Movie Marketing Madness: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

“In a world….” is a popular and very stereotypical way for the narration of a movie trailer to start off. The idea, of course, is to setup the the movie’s premise and tell the audience that the circumstances of a movie’s setting are going to be different – or at least unfamiliar – from that of the one we inhabit on a day to day basis. These sorts of setups can range from large-scale differences (the entire world if flooded and people sail all over looking for dry land) to smaller ones (a world where people juggle goslings).

Back in the ‘70s Charlton “You’ll pry my guns out of my cold dead hands” Heston starred in a fantastic trifecta of such movies that were set in worlds that were either post-apocalyptic or in some other manner extremely dissimilar to our own. In The Omega Man he played Robert Neville in an updating of the I Am Legend story, the last survivor of a plague that had turned anyone it didn’t kill into night-dwelling vampiric creatures. In Soylent Green he played Detective Thorn, a police investigator in a near future where food is so scarce that the populace begins to sustain itself quite literally.

Then of course there was Planet of the Apes, where he played astronaut George Taylor, a man who, through an accident on his ship, lands on a planet where apes have evolved to speak and have formed their own civilization, though one that’s extremely distrustful of humans. That movie spawned a handful of sequels as well as TV shows and more spinoffs that continued the story.

While there was a remake of the original in 2001 from director Tim Burton this week sees the new film Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Not meant to be another retelling of that same story this movie is more a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, an earlier film that went back to show how the planet became dominated by apes. This one is a bit different, though. James Franco stars here as Will Rodman, a researchers working on a cure for Alzheimers. His drug is being tested on apes and one in particular, Caesar (motion captured by Andy Serkis) exceeds all the rest. Eventually, after seeing the detestable way his fellow apes are treated Caesar leads the others in a rebellion that winds up with the apes conquering the humans at every turn.

The Posters

Near as I can tell there was only one domestic poster created and released for the movie, something that strikes me as very unusual for a movie that presumably being eyed as a potential late summer tentpole. That one poster isn’t even all that stylistic or unusual.

Instead it’s just a black poster with the movie’s title on it, Caesar’s face visible through that title treatment. That’s about it for the visual elements, though Franco’s name is at the top and the release date is at the bottom. Also toward the bottom is copy promoting the fact that this comes from Weta Digital and that company’s connection to Avatar is called out. So it’s apparent that the movie, at least in this portion of the campaign, is being sold on the basis of the special effects.

The Trailers

The first trailer for the movie makes it clear that we’re dealing with an origin story here, Franco’s scientist talks to his supervisors about a breakthrough in helping the brain heal itself but his girlfriend (?) is afraid of the possible repercussions. Those repercussions are made clear when the apes, whose intelligence has been increased by this experimental drug, break out from their holding pens and begin to rampage through the city and, it’s presumed, eventually the rest of the country and world. The apes hover menacingly over beds while people are sleeping, careen over cars and jump off of buildings to attack helicopters.

It’s an enormously effective trailer that shows the very beginnings of the story and the stakes involved here. This is a story we more or less know the end of so it’s already clear how things eventually turn out, which means the movie needs to invest in the characters and the “how” of where things go wrong and this trailer makes the case for the filmmakers doing just that.

The second, theatrical trailer once again starts with Franco talking about his “cure” for helping the brain repair itself. But then we see that after his superiors want to shut down his program he goes rogue and brings Caesar home with him to continue his experimentation, which goes far beyond what he originally intended and actually helps the chimps become far more intelligent than he anticipated. After being brought back to captivity Caesar escapes and exposes the rest of the chimps and apes to the drug, creating an army for himself. It’s then that we see things going horribly wrong as the primates wreak havoc along neighborhood streets and in cities, revolting against what they now see as their human oppressors.

So there’s much more plot and story information in this trailer than there was in the teaser, which is to be expected, and more than anything comes off as similarly effective and tight as it lays out the stakes the movie is playing for.

Yet another theatrical length trailer takes us even deeper into the backstory of how the world fell to the apes. We get even more background and information about the doctor’s relationship with Casaer, who he treats as a type of son more than a test subject or anything else. But after some incidents where Casaer gets a little violent he’s imprisoned, which is where his resentment comes from. That gets channeled into his plan to release the rest of the primates being held in the facility and the resulting incredibly intelligent hordes go on a rampage across the planet, bringing human civilization to its knees. It’s another in a line of strong trailers that have, all put together, managed to present this is a compelling entry in the franchise and an interesting looking movie in its own right.

