cartoons were such strong elements in the first (at least if you start the clock at the early 1980s) incarnation and foundation of the G.I. Joe franchise, it makes sense that they’d play a large role in the marketing of this, the first live-action big screen adventure.

For one thing, that original cartoon got rereleased in its entirety by Rhine in a Collector’s Set that included a dog-tag USB device and other bonus items. This was, by all accounts, a step up from previous DVD editions of the series and putting the whole thing in one package was certainly attractive to people whose nostalgia had been stoked by the rest of the campaign.

GI Joe TieIn - Resolute Cartoon

There was also a new cartoon mini-series that aired on Cartoon Network called “G. I. Joe: Resolute” that was pretty cool. Released both on TV and online in 11 chapters over the course of a few days, the series only ran about 45 minutes and contained a story that was independent of the movie and most anything else, though it could certainly be a coda chapter to the original cartoon series. But there was a more serious and mature tone to the story – It opens with the death of a major villain being investigated and shortly thereafter the dead body of one of the Joes is discovered, with other characters dying along the way. To support this there were a small amount of action figures created, as well as comics that came with those figures.

There was also a revitalization on the comics front, as IDW Publishing took over the license for the property and tried to get things back on track after a few attempts by other publishers over the years that seemed a bit…off. IDW not only created its own comic prequel and adaptation of the movie but also re-printed the classic 80′s Marvel series in a series of collections, as well as taking some of those and packaging them as “Best of…” editions featuring a specific character.

One of the promotional partners for the movie was Norton, maker of the anti-virus software that’s famous for protecting people’s computers right up until the moment it crashes their hard-drive. The company put Snake Eyes on the box and featured bios of the characters on their website, where there was also a daily drawing to win Joe toys and the movie’s trailer.

Also on board was Burger King in the third of the three cross-promotions the chain signed on with Paramount for. They included Joe toys, ranging from action figures of the movie characters and vehicles to things that are more like spy gadgets.

Royal Purple Synthetic Oil ran a sweepstakes for $10,000. Plantronics ran a sweepstakes for movie tickets and some of their audio products.

Media and Publicity

GI Joe Pic 4One of the tricks of marketing a movie with so many much-anticipated characters is stoking the public’s enthusiasm to see how those characters have been translated to the screen. Think movies like Lord of the Rings, Iron Man and others in a similar vein. But the problem is that because production takes such a long time, licensed products are being created well before the marketing department is ready to make the official reveals. That often results in toys being the first means through which we see what a movie’s characters are going to look like and that’s certainly the case here. Whether it was Cobra Commander, The Pit or just about anything else, a leaked image of a toy was quickly and widely disseminated throughout the interwebz

Paramount publicity was successful in getting star Dennis Quaid named the “Star of the Year” at the ShoWest theater industry trade conference, an award designed to make G. I. Joe that much more attractive to the chain booking agents and theater owners in attendance.
Paramount debuted a new bit of footage at the MTV Movie Awards in May, footage that featured a slight expanded – though still apparently edited – look at the sequence involving The Baroness and Storm Shadow launching the missile that topples the Eiffel Tower and the futile efforts by a couple of the Joes to stop that. Unfortunately the clip just wound up looking silly, mostly because those “accelerator suits” just come off as ridiculous. I mean downright laughable. They’re unbelievable and don’t make sense and are inconsistent with just about every last part of the G.I. Joe mythology, so making them a focal point of this footage might have been a bad idea. There’s a bit more to the clip but it’s mostly a replay of stuff we saw in the first full trailer.

GI Joe Pic 5In early June there was a rumor that started circulating that director Sommers had actually been fired half-way through post-production, the result of some terrible test screenings and an overall feeling within the studio that the film was just flying off the rails and headed toward destroying not only itself but the entire brand. While I don’t doubt there were creative differences between various parties, I have to agree with Anne Thompson, whose run-through of the facts of the situation all add up to the conclusion the studio knew what they were getting when they hired him. And anyway, as Jeff Wells points out, the “controversy” actually served the purpose of lowering expectations for the film to the point that anything that’s not absolutly unwatchable will be seen ultimately as a win.

