Movie Marketing Madness: The Muppets

If you ask me it doesn’t get much better than good old fashioned Vaudeville. Marx Brothers, Hope and Crosby, Burns and Allen…even one of my favorite Billy Crystal movies is Mr. Saturday Night, an homage to that era of comedy. It’s all about the writing and the timing with this sort of comedy and that’s what works for me. Talented performers delivering superbly crafted word-play is just about as good as it gets. It’s why I always preferred Looney Tunes to just about every other sort of animated short – it was just a cartoon version of a Vaudeville routing, with the funniest bits coming from Bugs and Daffy’s verbal sparring as opposed to any sort of elaborately setup situation.One of the clear spiritual descendants of the Vaudeville tradition, at least in their original incarnations, was Jim Henson’s Muppets. Especially on “The Muppet Show” but also in what are considered the three canonical films – The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan – these characters were always at their best when it was simply about a zinger of a joke or a bit of deft word-play.

Now these characters are back after decades of secondary status in a new movie The Muppets. Written by and starring Jason Segal, best known from his role on “How I Met Your Mother” and an avowed fan of the characters, the movie seeks to revitalize the franchise for a new generation. To do that Segal and his collaborators have created a story that has Kermit, Fozzy, Gonzo, Piggy and the others having gone their separate ways years ago after some rough times. But now Walter (a new Muppet character created for the film), the roommate of Segal’s character and the world’s biggest fan of the Muppets is trying to get the group back together to save the historic theater where they first became famous. In the best tradition of those classic films this new one features lots of star cameos and more and, quite frankly, looks awesome. Let’s see how this reintroduction of some beloved characters is being sold to the families of 2011.
The Posters

The first teaser poster wasn’t all that revealing, with the image being just that of Kermit, Piggy and a few others walking (their entire bodies are shown, not just their torsos and heads) toward the camera in a very determined fashion with the copy “They’re closer than you think” at the top reading just a tad ominously.

After that a couple fun posters that were along the same lines as some of the early trailers appeared, with Kermit decked out like Green Lantern just before that movie came out, Sam the Eagle dressed as Captain America just before that movie was released.

The next poster was a more theatrical-esque version that showed Segal and Adams in front of the mob of Muppets like they’re trying to hold the crowd back. Again it’s not all that much but it does show to the audience that the entire cast of characters will be featured, something that should have lots of appeal to those who enjoyed the earlier movies as kids and have been looking for a quality newer movie to use as an introduction for their own children. It’s quite good on that front and makes the movie look like a lot of fun.

Four more posters were later released, three of which showed extreme close-ups of the eyeballs of Kermit, Animal and Piggy with the fourth pulling the camera out a bit and showing those three along with Beaker and Gonzo.

The parody aspect of the campaign that had primarily been confined to trailers (see below) spilled over into the posters toward the end with a series of one-sheets featuring Kermit, Piggy and Rolf as characters from the Twilight movies.

The Trailers

The first teaser trailer debuted in front of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean earlier this year but both the real-life and online versions of it took a very fun approach.

The trailer starts out like it’s selling a romantic comedy starring Segal and Adams. The two are very much in love but he messes up and has to try and make it up to her and so on. It’s only when the voice over guy starts introducing the cast and gets to Kermit and Piggy that we realize this is a Muppet movie. The studio went all in with the conceit, initially releasing the trailer under the name “Green With Envy,” which is how it appeared on Apple’s trailer’s page – complete with poster – and was used for the YouTube channel and Facebook page as well.

Outside of that bit of good natured bait-and-switch, the trailer doesn’t show very much. We get that there is a romantic story in here and that there will be lots of singing and big production numbers, which should be fun, but not much else. That’s alright since this is just about announcing the movie and not much else. So it works very well.

Another one followed shortly thereafter that played kind of like a parody of The Hangover, with scenes of chaos and fake quotes from fake publication about how funny these movies occasionally are.

The next one would use the just-about-to-come-out Green Lantern as its source material, with Kermit reciting a variation on that character’s iconic oath, before there were actually a couple of plot points revealed, the first such indicators in the campaign to date. There was also a winking at the audience about how long the creators are going to milk this parody hook before they get to the real marketing. As with the others this is kind of great.

