Movie Marketing Madness: The Social Network

Believe it or not – and based on the extent to which issues surrounding it are discussed both amongst friends and colleagues but also in the press – there was a time where online social networking did not exist. Back in the dark days of 1999 there were no sites where one could upload photos, post status updates on what you were feeling, watching or thinking about or feel really conflicted about the fact that someone who used to beat you up in high school has sent you a friend request and maybe that means they’ve grown and want to amend for past problems and maybe it means they just want to laugh at how your life has played out and ask if you still drive that ’92 Cavalier that you put white-wall tires on because you like them, dammit.

The extent to which you miss those days is probably largely dependent on how closely you can relate to the above.

Facebook certainly wasn’t the first social network and it probably won’t be the last. Friendster was launched in 2002, MySpace in 2003 and there have been a host of others since then. Facebook itself didn’t launch until 2004, and then only to students of Harvard, where Mark Zuckerberg and his friends and cohorts were attending college. It wasn’t until 2006 that the company dropped the requirement in order to join you had to be enrolled either in high school or college, a milestone that opened up the floodgates and started it down the path to where it is now – trying to take over the world.

It’s the days before all that, when Zuckerberg was still a student and hacker, that are chronicled in The Social Network. Written by superstar writer Aaron Sorkin and directed by superstar director David Fincher, the film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg and takes us back to the halls of Harvard and the years immediately following that, as Zuckerberg and his allies, including Napster founder Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake), fight various attempts to either wrest control of the nascent network from his hands or score a payout that’s commiserate with just how big Facebook seems to be getting.

The Posters

The movie’s first and only poster took a number of unfamiliar paths to presenting what should have been a straightforward sell. First, the movie’s title is hidden over in the right side of the design, in the toolbar where the Facebook name and logo would usually be appearing. Second, the face of Eisenberg is largely obscured by the copy “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies” in the middle well of the poster. Lastly, because of the arrangement of the navigation bar on the right side, it throws off the viewer’s orientation a bit since it, combined with the fact that the scroll bar is along the bottom, means we’re in essence looking at a computer screen that’s sitting on its side. So that’s a bit disorienting until you overcome that.

All that does work, despite the unconventional manner in which the movie is presented to the audience. Also working is the way Eisenberg is standing there in a hoodie with his mouth slightly agape, like he can’t even believe you just said that. So he comes off as someone who knows he’s smarter than you or at least doesn’t care about your opinion.

Sorkin and Fincher are nowhere to be found on the poster, which makes the fact that this was the one and only poster a bit more surprising than it would their absence would have been if this were just a teaser.

The Trailers

The movie’s first teaser trailer wasn’t all that much different from the first teaser poster. A series of words describing Zuckerburg flash on a black screen while snippets of dialogue beginning with a conversation about the initial launch of Facebook right through one about a federal lawsuit play over the visuals. At the end of the spot the mosaic that’s slowly been building finally comes in to focus as the same image of Eisenberg that was seen on that teaser poster.

The spot works primarily for those members of the audience that are looking forward to the writing of Sorkin in that it shows off the dialogue without the actual performances getting in the way. For those looking for their first real glimpse of Eisenberg in action as the founder of the titular social network it probably came off as a little disappointing. But with its appearance shortly after that of the teaser poster it came off as a nice one-two punch to get people talking about the movie and raise some anticipation.

A second trailer took a similar path by featuring primarily dialogue presented as voice over on the screen. But this time, instead of the camera pulling out to reveal the movie’s poster, the dialogue was accompanied by similar text that appeared on the screen in the form of Facebook status updates. So as the character was saying something the text appeared alongside an avatar of theirs, news feed style. Clever.

The third trailer starts out making you think it will be in a similar vein to the first two. A choral version of Radiohead’s “Creep” plays while we see a montage of Facebook photos and updates, all with the “Like” or “Comment” features alongside them. But then we start to see some actual footage from the movie, most of which features the same dialogue we’ve heard in the previous trailers and which now we can finally see come to life.

It’s clear that Eisenberg is comfortable making Zuckerberg seem like an arrogant bastard who is focused on making a splash and achieving the status he sees himself as deserving of.

There’s not a whole lot more to say since, as I stated, the scenes we see here we’ve heard before in the previous trailers. So there’s not a lot of new ground being broken in this spot, it’s just finally presented in a more traditional way. Notably, though, that more traditional way wouldn’t work nearly as well, I don’t think, if the groundwork hadn’t been laid by the earlier spots.

