That’s the question that’s been on everyone’s mind for the last 12 years or so, ever since director James Cameron released what would go on to become the highest-grossing film of all time and a star-making vehicle for its two young stars. While various rumors have circulated through the decade-plus since the pride of the White Star line met its cinematic fate about what the director would do next there’s been nothing in the way of actual output aside from producer credits on a couple of documentaries, including at least one the revisited the Titanic’s history but without the schmaltzy bookending.
Of course it’s not as if Titanic was Cameron’s arrival on-screen. He had already built up an amazing list of credits, including both (to date) Terminator movies, Aliens, True Lies and others that had already cemented him as a Hollywood powerhouse, meaning he was going in to Titanic with a lot behind him.
So the anticipation has been huge about how Cameron would return after such a long absence. But whatever it was going to be, the one thing that everyone was more or less agreed upon was that it was going to be huge.
And huge it is.
Avatar is the story of colonization. In the distant future Earth is in need of a special mineral, one that is found in relative abundance on a far off world. But that planet is already inhabited by a native species and they are not thrilled with Earth’s efforts to mine that mineral, a process that of course is not the most gentle. So in order to convince – with extreme prejudice – that native species to part with the mineral Earth sends in the Marines. In advance of a full-frontal assault, though, a young Marine is given the opportunity to live with the aliens as one of them. A process has been developed where a human can have his or her conscious mind control the body of an avatar that looks like one of the native aliens, a more subtle and under-handed tactic to weaken them from within.
Avatar is being billed as the most expensive movie ever produced and a grand, dramatic return for Cameron that is fitting of the now extraordinarily outsized expectations that have built up in the last 12 years. It’s also the subject of a long-lived and massive marketing campaign, and that’s what brings us here today.
For a movie this huge it’s a bit surprising that only two posters have been created.
The first, what could be called a teaser even though to me it doesn’t *feel* like a teaser – features just the blue face of one of the alien natives. There’s little explanatory text beyond the name of the movie and that it’s coming from Cameron or, more accurately, “From the director or ‘Titanic.'” This was all about teasing the look of the aliens that inhabit the movie’s primary setting and are the form of the avatar that is taken on by the main character.
The second and final theatrical poster was a bit more fully-featured, but also is a little more odd and I think works quite substantially less than it probably should have.
The same blue alien is in the background of this poster as was in the first one-sheet. But this time she shares space with the profile of Sam Worthington, or at least a Photoshopped version of Worthington, with their faces in front of a giant planet looming in the background. Below them is the forest landscape we’ve seen in the trailers, with a native of the planet on one of his winged mounts in the foreground and a flock of Marine fighter planes coming from the back.
This time the top of the poster pegs the movie as coming from the director of both Titanic and Terminator 2. Then – and this winds up seeming a little weird – the movie is labeled at the bottom as being “James Cameron’s Avatar,” as if he were the author of an original novel on which this movie were based. I mean I get what they’re going for, but that seems like a heavy-handed way of branding the film as being form Cameron, an excuse to put his name above the title.
I’m a little surprised there not only weren’t more posters created but that there weren’t IMAX specific one-sheets as well. So much of the rest of the campaign, as we’ll see, is about promoting experiencing it in IMAX 3D that the little throw-away line at the bottom of this poster seems oddly underplayed.
The first trailer is, appropriately for what needed to be communicated to the audience, primarily a showcase for the visuals of the film. With only one line of dialogue in it, the trailer shows what appears to be a more or less sequential order of events from the film: Marines arrive on Pandora, Sam Worthington’s wheelchair-bound character has his mind uploaded into the body of a native “avatar” and then those Marines and the natives of Pandora engage in a couple of battles between gunships and dragons in the air, all focused seemingly around some form of love story.
It’s not bad but doesn’t come close to conveying any sense of epic scale or anything like that, a notion that the rest of the movie’s campaign – especially the copious amounts of press it’s received – more or less relies completely on. Indeed there was plenty of chatter after it’s release that the trailer was tamping down some of the fanboy excitement around the movie since it didn’t live up to either the Comic-Con footage or the scenes shown as part of the “Avatar Day” promotional event. (More on those later.) But it’s a traditional trailer that’s meant to appeal to a wide audience so what was it supposed to do? More than that, what were people expecting? It’s not even two minutes long and so is extremely condensed, something that those expanded looks haven’t been and so naturally it’s going to fall short of expectations.