Finally the trailer marketing began in earnest with a spot that outlines what the plot of the movie is, at least in general. Kermit is working to get the whole gang back together again after some hard times have fallen on the franchise. While we see plenty of Walter, the new character that’s introduced in the movie, we don’t get a proper introduction to him here. There are challenges put in the groups way that lead to hijinks and all in all it looks very clever, funny and charming. While it does indeed play more straight than the previous trailers in that it’s not an outright parody of something else that doesn’t mean it’s any less meta, with lots of inside jokes and winks to the audience, but that’s all good since it comes off as being very funny. The only fear here is that all those jokes are in the trailer here so when they’re put into the context of the movie as a whole they could land more flatly than they really should.

After that there was another parody trailer created that, in my opinion, was the best one yet. This one took on the trailer for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, featured an awesome song and lots of winking at the audience via on-screen text.

Then there was a “Fan-a-Thon” trailer released that had Piggy making a personal appeal for people to Like the movie’s Facebook page in order to get an early advanced look at the movie. Fozzy, Kermit and Gonzo would also appear in similar videos.

The next trailer – not a parody or spoof – gets even more into the story by introducing Segal, Adams and their little friend – as the troop’s biggest fans. We see that they’re not exactly welcome in Hollywood anymore and that their name recognition isn’t what it used to be. So they have to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and prove themselves all over again. We get lots of scenes from the show they eventually put on and everything else and it continues to look like it’s just a lot of fun all around.

The meta circle was complete with one that started out by having a little bit of fun by creating a parody of their own trailers while also working in some nods to Paranormal Activity, Happy Feet, Twilight and more. It was more or less exactly what was needed to put a bow on this effort, especially since this one included a “Thank you, internet” note as well as one at the end saying this completed that part of the campaign. Good stuff.

Online

The official website for the movie opens by playing one of the later, non-parody trailers.

After that finishes or you choose to skip it the first thing you can do either by clicking the “Characters” menu item or just by selecting one of the images that’s presented on screen is dive into the characters of the movie. Each one of those sections has information about the character as well as Wallpapers, Buddy Icons, games and film clips that are specific to them.

The next section, “About the Movie” has a Story synopsis that goes into the adversity the Muppets have to overcome to regain success as well as a Cast section that’s still more about the characters and a Crew section that is still labeled as “Coming Soon.”

“Video Clips” has most of the trailers, both parody and non-parody as well as other videos, some of which are the great Muppet song covers from the last couple years, some of which are Disney channel coverage and then a bunch of other stuff.

There are about 14 stills in the “Gallery.” “Products” has information on the stuff you can buy, from the soundtrack to a mobile game to various toys and more.

There’s then a link to the “Fan-A-Thon” that’s been mentioned before. “Games has some fun casual games featuring different characters.

There are plenty of Wallpapers, Buddy Icons and a Screensaver in the “Downloads” section. “Activities” stuff to make that ranges from a theater playset to instructions on making candy with the faces of Kermit and the others.

Finally there’s a link to the “never-ending  manna manna phenomena” that asks you to make your own video with those famous lyrics, which will then be inserted in a never-ending stream of clips, which is kind of a fun idea.

That last feature is the first thing you see when you hit the movie’s Facebook page, though there are of course lots of tabs with links to the various trailers and more along with plenty of updates on the Wall that track the movie’s publicity activity.

The @muppetstudio has been been taken over by Statler and Waldorf, who use it to sling their usual barbs at the the other Muppets and discourage people from seeing the movie. The Muppet Studio YouTube page, which has been the hub of Muppet activity for the last couple years, has all the trailers and clips and other video snippets.

The Muppets were also one of the first brands to get a Google+ Page, which has been used to share videos and other updates.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

A new Marvel-published comic was announced that would act as a reintroduction to the characters who, in the story, trying to revitalize their careers.

The return to the big screen also came with some promotional partners, including Wonderful Pistachios, which produced a commercial with Kermit promoting the naturally green snack.

The Muppets would also appear in a promotional video that also served as a message to not talk or text while at the theater. The spot was produced specifically for AMC Theaters and presumably ran during their pre-show entertainment blocks.

In addition to that there was a campaign that partnered the characters with Underwriters Labortories for a household safety based effort. There was also a cool partnership with Threadless that offered some nice custom designed t-shirts featuring the characters.

Media and Publicity

The film certainly got a dramatic launch. After rumors and reports had been circulating for a few months that Segal and others, avowed fans of the Muppets and such (see the inclusion of the puppet vampire musical in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) were circling a Muppets project and may have even been signed to create a new movie. Then at Disney’s D23 fan conference in September of 2009 the movie was officially announced and a title revealed, officially kicking off the buzz campaign for it.

