Kami Huyse has put up a transcript and another picture from yesterday’s meetup of PR people in Second Life. There were some important people there and I didn’t even know it. Kami is the one who orgainized things and moderated what wound up being a bunch of GIF files talking over one another and did a fantastic job trying to extract meaning from what could have been chaos.
I think this article is fantastic, if for no other reason than that it says that while pre or extra-marital sex explicitely defies God’s commands, the lives of those commiting the sin and any life conceived because of it are still subject to God’s grace. That’s a wonderful example of some true Christian thinking, at least as it seems to me.
Black Dahlia is actually the second of two recent movies dealing with murder mysteries during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the first being last week’s Hollywoodland that dramatized the investigation into the death of actor George Reeves. Dahlia is about the death of actress Betty Ann Short, whose body was found one day in a roadside ditch completely drained of blood and otherwise mutilated. Actually, it’s about the investigation into her death. Josh Hartnett plays the detective leading that investigation, Aaron Eckhart (a staple of early Neil LaBute films) his sergeant, Scarlett Johansson is Hartnett’s girlfriend and Hillary Swank is a mysterious â€“ and bisexual â€“ woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to short.
Most notably, the movie is directed by screen legend Brian DePalma. When I first heard this I was a little surprised since it seemed, I don’t know, a bit pedestrian by DePalma standards. The trailer, as we’ll see, dispelled that notion as it looks very much like a DePalma picture.
Consisting of a stark-white face whose features are broken up only by a thin trail of blood from her mouth, the poster is kind of creepy without being overly so. The whiteness of the face is designed to evoke thoughts of purity and innocence, traits that have been erased by the blood flowing from her. It looks like a death mask, which is where that slightly creepy feeling comes from. There’s not much else to the poster other than the usual film credits so Universal is really hoping audiences are intrigued by the poster and by the odd name the movie has. Along the very bottom of the poster is where DePalma gets marketed, with a line about how this is from the director of Scarface and The Untouchables. The most recent of those came out 19 years ago. But what are they going to do, label it “From the director of Raising Cain and Snake Eyes?” Didn’t think so.
We open with a black and white screen test Short is participating in. She gets the line she’s supposed to read completely wrong, which leads to her kinda sorta flirting with the unseen man behind the camera. More footage like this, with Short â€“ played by Miya Kirshner â€“ acting very feminine and flirty, batting her eyes as the camera is on her, definitely playing up her sexuality, is interspersed within the remainder of the trailer. The assumption it seems we’re meant to draw is that she’s doing this to compensate for any lack of talent she might suffer from.
The rest of the trailer introduces us to the other characters in the film, those involved either directly or secondarily in the investigation of Short’s death. Eckhardt gets lots of scenes that allow him to look like he’s on his last nerve and smash things in his frustration to find Short’s killer or killers. Hartnett gets to be, well Hartnett. He doesn’t have a lot of lines in the trailer and spends most of his time looking like the block of wood that he is. His detective character is becoming obsessed with not only the case but with the memory of Short herself. We’re clued into that time and again, first with a shot of his apartment that features a wall of photos of the dead actress and then with frequent declarations of his obsession by Johannson. In the middle of this is Swank’s mystery woman, who claims to have had a one-night lesbian stand with Short because, as she says, Short wanted to be with a woman who looked so much like herself. Swank becomes the focus of some projected obsession by Hartnett because of their similar looks, much like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.
It’s a pretty good trailer for a thriller drama like this, even if it does oversell the obsession angle a bit. I get that people were desperate to solve the case, but it seems like everyone in the movie, both male and female, becomes sexually obsessed with Short. At the very least it’s made to seem like their professional obsession is just a mask for sexual feelings. That’s pretty much a hallmark of DePalma’s films. If a woman was raped and mutilated it’s because she was asking for it by being all flirtatious and such. He’s a great filmmaker but he’s got a nasty misogynist pattern running through most of his films and the trailer shows that hasn’t ebbed.
Before I dive into the actual site content, let me point something out. I visited the site on Thursday, September 7th, just eight days before the movie was scheduled open in an attempt to research it for this column. When I went there, though, I got a page with the movie’s title treatment and a message saying it was â€œComing Soon.â€ Soon? When? I’m pretty used to, at this point, studios feeling like they don’t need to have all of a site’s content online the week of a movie’s opening. Usually, though, it’s live and most of the sections have been populated with just a few sections or items still being labeled as â€œComing Soon.â€ But for the entire site to still be under construction just a week prior to opening is borderline inexcusable. The site’s URL was listed on IMDb, Yahoo Movies and Apple Trailers in addition, I would assume, to a host of other places so it’s not like the site was hidden or wasn’t being publicized. Huge dropping of the ball here as this should have been up and running a long time ago. Not having it available is basically telling visitors that they don’t matter and they should go elsewhere for movie information. The site was eventually activated on September 8th, just a week before the opening. Nothing like waiting until the last minute.
