Disney tries to reinvent ‘Tron’

Studio markets new 'Legacy' at Comic-Con

With “Tron: Legacy,” Disney finds itself trying to reboot a property that’s not only 28 years old but one that was never a blockbuster to begin with. So taking three years to promote the film has a certain logic.

In fact, there’s method to the Mouse House’s gradual rollout of the 3D pic’s marketing materials, which will be front and center today at Comic-Con. The campaign aims to educate potential moviegoers about the film’s high-tech futuristic world and characters, rather than rely on bombarding audiences with a blast of visuals weeks before its bow — which is usually the case for major studio tentpoles.

The effort behind “Tron: Legacy” — which so far hasn’t been bank-breaking for Disney because of its heavy reliance on the Internet — was carefully orchestrated because it represents the kind of film Disney chief Robert Iger has been demanding from his studio. These are movies that can be exploited across various divisions, including TV shows, videogames, publishing, merchandise and theme parks, to become larger revenue generators for the company.

For example, Disney is simultaneously developing the “Tron: Evolution” videogame through Disney Interactive Studios, as well as a new animated TV series for cabler Disney XD, and a theme park ride. Monorails at its Epcot park in Orlando have already been masked to resemble the lightcycles in the film, and the Mouse is considering rebranding its arcade as Flynn’s Arcade (after Jeff Bridges’ central character) in Tomorrowland. Disney will also unveil a range of “Tron”-related merchandise, including toys, apparel, electronics and books on the show floor of the Comic-Con confab that runs through Sunday in San Diego.

When Disney unveils the latest footage and hosts a series of panels and parties for “Tron: Legacy” at the fanboy fest, it will be the movie’s third consecutive appearance at Comic-Con.

The first test footage, screened to a packed room of 6,000 in 2008, generated such positive buzz that studio heads awarded helmer Joe Kosinski a greenlight to spend what’s said to be $150 million on the “Tron” reboot, which is set to open Dec. 17.

It was the kind of reaction that studios eagerly seek and the primary reason they make the annual trek to Comic-Con.

Yet Disney hasn’t just relied on Comic-Con’s fanboys to spread the word on “Tron.”

In April, the studio traveled to San Francisco’s WonderCon to produce a faux press conference for Encom (the fictional computer and software corporation in the films) that featured Bruce Boxleitner taking the stage as Alan Bradley, his character from the first film and reboot, along with his onscreen wife (played by Cindy Morgan). The event was interrupted by Flynn Lives rioters who claimed that Encom knows more on the whereabouts of Bridges’ missing character, Kevin Flynn, than it claims.

The staged event was all part of Flynn Lives, an ongoing alternate reality game (ARG)  that has been telling its own story over the past year and will continue up to “Tron: Legacy’s” debut.

The goal was to use the film’s characters to fill in the blanks of what happened between 1982 (when the original film was released) until now through a series of online games, scavenger hunts and events, which reward players through special screenings or other unique freebies, said Sean Bailey, who took the role of Disney’s president of production in January. He had already been producing “Tron: Legacy” through his Disney based shingle, Ideology.

“We’re not just marketing a movie but a story,” Bailey said and because of that the filmmakers wanted “to build a backstory.”

But Bailey stresses that moviegoers don’t have to follow the online plot to understand the pic. “There’s no required knowledge coming into this,” he said.

Officially, the first billboards, posters and movie stills started appearing last December, with the images regularly updated. The latest billboard (showing co-star Olivia Wilde in character) started going up in cities across the country this week. The first teaser trailer (with footage that didn’t wind up online at Comic-Con) unspooled in theaters in February.

Last year, Disney also recreated Flynn’s Arcade in an industrial part of downtown San Diego for the Comic-Con crowd, where it showed off a full-sized lightcycle. The arcade is returning this year.

Imagery has mostly leaned heavily on icons moviegoers may remember from the first “Tron” like the pic’s lightcycle, glowing body suits and a disc-throwing game. Doing so enabled Disney to keep from revealing too much of the film long before its bow. The campaign was well underway before MT Carney took the job as Disney’s new feature marketing chief in April.

Either way, the campaign has been instrumental in introducing the world of “Tron” in a way that lets individuals either view the imagery or take an active part and learn more about the pic’s plot. (Interestingly, the release of the original pic was also accompanied by a multi-pronged campaign to launch ancillary “Tron” products, including an arcade vidgame that remains a favorite among game enthusiasts.)

“We wanted to start building this history and the back story through all the information we were releasing,” Bailey said. “We really thought it was a creatively interesting way to hopefully get a presence and start bringing people into the world we are hoping to build with ‘Tron.’ “

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