It then continued to solidify its hipster credentials with the announcement the film would be directed by James Bobin, one of the co-creators of “Flight of the Conchords,” which also served the purpose of giving the film some musical bonafides to fall back on. That was followed by news that not only was Segal helping to write the script but that he would star in the film as well.

A steady amount of buzz around the Muppets in general was created through the release of a steady stream of videos featuring the characters singing songs such as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Dust in the Wind” and plenty of others. The idea behind these – all of which were fun and many of which bordered on brilliant – was to get the Muppets back at the top of people’s minds well in advance of the movie’s release so that when that time came the audience was large, multi-generational and comfortable with the idea of once again spending time with these characters.

Much like the Tron sequel, the movie benefited from some insights from the Pixar crew, with reports the script was taken to Pixar HQ for a table read (Hollywood Reporter, 7/21/10) that was intended to solicit feedback from the Pixar “Brain Trust” and get their thoughts before filming started.

After a period of silence, a new round of publicity started with an Entertainment Weekly spread that featured Segal surrounded by the characters, including Walter, the new Muppet that is the audience’s main point of entry into the story. This contained not only a good look at the characters but also the clearest and most official synopsis of the plot to date.

Later on there was news that Disney was putting a Toy Story short, the second or third that’s been produced, in front of the movie, something that got everyone talking once again about the Muppets and also made going to see the film even more attractive.

The movie was one of several that Disney brought to the CinemaCon exhibition trade show, where footage from the film was shown to attendees and Segal and Adams appeared (THR, 3/29/11) and talked about the film, including the challenges Segal faced in writing the movie(Los Angeles Times, 3/29/11) as he tried to stay true to the spirit of the franchise, the financial restraints he was operating in and just the logistics of shooting, all of which forced him to come up with inventive solutions to various problems.

There were also feature stories (New York Times, 4/11/11) about how this was the franchise’s big bet on a revival and how previous efforts in the last 10 years or so have all hit some sort of roadbump that’s killed them. So Disney is betting on a big, star-studded motion picture to finally kick things off in a manner befitting the characters and finally see some value to owning the characters.

Two years after its first appearance there the movie returned to Disney’s D23 fan convention (LAT, 8/17/11). There the studio put on a brief presentation with Segal and Kermit showing some clips from the movie that, much to her dismay, did not involve Miss Piggy.

Unfortunately the next bit of press would not be completely positive, as many of the “old hands” that were involved with the Muppets in years past and other “purists” started to question whether the movie was a worthy entry into the canon or something that distorted the characters they loved or were involved with (THR, 10/20/11). Odds are good, though that those fears are overblown and that while maybe not the movie *they* would have made it’s still respectful of the characters while also bringing them into a new generation that’s only been exposed to the lackluster straight-to-DVD entries of the last few years.

Closer to release things turned around with profiles of Segal (Wired, 11/1/11) and assurances from him that there would be lots of zany antics (LAT, 11/4/11) and how the mood on the set was generally upbeat (LAT, 11/6/11) with everyone having lots of fun. Further positive press stories would be scored that talked about how hands-off Disney was during the creative process (NYT, 11/20/11) despite the risks and potential rewards there were to be had by bringing the characters – and the franchise – to a new generation of moviegoers. There was also plenty of general stories about reviving the franchise (Fast Company, Nov 2011) and so on.

The Muppets also joined Segal in the opening of “Saturday Night Live” when he was hosting just before release.

Overall

Hey, what’s not to like here? This is a big campaign, that’s for certain but there’s something here for everyone, from those of us who grew up with “The Muppet Show” on TV every week and saw all the three original movies in theaters to those who are the kids of folks my age.

The main thing, at least the component that has garnered the most press attention, is the part of the campaign made up with the parody trailers. And while those were fun and all I’m more excited about the other stuff, the parts that sold the film more directly since they showed a movie that seems to be very much in line with the spirit of the original incarnations of this franchise. So the posters, trailers and website are what have me anticipating the film.

But it certainly isn’t a small effort. Disney is obviously hoping this is the kind of relaunch that it can capitalize on for several years on a number of fronts and has given it a campaign of suitable size. But again it’s the talent of those involved and the promise of a good-natured time at the theater that has most broadest appeal here and that comes through loud and clear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s