The theatrical trailer definitely expand and expounds upon the movie’s plot. At 3:30 it’s a full minute or so longer than most standard trailers and fits a lot into that running time.
We’re introduced first to Jake, the character played by Sam Worthington, a Marine who has lost the use of his legs but is now on a mission with others to a distant planet named Pandora. That planet is important to humankind because it’s rich in an important and therefore valuable mineral, though that’s as far as that string of thought goes.
To help the group’s mission – and with the promise that should he be successful he’ll regain the use of his legs – Jake volunteers to control an avatar, a physical body that resembles the planet’s indigenous people who the Marines are trying to move, with his mind while his body is still on the ship.
But as with most stories, the humans here aren’t above moving a civilization whether it wants to be moved or not. And soon Jake – in his avatar form – must choose which side he really believes in and belongs to, the humans who are destroying and invading or the blue-skinned aliens who were originally there, one of whom he has of course fallen in love with.
The trailer, though, just uses the story as an excuse to show off all the special effects Cameron has used to tell that story. We see lots of ships and leathery animals flying through the air, lots of aliens gathering for war and lots of supposed emotion on the faces of those aliens.
I’d say this is a moderately effective trailer that probably packs much more of a wallop on the big screen and in 3D. It certainly makes a strong case for seeing the movie and shows it has more of a legitimate plot than other SFX extravaganzas like 2012. But I see no way this carries the same universal appeal of Cameron’s previous films and, like it or not, that’s the yardstick that’s going to be in place.
That’s because this was an “interactive” version of the trailer. Littered throughout the trailer were prompts to click and engage within the spot, with those clicks taking you to behind-the-scenes videos that expanded on a particular point, whether it’s a technical how-to or a character profile. It also brought in feeds from discussions that were happening about the movie on social media sites like Twitter and YouTube and others. To play the interactive trailer required the viewer to download Adobe AIR, which a lot of people who regularly use Yammer, Tweetdeck or other applications might already have but which members of the general audience might now and which might present a stumbling block to viewing for those folks.
While some people saw this, the requiring of the AIR application, as a big downside I actually view it as part of the general attitude of the campaign, which is that it’s aiming primarily NOT at a general audience but at the cool kids in the room so as to get them excited and hopefully influencing all the rest of the folks.
The official website opens with the movie’s second trailer, with the option to download the interactive trailer just below that. You also have the choice to enter the site and that’s just what we’re going to do.
When the site then loads again there are two ways you’ll find to access the content. First is a standard site navigation menu in the top-left corner and the other is a series of window panes that glides across the bottom of the screen. There’s some overlap between the two so I’m going to start with the drop-down menu at the top and then hit the other items from the bottom.
So the first section there is “Videos” and that’s where you’ll find the Theatrical Trailer, a featurette titled James Cameron’s Vision, a Jake Sully Profile and a Neytiri Profile, that latter two of course being deeper looks at two of the main characters in the movie. Odd that the first trailer is nowhere to be found here. The “Interactive Trailer” is found in the next section.
After that is “Images” which has about 18 stills from the movie, including the option to view them on Flickr, which is a nice touch. “Cast” is a pretty basic look at the main actors on the movie and gives you an overview of their career to date and other information.
“Story” gives you a good outline of what the movie is about, including quite a few details (but none of the spoiler variety) that are kind of hinted at but not spelled out clearly in the trailers.
“Downloads” just has nine Wallpapers you can grab.
The next few sections all open up new tabs/windows for outside sites so keep that in mind.
First is “Video Game,” which takes you to Ubisoft’s official page for the tie-in game, which doesn’t appear to have any sort of demo but which does have more images – this time from the game, obviously – that you can view on Flickr.
Second, “Toys,” brings you to Mattel’s page for their toy products, something that’s going to be useful if you’ve already purchased one of those toys and need to activate the i-Tag to play with the enhanced online version of those toys.