The movie’s promotional team also freaked out beachgoers in the New York area by staging a mock invasion of the coast line, complete with black helicopters and descending paramilitary types, designed to get people talking about the movie.

The release of extended clips from the movie was a relatively small part of the publicity campaign and, when it was done, those clips tended to focus on scenes that included the Accelerator Suits. That includes this one, released a couple weeks before release, that shows more of the chase by Duke and Ripcord of the jeep carrying The Baronness and Storm Shadow down the streets of Paris.

The cast of the movie even rang the opening bell at the NYSE a few days before release along with execs from Hasbro. They also made a stop at MTV’s “It’s On With Alexa Chung” show, where cast members appeared in pairs or by themselves. You can view the clips of Tatum and Wayans here and here, with the second including them comparing themselves to their cartoon incarnation.

Eventually the marketing of the movie itself became a story, with this LA Times feature talking about how Paramount skipped the usual wooing of high-profile media – indeed there was some criticism about the decision to bypass critics entirely – and make an appeal directly to Middle America. The campaign – which was reported to have a budget of over $150 million – included ads and other promotions on military bases and ads in papers that reached those bases.

Overall

GI Joe TitleI’ve said to more than one person that this campaign only works for me up to a certain point. Slurpee cups at 7-Eleven? Awesome. Posters? Cool, when can I buy tickets. Trailers? Oh no….

The thing is, looking at the campaign from top to bottom, it knows that. That’s why there are three waves of teaser posters with the individual characters but only one trailer. That’s why 95 percent of the clips that have been released have come from that one sequence in Paris with the Eiffel Tower and the chase down the streets and all that. The campaign, it seems, is scared of showing off the movie.

And that’s the real problem. All the campaign had to do was *not* turn off people like me, the ones that grew up with HISS Tanks and Trouble Bubbles and Skystrikers and all that. We were going to be there en masse on opening day unless the campaign massively honked us off. But it wound up honking us off, with its repeated emphasis on Accelerator Suits and all that, things that weren’t in the original incarnations and which almost wound up being disrespectful of the history we were looking to embrace with this movie.

But when the campaign works it works. As I said, everything outside of the video elements is not bad and does a decent job of getting the audience’s excitement up. The posters (probably because they don’t contain those goofy suits) are pretty cool and certainly, as I mentioned, reminiscent of the cardboard backings to action figures of yore.

It will probably be successful in getting people like me out, despite our fears about various things, since many of us are anxious to re-live our childhood memories. But I don’t think, unfortunately, that it manages to overcome many of the problems it creates itself, mainly in how it makes the film look like a bit of rushed exploitation of those childhood memories.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

  • 8/10/09: A Funny or Die video titled “The Ballad of G. I. Joe” that has some big time actors taking on the role of various characters in a music video that offers some insight into just how lonely and conflicted those characters really are. (PS I IM’d this to Tom and hebeat me to publishing it – clearly he’s lacking for real work to do)
  • 8/10/09: McSweeney’s publishes the Journal of a New Cobra Recruit (and its sequel Journal of a Seasoned Cobra Veteran) that sheds light on the terrorist organization’s less-than-rigorous training program. (via IO9)
  • 8/10/09: Richard Corliss says the movie was screened for bloggers and not more professional critics because the former are easier lays. Which is kind of the point, yeah.
  • 8/10/09: MediaFreak’s Mike Shields wonders the marathon of G. I. Joe cartoon episodes and other programming designed to tap into the movie’s buzz were.
  • 8/10/09: Last Friday Paramount worked with ticket seller Fandango to put an ad for the movie on Fandango’s mobile homepage.
  • 8/15/09: Aris at AdAge has a very good story up about the marketing of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and not just because he links to yours truly. Aris dives a bit deeper into the “no critics screenings” and “let’s just appeal to Middle America” strategies than I did and you should go check his piece out.
  • 11/15/09: “Resolute,” the multi-part animated series that aired on Cartoon Network and online in the build up to Rise of Cobra is now on DVD. This was very cool – true to the series’ roots while also toughening it up a bit.