As part of the movie’s appearance at Comic-Con 2011 a final trailer was released that was shorter but was specifically designed to get the audience there out of their seats and excited. We skip all the introduction and setup and start right off with an army of apes and other primates massing in the woods before going on various rampages, both back at the lab where some of them were previously held and then across the streets of San Francisco. This one is all about showing off how massively the apes are revolting against all humans, seeing them as potential oppressors and inferiors to be wiped out. The spot even closes with an ape callously pushing a helicopter off the Golden Gate bridge and purposefully failing to save the person still alive inside.

Online

The official website loads and lets you rewatch one of the trailers, which you should go ahead and do.

Once you enter the site you see both a standard navigation menu on the right and a spinning globe of photos in the main part of the screen. Those various photos, when you mouse over them, show that there’s different things there ranging from photos to videos to downloads.

Going back to that standard navigation menu, the first section there is “Story” which is just a paragraph-long synopsis of the movie’s story. The Cast part of “Cast and Filmmakers” lets you see a description of the character each actor plays when you click on that actor’s name. The Filmmakers just displays what their role in the film was.

There are eight stills in the “Gallery” and all three Trailers as well as two TV Spots are in the “Videos” section, which is surprising since there are more available on the front page in the spinning graphical menu. “Downloads” has Twitter Skins, Wallpapers and Buddy Icons.

Finally the “Comic Book” section lets you view pages from the prequel comic that sets up the movie’s story.

The Facebook page has all sorts of things, including links to various news stories, some of the features on the official site, a stream of Twitter updates and lots of photos and video. The Twitter profile has similar updates including frequent usage of the “#apeswillrise” hashtag that was used throughout the campaign.

A series of videos showing chimps and apes doing things they’d been taught to do like fire machine guns and playing video games were added to the movie’s YouTube channel, presented as research videos that had been collected on primate research.

An iPhone app was released that pitted your knowledge against that of an ape to see who was smarter and could remember more number sequences.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

TV commercials would start running in early June and feature the same sort of “science gone horribly wrong” theme as the first few trailers, with a continued emphasis on how the evolution of the apes into intelligent beings is the result of some misguided attempts to cure disease. Further spots would continue that theme but also bring in lots of information on the battle that ensues between the apes and the humans.

In the online realm the studio would break some new ground, trying out a new “Promoted Question” format from Q&A site Formspring that allowed it to ask people what they thought might happen if the apes took over. With answers usually distributed to Twitter and/or Facebook there was obviously the hope that the message would reach a much broader audience than just those who used Formspring on a particular day.

Media and Publicity

Aside from casting, some of the first news around the movie came earlier this year when it was announced (Hollywood Reporter, 1/14/11) that its release date had been moved from summer to fall.

Things started to heat up when a five-second bit of footage showing one of the titular apes was released that was designed to, more than anything else, show off the effects of how WETA brought those apes to life. It’s only a slight understatement to say that everyone talked about this small clip.

Shortly after that clip was released the emphasis continued to be on the special effects in the movie as WETA and Fox held an online chat on Facebook to talk about how motion capture was used in the movie. This certainly accomplished its goal of getting people’s interest and continuing the positive conversation that began with that footage.

The next big round of publicity would come when the movie was promoted at Comic-Con 2011 (Los Angeles Times, 7/21/11), where an extended clip was played for those in attendance and Serkis did some press (Wired, 7/21/11) about his motion capture work on the movie and more.

There was also some press about the original novel (NYT, 7/31/11) the series of movies and other spin-offs are all riffing off of or are based on and how the premise of that story is timeless in a true sci-fi sort of way in that it can be adapted or interpreted in any number of ways to reflect the issues of any particular time.

Though there wasn’t one particularly big news story about Serkis and the role he played in bringing Caesar to life in the movie his involvement was always buzzing around the edges of the publicity and other news about the movie. About as close as things came were a story (NYT, 7/31/11) about how the studio briefly considered trying to use real apes but then decided that would be weird in a movie about animal exploitation.

Overall

I want to like this campaign. Oh how I want to like this campaign. But it seems to be a little fractured in places, like it’s unsure what kind of audience is actually going to be turning out. You have the poster (again, just the one) that just shows the one ape, signaling to me that they want to emphasize the special effects. The trailers, though, while full of those effects also make the case for the movie being an emotional story that has connections to today’s world. There’s no overt play here to any sort of existing Apes-franchise fanbase, but it’s likely such an appeal would have limited impact anyway.

As it is the campaign is alright but, as I said, fairly fractured. There’s never a sense of continuity or consistency that makes the best campaigns come together into more than the sum of their parts. There seems to be an attempt to make that one image of Caesar into that connective element but it’s too general and not strong enough to overcome the issues presented by the rest of the marketing.

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