Movie Marketing Madness: Source Code

If you watch enough police or other sorts of procedural shows you’ll inevitably see a couple of folks sitting down over a computer or TV to review footage pulled from a surveillance camera at the crime scene or other place of interest. They’re looking for clues to the crime, trying to reconstruct what happened, verify someone’s alibi or garner some other sort of fact that will help in the investigation. I’m not sure how often this happens in the real world but it does make for interesting TV as people zoom in and focus on various details.

The new movie Source Code, the latest from director Duncan Jones, has a much more futuristic, science-fiction take on crime scene reconstruction. Jake Hyllenhaal stars as Colter Stevens, a soldier who is tapped to take part in the investigation into the planting of a bomb on a suburban Chicago commuter train in order to stop a larger attack that’s been threatened. To do so his mind and personality is actually placed into the body of a man who was there through some sort of elaborate process. But the man whose body he inhabits has a companion on the train, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan). Stevens is sent back over and over again to the last eight minutes before the train explodes to find the terrorist by his superiors Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) who run the Source Code project and who want him to focus on the mission and not so much on saving Christina, which he begins to see as just as important as his primary task.

The Posters

The first poster was quite a good one. It shows Gyllenhaal running toward the camera with gun in hand as photos and snapshots, some of which contain images of Farmiga and Monaghan, surround him. They’re either falling down around him or he’s outrunning the collapse of the ground he’s running on and those behind him are falling up. It’s not super clear which but I’d guess it’s the second option since it would play in more closely with the idea that Gyllenhaal’s character is outrunning the clock, something that’s also emphasized by the “Make every second count” copy at the top?

The poster works by selling what appears to be a simple action movie that has some sort of sci-fi premise. It also makes an appeal to arthouse and specialty film audiences by mentioning below the title that this comes from the director of Moon, which had a lot of buzz around it and attracted Jones a significant following.

A very cool piece of art was created exclusively for the movie’s premiere at SXSW 2011 that almost looks like something that would have been used for a serialized magazine thriller 60 or 70 years ago. It shows a silhouetted figure walking away from the camera along a clock that’s made out of train tracks. It’s just great in how it manages to get a couple different elements of the movie’s story in an intriguing and compelling way that’s much more interesting than just throwing the star’s face above the title.

The Trailers

The first trailer starts off by throwing the audience off its guard as Gyllenhaal wakes up on a commuter train apparently in someone else’s body just moments before the train blows up. We then see he’s part of a government project that puts his mind in someone’s body just moments before they die in an attempt to find who set off the bomb. He’s sent back into that situation time and time again, each time trying to build upon what he’s learned last time. Ultimately he decides to try and not only stop the bomber but also save the woman he’s been talking with each time he goes back. The tension ramps up as he attempts to defy his military handlers, who appear to be having their own troubles as well.

It’s a tightly paced trailer that works well to lay out the overall premise of the movie and get the audience invested in the characters by grounding them in the reality of the situation as it exists in that world even if it doesn’t work in ours.

From the trailer

(An exception to that statement, though, is in the shot of the Chicago skyline that’s seen at 1:09 into the trailer. The Sears Tower is to the left of the Hancock, meaning the train is coming in to the city from the east. The only problem here is that, as you may know, this means the train would be coming in from the middle of Lake Michigan. Based on where Sears is in this shot that’s either the Eisenhower or the Kennedy expressways, but it’s not either since I don’t think Metra trains run that close to either that close to the city. Also, the buildings have been rearranged so that the Aon Center is on the other side of the Hancock, so it’s not a perfect picture of the skyline either. Yes, I’m going to harp on this.)

 

Chicago from the west in real life

The second trailer that was released was only a minute long and so doesn’t have all the nuance that the first one did. We still get the gist of the setup but without some of the character shading, particularly from Gyllenhaal. We still get that he’s defying his superiors in trying to not only find the bomber but also save the woman he keeps meeting but that’s about it. It plays less like a truncated trailer and more like an extended TV spot so I’m not sure exactly what the target was for this particular spot.

Online

The movie’s official website opens by playing the movie’s trailer, which you can close when you want.

There are three ways to find out about playing the “Source Code Mission” (more on this below) either by clicking the “Become part of the movie website” text, the “Enter the Source Code” button or the mobile code toward the bottom of the screen. In fact the site seems to be primarily focused on that game since it’s also what first greats you when you Enter the Site.

The “Story” section has a good overview of the movie’s plot. “Videos” has the trailer, three TV spots for the movie, an extended version of the first five minutes from the movie and a featurette that attempts to explain what the movie’s concept exactly is. Finally the “Gallery” has a half-dozen stills from the movie.

The Facebook page for the movie also emphasizes the Source Code Mission with an immediate prompt to enter and play. There’s also a “Buzz” tab that has some video and a stream of updates from Jones’ Twitter account or which mention that account or the movie. There are also some games, other videos, photos and Wall updates on the movie’s promotional activity.

There was also, as I mentioned above, an online game focused on the site Source Code Mission that got people working. The game was triggered when people scanned the Microsoft Tag (similar to a QR code) that appears at the bottom of the movie’s poster. The game was based loosely on the movie’s plot and had as its reward the chance to win a trip to SXSW 2012 if you were able to complete five tasks online.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

TV commercials started to run around the end of February like this one that did a decent job of setting up the stakes and the premise, showing Gyllenhaal being ripped out of the present and onto the train as it explodes over and over again. There’s some exposition from the Army officers who keep sending him back about what the Source Code is and what his mission is that should make at least some in the audience interested in checking it out. It’s certainly sold as an action flick more than anything, though I suspect the movie itself has more to say than just that. But this is mass marketing so it has to be presented in as accessible way as possible.

There were also online ads that used a combination of the poster key art and clips from the trailer in video units and outdoor advertising that, again, repurposed the poster design.

Media and Publicity

After the release of the first trailer, the next biggest push of publicity and buzz was when it was announced (Filmmaker Magazine, 12/16/10) that the movie had been chosen as the opening night feature for the 2011 SXSW Film Festival. Also at SXSW, Jones was picked to lead a panel discussion where he planned to talk about his upcoming movie.

At SXSW both Jones and Gyllenhaal were in attendance (Hollywood Reporter, 3/12/11) and watched the movie become one of the first buzz breakouts from the festival, which is more or less exactly what everyone expected to happen.

There was a definite appeal in the wake of SXSW and the release of the tag-based game by the studio to tech-based media. Unfortunately in some cases that didn’t turn out all that well, with the expectations of studios who are used to overly-fawning press running headlong into how outlets that usually cover start-ups and other technology companies operate. The odd thing is that there wasn’t anything negative in TechCrunch’s original story but apparently either it wasn’t positive enough or the studio staffer was just having an overly sensitive day.

Overall

I like 95% of this campaign, mostly in terms of the poster, trailer and publicity efforts. The one thing I don’t necessarily care for is the online component. While I think the “Mission” thing for Facebook and mobile was interesting and certainly a new way to engage audiences offline with something entertaining I just don’t think it has a low enough barrier to entry to participation to make it a truly mass-market effort. I may be missing the point but I think that, especially on the official website, the emphasizing of that over other information about the movie and its actors or crew is a missed opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that more and more campaigns will find ways to integrate mobile components like this into their attempts to reach the audience but this just doesn’t seem to be it. I’m certainly not knocking the ambition of Jones or whomever was behind this effort but I would have liked to have seen more traditional content on the website as opposed to the repeated appeals to play the same game, only to find more on the Facebook page than was there.