The world of computer gaming has changed more than a little over the last 20 or 25 years. Even just 15 years ago when I was in college you could go to a local mall and find an honest to goodness arcade, a dankly lit area with dozens of video game machines that were just sitting there begging not only for your quarters but also an hour or more of your time. Their allure was particularly strong on those with either no social lives of their own or who were desperately trying to get somewhere on time but figured five minutes wouldn’t hurt but who soon looked at their watch to find they’d lost 45 minutes playing Street Fighter.
It’s possible I have some experience both both of these scenarios.
More than that the state of computing has changed significantly in that time. 30 years ago personal computing was really just getting started. At some point in my childhood someone down the street had an Apple IIE, my grade school had machines that we could play Oregon Trail on and eventually my parents got us a Tandy home computer. Serious programming, though, wasn’t being done on these machines because they still weren’t powerful enough. Instead that was relegated to the huge mainframes at companies with dozens of workers at dummy terminals, all of whom were vying for limited system resources to see if their work would bear fruit.
Much of the change in all of this has been documented on film. Go watch The Princess Bride and check out the game Fred Savage is playing at the movie’s opening. Then put in Mallrats and see the game that has Jason Lee so enraptured he gives up nookie with his girlfriend. Watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and check out the pre-Windows environment Matthew Broderick uses to hack in to the school’s computer to change the number of days he’s been absent. There are countless examples like this where the tech that’s caught on camera now seems something even more than antiquated.
No movie is more a snapshot of a technological moment on multiple levels than 1982′s TRON. Not only does it feature an incredibly cool video game arcade…not only does it take place at a technology firm and feature a great shot of those dummy terminals in a sea of soul-crushing cubicles…but it also completes the trifecta by featuring some of the first, and certainly the most extensive use of, computer graphics used in furtherance of the movie’s story.
The movie follows Flynn (Jeff Bridges) as he tries to uncover evidence that his old corporate rival stole the ideas for a handful of now successful videogames. He enlists the help of Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) and his former girlfriend Lora (Cindy Morgan) but is captured by the increasingly intelligent Master Control Program and transported to the Game Grid, sucked inside the computer world where he has to act as a champion for all the oppressed programs, which has the side effect of getting him not only his old job back but a new position as the head of Encom.
While beloved by its fans over the last 28 years, the movie was not a huge success. Some of us, though, have kept the TRON flame alive and continued to champion it as not only being incredibly innovative but also a lot of fun.
Fast forward to 2010. The iPhone many of us carry around in our pockets is more powerful than that Tandy I had all those years ago. Gaming doesn’t happen in arcades but online, either in massively immersive worlds like Call of Duty or on social networks where people have setup and tend virtual farms.
Into this new world comes, unexpectedly, another visit to the world of Encom and Kevin Flynn. TRON: Legacy takes place years after the unexpected disappearance of Flynn (Bridges). His now grown son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) has long given up hope of his father resurfacing but then one day Alan (Boxleitner) comes and drops a clue in his lap. That clue leads Sam onto the Game Grid himself in a search for his father. While he does indeed find him there we see things have changed. Flynn is now a sort of monk in the virtual world, seeking to defend things from an updated – and now malevolent – version of the Clu program he created almost 30 years ago to find those incriminating files. Helping Sam find his way in-world is Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who guides Sam through the rules of the games and fills him in on what his father has been doing while he’s been absent from the real world.
Marketing a sequel that’s not only 28 years after the original but also the follow-up to a movie that wasn’t a box-office success (despite it’s subsequent cult status) can’t be an easy task for Disney but they’ve put on a full-court press. Let’s take a look at how this one’s being marketed in a world of technology that wouldn’t have been imaginable 30 years ago.
The first teaser poster is pretty simple. The film’s title treatment appears up top while three light-cycles, a blue one in the middle with yellow ones flanking it on either side, speed forward at the bottom. It’s simple but elegant visually while the copy at the top makes it clear that, as it says, “The game has changed.”
A second teaser gave us a clearer look at the upgraded lightcycles from the movie, this time from the side so we can see more of the machine. This was in line, in terms of look and feel, with the series of banners and ads that were produced more than anything, but in terms of sheer poster design it accomplishes what it needs to by presenting a look at the upgraded versions of something that’s become iconic from the first movie.
