Interactive websites raise awareness about films

I was a whippet. According to goldencompass.com, the New Line website devoted to its upcoming fantasy epic “The Golden Compass,” my characteristics included being “modest, assertive, outgoing, spontaneous, and sociable.” But after I posted my “inner daemon” on Thompsononhollywood.com, readers voted on whether they agreed with these attributes — and I turned into a raccoon.

I’m also a Simpson. At TheSimpsonsMovie.com, I created a yellow Simpson avatar with a blue pageboy and purple pants, emailed her to my daughter and embedded her on my blog. My Simpsons avatar lives on in cyber-Springfield.

And I’m not alone. Some 216,500 “Compass” daemons and 4 million Simpsons avatars were created, as their respective studios take viral marketing of films to the next level.

“Everyone had the same idea at the same time,” says Fox online marketing executive Kevin Campbell. “It was a natural. You could insert yourself and see what you would look like as an animated character in this world. We all knew that was compelling. The thing about viral marketing is the pull of becoming part of the film.”

At SimonisMissing.com, I clicked on the familiar root baby from Guillermo Del Toro’s film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and found my way to the website for Picturehouse’s “The Orphanage.” The specialty division launched the viral campaign at the recent Comic-Con in San Diego by handing out “SimonisMissing.com” posters and fliers. Its purpose: to raise awareness of the December chiller-thriller directed by Spanish director J.A. Bayona, a Del Toro protege.

The Mexican filmmaker has built a sizable fanbase via DelToroFilms.com. For “Pan’s Labyrinth,” fans participated in a contest in which they posted their artwork; Del Toro himself chose 11 winners. SimonisMissing leads viewers through the popular Del Toro universe so they’ll make the connection between the two filmmakers.

“If people know this film is in the world of Del Toro,” says Picturehouse online marketer Nevin Shalit, “the same quality you expect from him you will get from ‘The Orphanage.’ You create something that’s honest, speaks to them, and is organic to the film. It’s about creating a connection.”

No sweat. Far more labor-intensive, however, is solving the complex puzzles created to promote the upcoming films: Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight,” Fox Walden’s “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising” and Newmarket Films’ “The Nines.” The spawn of the complex games first created for Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” in 2001, these puzzles demand plenty of leisure time.

As viral Internet marketing proves effective at grabbing the attention of younger moviegoers, the studios and their online marketing vendors are creating more sophisticated Web contests and puzzle games that resemble interactive gaming. The philosophy: get viewers engaged and they will invest in the movie. “It really depends on how well it’s done,” says one studio marketing executive. “Is it fun and entertaining and is it selling the movie?”

When Warners could import neither director Chris Nolan nor star Christian Bale to Comic-Con to promote “The Dark Knight,” the studio instead staged an ambitious viral marketing stunt. They alerted fans in San Diego via Whysoserious.com to partner up with pals online. Sky writing above the San Diego convention center revealed a phone number, which sent participants running to a location where they could get their faces painted like The Joker. The goal: to unlock an exclusive photo of Heath Ledger as the Joker and a new “Dark Knight” teaser trailer.

It seems like an awful lot of trouble, but the fans gamely joined in and spread the picture and trailer like kudzu across the Internet, and Warners grabbed some media traction for their franchise.

For writer-director John August’s “The Nines,” starring Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis and Elle Fanning, Newmarket is taking advantage of the increasing popularity of virtual worlds like Second Life by staging a cross-media alternative reality game, but geared for the casual user. Its Second Life component includes an exact replica of August’s house, the primary set in the film. On Aug. 2 the first set of nine clues were planted on a fake blog, UGO.com, IGN.com, and JohnAugust.com. The second set goes up next at Comingsoon.net.

The movie is about a guy who creates a virtual world and gets stuck in it.

“You move through text messages, email and YouTube videos, which give the coordinates of the house in Second Life,” says Aaron Delwiche, co-founder of the virtual world development agency Metaversatility. “It’s a participatory experience. It drives attention and awareness for ‘The Nines,’ which is about the blurring of the virtual world and the real world. It is a puzzle in itself, in the spirit of ‘Mulholland Drive.’”

Fox Walden is also hiding signs in their marketing materials for “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising” that unlock special content online when entered in the correct sequence. The action fantasy adventure, based on the novels by Susan Cooper, stars Ian McShane, Frances Conroy and Christopher Eccleston and opens Oct. 5. The story itself deals with a hero who travels through time to collect six signs.

“We’re always looking for alternates to traditional areas like TV,” says Fox Walden marketing prexy Jeffrey Godsick. “The ‘Seeker’ campaign is an offline game that culminates online. The clues are hidden in traditional forms like the one-sheet, standee and trailer. It’s for consumers who like to get engaged, especially fans of the fantasy genre. They like the depth of the mythology.”

What’s the payoff for all their hard work? The players get to unlock exclusive content: behind-the-scenes interviews with craftspeople, computer wallpaper, exclusive clips, stills, drawings. “They’re drawn deeper into the elements that went into creating the movie,” says Godsick, who handed out black thermochromatic cards at Comic-Con that when touched activated clues to unlock the combination. After Comic-Con, visitors started to trade combinations and post on website chats, visit the film’s website and participate in talkbacks. “If you can engage the consumer, it generates buzz, word-of-mouth,” says Godsick.

This approach works best with younger, more tech-oriented moviegoers, says ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman, who created ambitious interactive Web experiences for “Primer,” “Strangers With Candy” and “Spellbound,” including a virtual spelling bee.

For an older target demo, he says, “people who want to go to the movies for recreation are not interested in going to the Internet for recreation. They go to the Internet for information about recreation.”

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