There have been quite a few adaptations of children’s books in the last five or six years. Most of those are movie versions of Dr. Suess books and range wildly in their quality. On the one end you have Cat in the Hat (almost unwatchable) and on the other Horton Hears a Who (quite good and completely appropriate for kids). The one thing they have in common is that, in order to fill the 90 or so minutes of running time that they need to achieve they need to stretch the source material quite a bit since those books tend to max out around 30 pages or so.
Similar expansion from the book has been done to turn Where the Wild Things Are from a book that spanned just a few dozen pages that can be read in less than 15 minutes to a feature film that runs an hour and a half.
The movie appears in theaters now with a significant artistic pedigree that differentiates it significantly from previously released movies based on kid’s books. Instead of featuring a no-name writer and a director-for-hire, WTWTA comes from a screenplay by Dave Eggers (founder of McSweeneys, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genious) that’s been directed by Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich).
The involvement of these two makes the movie a different quantity. They’re not typically known for material that’s easily digested by adults, much less the under-10 set. So Warner Bros. has it’s work cut out for it selling a movie that’s based on a story for kids made by hipsters who like to muck about with adult expectations. Let’s take a look.
The first couple of teaser posters definitely did a good job of playing up the idea that the movie would remain true to the book but also contain its own vibe. One featured Max, in full outfit and crown, crying out wildly while standing next to one of the beasts as they stand on a leaf-covered forest floor. On this the beast is only mostly seen, with his body in full view but his face still obscured, something that simultaneously manages to continue teasing the look of these creatures while also giving a sense of the scale of those creatures as they related to that little boy whose story we’re following.
The second gives us a fuller, but still incomplete look at the creature. In this one he’s hiding behind a tree, a tree that also sports a number of claw marks, with one off to the side that has a chunk taken out of it, so clearly this is where the creatures come and play. I love the colors on both of these posters and the way the look of the forest and the leaves on the ground compliment those of the beasts. It’s just great and goes a long way to creating a real vibe and color-based personality for the movie.
The theatrical poster that was released after these two moved the setting to the desert location we’ve seen in the trailers and some of the initial stills. We get another shot of Max and Carol, the main creature, and can see just how big the latter is compared to the boy.
After that a series of four character posters were released that gave us full-on close-ups of Carol, Max, Judith and KW. These are all characters we’ve met to some extent in the trailers so it only makes sense they would get a moment of their own in the spotlight.
Another batch of posters was released shortly thereafter that rounded out the cast of characters, including Ira, Douglas, Alexander and The Bull. There was also one that featured Carol but was intended to promote the film’s release to IMAX theaters. It’s not that different from the character-specific one-sheet, just without the name and with “IMAX” at the bottom.
The first trailer starts off with Max already among the wild things and we spend most of the running time on that island, though there are a couple peeks at his real world life, mostly showing him wishing he were somewhere else. There’s little to no dialogue but there is a definite sense of excitement and even danger to the footage, which shows off just how vividly the world of the book has been brought to life, though the actual story of the movie is hinted at only in passing. We’re asked, as an audience, to draw the connection between Max’s longing for a better life and his adventures in the world of the wild things. It’s an easy connection to make, thankfully.
The second is a tad more linear. It starts off showing a wistful Max at home and with his mother, again showing him as a dreamer whose life is quite as exciting as he might like. But then he travels to the land of the wild things and things get more interesting. We’re introduced, by way of Max being introduced, to the characters that live there, but only after Max is pronounced king and we get to see him scream that famous declaration, “Let the wild rumpus start!!” We see some of the fun and adventures Max has along with a couple shots of him on the island that show it’s not exactly all he thought it would be and that he misses his home.
Both spots are really, really good in that they present an emotional, exciting film that has a story that looks very interesting and, most importantly, a vision of a world that’s unlike most anything we might have seen on film before. Interesting one of the most common criticisms of the trailers by people is that while they make good music videos – the music is kind of perfect – they’re not sure an entire movie along these lines can be sustained. I harbor no such doubts since the glimpses of this world are more than enough to make me believe Jonze can pull off a feature film that not only sustains this level of entertainment but actually builds on it.
The official website loads with hash marks being drawn on the screen as the percentage grows, one of the most interesting “loading” graphical representations I’ve seen in a long time. After that’s finished one of the trailers plays and from there you can Enter the Site.
The first section of site content is “About” and there you’ll find a Synopsis that covers not only the film’s story but also lists the talent involved and gives some of the behind-the-scenes folks a spotlight. That spotlight is then extended in the Cast and Filmmakers section, where those who made the film from both ends of the camera are given biographies and brief career overviews.
By my count there are about 35 stills from the movie, including a couple behind-the-scenes shots, in the “Gallery.” Both Trailers, the Featurette I’ll talk more about later and five TV Spots are all hosted in the “Videos” section. “Downloads” has Wallpapers, Buddy Icons, Screensavers and the entire cadre of Posters you can download for your own usage.
“Soundtrack” has samples of the movie’s widely hyped song list from Karen O and the cast as well as links to buy it either on iTunes of Amazon.
Finally there are links to Partners and Promotions, the iPhone app and Tickets and Showtimes.