The theatrical poster was much more encompassing than the teasers and very cool. In the background are new versions of some classic things such as the sail ship that glides on a beam of light and a regulator about to bring the smackdown on some rogue program. There are also cityscapes off in the distance, including one with an I/O tower that communicates with the outside world, just like we saw in the first movie.
In the foreground are Hedlund and Wilde, him with his arms outstretched and reaching for or releasing an information disk in a very close recreation of the pose the main figures were in on the poster for the first movie. For some reason they’re kind of blurred out, which I guess is supposed to make it seem more digital but which at first had me thinking my computer screen was screwed up. That aside, the evoking of the original’s marketing and everything else that’s dropped in to the design sells the movie very clearly as the next entry in the franchise and as a TRON for a new generation.
A later series of posters took the theatrical one-sheet and put it in the middle between images of Clu 2.0 standing in front of an army of Regulators and very cool jets on one side and an aged Flynn on the other, clearly pitting the two incarnations against each other.
In the summer of 2008, no one had any idea that a sequel to Tron was seriously in development. There were rumors that popped up about twice a year, but most of those resulted in the conclusion that Disney was just none too hot on the idea of revisiting the idea.
All that changed, though, at that year’s San Diego Comic-Con. During a general Disney movie panel at the event a teaser for something else ended, but the room remained dark. When the screen came back up the audience was shocked and surprised to be presented with what appeared to be new and improved lightcycle sequence, with the riders moving around each other in new, more fluid ways. Interspersed in this footage were scenes of Jeff Bridges, still sporting his Obadiah Stane beard from Iron Man, walking around a high-class penthouse or some other such dwelling. At the end, the title “TR2N” was displayed on-screen, though by that time the assembled geeks had pretty much passed out from over-stimulation.
And I’m only slightly exaggerating here. To say it was enormously well-received would be a drastic understatement, with full-length features praising it being written about what was a three-minute or so clip.
The footage was reportedly assembled by Joseph Kosinski, who was rumored to be the director of choice on the project, as sort of a proof-of-concept reel to convince Disney execs that the movie could be done.
Then came news a first trailer would appear one year later at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con.
That didn’t quite come to pass, as what got released was basically a cleaned-up version of the footage that was shown off in 2008, but officially. Indeed it was even still labeled there as being “VFX Concept Test” footage. Even so, the scene does a great job of showing off a modernized take on the Tron world and hints at a much darker story that the audience can expect, what with the program version of Flynn seemingly killing someone in cold blood and intoning that it’s no longer just a game while the human version of Flynn, now living within the computer world, looks on unemotionally.
The first full theatrical trailer, released new two years after the first rumblings, provided audiences with a bit of backstory and setup as to what we can expect from this new installment.
It starts out with Bruce Boxleitner talking with Sam Flynn, the son of Jeff Bridges’ character, about an odd call he received from Flynn’s Arcade, a number that’s been disconnected for 20 years. Sam, needing to see what’s going on, then speeds down there on his motorcycle (presaging the skills he’ll need in-world) and enters the moth-balled establishment, not all that different from how we left it at the end of the original. When the lens rises behind Sam we know what’s going to happen and indeed he is soon transported to the virtual world, where we see him driving tanks, participating in games and, at the end, riding that light-cycle like we knew he would. We also get glimpses of a bunch of other characters, most of whom seem to be up to no good, except for Olivia Wilde who is this movie’s Cindy Morgan in her tight-fitting costume and knee-high boots luxuriating on a couch.
This initial spot is a pretty effective one, planting enough of the old clues there to have fans of the original getting excited about a return to this world while also showing a younger audience that it’s not going to be all about rolling out the old actors and engaging in nothing but nostalgia. It’s slick, it moves at a nice clip and gets the point across that we’re taking a new adventure in an old world.