“Mobile” takes you to Gameloft’s page for their iPhone app/game, a game that takes place prior to the events of the film. The page has Info, Story background, Screenshots and a Video of gameplay you can view.
The “News” section links to the movie’s official Twitter handle, which is updated with links not only to the official site and the release of marketing material but also information on some of the promotional appearances the cast is making and links to early reviews.
Finally there’s the “Music” which of course takes you to the soundtrack’s site. That site lets you order in either Physical or Digital formats as well as grab a score-specific widget for your blog or social network page.
There are a couple sections in the panes at the bottom of the page that aren’t in the main content menu.
One of those is a link to Pandorapedia and shows the Featured Entry from that site. Pandorapedia, as you might suspect, is a site devoted to entries related to the world of the movie, though this is presented in a straight ahead promotional way, meaning it’s clear this is a movie-related site, and not like it’s something from the actual universe of the movie that people in that universe have created.
There are also links here to Coke’s AVTR site and to the TypePad Blogging Community.
The film’s official Facebook page opens with a promotional prompt to watch clips from the live MTV-hosted chat (more on that later) but from there you can navigate to the usual areas containing Photos, Videos and more.
There are also, down at the very bottom of the page’s main screen, links to the variety of other social networking profiles set up for the movie. In addition to the aforementioned Twitter and Facebook pages there’s the Flickr set and YouTube channel in addition to a handful of others. Both the Flickr and YouTube profiles are pretty well stocked with images and promotional videos and it’s nice to see these being utilized so thoroughly.
Advertising and Cross-Promotion
Like many movies this one got a tie-in video game. But unlike many of those games, this one benefited not only from the two-plus year lead time that the filmmakers have been working on the film but also from an unusually high level of involvement by those filmmakers, a relationship that even resulted in Cameron bringing some of the shots created for the game into the movie itself.
Panasonic signed on as a promotional partner, using the high profile of the movie to promote its line of TVs and Blu-ray players that bring 3D presentation to the home theater. That all could lead to an announcement (well after Avatar has left theaters) that the movie could be the first 3D home video release.
Coke was a major partner (Adweek, 11/25/09) on a couple of levels as well for their Coke Zero product. The soft drink company created AVTR.com, a site that was half ARG and half straight promotion. On the one hand it featured video reports that were supposed to have come from the planet of Pandora, where the reporter is supposed to be introducing the viewer to the planet and what the human explorers are doing there. There are also “Field Report Photo Journals” and an Applicant Test System to see if you are qualified to join the program.
On the other, more straight ahead promotional hand, you can view the tie-in TV commercial and a “nanodisk” spot that played like a Coke Zero commercial from the future. At the top of the screen there are a bunch of “F” buttons to push that, when you do, give you a bit of information on some of the tech that’s used by the humans in the movie.
Coke was also one of the handful of companies in the campaign that utilized Augmented Reality. People who bought one of the AVTR-branded cans of Coke Zero could hold that can up to their webcam when visiting AVTR.com and control helicopters, fire missiles and more.
In addition to the official site for the AVTR campaign there was a Twitter feed that was updated, as of this writing, a whopping three times between September 11 and December 8.
McDonald’s, for its part, also included an augmented reality component in their tie-in effort. The fast food chain is launching a campaign (MediaPost, 12/11/09) that includes TV spots, in-store displays and more. Customers who purchase a Big Mac between 12/18 and 1/7 will receive a “Thrill Card” that will unlock an exclusive augmented reality experience when help up to a webcam. That’s part of an overall “PandoraQuest” game that has been created that take people on an adventure to become part of the research team from the movie, an adventure that is moved along by the promise of unlocking exclusive movie content as they progress.
Mobile phone company LG Mobile jumped on with its own cross-promotional plans (MediaPost, 12/8/09). The company created a TV spot that features movie footage being watched on the screen of its LG eXpo phone, with characters from that spot also showing up on lgexpo.com, which contained more videos of them using their phones to display movie content as well as exclusive promotional material in and of itself. LG Mobile also sponsored special additional weapons Gamespot players of the Xbox and Playstation-based tie-in game could unlock.