An interactive version of that third trailer later debuted on MySpace (more on that later) that let the audience click in to the video to learn some factoids about movie or the subject matter that inspired it.

The trailers and their unique visuals inspired a host of imitators, most of which transferred the action from Facebook to some other online entity, from MySpace to YouTube to Twitter, each with varying results but all generally pretty funny.

Online

The movie’s official website opens with a huge reproduction of the poster art alongside a rotating series of quotes from early reviews of the film. Also along the right rail on the site are prompts to watch the interactive trailer and read some news, which actually takes you to a Tumblr blog where the studio has put some of the choicest bits of press and publicity the film has received.

That use of Tumblr is interesting since, as we’ll see later, the movie didn’t have a Facebook page and so was in need of an outlet for this story-sharing feature. Plus it comes with Tumblr’s built-in sharing features, which are significant. I could be wrong but I think this is the first time I’ve seen a studio use Tumblr like this and it’s cool, but I wonder if anyone realizes what a full-featured blog could do for them?

Entering the site you’re greeted with a mosaic of images and when you mouse-over some of them you can find bits of content such as video clips, filmmaker profiles and more. That’s a cool and engaging way to access some of that material but if you’re concerned you’ll miss something, all of that is also available via a more traditional menu at the top of the screen.

Actually what happens when you click on, say “Video” at the top is that the squares containing video material are lit up and the rest dimmed. But no matter what you click here you’ll have access to the rest of the videos, in this case all the trailers, a TV spot and four Movie Clips that extend out scenes, most of which we’ve seen teased in the trailers.

Clicking “Photos” you’ll see that the stills on the site are broken up in to sub-galleries by character for the most part, with a few general catch-all groups as well. If all the photos in each gallery are unique and there aren’t any dupes (which I can’t confirm) there are well over 80 stills here, the largest amount I’ve seen on just about any site.

“About” will highlight the sections where you can read a Synopsis, Cast and Filmmaker information and download Production Notes.

“News” opens up the same Tumblr blog that was on the front page and the last two sections are just for the i-Trailer and the movie’s Soundtrack where, in a much-publicized stunt, you can download five sample track’s from Trent Reznor’s album.

For obvious reasons, the movie did not have a Facebook presence. But on the official site there is a button where you can “Recommend” the movie’s site on Facebook.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

As mentioned above, the movie did not have a Facebook profile but the studio did take part in Twitter’s “Promoted Trends” ad option to raise awareness of the movie, specifically right around the time the third trailer debuted. And while it didn’t have a Facebook presence it did get an ad run on the *other* social network, MySpace, where it was one of the premiere advertisers in that network’s new Movies section. It would later essentially take over MySpace for a day (Mediaweek, 9/22/10) with ad units both static and video in nature.

While there don’t appear to be any specific guidelines that would be violated by advertising the movie on Facebook itself, the studio – and third parties such as online movie ticket sites – shied away from it (ClickZ, 9/27/10). Since, if followed, the rules wouldn’t rule such ads out entirely my guess – and this is just a guess – is that part of the discussions between the studio and Facebook included an agreement that they wouldn’t run such ads, which would put Facebook in the awkward position of becoming an ad platform for an unflattering portrayal of itself.

More traditional TV advertising was also done, basically beginning with a spot that aired during MTV’s 2010 Video Music Award broadcast (Hollywood Reporter, 9/13/10) and then expanding to the rest of television. These spots weren’t nearly as artistic and etheral as the trailers, instead opting for more club-sounding music and a series of clips that emphasized Eisenberg’s somewhat sleezy portrayal of Zuckerberg and the relationships he left dead in his wake.

Media and Publicity

Interestingly much of the early publicity came from Caroline McCarthy at CNET, who was among the first to notice that Sorkin had created a Facebook profile and group and announced there that he was writing a movie about the network. She later reported on the casting of that movie as well as an edict issued by Facebook to its employees not to cooperate in any way with its production.

Of course the movie got a ton of free publicity in the form of the continued privacy hand-wringing about the site and how much information it was collecting from users and what it was doing with that. As McCarthy states in the story, all of that news and commentary was coming just ahead of the anticipated marketing for the movie and so was going to put the spotlight on the site in a bunch of unfavorable ways.

Some more buzz picked up when it was announced it would debut at the New York Film Festival, an engagement that meant it would not be appearing at other festivals in the fall. That announcement along with the positive buzz generated by the first few components of the marketing created the sense that the movie could be (Los Angeles Times, 7/8/10) this year’s big word-of-mouth hit.