In conjunction with the movie’s appearance at 2010′s Comic-Con a second full trailer was released that expanded our look at the movie’s story even more. It starts off with Flynn talking to a pre-teen Sam about some incredible story before jumping to the present day and a now-grown Sam hearing about the mysterious page sent from his dad’s old office. Before long Sam is in the computer world and fighting for his life. But before that he’s brought before Clu, the program his father created and which bears his father’s face.
While this trailer has lots of great action sequences and visuals, the added elements here all come from the setup of some sort of conflict between Clu and Flynn, who now lives in the computer world exclusively as some sort of monk or something. That’s a very cool element to tease and one that looks like it will certainly make the film all that much more exciting.
The third and final trailer expanded on that conflict even more. It starts out in the past once again, with Sam seeing his father for the last time before jumping to the older Sam getting the news of the weird page and investigating the moth-balled arcade. We then see him entering the world of the grid and eventually being reunited with his father, who explains that things are not going well in this virtual world. After some setup we see Clu 2.0 calling Kevin Flynn out and eventually all the good guys going to war with the bad guys.
This trailer sells it as much more of an action movie in and of itself and not just a trip down nostalgia lane. It more clearly shows the highpoints of the entire story arc, from the issues of abandonment that Sam feels to his relief at finding his father alive to the conflict that he now finds himself thrust into the middle of. It certainly feels like the most fully-rounded and, I think, have the biggest impact in terms of reaching a general audience that isn’t simply looking for a return to a beloved favorite film from someone’s childhood.
The official website opens by playing the third and final trailer. Once it’s closed you’ll see a box prompting you to buy tickets as well as a rotating image of pull quotes from reviews of the movie.
As the site loads you get a series of messages about high security clearance being needed and there being an identity disc required and all that before the “matter transformation sequence fully puts you on the game grid.
After that happens the first section listed in the site’s main content menu off to the left is “Ride the Light Cycle,” which lets you explore different parts of the game grid on your vehicle. That’s tied to the next section, “Create Your Program, which guides you through the making of your own TRON character that matches your personality.
“Games” has not only a handful of online games you can play ranging from a Light Cycle game to a DJ activity to “Classic TRON” with games that evoke the consoles of yore in battles straight out of the first movie.
There are a ton of videos in, appropriately, “Videos” that range from the original FX Test footage and all the trailers to several featurette type videos hosted by either Wilde or Hedlund that introduce characters, talk about the world of TRON or give other information.
“TRON Movies” has a synopsis not only of the new movie but also of the 1982 original. The “Characters” section is similarly divided, giving us brief dossiers on the characters. “Cast” gives us filmographies and career histories of the major members of the cast.
The “World of TRON” section is broken up into a number of areas that focus on the Vehicles, Weapons, Locations, Lexicon, a Chronology that hits all the major milestones from and between both movies to give you a sense of what has happened when, including the Flynn Lives movement, and finally Story that lays out more of the reason why Flynn is stuck in the virtual world and what the dangers there are.
“Images” contains images ranging from the posters and promotional material to official stills to the Marvel Comics tie-in covers (more on that later).
There are a variety of printable materials in “Activities” that will allow you to make 3D Light Cycles, door hangers and more. “Downloads,” meanwhile, has all the Posters, some Wallpapers, Buddy Icons and Screensavers for you to download and show off.
There’s a stream of information updates in “News” but unfortunately no RSS feed to connect with or subscribe to for further updates.
There’s something for everyone in “Products,” where you can check out the vast array of licensed merchandise that’s been created ranging from action figures to high-end electronic equipment to women’s shoes and just about everything in-between. “Partners” has the names of some of the film’s promotional partner companies but there aren’t links or further explanations of what those cross-promotions entail.
Finally “Sweepstakes” has information on all the things you can win by participating and entering that sweepstakes, including trips to Disney theme parks and other prizes.
The movie’s Facebook page included the usual number of photos, videos and updates about the film but there was also a very cool feature called Get on the Grid. It’s basically a variation on the “upload your photo” concept but with a cool twist – it lets you upload your photo into the VFX test footage that acted as the initial teaser trailer and which first got people talking about the movie.
