“Get a new attitude and come back when you’re ready.”
That phrase seems to be a favorite both of parents with children who need an attitude check (especially around this time of the year as stress levels are approaching “Chernobyl”) and movie studio execs who have been thumbing through the list of properties they own and find one that hasn’t been rebooted in the last 90 days. Any characters that might be seen as old fashioned and “classic” are given to a screenwriter or two with orders to go ahead and retain the setting but revamp the attitude, giving them more of a 21st century feel, dialogue and mindset.
Such seems to be the case with Sherlock Holmes. Born in the novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the world’s greatest detective was a character who could walk in to a room and immediately take in his surroundings and make deductions about everything – and everyone – in it. A lifelong bachelor, he would then retire to his humble Baker Street flat and practice his violin, preparing for the next adventure with his business partner and roommate Dr. Watson.
Holmes has now been given a facelift and the requisite new attitude in Sherlock Holmes, the new film from Warner Bros. that stars Robert Downey Jr. as the titular hero, Jude Law as his right-hand man Watson and Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, one of the only female characters to make any notable appearance in the Holmes mythology. Far removed from the classic Basil Rathbone films, this movie portrays the detective as a slovenly playboy who, while retaining some stock Holmes characteristics as being an excellent boxer and a master of deduction, recasts his persona as being more quirky than stoic. Directed by Guy Ritchie, this version of the character is, as I said above, meant to bring the character into the 21st century and make him more of a conflicted hero of the kind we’re meant to relate to in this day and age.
The first batch of posters, which began appearing a while ago at the ShoWest trade conference, were designed to introduce us to the characters and give us a sense of the attitude and style the movie would be giving to them. Character-specific one-sheets were created and released for Irene Adler, Lord Blackwood – the film’s primary villain – Watson and Holmes himself, all of which also sported a quick little bit of copy meant to describe that character. So, for example, McAdams’ Adler is given the line “Dangerously Alluring” since she’s supposed to be both more dangerous than she seems and exactly as alluring as she seems. All of these characters are given a foggy, kind of grimy London background, with Big Ben and Parliament (I’ll give you all a moment to go to YouTube and look up the National Lampoon’s European Vacation clip…..alright ready to continue?) barely visible through the fog behind them.
The final theatrical poster brought Holmes and Watson together in the center of the design, with a variety of things behind and around them. Pictures of Adler and Blackwood are on opposite sides of the poster, with other items such as the 221 Baker St. streetlamp, a pistol, a variety of medicine bottles and Watson’s dog arranged around the like they were on bookshelves or something. The color scheme is the same – that sort of iron gray/green – and this time there’s an absolutely awful copy point just above the credit block, “Holmes for the Holidays,” that proves almost all puns are unnecessary puns.
The first trailer, released quite early this year, is, whatever it’s faults might be, a lot of fun. Starting off with ominous voiceover by the film’s villain Lord Blackwood we’re quickly told that this is a game being played between him and Holmes that stretches the boundaries of nature itself. Holmes isn’t seen until well into the spot’s running time and Watson well after that. But we get the general idea that the film is an amusement park ride that’s equal parts Jack Sparrow and Indiana Jones, with lots more action sequences and humor than you’re going to remember if you grew up on the Basil Rathbone flicks being shown Sunday afternoons on “Family Classics.”
The second trailer is 92 percent the same, with the addition of just a few bits of dialogue and footage. But there’s barely enough additional material her to even call it a second trailer. Instead it’s more of a re-edited version of the first spot since the timing is identical on the character reveals, Rachel McAdams still doesn’t get any dialogue and we’re still no closer to anything resembling a clear idea of the plot outside of the initial warning from Blackwood and a brief bit about him rising from the grave. Unfortunately those omissions, which were excusable in the first trailer because it could be written off as teasing the film, become more noticeable when you realize the second one has not filled in any of those gaps.
The official website for the movie opens, as many do, with the theatrical trailer playing, something you can bypass by simply opting to “Enter the Site.”
