You could make a strong case that the best war movies are those that focus on a small group of soldiers or warriors on a very specific mission. From Seven Samurai (and then The Magnificent Seven) to The Dirty Dozen to Saving Private Ryan, when the story is about a handful of heroes on a mission it remains tighter and, to some extent, more interesting since the audience is able to become invested in each character. That’s not to say there aren’t good – even great – movies that tell the story of a larger group of sometimes anonymous soldiers, but these sort of elite squad movies are among the best.
Looking to follow in that tradition and blaze its own trail is Inglorious Basterds (not a typo), the latest movie from director Quentin Tarantino. The movie is sort of a revenge fantasy, with a group of Jewish soldiers in the U.S. Army being selected to go it alone and leave the traditional battlefield – and many of its rules – behind. Instead they will cut a trail of brutal violence through World War II Europe, showing no mercy to the Nazi Army and striking at the heart of the enemy in a bid to succeed on a small scale where battalions and tanks have not.
In addition to the story itself – an extremely violent one that also lets audiences have no moral qualms about that violence since, you know, Nazis were bad – the movie and its campaign also carry with them the baggage of theTarantino brand, one that carries with it assumptions about dialogue and action and a certain amount of hipness. Let’s see how this campaign is able to accomplish that as well as reach some portion of a mass audience.
The very first teaser poster wasn’t much more than a glorified title treatment, with the focus being on the fact that this is the latest movie fromTarantino and that it was coming out in 2009. This was released early this year and, let’s be honest, it’s pretty nervy to put a swastika and other Nazi symbols on a poster. That nervy decision actually plays into and reinforces theTarantino brand, one of elements designed to flaunt the breaking of societal norms in the face of the audience.
The second wave of teasers included three posters, all of which make the point of the movie pretty darn clear. One shows a bloody baseball bat with a Nazi helmet hanging off it, one a knife stuck through a Nazi flag and one a bloody hand gripping a rifle with “IngloriousBasterds ” scrawled on the handle with a knife. All three sport the “Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France” copy, which attempts to position all this violence in a playful manner, kind of turning if from revenge fantasy into the realm of revenge fairy tale, something whimsical and yet grim, again a point of view that is consistent withTarantino’s reputation as a director and storyteller.
Next up came a series of character-centric one-sheets, one with Pitt, one with Eli Roth (the director, now following in Tarantino’s footsteps and going into the occasional acting gig), one with Diane Kruger who’s looking very femme fatale-ish with her white wrap and pocket-sized gun in hand, one with Melanie Laurent who looks a little more cunning in her simple dress but also sporting a pistol and one for TilSchweiger, also apparently part of Pitt’s small unit.
The film’s theatrical poster shows Pitt standing, rifle in hand, alone atop a pile of German Army soldiers, all sporting Nazi armbands. The “Abasterd’s work is never done” copy makes it clear that this body count is barely even a good start in the character’s eyes and that accumulating more will be the primary focus of the film.
The first trailer uses the assembling of the team sequence, where Pitt’s character explains the mission of the team and what it’s goals are, as thelynch-pin of the spot. While there are other clips that are interspersed within the trailer it’s Pitt’s speech to the troops that is the central element. He explains to the assembled soldiers – and therefore to the audience – that the team he’s putting together is all about violence and retribution against the Nazi Party. There’s no secondary goal like information gathering, it’s all about striking fear in the heart of “the German” and making them quake in their boots over the thoughts of this team, all of whom are told they owe their commander 100 scalps.
The second trailer starts out the same way, but in an abbreviated way. After a quick introduction to the team and its objectives we are introduced to their methods, as a German soldier refuses to give them the information they want and so is brutally beaten to death. From there we get more of the plot – these guys are aiming toward attending a Nazi gala that will be attended by many top party officers and killing those officers, in part with the help of a British double-agent. But when they learn that Hitler himself will be there things take on a slightly more urgent tone.
Both trailers do a decent job of setting the movie’s extremely violent tone and certainly set it up for just what it is: A revenge fantasy. There’s little here, though, that’s going to have any appeal outside ofTarantino fans, arthouse geeks that lean toward the more violent fare and maybe a couple of film critics who are looking for anything that’s better than the usual studio junk this summer.
The movie’s official website opens with a bit of the key art and a rotating selection of early review quotes praising the film. In addition to being able to watch the trailer you’ll also find a link to the movie’s Twitter profile, where they’ve been linking to stories about the movie and other promotional items for a while now.
Once you Enter the Site you can get into it’s main content areas. Starting first with the menu across the bottom, the designers actually put “Video” first, with both domestic Trailers, an International Trailer and a handful of Film Clips, all of which (because they’re hosted byBrightcove) can be emailed, linked to or embedded elsewhere.
A whopping four – count ’em FOUR – pictures are housed in the “Gallery.” So set aside browsing time accordingly.
“About the Film” has sections for the Synopsis (not bad – gives more character background than the trailers, which is actually kind of unusual), Production Notes (also available as a singlePDF download) and Cast and Crew background areas.