The website for the movie’s soundtrack wound up being a pretty significant part of the campaign as well, giving people a first listen and look to the contributions from Daft Punk
The movie was, as promised, on the list of movies Disney was bringing to Comic-Con 2009. Just prior to that appearance various webmasters began receiving a package with two tokens emblazoned with “Flynn’s Arcade” on them and a USB drive with a small picture on it. When various people put together the puzzle using those pictures it led them to find FlynnLives.com, a site devoted to tracking reports related to Kevin Flynn (Bridges’ character in the movies), who apparently disappeared in 1989 and has only been sighted a handful of times since then. All this lent credence to speculation that the new film’s plot would be devoted to the search for Flynn in some way shape or form. There was also HomeofTron.com, a site devoted to one fan’s collection of memories from the arcade.
A countdown clock on that site prompted Comic-Con 09 attendees to hit a certain location at a certain time, a countdown that ultimately lead them to Flynn’s Arcade, where there were plenty of video games to play and, eventually, a peak at the redesigned light-cycle from the new movie.
The “viral” (yes, I’m going to go swallow my own tongue after saying that) campaign revved back up in February when webmasters and movie blog writers started getting packages containing various versions of Bit, the digital sidekick of Flynn in the first movie. Some people got “neutral” incarnations, some “No” but all the packages directed the recipients to a Zero Hour site that had Bit counting down to some new event.
When that countdown finally reached its end-point what was revealed was a scavenger hunt in a number of cities that pointed people to specific locations in those cities where they were instructed to say the secret password, with a select few getting a Tron card and cell phone which, presumably, would be used to contact them later on in the game and some other goodies. Along with that a new picture was unveiled on the FlynnLives site which also now included forums where people could discuss their theories behind Flynn’s mysterious disappearance, more information on Encom (the company that figures massively into the story) and more. There was also information that resulted about an exclusive IMAX event posted to the site for The Pit Cell, the location that was shown in the revealed pit.
That IMAX did, as many suspected it would, debut a second teaser trailer, one that featured the first real movie footage and gave some glimpses as to the film’s story. That trailer would be attached a week later to Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. That second trailer was eventually released online (about a week later) but only after, once again, an online puzzle was solved by the audience. That resulted in a site being discovered where people could apply to become Encom employees, applications that then led to them getting employee badges that allowed them to access an intranet and more, with the clues leading to a major event at WonderCon in early April.
Operation Tron, as it was dubbed, wound up being an event that took the campaign into the real world. Set as a press conference by Encom’s Alan Bradley (Boxleitner, in person and in character) announcing a revamp of the company’s iconic Space Paranoids game, the event was then interrupted by Flynn Lives protesters and eventually Sam Flynn himself, who jumped on to the stage to lambast Encom for giving up on the search for his father. Some of the footage of Boxleitner from the event was then re-purposed as a trailer for Space Paranoids Online.
The game then took a turn and started to focus on Sam Flynn more, with various clues being dropped as to his whereabouts and what he was up to.
As that was happening the online playable Space Paranoids did indeed debut and, as someone who grew up with the original movie and dreamed of playing the game featured in it, it was awesome.
A later game popped up on a Japanese Encom site that, when completed, unlocked yet another page on the FlynnLives site.
A while passed that was filled in with more formal marketing materials before another game component was released that, when it was deciphered, revealed a website that promoted Tron Night 2010, which would be taking place on October 28th. That night would see select IMAX theaters across the country showing off 20 minutes of exclusive footage (New York Times, 10/11/10) from the movie in an attempt to get people excited about the rest of the movie.
The game continued with the launch of ArcadeAid.com, a site for a business that repaired the arcade games of yesteryear. A later game on that site unlocked even more secret sites, including FlynnFrontier, which has information about the three books Kevin Flynn authored before disappearing, and others which had more clues and downloadable media for people to view and unlock, all of which continued to build up the mythology.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Outdoor advertising was done as well, with the movie’s title and imagery appearing on outdoor billboards and even on the monorails run within Disney theme parks (a Voce client, btw), which were turned into light-cycles.
Indeed the outdoor portion of the campaign was pretty huge, as the studio used a 12-month long buyout of a Los Angeles area billboard to debut a number of new images from the movie throughout the time leading up to release. Later on that outdoor effort included some huge building-side ads that featured little but the movie’s title, which lit up at night.
