Movie Marketing Madness: Alice in Wonderland

There are very few films in director Tim Burton’s film history that aren’t visually striking on some level or another. Whether it’s the pastel suburbia of Edward Scissorhands, the dark palette of Batman or the dark grays of Sweeney Todd his best films always seem to thrive on being extensions of Burton’s arguably unique (and sometimes downright twisted) visual sense. Being an illustrator in the early part of his career and someone who’s obviously drawn to stories about those are definitively not part of normal society that makes sense and when he’s given the room to create an entire world he obviously thrives artistically.

He seems to have been given that very opportunity with Alice in Wonderland, the latest movie he’s directed and the latest such effort that features a starring turn from his frequent collaborator Johnny Depp. Depp plays The Mad Hatter in this story, which has Alice returning to Wonderland a few years after the events of the first, most commonly known story. Wonderland has fallen upon hard times as The Red Queen has become more powerful and the inhabitants, from the Hatter to the White Rabbit and everyone else who’s on the side of the good guys, need Alice’s help to restore order to their world.

The movie is largely done in computer animation in much the same way Avatar was, where minimal sets were created for the actors – in costume and not motion-captured, though many of them have their appearance altered to be more cartoonish – to move around before all the details were filled in by computer artists doing their thing. And, like Avatar, it’s being positioned as a movie not only to be enjoyed but to be enjoyed in 3D as a way to fully appreciate and immerse yourself in the director’s vision. So let’s see how the marketing has played out.

The Posters

The first set of teaser posters featured the first four main characters against backgrounds that more or less fit with their settings. So the Red Queen is set against heart-covered wallpaper, the White Queen against a series of white hearts, the Hatter against a kaleidoscope of hats and Alice is placed on a tea set with a background of key holes. A later set added one-sheets for Tweedledee/Tweedledum, The White Rabbit and The Cheshire Cat. They all are pretty good and certainly lay out each character fairly well, giving each on a moment to shine for the audience.

The second set of teasers took each of those characters – as well as others like Tweedledee/Tweedledum, Cheshire Cat and the Rabbit, and placed them within the film’s world. So the series of three posters features the characters standing amidst gigantic looking mushrooms and flowers and such. The three were then combined into a single banner with the Hatter in the middle, providing a nice look at the film’s style that compliments the trailers nicely.

The middle one of those posters, the one featuring The Mad Hatter, also then served as the theatrical one-sheet for the movie, with a credit block added to the bottom and Depp’s name added to the top. It makes a ton of sense for this to be used since Depp is going to be the main draw here for audiences who have been wowed by him and his performances in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and more.

The Trailers

The teaser trailer, released a couple months after Comic-Con, starts off with Alice – now a grown young woman – falling once again down the rabbit hole and once again swallowing the potion that shanks her down to size. We get quick introductions to most of the main characters – the White and Red Queens, the Cheshire Cat and everyone else – before we’re finally shown Depp as the Mad Hatter, who chides Alice for being late. There’s no plot to speak of, this spot is just about showing the audience the look and feel of the movie and hoping we’re intrigued by and sucked in to the visuals.

The trailer, unfortunately, got leaked a bit early and wound up resulting in some negative press for Disney, who then got blasted for requesting that the trailer be pulled from the sites hosting it. I’m firmly on Disney’s side in issues like this as I don’t think leaked items should be posted.

The later theatrical trailer shows off a bit more of the film’s story. While we get the same voiceover intro from the Hatter and shown the rest of the characters as they realize Alice is back, we’re also shown why her return to Wonderland is important. It seems the Red Queen has taken over most of Wonderland and the Alice’s help is needed to set things right and restore order to the world. So in addition to showing off the fantastic visuals Burton has created for the film we get a good amount of scenes of battles taking place between the good guys and the bad guys as they seek to ether squash this rebellion or complete it.

Both trailers are fast-paced and fun and certainly create a wave of excitement for the audience to get caught up in. It’s clear from the combination that Depp’s performance is the centerpiece of the film and that, while Alice is the title character, it’s the Hatter that’s driving the story forward.

Online

The movie’s official website gets bonus points right off the bat for opening with some of Danny Elfman’s fantastic score work playing in the background.

After the site finishes loading you get a line-up of the main characters to choose from, with The Mad Hatter of course being the first option and the others being Alice, the Red Queen and the White Queen. Clicking any of those images brings you to a section where you can view photos, watch videos, grab downloads and read a biography, all specific to that character. Each one also gives the viewer the ability to share their experience on Facebook and play the “On the Spot” trivia game that tests your knowledge of the Alice mythology.

Off to the left there’s a traditional Menu that gives you access to the content you’d expect on a movie site.

First up is “Film” where you’ll find a brief synopsis of what to expect in the story as well as brief shout-outs to the cast and crew.

“Video” is next and has the Teaser, the Trailer, the Super Bowl TV spot and a number of featurettes that are devoted either to the overall look of the movie’s world or to the Mad Hatter specifically since he’s the central character here.

The “Gallery” is divided into two sections, Stills and Concept Art, with a number of items in each section.

“Games” has a Hat Yourself photo uploader that puts your face on the Mad Hatter’s body, Hidden Wonderland asks you to find the hidden image in the same way something like the I Spy books work and Adventures in Wonderland has you playing as Alice to navigate various parts of the film’s world, from successfully navigating your fall down the rabbit hole to other more complex tasks.

You can sample the tracks that appear on the Almost Alice album (not really a soundtrack, more a collection of songs inspired by the movie) under “Music” as well as find links to buy the CD or download the album.

