Studios balance pursuit of buzz with secrecy

Launching a marketing campaign for a movie now usually starts the first day cameras roll, and the best ones try not to give away all the goods while building buzz. But it’s getting harder than ever to keep a secret in Hollywood.

The fast fingers of bloggers (professional and amateur), feverishly documenting every aspect of a film’s development and production on websites and Twitter feeds, have made it nearly impossible for studios to surprise moviegoers these days.

So it’s increasingly impressive when a studio can control just what audiences learn about a film — particularly a movie that interests fanboys.

From “Inception” to “Thor” to the next “Transformers” and closely guarded projects from J.J. Abrams and M. Night Shyamalan, studios and filmmakers increasingly find themselves walking a tightrope between keeping key plot points, character designs and set pieces under wraps while feeding fan appetites in the age of instant reveals.

The mission for marketers isn’t to hide everything from audiences — it’s to feed them just enough information every once in a while to keep them from ferreting out those and other crucial details on their own.

It’s a playbook that George Lucas and Peter Jackson perfected when preparing the second “Star Wars” trilogy and “Lord of the Rings” franchise.

No one gets more lathered up about a film in development than a “Star Wars” or “Rings” fan, and to satiate their appetite, Lucas and Jackson regularly doled out glimpses of characters, vehicles or locations via online blogs, as well as video or podcast interviews with cast members and production personnel. The tidbits gave auds something to look forward to rather than pursuing all avenues to find out more info and perhaps spoil big surprises for millions of others along the way.

The Lucasfilm approach has been adopted by other productions since then, including the last “Indiana Jones” adventure and next summer’s “Super 8,” the thriller that Abrams and Steven Spielberg are collaborating on. The duo released a teaser trailer in May for the secret project, and while it remains to be seen whether auds will be satisfied with that and not tip Paramount’s hand on other tasty surprises before 2011, the gameplan certainly paid off for the Abrams-produced “Cloverfield.”

In terms of this summer, at a time when moviegoers often complain that trailers give away far too much of the plot, Warner Bros. has been able to keep a fairly tight grip on the information flow for Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which bows July 16 and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as, perhaps ironically, a thief who can steal valuable secrets from people’s unconscious minds.

Apart from a handful of shots — the streets of Paris rising up up behind DiCaprio, a fight unfolding in a rotating hallway, an exploding cafe, or the back of DiCaprio’s gun-toting-character standing on a flooded city street — little of the pic’s mind-bending visuals has been revealed in the posters and trailers.

The orchestrated campaign also has included a viral marketing effort that provided a manual with cryptic images and

text, and a mobile-phone-based scavenger hunt, similar to the game launched around Nolan’s 2008 “The Dark Knight.”

The low-key approach seems to have worked: Without the typical bombast that surrounds other tentpoles, “Inception” has emerged as one of the more buzzed-about summer films.

Warner’s approach hasn’t gone unnoticed among other marketing execs, who credit marketing chief Sue Kroll with not giving in to the temptation to tell all in the pic’s one-sheets and trailers. But Nolan himself is known for being a stickler for secrecy on his projects and for taking a hands-on approach to marketing materials.

“It makes sense to tease and to make people wonder what the hell it’s all about,” one marketer notes. “Sue is very good at understanding that some films need a more nuanced approach other than saying, ‘We are the biggest studio and have one of the biggest stars doing X, so go see our movie right now.’?”

But another exec notes that Warners was actually forced to veer away from the typical marketing campaign because “Inception” isn’t the kind of film that can be easily reduced to a single catchphrase — although, “Your mind is the scene of the crime” and, “The dream is real,” both certainly try.

“It’s really a counterprogramming campaign in the extreme,” the exec says. “The studio knows that it can’t position this like another tentpole, even though it is a tentpole.”

Warner Bros. wouldn’t have been able to control the marketing for “Inception” had it not been able to keep much of the production a secret. You can’t sell a film as a must-see spectacle if early word of mouth has already killed it.

Because of dot-coms and tweets, “The word gets out very quickly now,” helmer Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”) said at last week’s Celebration of Creative Minds panel in Los Angeles. “That quick feedback can make or break a movie.”

The cryptic nature of “Inception” certainly helped Warner Bros. with its campaign. But what really made it possible was the fact that it’s not based on a well-known book, comicbook character, toy or videogame.

Marvel knows this all too well. The comicbook publisher’s film division is sitting on a library of popular caped crusaders. And ever since Marvel Studios started producing its own slate of pics, starting with “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk” reboot in 2008, the company has worked hard to judiciously control the flow of info nuggets to the fanboys.

It needed to. Paparazzi patrolled the set of the first “Iron Man,” with helicopters even hovering over Marvel’s Manhattan Beach headquarters to snap a shot of Robert Downey Jr. in the red and gold suit.

For the sequel, Marvel leaked what it wanted, with helmer Jon Favreau using Twitter to update fans of the shoot and dole out an official image or two.