Expanding the menu at the bottom of the screen shows that “About the Film” is the first content section available. There you’ll find a Synopsis that’s short on plot but heavy on its attempts to convey the fact that the movie is “dynamic” and exciting before going into the credits of the cast and crew. That then leads directly into “Cast” and “Filmmaker” sections that give more information on the actors and creators of the movie. Finally there are some decent Production Notes that you can download as a PDF.
“Video” is the next section and has the Teaser Trailer, the Main (theatrical) Trailer and two TV Spots. By my count there are well over 30 stills – including a nice mix of production photos and behind-the-scenes shots – in the “Photos” section. You can download a handful of Wallpapers, all the Posters, some Icons and a Screensaver in the “Downloads” section.
Under “Soundtrack” you’ll find samples from Hans Zimmer’s score for the movie as well as links to download it from iTunes or buy it from Amazon.
We’ll come back to “Partners” later but that’s the next section listed. “Sweepstakes” just has links to the sites that offered prizes to their readers connected to the movie. The “Twitter” section opens a pop-up window filled with recent tweets regarding the movie.
The “Solve the Mystery at 221B.sh” section is actually tied to a “viral” campaign that kicked off around the time of 2009’s Comic-Con, when people were handed cards by Warner Bros. that, when the numbers on them were put together, formed an IP address that eventually resolved to the actual URL. The game that’s housed there is actually tied to Facebook Connect and requires you to play via Facebook to find a partner and then solve a mystery that leads directly into the opening scene of the film. While I think that such a continuation or expansion of the story is a great idea, I think the fact that it requires a Facebook account and limits game-play to Facebook is an unnecessary hurdle.
Also along interactive lines is “Unlock Your Sherlock,” which takes you to an MSN site where you can try to hone your powers of deduction to solve a couple of simple mysteries just like Holmes would.
The movie’s Facebook page has videos, photos and updates on the movie’s publicity campaign as well as continued prompts to play the online game that’s tied to the social network. But other than the inclusion of more TV spots than the official site it’s as unremarkable as most profiles are.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Despite the fact that only two were included on the official site there were six or more TV spots created and put in pretty heavy rotation, especially in the week before the movie opened. That week also happened to be the one *after* Avatar opened and so I would imagine air time was a little easier to come across in the wake of that campaign.
The Warner Bros. marketing department stepped in (Los Angeles Times, 10/31/09) after Microsoft reportedly pulled out of a deal to sponsor a TV special from “Family Guy” creator Seth Mcfarlane that the software company at the last moment deemed inappropriate. But WB was only too happy to take advantage of the opportunity, which would give them access to an audience of young hipsters that would then, hopefully, find the more action-oriented and sarcastic tone of the Holmes revamp appealing
There was an interesting promotional package worked out between Warner Bros. and MTV Networks (Mediaweek, 12/13/09) that had the actors and director basically shooting interviews for each of MTVN’s nine cable channels that framed the movie as being in-line with the brand identity of that channel. So interviews for VH1 focused on the romance in the movie, interviews for Comedy Central focuses on the humor and so on. These “takeovers,” with the interview segments framing entire programs or blocks of programming, were then aired on each channel in the week or so leading up to the film’s release.
For a period picture there were a decent number of promotional partners, which are usually hard to round up for such a film since the opportunities for product placement within the movie are pretty limited.
One such partner is the California Lottery, which is giving away studio tours and the eventual Holmes DVD to players of the Sherlock Holmes VIP Movie Experience.
The VisitBritian campaign has the movie’s key art and trailer on its site as well as a a promotion to take a tour of all the Holmes-related locations around London.
Visa offered users of its Signature card the opportunity to attend an advance screening of the movie, a trip on which they could use all the other advantages the card could bring them by way of amenities and perks.
7-Eleven’s promotion was kind of odd, with something about collecting all four coffee traveler mugs, which then had fingerprints you needed to match to the examples on the chain’s website, which then just encouraged more playing of the 221b.sh game. In stores you could also pick off scratch-off tickets that had clues and gave away other prizes.