“Downloads” has Backgrounds, Mobile items like Icons, Mobile Wallpapers and such and the Basterds Builder, which is basically a tool to use to create your own personalized Desktop Wallpaper from the elements provided.
At the bottom of the page there’s another link to Twitter as well as to the movie’s Facebook and MySpace profiles, neither of which are all that interesting except for the “Game” that appears on the MySpace page that lets you club Nazi soldiers with a baseball bat.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
On the pure advertising front there were quite a few TV spots created as well as a handful of online ads that I’ve seen around and about theinternets . The TV commercials all took variations on the trailers, playing up the violent nature of the movie and showing just how gleefully that violence is dispensed.
An animated billboard and in-arena trailer for the movie were displayed at an unusual venue: And Ultimate Fighting Championship match inLas Vegas. The promotion was arranged by the Weinstein Co. in a move likely to try and attract more male viewers to what otherwise might be seen as an art film.
There was, in general and as noted by MediaFreak, a lot of advertising and promotion done within and around TV shows that appeal to an overtly masculine audience. Spots appeared in the series premiere of TNT cop show “Dark Blue,” banners and other ads in and around the Ultimate Fighting Championship and an appearance by Pitt at the Spike TV “Guys Choice” awards all sought to make the movie a first choice for guys looking to get their vicarious action on.
Another component that was specifically designed to make an appeal to guys was the previewing of a graphic novel tie-in in the pages of Playboy. That comic, I think, tells the same story as the movie and the placement of that preview in Playboy combined violence and sex, meaning if they had managed to fit in alcohol they would have hit theTrifecta.
A couple weeks before the movie was released a trailer hit the internet for Nation’s Pride. That trailer actually appears within Basterds in some way as a Nazi propaganda film, one that tells the story of a lone, brave sniper and his duty for his country. The trailer, though, is totally wrong for the time period and instead looks, unfortunately, like a Nazi propaganda movie would if it were made in 2009 by Eli Roth. If you look at trailers for movies from 1941 they’re nothing like this so, while this is an interesting way to market Basterds, it fails the “suspension of disbelief” test if you have even a cursory cinematic literacy level.
Media and Publicity
The film’s initial batch of publicity came when it was announced it would appear at the Cannes Film Festival this year. That was notable in and of itself, of course, but it took on an added dimension when people started realizing Basterds was just about the only American-made film in competition at the festival, which kind of then became a story in its own right.
Later on the film would also appear at Comic-Con 2009, have a premiere at the Tarantino-friendly territory that is the Alamo Drafthouse and make a handful of other mini-festival appearances to keep the word-of-mouth and advance screening buzz going.
In terms of press, the focal point (in addition to the usual sort of coverage) was a Vanity Fair profile that gave the film a good amount of mainstream awareness and was the first look the audience got at some new pictures from the movie.
Also on the magazine front was a Wired cover story that actually, as Anne Thompson notes, was surprisingly light on mentions of the movie. instead, her report says, it was an opportunity Pitt’s agent sought out since the entertainment press is less fascinated with stars than it is with franchises and special effects and so movie stars are looking for alternate outlets for publicity.
Tarantino made an appearance as a guest mentor on an episode of “American Idol’s” seventh season, helping the contestants not so much with their singing but with their presentation and performance. That appearance included the presentation of a sizzle reel from the film that mixed in movie footage with some behind-the-scenes shots
Unfortunately any movie coming from the Weinstein Co. is going to involve some discussion of the financial status of the studio and this is no exception. Gawker this time was the home of the hit piece, which David Poland tries to dispute, which seeks to cast the studio as being on the verge of financial ruin. There’s probably a bit of truth to some of these stories but there’s also likely more than a little based on the bigger studios still looking to payWeinstein back for all those seemingly bought all those Oscar wins a decade or more ago. A later “all access” profile of Harvey & Bob in The New York Times unfortunately only added to that, despite the fact that it was probably meant more as a setup piece for a sale of the studio’s assets.
In the latter days of the campaign Tarantino went around and about the press, appearing on various early morning and late night talk shows and generally making the rounds.
All in all the campaign is alright and certainly hammers home the key points – Nazi’s dying a wave of violence brought on by a few individuals – but it kind of falls short in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. Most of them, with the exception of the theatrical version, are visually consistent with each other and they all get to what the movie is all about, but I think these are only going to appeal to those who are getting more interested in Tarantino as the years go by, which is probably a small subset of the general audience. As he gets less focused on story and more focused on visuals he seems to be becoming more of a niche producer, with the eventual endpoint (and I don’t think he’s far from that) being that the niche is limited to only himself.
Unfortunately while the individual components range in effectiveness from Very (the first trailer) to Somewhat (the posters), when you put them together you come away with kind of an odd campaign that never really winds up as a cohesive whole. The branding imagery is consistent throughout and that’s a good thing. But in terms of reaching an audience it can’t hide what it is, which an extremely violent movie with limited appeal outside of those handful of groups that are going to go see it based on not on the strength of the campaign but simply because they’re aware that Tarantino has a new movie coming out.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- Mobile ads for the movie’s home video release will allow people to pre-order or order the DVD or Blu-ray from directly within the ad, without redirecting them to a third-party retailer.