Selling The Dark Knight

You’ve seen the scores of slick posters plastered around the city. You’ve watched and re-watched the three carefully crafted trailers and now, after almost of a year of nail biting and a piercing level of curiosity, the wait is over. This Friday audiences around the world finally get to head to the megaplex for the highly anticipated continuation in the revived Batman saga, The Dark Knight. There is really not much to say about this film that hasn’t already been said. The film is sure to be the hit of the summer and there is already posthumous Oscar buzz for the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker.

Show me a person who isn’t excited to see Batman take on the new Joker and I’ll show you a liar. Not since that mysterious teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode One was screened prior to the film Meet Joe Black has there been this much built up hype and universal excitement for a film. Not only has The Dark Knight already garnered a number of favorable reviews, not to mention talk of Ledger’s possible Oscar Nod for a super hero film that isn’t in the technical category but it’s safe to say that sequel is in line to break the record for largest opening weekend in movie history. In other words, good, bad or just mediocre, Batman is going to open big.
While much of this anticipation could be the result of the film itself–after all who doesn’t want to see what Christopher Nolan and gang have in store for round two of this brilliantly resurrected franchise–most of the buzz surrounding The Dark Knight is the product of one of the most unique and fascinating marketing campaigns for a film, ever. The film’s now inevitable success will be a testament to the powers of what a keen promotion plan can do for a film and may just pave the way for the future of blockbuster hype building.
To be fair a film like The Dark KnightStar Wars, or most of the other blockbuster giants of the past decade generally do not require clever marketing. The word of mouth and notoriety alone is enough to reel in moviegoers. In the case of The Dark Knight, the film’s predecessor Batman Begins, which primarily introduced Batman’s story, left viewers with a hell of a cliffhanger for chapter two with that glimpse of Joker’s calling card. What the minds behind The Dark Knight decided to do was hype up the vision of the film’s villain instead of the film itself. Placing more emphasis on The Joker and less on Batman himself is clever because it enables Nolan to surprise viewers with what Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman character has up his sleeve.
This campaign started as far back when the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker was announced. Speculation of who would play the sinister clown had already been swirling around the internet geek-o-sphere and the announcement of Ledger was not only baffling to most but also created a level of mystery behind what he would do with the character. While the casting of Ledger was supposedly based solely on his supposed knock out audition, and the intense level of serious method, it was also a smart move in terms of playing up the film’s shroud of mystery.
Months passed then came the viral marketing, or use of popular mediums for the masses, primarily the internet. The release of the Joker’s menacing mug shot, complete with ghastly cheek-to-cheek scars and clown makeup that would give Tim Curry’s IT character nightmares, was just what was needed to silence any qualms with the casting of Ledger. The bait was set.
What came next is what makes the marketing behind this film so unique. Rather than merely leak trailers and footage to the usual outlets–MySpace, Youtube, Aint it cool news. Etc.–the savvy PR minds created an intricate series of puzzles and reality based games for fans to dive into, all rooted around the Joker and his “Why So Serious?” tagline. premiered featuring everything from global interactive scavenger hunts and word puzzles to hints about the film’s other major character, Harvey Dent. The clues all led to tasty little teasers about the film including film stills of the joker and his masked gang, promotional posters and even an eventual secret screening of the film’s first six minutes shown at select IMAX theaters all over the country (the same opening sequence was then shown prior to select Imax screenings of Will Smith’s film I Am Legend).
ImageWhen the first official trailer hit the web and theaters in December of last year giving wide audiences the first actual scenes with the Joker, hardcore fans and casual moviegoers alike were officially hooked. Then they made us wait. And wait some more.
Unlike other big budget success stories this year like Iron Manor the new Indiana Jones, both of which were shot and released in a short window of time and didn’t focus a lot of attention on marketing, Nolan and gang decided to hold back the film’s release thus creating even more widespread anticipation. Even before anyone had seen the film there was already a healthy level of legitimate suspense. Few films are able to pull off a stunt like this and after the handful of positive reviews chances are the suspense will pay off.
The final level of clever marketing came in the past month with Comcast, the now popular digital cable provider, giving users an entire free-to-view section dedicated to the film featuring behind the scene documentaries about the production and Chicago backdrop, all three trailers and one alternate never before seen trailer, and most curiously a series of scripted fake news reports from the fictional Gotham Tonight news program. Each ten minute fictional talk show featured interviews and reports that present viewers background information about various characters in the film including Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), crime boss Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). Rumors even sparked that the main anchor Mike Engel (played by Sixteen Candles alum Anthony Michael Hall) may become a character of importance in future Batmaninstallments.
Earlier this summer Six Flags Great America and Six Flags Great Adventures theme parks opened separate Dark Knight roller coasters. There was even a direct to DVD animated film series (in similar vein to the Animatrix series) from various acclaimed international animators who each directed a short dedicated to filling the storyline void between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