Online security firm LifeLock seems to have signed on just because they were looking to draft off the movie’s name recognition and hopefully be subsequently associated with reliability and security.
kgb542542 also inked a cross-promotional deal (MediaPost, 12/16/09) with the studio to promote the movie through a deal that let users send questions to the text answer company that it would then answer as usual. kgb created a TV spot featuring movie footage to promote the partnership and advance tickets will have trivia questions about Holmes that those getting the tickets can send in and receive responses to. There’s also exclusive marketing material being offered to those to send the message “sherlock” to kgb in the lead-up to the movie.
Popular Twitter (and other social network) software TweetDeck got in on the act by creating a custom skin for the film that turned the background of the application into a slate-grey color, changing all your friends’ avatars into black-and-white photos and adds little Victorian-type decorations to the bottom of each column. The themed skin is actually part of the 221b.sh game and the Tweetdeck page about the skin points to that.
Media and Publicity
As you would expect with the film being such a vivid re-imagining of a classic character, much of the publicity focused on just how this film departs (New York Times, 1/21/09) from previous cinematic outings by the character. That story and many others like it also centered around how director Ritchie was bringing his own visual style to this re-imagining and how much of the success would be dependent on Downey’s considerable charm and swagger, with his stock (both within Hollywood and among the audience) higher than ever in the wake of Iron Man.
Unfortunately one of the first events designed to start word of mouth buzz for the movie, an appearance at the ShoWest trade show, didn’t turn out as positively as the studio was probably hoping for. In addition to the debut of the previously mentioned posters the first trailer was also shown there and was greeted with mixed to negative reactions, with some in attendance criticizing the visual style of the footage, some taking issues with accents and some just saying it looked corny. It wasn’t all bad, though, with some saying it looked pretty good, akin to what was done with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Warners got some of that momentum back a few months later by being one of two studios to have Downey – along with others from the movie – appear at Comic-Con in San Diego. There the cast and crew tried to work the uber-geek crowd by positioning their interpretation of Holmes as a precursor to the superheroes of today.
Three months before the first movie was even released came news that the studio was already beginning development on a sequel, such was their faith in the success of this relaunch and their desire to be in a position to move quickly on another installment should this one do well.
In addition to all this the last couple of weeks before release were filled with the usual cast and crew interviews on TV, newspaper stories about how this version of Holmes differed from preceding ones and so on and so forth.
This being the internet and all it shouldn’t be surprising that there are whole communities of people who are fans of the Holmes character and mythology and have come together online to share their interests with each other. One of those sites, The Baker Street Blog, is run by Scott Monty, he of Ford Motors fame. When’s he’s not curating conversations around Fiesta Movements and other such Ford initiatives he’s getting his Sherlock on – and has been since 2005 – talking about this, that and the other thing, with much of his updating lately, of course, being about the developments with the movie.
While I dig the consistency in branding the campaign shows – the movable type used for the title treatment is repurposed on the website, in the trailers and elsewhere and all the promotional partners did a good job of incorporating the look and feel of the poster art – there are a few areas I feel the effort falls short.
That’s particularly true of the trailers, with the second one being so similar to the first as to be almost indistinguishable. And while I realize the studio is trying to reinvent the character of Holmes for the 21st century, I thought the lack of acknowledgment of its history on the web is almost inexcusable. The producers and everyone else involved in the movie had no problem staying on message in their media interviews about how their vision of Holmes is, in their opinion, more true to the original character than previous films have been so it shouldn’t have been that hard to create a section of content to that effect on the site – something that gives a bit of background and introduces the reader to the whole history of Sherlock and his world.
But all in all this campaign does deliver where it needs to, which is in making Sherlock Holmes appear to be relevant to today’s audience by recasting him as a scoundrel more than a stuffy private investigator. The trailer(s) convey that attitude nicely as do the posters and various supporting materials. Many of the promotional partners feel wedged in (7-Eleven? Really?) but a movie with this many expectations all but demands some level of tie-in support.