There was also an interesting promotion with SixApart, the company behind blogging software MovableType, TypePad and others. Bloggers using the TypePad platform were able to get Avatar-branded themes for their blogs and other exclusive movie content they could publish on those blogs. That availability extends to users of the recently launched free micro-publishing software. As Tameka at PaidContent says, this sort of thing is an interesting way to build a community of online users without making a significant investment in building it themselves. SixApart also worked with Fox on creating an Official Avatar Community on a TypePad blog that allowed fans to get together and chat as well as being automatically entered to win tickets to see the movie.
Parent company Fox also managed to work the movie into an episode of “Bones.” In an episode airing just a couple weeks before the movie’s release the plot has the team of characters taking their investigation to theaters where people are lining up for Avatar and openly talking about how they were excited to see it. The episode takes on a level of pseudo-meta since Joel David Moore is a semi-regular on “Bones” as an intern and also has a significant role as a pilot and friend of Worthington’s character in the movie.
YouTube turned on the live-streaming for the movie’s London premiere a week or so before the theatrical release, with the site sending three of its high-profile video bloggers overseas to conduct interviews and provide other red-carpet coverage from the event. That post also announced a massive ad buy from Fox in support of the movie that would take place on the YouTube homepage.
Media and Publicity
Some of the first bits of buzz – aside from just the very notion that James Cameron was making another movie – the movie generated was actually focused on the technology. The innovative cameras being used, the unique shooting techniques and the film’s general mixture of live-action and CGI all became focal points of the discussion, beginning what was sure to be a long string of stories about the tech Cameron was using, a discussion that was likely to overshadow any mentions of story or characters.
Then, of course, there was the budget. Time Magazine came out swinging (3/19/09) with a piece that pegged the budget as being in the range of $300 million just for production, before any marketing costs were added on, a number that got many, many tongues a-wagging about how massive a success – or failure – the movie was going to be. That story was also meant to bring 3D back into the discussion at a time when Monsters vs. Aliens was being positioned as the first real must-see-in-3D flick. The $300M number was walked back shortly after the story went live, with Time posting a corrected version that said the budget was more in the $200 million range.
There was also plenty of talk throughout the year about how Avatar was going to be the movie that will “change filmmaking” (New York Times, 4/24/09) on some sort of fundamental level. All of this was more than a little overblown since, at its core, the movie was made the same way but with some cool special effects.
The movie next got some publicity not for something about the movie itself but about its distribution. In mid-May IMAX (struggling for some positive buzz as they fought criticism around screen sizes and ticket prices) announced they were planning to run Avatar on their big, big screens for three whole months, an incredibly long run. To some extent this is based on thinking that combines the anticipation this film will be as groundbreaking technically as it’s being made out to be as well as the idea that, simply by virtue of it being James Cameron film, it will be popular with audiences for a sustained period of time. Time will tell whether either turns out to be true.
Also related to the exhibition of the film was the round of glad-handing theater owners and others the director made in the months before the movie’s release. Cameron hit the road with footage to show people in part of make the case for as many 3-D screens as he could muster up. While theater owners are happy to have Cameron back in the director’s chair, the technical specifications for the movie combined with it not being a franchise film in any way was the cause of a little unrest, unrest that this media tour was meant to quell.
The movie, unsurprisingly considering it’s expected to be a big old geek fest, made a promotional appearance at Comic-Con this year. Banners for the movie that gave a sneaky look at the film’s aliens began appearing around San Diego in the weeks leading up to the event, building up a little bit of hype around the idea that this appearance would give fans some sort of look at the movie beyond the couple of pictures of James Cameron that made up the lion’s share of the publicity campaign to date.
All that teasing ultimately led up to a Comic-Con presence that was pretty significant. Full-size mock-ups of some of the technology and vehicles from the movie were displayed in the hallways and a panel appearance by director Cameron, the center-piece of which was the showing off by him of something like 25 minutes of footage from the film, which of course was shown in 3D. Reaction to that footage was pretty unanimously along the lines of “ZOMG” with most everyone praising how fantastic the special effects looked and how complex the environments Cameron had created seemed to be. There were, though, some dissenters from that opinion, with a handful of people admitting that it was super-cool stuff but not necessarily a game-changer in terms of technology or filmmaking. Part of that was, some folks said, because the hype had just gotten out of hand and expectations were set impossibly high for what anything could actually deliver.