More banners, this time vertically oriented, were later unveiled that featured the two primary characters.
There was also plenty of print advertising done, with Anne Thompson reporting that several days worth of wrap-around ads for the movie with the Los Angeles Times, something sure to be mostly a vanity move but also signaling the studio’s level of commitment to the movie.
TV advertising began to pick up in early November with spots that largely mimicked the trailers, showing the story of Sam Flynn as he seeks out his missing father when strange events begin occurring 20 years after he disappeared.
Disney also become the premiere user (Advertising Age, 12/14/10) of Apple’s new iAds for iPads with promotions for the movie showing up in applications on that tablet device.
Several months before the movie was released Disney also announced it was developing an animated TV show that would debut in late 2011 or early 20102, but further details were not made public initially.
There was also the news that Marvel Comics would be publishing a two-issue limited series that would act as a prequel to the movie’s story.
Disney worked with entertainment check-in service GetGlue to create stickers (ClickZ, 9/22/10) for Tron that rewarded certain behaviors – ranging from watching the trailer to watching the movie itself – with stickers on the network.
Tie-in products ranged from the common place to the outright surreal. On the one hand, a series of promotional covers from Marvel Comics that had some characters wearing TRON-like outfits made sense, especially in light of Disney now owning Marvel. But some ladies high-heel shoes were just odd.
A whole series of tie-in clothing and other merchandise was featured at a one-of-a-kind pop-up shop in Culver City, CA where apparel from Oakley and other partners was available, all of it very cool.
While Coors beer was featured in the movie that wasn’t part of any promotional deal, even if it did get a bit of press (New York Times 11/28/10) about how it was selected by the director based largely on the fact that he like the color of the cans.
Coca-Cola was a promotional partner and created a free mobile app titled “LiveCycle” that tapped into a phone’s GPS to turn you into a light-cycle and pitted you against others in your area who also had the app installed.
HP, a technology partner on the movie, also helped promote it by creating a huge outdoor production in conjunction with the studio to show off the cool work it had done.
Progressive Insurance’s participation seems to have primarily taken the form of sponsoring the “Sweepstakes” portion of the movie’s official site.
Nokia (another Voce client) worked with Disney to preload some Nokia N8 devices with movie trailers and made other material available through their Ovi Store. There was also a contest to win tickets to the movie’s premiere.
Norelco created (Promo Magazine, 12/14/10) a page on their site that featured movie games and offered people who both one of their SensoTouch 3D razors and a movie ticket a mail-in rebate.
Media and Publicity
Given the movie’s history at Comic-Con it was appropriate that it was there in 2009 that the movie got a real title: Tron Legacy, which sounds much better than the earlier versions. The official title was attached to the teaser footage screened during the movie’s panel session, footage that eventually went online as mentioned above.
Also on the convention-related front was a push for the movie at Disney’s D23 fan convention in September of 2009 that included some full-size light-cycles on display and more.
Right smack dab in the middle of the online ARG that was going on there came news that Disney had already tapped the movie’s writers to pen a follow-up film, signaling the studio’s belief that this movie would perform well enough to warrant a third in the series.
Disney brought the movie back to Comic-Con again in 2010, a remarkable third year in a row for the film, though this time with a much expanded presence. Dubbed “ComiTRON,” this appearance started with some banners flown outside the convention center and later included a full panel presentation with the cast and crew and a show floor booth that gave fans a look at some of the licensed merchandise that would be hitting store shelves in the near future.
At this latest Comic-Con another fully interactive experience was created, with people prompted to follow the clues given out by a Twitter feed which led once again to Flynn’s Arcade, now dusty and abandoned but which then opened to bring people into the world of Tron.
There was a lot – probably too much – made of a story that emerged about how the movie had been shown to Pixar’s Michael Arndt and Brad Bird, who were asked for their take and who subsequently provided some select rewrites as well as overall story guidance. This sort of things happens fairly often, I’m guessing, but anything involving Pixar sets some people’s radars off.