Just days before Comic-Con, where the film would have a presence, started Disney launched an interesting Facebook campaign. Fan pages were launched for the Red Queen, the White Queen and the Mad Hatter and people were encouraged to choose a side. Members of the page with the most fans as of July 23rd would then be the first to see the first, exclusive trailer for the film. That’s a great way to drum up activity and engagement, even if it everyone assumed the trailer would be ripped and posted to YouTube and everywhere else within hours.

Most of the subsequent activity happened around the movie’s main Facebook page, which featured a number of videos, photos and other materials, including previews of the movie’s console video games. There was also Twitter account @ImportantDate that was launched, as we’ll see later, at Comic-Con and used after that to push out updates to the movie’s fans.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Disney ramped up the TV advertising for the movie toward the end of January, with the debut of new spots being made into events on ABC, ESPN and ABC Family. That push then culminated with a Super Bowl commercial in early February that exposed the film to a broad swatch of the movie-going public. Before this was announced I was skeptical Disney would make this buy but in retrospect I think I wasn’t taking fully into account the 3D factor, something that was going to be latched on to in the wake of Avatar’s success with 3D exhibition.

The studio also engaged in a a bit of outdoor advertising, re-purposing elements similar to those of the triptych poster that was created into billboard and another out-of-home ads.

Disney also created an iPhone-specific wireless campaign (ClickZ, 2/17/10) that placed ads within apps using a handful of mobile networks that led uses to a custom iPhone site that featured games, e-cards and a variety of other movie content.

Fashion designers and cosmetics companies got on board with clothes and accessories inspired by the looks of the movie’s characters.

Cosmetics company OPI is one of those, with a series of nail polish colors that are inspired by the movie along with a section of their website devoted to those offerings as well as a sweepstakes that awarded people sets of those products and gift certificates to buy more.

Book retailer Barnes & Noble set up an Alice-specific section that showcased the various books, movies and more that were available at their stores as well as allowing people to download a collection of Tim Burton’s sketches for use as screensavers on their Nook e-reader devices.

Fashion outlet Hot Topic created a series of Alice-inspired items ranging from hoods to necklaces to t-shirts and more.

Tetley Tea set up a contest that let people enter to win a Mad Hatter Tea Party.

Finally, Beauty product company Organix also had a contest running that awarded a trip to London

Media and Publicity

The release of a handful of photos were part of the first major wave of publicity for the movie. First there were very stylized character shots released and then more followed in an issue of Vanity Fair that used similar pictures but were more “normal” in how they were composed.

Burton made a rare trip to the 2009 Comic-Con with a “semi-trailer” for the movie that contained what little footage he said was ready for the viewing public. That limited amount of available material was due, he said, to the fact that the meshing of filmmaking styles was proving to be challenging and so he still had a lot of work to do.

At the end of that panel discussion the @ImportantDate Twitter account was mentioned, an account that seems to have been used solely for a series of meet-ups around San Diego right around Comic-Con but little else. Kevin Kelly at Cinematical attended one of those and recounts the experience, which included displays of costumes and props from the movie and more, including a recreation of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Disney used the film as an inspiration point for a new fashion line it hoped to debut in conjunction with the movie’s release, unveiling the clothing creations it commissioned at a flash-mob style event in early September. And the film was on friendly ground when it debuted some new promotional artwork and more at Disney’s “D23″ fan event, which included an appearance by Burton (Variety, 9/11/09) to show off some of the film’s 3D look and feel.

Alice in Wonderland was also one of the movies making a promotional appearance at the Scream Awards (AdAge, 10/27/09), with Tim Burton acting as a judge for the awards and Johnny Depp appearing to introduce new footage from the film.

Also on the “event” front was a retrospective of Burton’s artwork and design at MoMA, an exhibit that included props from some of his movies as well as drawings he has done, either just random pieces or personal concept art done in preparation for some of his movies.

Disney also drummed up a bit of publicity by sending out high-quality promotional books to select bloggers that contained books of material and more for them to check out.

As the release date drew near it was announced by Disney CEO Bob Iger that Alice would be the first test case in his plan for shortening theatrical windows on a case-by-case basis. So Alice would get a scant three month theatrical release before hitting home video, a plan that was preceded by lengthy discussions with theater owners wherein it was explained this would not be a universal change in policy and that ultimately this would be in everyone’s best interest. Despite those discussions the plan had a number of U.S. and international chains questioning (LA Times, 2/19/10) whether or not they would book the movie, though most ultimately did (LA Times, 2/23/10).

Director Burton took to MySpace about a month before the movie in much the same way James Cameron did for Avatar to interact with fans there and answer their questions about the movie.

Overall

What I really like about this campaign is what I usually like about campaigns: The visual consistency that it uses to establish a brand in the minds of the audience. The trailers, the posters, the website and much of the other promotional activity all use the same backgrounds and images, meaning that whenever or wherever someone encounters a component of the marketing they know immediately what they’re looking at.

The push is obviously centered around two idea: That the film is filled with deep, rich and fully textured visuals and that Johnny Depp is having a blast playing The Mad Hatter. Both trailers have the Hatter as being the central figure in the story – Alice, the titular character I don’t think gets a single line in either spot – and he’s put front and center on the website as well. And the entire campaign is meant to immerse you in the world Burton and his designers have created. So on those two counts it succeeds rather well.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

  • 03/05/10: The Los Angeles Times sold pretty much its entire above-the-fold real estate in a manner that allowed Disney to place a full-color image of The Mad Hatter on the outside of the paper.
  • 03/09/10: One of the clothing lines with a tie-in was the one bearing teen icon Avril Lavigne’s name. Lavigne was also one of the artists recording a track for the “Almost Alice” album.

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