On “Thor,” the single unofficial image from the set that made the rounds of the Internet was little more than a pile of foam rocks. It wasn’t until “Iron Man 2″ hit theaters that the first official shot of Chris Hems-worth as the hammer-wielding Norse god Thor was introduced, making fans feel better about the look of his potentially embarrassing costume.

Keeping fanboys at bay can be difficult, but productions have developed best practices — some obvious, some not — that seem to help:

• Be the first to provide moviegoers with an official look at a character or creature. With Sony’s 1998 reboot of “Godzilla,” filmmakers didn’t want to show off the rampaging lizard until the film’s bow. But their effort was undermined when an awkward shot of the monster’s action figure hit the Web, turning off the pic’s target audience. As more tentpoles up their f/x budgets, though, CG has become a marketer’s friend, since it’s hard to leak an f/x shot that hasn’t been completed yet.

• Keep cast and crew quiet. On “Inception,” Nolan told castmembers not to reveal details of the film. The strategy also worked on “The Dark Knight.” Directors like Abrams have also sworn talent to secrecy on films like “Cloverfield” and the reboot of “Star Trek” or banned them from Twitter, as part of contracts.

• Limit script access. Shyamalan is known for controlling whose hands his screenplays end up in, and his latest draft for an untitled project that Bruce Willis, Bradley Cooper and Gwyneth Paltrow are loosely attached to is no different, with an assistant keeping an eye on pages as studio execs read them, and then taking the script back after they’ve finished. Marvel also has been requiring readers to travel to its offices to check out scripts for “The First Avenger: Captain America,” which is gearing up to start lensing in London.

• Shoot in remote locations, away from prying eyes. “Thor” filmed in the desert of New Mexico, while massive sets were built in tightly locked-down soundstages in Marvel’s backyard, where it could keep a rein on who comes and goes.

• Create walled-off walkways or makeshift tunnels from a star’s trailer to the soundstage that hide the look of a star in costume.

• Use events like Comic-Con to offer up selected first looks at footage directly to the audience as well as put filmmakers and talent into contact with the diehards.

“Comic-Con is a chance to speak directly to your fanbase,” says one marketing exec. “You have them all in one room. If you deliver the goods to them and they like what they see, they will be on your side. They just want some confirmation that you’re going to give them something cool.”

Some projects and franchises, however, are just too big to tightly control access.

Consider the “Transformers” franchise: With a garageful of vehicles as the pics’ central characters, helmer Michael Bay and Paramount Pictures don’t just have to fend off film fans but car blogs and automobile enthusiasts looking to unearth which new concept car will be featured in the movie.

Just last week, a videographer captured the film’s Corvette, Ferrari and Camaro-clad characters racing through downtown Los Angeles and posted the footage online. Photos of Shia LaBeouf, new co-star Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Tyrese Gibson and stunt men battling alien robots from inside a toppled office tower also appeared on various websites.

Still, Bay was able to use his own website to confirm Huntington-Whiteley as the new leading lady, to reveal that Shockwave would be the next villain and to share that the film is being shot in 3D, among other details — all in an attempt to rein in the rumor mill that has run rampant during shoots of the first two pics.

On “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” Lucas and Spielberg’s original ideas of incorporating aliens and Area 51 were leaked before the film’s script was even written; shortly after that, it was revealed on some blogs that LaBeouf’s character was Indy’s son.

And even though Abrams was able to keep “Super 8″ and “Cloverfield” mostly shrouded in secrecy, his take on a major franchise reboot, “Star Trek,” saw details dropping all over the blogosphere, including how Leonard Nimoy would fit into the story.

Other studios are giving audiences maybe more than even they may have wanted.

Disney has been pulling out the stops to hype “Tron: Legacy” since 2008, and this year will mark its third appearance at Comic-Con. This year, the film will offer a series of “Comic-TRON” events that includes a panel discussion with the cast and filmmakers, as well the first look at new footage and merchandise. A performance by Daft Punk, the band that’s producing the pic’s soundtrack, had been hoped for, but the group that’s notorious for making few public appearances will not be on hand. Of course, it’s no surprise that the pic has embraced the San Diego confab: Strong fan response to test footage screened there helped land the pic a greenlight in the first place.

The fan frenzy over filmmakers’ secrets isn’t expected to go away anytime soon — not with the next installments of “Spider-Man,” “X-Men,” “Wolverine,” the Batman franchise and “The Hobbit” headed into production. And especially not with HD versions of the tiny and relatively inexpensive camcorders from Flip finding their way into more hands, and Apple’s new iPhone, with two built-in cameras, hitting the market.

“At the end of the day, you want people to be interested in your movie,” says one frustrated studio marketing maven. “The Web and tweets and cell phones just make it harder than ever to say, ‘Here’s something worth paying money to see because you haven’t seen anything like it before’ — because when the movie finally comes out, chances are, you’ve already seen the good stuff.”

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