Also on the web was a blog written by some of those on the movie’s creative team called We Love You So. It’s a fun read, including all sorts of information about the movie and some of the activities, contests and other promotions going on around it. It’s the kind of thing I would want to see keep going after the film is released and into its home video life since I think it adds a lot to the conversation about the movie.
The iPhone app mentioned above brought Carol, the primary beast from the story, to your screen. The app let you interact with Carol in a variety of ways and, as Marshall Kirkpatrick says, seems geared primarily at a younger audience but still appears very cool.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
In addition to a handful of TV spots that featured similar footage to what was in the trailers, the movie was also advertised while also promoting a societal good. A series of :30 spots was created (AdAge 9/10/09) for a PSA campaign in conjunction with the Childhood Obesity Prevention group that used footage of Max being himself and playing outdoors with the creatures he discovers to encourage kids to get up off the couch and engage in more physical activity.
Be Out There is a campaign created in conjunction with the National Wildlife Federation that encouraged kids to get active and get outdoors. The site for that campaign includes teaching guides, information on sponsored screenings and more material.
Jonze also announced and ran a contest that asked people to photoshop images of the characters from the film into existing photos, with the prize being one that would appeal especially to Jonze following in the skateboarding world: A series of seven custom-designed decks featuring artwork from the movie.
An L.A. boutique participated in the promotions for the movie by helping to create a pop-up shop that recreated some of the sets and locations from the film and used them to display shirts and other items in conjunction with the movie.
NYC & Company also helped out in promoting the movie with a series of themed events under the heading “Wild Things Week.” That involves giving local businesses the opportunity to organize their own ads and events as well as organizing special readings and more at city libraries and more.
Media and Publicity
Aside from the buzz about the release of each little bit of marketing material, some of the early publicity about the movie was about just how much of a problem Warner Bros. was going to have marketing it. The movie began shooting in 2006 and has suffered from more than its share of reports about creative conflict between director Jonze and Warner Bros. over the artistic direction.
At the end of the line, though, Warner Bros. is stuck with a quandary on its hands. The movie, in the hands of Jonze, is probably creative and more than a little disturbing, much like the source book. But that means it’s going to take some care and tending to market accurately, something that is not done particularly well by big studios. And as that AdAge story says, Warner Bros. no longer has the niche expertise it once did before it shut down Warner Independent and other specialty divisions.
Some of that was handled with the release of a featurette-type video that featured Sendak and Jonze, with the author giving his thumbs up and seal of approval to Jonze’s work by saying it’s faithful to the vision he created even while being fully Jonze’s as well. Steven Zeitchik at RiskyBizBlog read this as a defensive move on the part of Warner Bros. but I don’t think it’s that as much as it comes off like a political endorsement video. I see where he’s going with his point, but I think it’s a necessary point that needs to be made and actually is more about influencing the opinions of online influencers than about calming the fears of those with an emotional attachment to the book.
All the ancillary material around the movie also caused rounds of publicity. The news that Dave Eggers was writing his own adaptation of the book/movie and the release of Karen O’s first single from the film’s soundtrack both kicked off lots of commentary about how they fit into the film and the source book and how each was a vision of its creator.
Much of the coverage continued to focus on the film’s journey from the page to the screen and cover how Jonze got the movie made in the first place.
Just before release there were a handful of clips from the film released, but I’m going to echo a sentiment expressed by CRM’s Matt Dentler that they should be avoided in order to preserve the movie-going experience.
If you look at this campaign and are a fan, as I am, of movies that are able to completely sweep you away into not only a unique setting but also a unique emotional experience then you’re going to love this marketing push. There’s a fantastic sense of wonder and playfulness – all wrapped together through the use of consistent color, fonts and other design details – that permeates the campaign that raises the level of each individual component.
Which says something considering those individual components are pretty good in and of themselves. The posters are designed in a way that manages to show a lot but still come off has hiding a lot. The trailers feature some wonderful footage, all set to an exciting and completely appropriate soundtrack.
At times the campaign comes off as a little overly stylistic but, for the adults in the audience who are familiar with the previous work of Jonze and Eggers, that’s to be expected to a great extent. So, armed with that knowledge, that doesn’t get in the way.
With a lot of interest from the press the formal campaign was accompanied by a firm publicity effort that had a lot of coverage being devoted to the movie. Add it all together and you have a really nice marketing effort for a movie that could be a big fall hit.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- 10/20/09: Patrick Goldstein has a good piece about how Warner Bros. managed to “thread the needle” and create a campaign that sold the movie as something that may be appropriate for (some) kids that are familiar with the book and the hipsters that the director and writer are going to attract. Of course the work done by the Warner Bros. marketing team looks brilliant in hindsight since the movie did well in its opening weekend. If it hadn’t then they’d be seen as dropping the ball by not picking a single audience. And we still have to see what the second weekend’s take is going to be.
- 10/20/09: NPR has a similar story about appealing to the dual audiences.
- 10/20/09: Mashable reviews the movie’s iPhone app and Facebook page, the latter of which I think I missed in my column.
- 10/21/09: AdAge (10/20/09) looks at the campaign and how it, at least for the most part, retained a “handmade” aesthetic, something that helped it build important early buzz and then build on that.
- 12/2/09: Christina Warren writes on Mashable about a study of how ad placement on YouTube translated to more hits to the movie’s official website and an overall boost in online activity – searches and such – for it in the days leading up to release.