While stunts like this might seem a bit much for a movie about a superhero the marketing campaign was fairly ingenious by giving enough hints and tastes of what’s to come to lure in the average moviegoer while also giving hardcore fans the clever puzzles and payoffs to raise their anticipation to ecstatic. The marketing behind this film went beyond the traditional advertising ploys and Happy Meal product placement of yesteryears thus making the film less of a singular entity and more of a multiple medium, fully interactive movie-going experience.
What does all this mean for films? It’s no surprise that in the magical age of CGI comic book film adaptations are the next big thing but like any other cinematic fad there are always the standout films that must raise the bar high for what audiences should expect.Batman Begins took an action franchise and turned it upside down by focusing more attention on the psychology of its characters, while also giving us a brand new, darker vision of the Batman universe that was void of the camp found in its predecessors. Consider also that The Dark Knight was innovative in being the first film out of the Hollywood canon to utilize the 60mm IMAX camera for certain scenes, a feat may also pave the way for IMAX being more than just a venue for cool nature and concert flicks.
This summer’s other big success story Iron Man followed closely by spending as much time if not more on Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark character as it did on the man in the metal suit. And with hints in both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk of the eventual Avengers film, we may be in store for yet another extensive viral marketing campaign from Marvel Films. In the age where computer technology has become such a staple element of blockbusters the true auteur must go behind simply wowing audiences visually.
On the eve of its official release The Dark Knight “experience” that has been created does just that. While we’ll have to wait a couple more days to find out if the payoff was worth all the time and attention it’s safe to say that in the post Dark Knight arena, the promotion and delivery of Hollywood films will head in radically different direction.

Beck Continues To Impress

Beck is back with yet another album and here’s the thing, it’s quite good. It’s not without its flaws, nor is it one of the top albums unleashed so far this year. For an artist who has ten plus studio albums behind him (depending on how you count his early work) and at first seemed destined to peak after the mega success of Odelayand its hit single “Where It’s At,” Beck is still able to surprise listeners.

Modern Guilt, which was released this week, pairs Beck up with yet another producer of the time, Danger Mouse, stepping in for his regulars, The Dust Brothers (Odelay & Guero) and Nigel Godrich (Mutations & The Information). Those already critical ofModern Guilt argue that Beck didn’t tap into Danger Mouse’s talent enough, it could be said that while Beck is influenced by his collaborators he has and probably always will be a one man show when it comes to his work.
If one were to pinpoint exactly where Danger steps in to play on Modern Guilt it would be with the record’s psychedelic soul and rock undertones, which are present but hardly overpower the album. True Danger Mouse, like Beck, is an über fan of the psychedelic music of the 60s and early 70s as seen clearly through his work with Gnarls Barkley. At a mere 10 tracks, clocking out after just over 30-minutes, the quick, tightly produced songs on Modern Guilt make this Beck’s easiest album to listen to.
If you look back at his career Beck Hansen really hasn’t released a bad album. There are the timeless greats like Mellow Gold,Odelay, and Sea Change, and the hardly “minor” records in between, each of which remain enjoyable testaments of a musician with a no-fear attitude when it comes to stretching the limits of his sound.
Take the ultra poppy, often criticized (by fans and even Beck himself) Midnite Vultures, an album heavy with radio friendly funk hits like “Sexx Laws” or “Mixed Bizness” but also littered with rare moments of genius. There’s the record’s closer, “Debra” (now a staple concert favorite), a playful ode to Prince’s high flying vocal chords and the silly but surprisingly sly “Milk and Honey,” which blends a boatload of studio experimentation with troubling references to the greed and a pending biblical obliteration of our planet.
Beck’s last two back-to-back efforts, 2005’s Guero (and its remix spawn Guerolito) and 06’s The Information, showed a maturation as well as musical return to form after the acoustic folk record Sea Change. While both albums featured some of Beck’s best work to date–take for example Guero’s “Earthquake Weather,” an ode to lazy seventies soul or The Information’s “Cellphone’s Dead,” propelled by a Headhunters era bass groove–they are ultimately overly ambitious in their scope with a handful of throwaway tracks, respectively.
It’s difficult to place Beck’s newest sonic experiment among the rest. Some songs feel reminiscent of his Mutations period, others like the record’s one “epic” track and first single “Chemtrails” features a guitar noise outro that would make the shoegazers proud.
ImageLyrically Modern Guilt is pure Beck, sans an overall level of quirky humor and satire that made his early works so much more enjoyable. In an age where songs depicting world destruction and the apocalypse are as common as the classic love song, some of the themes displayed on Modern Guilt come across as a bit passé. While some of the lyrics are a bit uninspired and just damn right depressing others, in typical Beck fashion, knock the message out of the park. On “Walls,” a bizarre short built upon dreamlike strings and a rickety drumbeat, Beck writes about the evident threat hanging over America (“warheads in the kitchen”) but really nails this country’s possibly overly zealous comfort level with the money line, “You treat distraction like an instant religion.”
Coming from the man who once wrote, “In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey” the lyricism on Modern Guilt is not only Beck at his most straightforward but also at his bleakest (even after the remorse ridden breakup album, Sea Change, this is a macabre record). Still the album works and is proof again that Beck has survived an entire decade of the post-alternative wave and is still able to turn any and all impressions of his music upside down.
It’s hard to say what the tour for Modern Guilt will be like. Beck is as much known for his stage antics as he is for his music with such playful acts as singing in a bear costume or most recently during The Information tour featuring a troupe of Beck and company marionettes who mimicked the performers in real time. Even on the Sea Change album tour he employed quirky psychedelic rockers, The Flaming Lips as his backup band. What Beck’s creative mind has in store for live audiences is definitely to be determined.
At the age of 38 Beck still has a long and promising career ahead of him. There has been a fair amount of bad press surrounding Beck in recent years, especially about his self-acclaimed embracement of Scientology (which, for the record, he views more as an organization aimed at helping to better our planet rather than a radical religion focusing on returning to the mothership). Personal life aside, it’s been fascinating watching his career blossom over the years. For someone who jumped on the scene with a song that seemed destined for frat boy infamy, his signature sound has matured like a fine wine. While it’s difficult to say where Modern Guiltwill fall in his catalogue, it remains proof that this artist is still a driving force in modern music.