It was after 2010 Comic-Con that the marketing really kicked in to high gear – a shift in momentum that warranted its own press (New York Times, 7/26/10) – as the more traditional elements of TV spots and other materials took over for the word-of-mouth that Disney had been building over the course of the last three years. Basically having more or less secured the fans, now the studio needed to sell the movie to the general public who may or may not be aware of, much less devotees of, the original.
Also on the experiential front was ElecTRONica, a “dance party” event that was held at Disney California Adventure Park. (Disclosure: Disney Parks is a client of Voce and we are involved in the management of the Disney Parks Blog.) The event/experience brought people in to the movie’s world, with another recreation of Flynn’s Arcade, live entertainment and more.
That exposure was just one element of a broader strategy to make the movie accessible outside the niche of tech-geeks or ardent fans of the original and instead position it as a relate-able tale of finding connections in a wired world.
Even the self-promotional tactics got publicity in the outside press such as when the movie-centered focus of an upcoming issue of Disney’s fan magazine got previewed by Wired (10/23/10) in advance of its publication.
Attitudes toward the original also were the subject of handful of press stories, most of which served to remind us that the first movie was a box-office disappointment. There was also a healthy amount of conspiracy theory mixed in, though, particularly around how Disney didn’t seem to be going out of its way to make sure people had even seen the film. Most of that focused around the lack of new Blu-ray edition in advance of the movie but the paranoia kind of reached its height when it was speculated (LAT, 11/10/10) that the studio was purposely making DVDs of TRON hard to find so people wouldn’t see it, apparently out of fear modern audiences would find it “cheesy.” Much of that was refuted, though, and no conspiracy was being run after all, the studio just had other plans and things were proceeding accordingly.
There was no end of discussion about the original in the press, though, with many stories referencing the techniques employed to make that movie (LAT, 12/6/12) or the technological environment it was created as part of. There was even some talk (Popular Mechanics, 12/9/10) about how the effects in this sequel would appear 20 or so years down the road.
Since this was Kosinski’s first movie there was also plenty of coverage dealing with that angle and pointing out how unusual it is that such a large tentpole release, something that’s being openly eyed as the relaunch of a franchise, would get a relatively unseasoned director (NYT, 12/5/12).
Ordinarily with campaigns of this size I say something about how they’re “too big to fail” or whatever the popular phraseology is, basically concluding that if the campaign is this massive there’s almost no way the movie can fail at the box office.
With TRON: Legacy, though, I’m not too sure. That’s not to say that I don’t think the campaign works or that I think the movie is going to bomb, neither of which are true. It’s just that since this is a sequel to a movie that didn’t do well when it came out 30 years ago there’s an inherent disadvantage that it’s operating from.
Aside from that, though, there is an awful lot to this campaign. And much of it walks the line between trying to appeal to the nostalgia that’s felt by people like me who not only remember the original fondly but continue to be fans and trying to introduce this new story to a new generation. There are breadcrumbs all throughout the campaign that are geared toward older fans but which aren’t going to get in the way of newer audiences becoming interested in the movie.
Certainly the substantial press effort has been instrumental in getting the audience primed for the film, with exhaustive coverage of most all facets of the production being documented in the press ever since the initial Comic-Con debut. A good chunk of that has been focused on the technical aspects of the movie, with seeming little attention paid to the human actors (outside of Olivia Wilde) who are actually doing their thing in the film.
What the studio has done best, though, is to keep people talking about TRON for about two and a half years without it feeling like things are all played out. The constant appearances at Comic-Con, the ARG that led to the release of various marketing materials and all that press coverage adds up to a sizable campaign that only rarely begins to wear out its welcome or become too much. That’s a decent trick to pull off.
When it comes down to it, though, I like this campaign a lot. Again, though, I need to state clearly that I’m predisposed to like this and be anticipating the movie so this campaign has worked on me pretty well. I get what it is the studio is selling and, most importantly, I’m anxious to buy.
PICKING UP THE SPARE:
- 12/15/10: The movie’s graphic novel adaptation is getting the motion comics treatment, with that being sold through the iTunes App Store.
- 12/16/10: The breadth of the film’s tie ins, cross-media promotional activity and other marketing is examined by the LAT as it looks at how Disney has pulled out all the stops for this release.