One of the announcements made by Cameron at that panel was that Fox would be releasing 15 minutes of footage from the film to IMAX screens on August 21st, about four months prior to the film’s release, that people could go see for free. While the release of footage has become commonplace in online movie marketing, this move to put it in theaters is one that comes with the acknowledgment that that’s where it needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. Online apparently just isn’t going to cut it so it needs to be seen on the IMAX screen in order to get people excited and buzzing about the film.
When that did happen it produced what seemed to be exactly the desired results. It didn’t start off smoothly, though, with the website where fans could order tickets to the screenings going down for a long time under the massive demand of so many people logging on at once. But once those problems were ironed out “Avatar Day” resulted in a good deal of not only positive word-of-mouth from those in attendance but also a great number of media stories about the promotion and how it was meant to appeal to the audience by showing off an extended look of the movie.
Even the appearance of Avatar toys at the convention became a news story because they were touted as including “augmented reality” technology that allowed people to extend their playing with the toys to their computers and such, with each product including a tag that would unlock exclusive content.
Shortly after Comic-Con ended, Fox released the first official look at one of the movie’s aliens. It’s not much – just a blue-skinned face and a single eye – but it was more than had been seen before by the general public.
That was followed by various critics reporting on their various opportunities to see the movie, including lots of mentions of “the uncanny valley” when describing the movie’s special effects.
With all the hype of Cameron’s return going on it was more than a little surprising when a feature story turned the spotlight on Worthington for a change. Stories like this (Los Angeles Time, 10/28/09) focused on Worthington’s career and how a couple of star turns in high-profile films in the last couple years have turned him in to one of the most in-demand young actors working today.
The release of the second trailer was even turned into a media event. The spot made its debut at the new Cowboys football stadium in Dallas to a crowd of 80,000 or so spectators, a number Fox promoted (Variety, 10/29/09) as being the largest live audience for a trailer ever, clearly signaling the studio was interested in making every single last bit this campaign into huge event. The trailer also was shown on TV during the game’s broadcast, of course, significantly expanding that audience and bringing it more to the general public than vast portions of this campaign had been prior to that point.
The topic of the movie’s budget came back up in November, this time as the hook for a story about the audacity of spending that much money at a time of falling DVD sales and diminishing returns on high-profile cinematic investments. The latest figures presented in that article (New York Times, 11/8/09) peg the total budget – production and marketing somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million. There is also in that story the question of when Fox and its partners could reasonably expect to see a profit based on that budget, which is sometime about a week after not likely.
Peter Bart in Variety (11/27/09) took up the issue the budget as well. He poses the question of who exactly benefits when filmmakers go hog wild with massive budgets like this. His first answer is the audience (we pay the same for a ticket whether the movie cost $500,000 or $300 million to make) but then he points that ultimately the audience loses since it’s just part of Hollywood’s continued emphasis on “tentpole” releases at the expense of small or mid-range riskier films.
Whether or not the film could be profitable – especially given its unknown nature – was also the subject of an LA Times story (11/15/09). Once again the entire thing is being framed within Cameron’s self-congratulatory nature and looked at it as a big, bold experiment.
Reading that story, which looks at the movie being risky because it’s not part of an existing franchise of some sort, it occurs to me that the breadth and depth of the campaign, including the focus on Cameron in all the publicity, made me realize that Fox is actually trying to sell it as a franchise – a franchise in and of itself. You look at the blue-skinned aliens and you automatically know it’s Avatar. At this point It’s a franchise already and that’s exactly what I’m guessing Fox was shooting for.
The focus continued to be on Cameron as he sat down with “60 Minutes” for an interview. And the filmmaker’s instinct to debut the movie on friendly territory emerged with reports he would bring it to Harry Knowles’ annual Butt Numb-a-Thon screening festival.
Cameron and some of the cast also participated in a webcast (Variety, 11/29/09) hosted by MTV in conjunction with Facebook. The event had MTV editor Josh Horowitz beginning the interview but then transitioning over to questions fans submitted via Facebook. That event even got its own round of online advertising to drive people to the streaming chat.