I wrote that long diatribe and found out that I was actually wrong. The site was live a month before the movie opened, with the exception of a few sections, which is usually the case. My apologies for the mistake, likely made through a combination of not knowing what I’m talking abuot, not knowing how to use email, and some other problems. My bad and my apologies to Universal.
Here are the notes I made on the site as I sifted through it.
- Stills: About 27 stills from both in front of and behind the camera.
- Synopsis: Pretty good write-up as an intro to the characters and story.
- Cast & Crew: You can guess what this is.
- Production Notes: Divided into six categories covering everything from the writing to the choosing of De Palma as a director to getting the look and feel of the period write. Much better than the average sites notes.
- Trailers & TV Spots: The trailer, a behind the scenes type video called “A Look Inside” and six (a surprising number to me) TV spots that range in quality because they’re, well, TV spots.
- Film Clips: Eight clips from the movie, including the screen test that is chopped up in the trailer and a number of scenes from various points in the investigation.
- Buddy Icons, Screensavers and Wallpapers. Wow. Excuse me while I piss myself in excitement.
- Map of LA: An interactive map that shows you where famous points such as where Short’s body was found, the Biltmore Hotel and others are in relation to each other. You can also print this out as a PDF and also listen to a James Ellroy audio commentary while you’re there. Very cool stuff.
- The Case: In the trailer we see Hartnett’s wall is plastered with news clippings and other documents relating to the case. This feature makes that wall interactive. You can zoom in on items to read them up close.
- Dark LA: Here’s the online home of the Newsreel promo Universal created that I’ll talk about more below.
- LA Than and Now: Old photos of famous spots in the city dissolve into more recent photographs.
- E-Cards: Just what it sounds like – E-cards you can send of images from the film.
- Links to sites having to do with either the Black Dahlia case or movie and it’s cast and crew. There was also a link to a Gather.com Group whose aim was to connect fans of the book the movie is based on and/or its author, James Ellroy.
I really liked this site and it’s obvious the team at Universal and whoever created the site put a lot of thought into it. That comes out mostly in the “Features” section, an area where it’s very easy for people to actually engage with the brand.
Since this is a period piece, Universal decided to go a bit retro in the advertising of the movie, putting out some intriguing and conversation-starting marketing components.
The first was a four-page (one broadsheet) insert in the Sunday, August 26th editions of a number of newspapers. That insert reprinted articles about the death of Short that originally ran in the Los Angeles Times. It contained the header for the LAT and, just above that, a disclaimer that this reprint was an advertisement from Universal Studios. The front page and the two inside pages had the reprinted articles and the back of the page had the official movie poster. Even more archived articles were available at a microsite created just for this purpose.
The second retro move was a newsreel-type promotional video that was released to YouTube. It runs about six minutes long and seeks to immerse the viewer in the era and reality of 1940’s Hollywood. It doesn’t just cover the Black Dahlia murder but other events and scandals of the era in an effort to provide some context for an audience that may not be familiar with it. While the archival footage is real, the voice-over is obviously new. It’s done in a similar style as actual newsreels, though, and isn’t a distraction.
Over on the Los Angeles section of AOL’s CityGuide, the studio created a Black Dahlia-specific portion highlighting locations around the city, including places Short frequented and lived and other locations of interest. There was even a link where you could take a guided tour relating to the murder mystery.
These sort of reaches to the past to promote the movie are probably the most effective part of the campaign. Not many historical movies make such an effort to expand the audience’s knowledge of the time period they take place in and with a real-life story like this it’s just that much more effective.
One of the big things I look for in a movie campaign is consistency among the components and this push has just that. The poster, trailer and website all have a unified theme and look that I really enjoy and that helps sell the movie by virtue of that unified look. While the trailer and poster are pretty good the website, with its multiple levels of engagement is really fantastic.
The retro elements are truly original and take the campaign to a new level. It helps not only raise awareness but lends some perspective to the movie and educate about the real life events that inspired it. The newspaper insert and the newsreel are well done and truly enhance what was already a very good campaign.