“Hunger Games” and the great Hollywood hype machine

March 15, 2012

When Warner Bros. released the first photograph of the new Superman, the studio clearly wanted to spark some advance fanboy and fangirl chatter. Super-advance.

The picture of actor Henry Cavill, muscles rippling beneath his heroic pseudo-leotard, was unveiled online last August. But the movie in which he’ll wear that familiar ensemble, “Man of Steel,” won’t arrive in theaters until June 2013. That’s right — June 2013. If the Mayans were even half-right about this whole doomsday thing, we’ll all be dead before then. (On the plus side, at least we’ll meet our maker knowing how Cavill looks in a cape.)

This approach to movie marketing, one in which the buzz machine cranks up early and feeds the blogosphere often, is now commonplace. “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the multiple installments in the “Twilight” saga and the soon-to-be-released “Hunger Games,” the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s young-adult novel about a government-sanctioned teen death match, are among the many films engaging in varying degrees of something we’ll call movie publicity foreplay. For several months, sometimes a year-plus, the studios behind these projects titillate fans with provocative sneak peeks — casting announcements, photos, trailers, alternate reality games — until it’s finally time to deliver the full monty: the movie itself.

“There is so much competing for audience’s attention that I think to go out there early and engage fans and make a project feel like an event is certainly an important thing to do,” says Heather Phillips, the chief marketing officer at Aspect Ratio, a movie marketing firm in L.A. “But you don’t want to take away the mystery around it. You don’t want to give away too much.”

The notion of engaging in a bit of premature audience seduction, particularly online, is hardly new. (Didn’t “The Blair Witch Project” do that in 1999?) But as the power of social media swells, the intensity of these marketing efforts — as well as the need to activate them increasingly early — is changing the game, allowing a movie’s publicity campaign to often kick into gear well before production has even started.

In the case of “The Hunger Games,” which hits multiplexes Friday after a dizzying year of hype, chatter began as soon as Collins’s books were optioned but ratcheted up more once actress Jennifer Lawrence won the role of bow-and-arrow-wielding protagonist Katniss Everdeen. Every subsequent casting decision — right down to the one involving Donald Sutherland — was announced and dissected online by fans of the series, who also analyzed the first widely shared photo of Lawrence in her Katniss garb and faithfully tweeted every trailer, interview anecdote and promotional tidbit that followed. But the devotees aren’t the only ones who pay attention to the blitz; independent Web sites and traditional media outlets are itchy to share this material with their readers, too. And that means the past year has yielded what has felt , at a conservative estimate, like 5,000 blogosphere mentions of “The Hunger Games” per day.

“It becomes news when there’s a new poster,” says Anne Thompson, a veteran film journalist who now writes the “Thompson on Hollywood” blog for Indiewire. “It becomes news when you have the first look at art in a new movie, even if it’s in Entertainment Weekly or USA Today’s print edition [first]. It still goes viral very quickly.”

Thanks to the wealth of film-related information on the Internet and years of consuming DVD extras, consumers are now accustomed to being included in all aspects of a film’s journey to the screen and crave any behind-the-scenes nugget they can find. Hence, they expect to watch Peter Jackson’s video blog from the set of “The Hobbit” well over a year before the movie comes out. They want to examine controversial still shots of Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman ears in “The Dark Knight Rises.” They insist on receiving a first glimpse of Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer dressed as Tonto and the Lone Ranger in the 2013 Disney film based on the “Hi-yo, Silver” hero. Otherwise, how else can anyone have a lengthy workplace conversation about how weird Depp looks wearing face paint and a crow on his head?

Actually, Johnny Depp and his bird raise an important point: the potential for all this incessant movie marketing to backfire if it’s not executed correctly.

“You can campaign however you want and you can be clever,” says Joshua Jason, head of an L.A. PR firm that publicizes films and orchestrates Oscar campaigns. “But you have to have a product that stands up.”

Hence, despite its attempts to fire up fanboys with striking posters and trailers filled with roaring white apes, “John Carter” landed with a loud thud at the box office. And even though, a full year before its release date, director Jon Favreau brought “Cowboys & Aliens” stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford to the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con — the annual convention that practically invented the concept of the pop culture tease — that 2011 Western/sci-fi flick still flopped.

There’s also the risk of overdoing the marketing to the point where potential audience members are already sick of the movie before the first Saturday matinee.

Kimmy West, who runs the Web sites Hisgoldeneyes.com, which focuses on “Twilight,” and Mockingjay.net, an online “Hunger Games” hub, had that experience during “New Moon,” the second film in the “Twilight” series.

“They had released so much that when I saw the movie, I thought, I’ve seen this already,” she says.

She adds that she hasn’t felt as overwhelmed by “The Hunger Games” promotional efforts because, as robust as they’ve been, she thinks Lionsgate, the studio promoting the film, has been careful not to reveal too much.

How much is too much? Only the box-office receipts will tell.

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