For the most part, as I look at the campaign from top to bottom, I still find myself agreeing with Pete Vonder Haar:
But I stand by my assertion that – while visually arresting – Avatar just doesn’t look all that interesting to me. I have nothing more than a gut feeling telling me it will open decently, and have some legs early on because of people’s desire to see it in IMAX. It will probably perform well, but “well” versus almost $2 billion for your previous movie, when this one cost maybe twice as much to make, isn’t what Fox is hoping for. And whatever the spin when the smoke clears, not topping Titanic is going to be viewed as a disappointment.
This campaign is huge – it’s one of those where the scale is almost so massive you begin to lose perspective on whether one component or another works or not on its own merits. And since the target audience seems to be “everyone” here it makes it tough to put any thought into whether perceived goals are achieved.
I do think Fox has put together the best campaign they could but, honestly, the actual “marketing” that’s been done seems kind of lightweight. Just two posters, just two trailers and a website that doesn’t seem to be all that innovative.
I actually, though, think that’s kind of a smart move. Because instead of focusing a ton of content Fox has instead:
- Let their promotional partners (McDonald’s, LG, Coke, Panasonic, etc) do their marketing for them.
- Maximized the conversational aspect of each component.
The latter point is important. Is the Facebook profile all that interesting? No, but the live chat that took place there was and had people talking. Was the second trailer all that engaging? No, not in and of itself. But by pushing the boundaries a bit and making it “interactive” they were able to create a ton of buzz around it that otherwise would not have existed. Is it that unusual for a movie to show off extended footage? No, but by doing it for a select group of influencers, making it an event and doing it in 3D it became a much discussed component of the campaign.
So from that perspective this is a tremendous success.
But what, to Pete’s point, is the landscape going to look like once this mass-appeal campaign releases its product to the masses? Does Avatar have the repeat-viewing appeal of Titanic? My guess would be that it does but not to the extent Titanic did.
Part of the problem with engaging in a campaign that showed off the movie – or at least good-sized chunks of it – to so many people is that those folks, who might have come back two or three times once it was released, now have less impetus to do so. They’ve already, in some cases, seen it once. So they’ll see it upon release and then be good. They don’t need to buy a second ticket. So by co-opting them into the word-of-mouth marketing Fox may have cut into the repeat ticket buyer group a bit.
Still, the marketing for Avatar is nicely executed and certainly robust. Now it simply remains to be seen if the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on production and marketing have created something not only profitable but memorable.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- 12/15/09: The LAT’s Hero Complex blog has a look at how creating the tie-in toys took Mattel out of their comfort zone via an interview with the company’s marketing director.
- 12/18/09: Public Radio’s Marketplace program has a brief piece up about the influence of the film’s marketing campaign.
- 12/18/09: AdAge’s Simon Dumeneco has the announcement of Avatar Day being declared. OK, not really, but that’s more or less where he arrives after analyzing the last week’s buzz.
- 12/29/09: Blah blah blah Twitter mentions blah blah blah.
- 01/04/10: Yeah, Fox spent a lot of money on the marketing effort that has turned Avatar into a success.
- 01/04/10: I think I missed any mention of Fox using MySpace to livestream the red carpet premiere but The Cycle has my back.
- 01/06/10: Panasonic’s partnership with Fox on the movie, something that’s designed to herald the arrival of quality 3D home video, was a major part of the technology company’s presence at CES.
- 01/08/10: I’m going to remain skeptical as to how much social media helped Avatar hit its box office records. Oh sure it played a part, but I’m thinking that even the very nice social media push that was put together represented a small part of the huge mainstream campaign that was executed.
- 02/08/10: PBS’s MediaShift blog dubs the Avatar campaign the “most comprehensive” online campaign to date, with its bevy of social media touchpoints and other interactive elements.
- 04/14/10: Fox set up a booth at The Grove mall in LA that featured facial recognition technology that let people create Na’vi versions of their face around the time the DVD was released.
- 06/09/10: Despite the fact that there are no near- or long-term plans for a cinematic follow-up, Fox is looking for continued licensing opportunities for the movie that keep it at the top of people’s minds.
- 07/17/10: The absolutely expected re-release of the movie, which features additional footage, got some advertising of its own.