Related publicity came when Facebook announced it had indeed reached the 500 million user mark that was touted in the movie’s campaign to that point. That milestone was accompanied by a TV interview with the real Zuckerberg where he addressed some of the issued facing Facebook at the time and in which he stated he would not be running out to catch the film.

Despite the movie’s negative tone, though, it was roundly agreed that it was unlikely to do any serious damage to Facebook itself.

That didn’t mean Facebook was taking a “whatever” attitude toward the movie though. While the public face may be one of benign disinterest, behind the scenes things are reported (New York Times, 8/20/10) to be a bit more tense. Zuckerberg himself has been trying to minimize the damage the movie might do to his personal reputation and other executives at the social network are said to be less than thrilled with how the film depicts the circumstances surrounding the site’s founding.

As things moved toward the release date, legitimate questions were raised as to whether the movie would be hit or a flop (CNET, 8/27/10), largely depending on the audience’s taste for seeing its own generation on screen, how effective the cast would be at drawing in crowds and what impact the early reviews would have on perceptions.

Sorkin himself even had to come out and make statements on how the movie was not meant to be an attack on Zuckerberg (LAT, 9/13/10) but instead is intended as a dramatization of the events that led to Facebook’s launch and eventual rise.

While the movie didn’t screen at the Toronto International Film Festival (though it did sneak to various reviewers around that time), Kevin Spacey, one of the producers on the movie, took time from promoting his own film that was at TIFF to talk about the somewhat unorthodox path (New York Times, 9/13/10) the movie took during production.

After those press screenings talk began to turn to the possibility of awards nominations (Hollywood Reporter, 9/17/10) and how the studio wanted it to be the kind of movie that got some serious kudos and critical recognition along with box-office success with the audience.

Close to release press started to appear (NYT, 9/19/10) that had the creators and producers pointing out that really it’s a timeless story of betrayal and ambition that just so happens to take place just moments ago. Whether stories like this were meant to calm concerns that it was perhaps too timely a topic or whether this was to make the movie more palatable to critics and taste-makers who want nothing to do with anything Facebook-related is unclear.

There were also stories about how executives at Facebook, while obviously still not thrilled with the whole thing, were at least complimentary of the producers of the movie and the experience they had working with them. Still, it was company was in full “prepare for impact” mode (LAT, 9/24/10) leading up to its release because of the way it portrayed its history.

Perhaps to counter the negative press that had been accumulating and was sure to only get more intense, Zuckerberg (the real one) announced just a week before the movie opened a major charitable contribution to New Jersey schools, part of a PR tour that included a stop at Oprah’s show.

Just a week or so before release it was announced the movie would open the 2010 New York Film Festival (NYT, 9/24/10), marking its own festival appearance this season.

Overall

This is a really good campaign that works so well because it establishes early on a clear brand identity and then sticks with it throughout the rest of the marketing. All the material here on the marketing side works well together and is instantly recognizable by the audience as being for the same movie no matter where they encounter it.

It also strikes the right tone because there’s a definite sense of artistic vision about the entire campaign. The trailers all come off not so much as advertisements but as mini-films in and of themselves, albeit ones that tease a much longer one but one that isn’t going to be markedly different in style than the trailers you’re watching. That artistic tone is all the more attractive if you already are familiar with Sorkin and Fincher, especially the former since it’s his writing that really is the star of the campaign, starting with the first teaser trailer and continuing through the release of several clips and other promotional material.

Where the movie really gets a boost, though, is by virtue of the fact that it has been endlessly covered not just by the movie trade press but also the tech and social-media press, who have been all over many of the film’s elements due to its overlapping with their own coverage areas. That’s allowed not only for plenty of discussion about whether the movie is or isn’t close to reality and how Zuckerberg and the rest of Facebook is reacting to it but also for guys like Sorkin and Fincher to come out and make their presence known, which plays in to the campaign’s overall strengths of putting them on the front lines.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

  • 10/01/10 – The Hollywood Reporter goes into detail on how those within and working with Facebook chose a strategy of non-engagement to deal with the movie, instead opting for chances to brush up Zuckerberg’s image and make him a more fully understood, and therefore hopefully more relateable, person and character.
  • 10/04/10 – While the face Zuckerberg was on the big screen, the real one was on the small screen portraying himself in an episode of The Simpsons.