THE END IS NIGH
On the eve of release, this is a retrospective on all the work we’ve done on the WATCHMEN campaign. Hopefully, if nothing else, it may help some of the people I’ve neglected over the last few weeks/months/years understand why that might have been. I offer it not as a justification, merely an explanation.
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Fifteen years in the making
PPC started talking about the WATCHMEN campaign about five years ago, when the movie was being produced by Paramount, with Paul Greengrass set to direct. I sat down with our creative director at the time and we talked through a few ideas. Guess that would have been some time in 2004.
At the heart of what we were discussing was the idea of how we could take the ‘metanarrative’ that runs through WATCHMEN – present most explicitly in the little vignettes appearing at the end of each chapter – and realise this through a range of different media, including video, print and the web.
Around the same time, Emma’s friend Kate got in touch. She was assisting Greengrass at the time, and was working on their version of the script. She’d heard that WATCHMEN had featured in my English Lit. dissertation, and wanted to get hold of a copy.
Unfortunately, I had to explain that the only hard copy of my dissertation had died with my academic career back in 1999. It was an expansive and somewhat tedious tract entitled ‘Taking Liberties: Ideas of Freedom in the Graphic Novel’ in which I examined various themes permeating what I considered to be the most significant graphic novels ever written.
This included not only WATCHMEN but also Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and Grant Morrison’s ARKHAM ASYLUM, many of the key frames of which were reproduced within my dissertation in glorious technicolour, harnessing the extraordinary power of a computer system residing in the Edinburgh University library.
Unfortunately, the cost of printing the bastard thing was so extortionate I had to turn a few tricks just to run off the copy I had to hand in. As for keeping a digital version, I would have needed a dongle the size of a cricket bat to take it anywhere, even if such a thing as a dongle had even yet existed.
The little I do remember about the substance of what I wrote was my focus on themes and ideas I had grown up with, living through the decade in which WATCHMEN, V and THE DARK KNIGHT all came into being – the eighties.
I examined the pervasive presence of television, the spectre of nuclear armageddon, and a growing sense of moral ambiguity ushered in by an age of scientific enlightenment, religious disenfranchisement and the emergence of the all-powerful media industrial complex (of which I am now such a loyal and trusted servant).
I found that these recurred within the significant graphic novels of the era, both in terms of narrative development, and as visual elements, framing characters existing within a menacing grey area beyond the childish binary of black and white, right and wrong, good and evil.
Meaning that when Kate and I sat down and talked about how Watchmen could be adapted into a post-9/11 PG-13 superhero story, I was stumped. I was all up for trying – I’ve long ago shaken the mindset that shit film adaptations somehow compromise the integrity of the source material. As far as I’m concerned, all shit films compromise is the people who make them.
It wasn’t really working though, at least not when Kate and I were trying to get to grips with it, and the news that Paramount had pulled the plug on the project was met on my part with a measure of relief, as well as disappointment. (I’m sure with hindsight Greengrass is far happier that he went on to make his other post-9/11 project, UNITED 93.)
Fast forward to 2007, and I’m sitting in Hall E of the San Diego Convention Centre waiting for Zack Snyder to tell me and 4,999 other feverish fanboys what he has planned for WATCHMEN. I’ve travelled to Comic-con under the auspices of getting the inside track on a few of the movies slated for 2008-9, but this is the real reason I’ve routed my quarterly trip to LA through southernmost California.
It takes a certain type of person to address a crowd of 5,000 people and have each of them feel as though they’re having a one-to-one conversation. Probably the same kind of person it takes to inspire a team of hundreds, thousands even, to give themselves over to the production of a $120m movie depicting a group of men and women dressing up and ostensibly failing to save the world.
What we learned at Comic-con was that the film was set to be a period piece, that it would be R-rated, and that it would star no-one in particular. Each of these details seemed to resonate with everybody present – by the end of the session I believe every one of us shared a palpable sense that WATCHMEN was in safe hands.
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Making it (y)our own
We must have produced more than fifty different movie widgets in the last twelve months, but the WATCHMEN widget is unique in a couple of key respects:
a) A typical movie widget goes live 8-10 weeks out from release, sometimes even less. It’s not ideal, but movie marketing – every bit as much as politics – is the art of the possible.
The WATCHMEN widget went live ten months out.
That probably only happened because…
b) We built the WATCHMEN widget without waiting to be asked. It wasn’t much to look at – just a countdown clock and a smiley face – but it was enough to get it signed off and get started. When the widget went live, we were still almost 300 days from release.
(I’m looking at it now, and I’m seeing 14 hours, 39 minutes and 7 seconds.)
The key to a great movie widget is to start early, update often and seed aggressively off the back of all the major campaign milestones.
The moment the embargo came up on the teaser trailer, we had it live in the widget and were mailing around our blogger contacts to let them know that it was there for the taking.
In the background, we’ve been updating the widget on an almost weekly basis to include the steady flow of new video clips and production webisodes, campaign news, wallpapers, screensavers and all the other fanboy fare making up the backbone of any self-respecting interactive marketing campaign.
The bottom line is this – if you’re going to ask somebody to place what is essentially a free advertisement for your product on their homepage, blog, fan-site, social networking profile or whatever other digital smallholding it is they call their own, you better make sure it does something. In the case of WATCHMEN, content-wise, we really went for the mother lode.
Coming into 2009, we took the widget and turned it into the centrepiece of what we can find no better words to describe than ‘social media toolkit’.
www.I-Watch-The-Watchmen.com went live in early January, featuring a plethora – and I really mean, plethora – of tools and features. I’m talking profile picture creators, blog, templates, site skins, social bookmarking and the rest, offering advanced compatibility with dozens of different blogging tools and social networks, as well as content created specifically for iPhone users.
I’m afraid I’m saying nothing about the number of widgets grabbed, or impressions generated, or profile pics created, unless its already out there in the public domain. So when I say “PEOPLE LOVED THIS”, you’re just going to have to take my word for it.
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Better blue than red, man.
Some of the ideas we pitch feel like complete no-brainers. Others are submitted more in hope than expectation. When we sent Paramount our first pass at treatments for various 3-minute videos, each offering a different view into the world of WATCHMEN and the alternate reality in which it is situated, it never really occurred to me that several months later I’d be able to sit here and show you this…
[UPDATE 11:54pm 06/03/09] …or this…
…or that between them, they would be closing in on a total of one million views in less than six weeks. (The first of them, NBS Nightly News, did 200,000 views in just 48 hours.)
If it hadn’t been for the tireless persistence and imaginative energy of our creative director, Dan Skinner (a fellow fanboy, and Watchmen acolyte), I doubt these even would have made it in front of the client, let alone have gone on to become a reality.
No matter that the process of conceptualising them and co-writing the scripts was one of the most creatively stimulating experiences of my life, working or otherwise.
Nor that the time we spent designing the sets and filming the key material gave me a glimpse of what a remarkable thing it must be to spend your life working in film production.
The ultimate satisfaction is that these seem to be viewed by many as an extension of the entertainment, rather than just marketing materials. Tracking the comments online, we’ve seen a number of people mistake them for the work of the film-makers. From where we’re standing, that’s high praise indeed.
The videos are just three of the 50-odd artefacts making up The New Frontiersman, a website launched in order to explore the sprawling back-story of Watchmen with an attention to detail worthy of a Michelin star. Like everyone, I have my own favourites, of which these are just a few:
For my money, what’s worth enjoying about The New Frontiersman isn’t the fine-looking site we developed in order to deliver the wealth of custom-created content (every item of which had to be submitted for client and film-maker approval), but the fact that Youtube, Flickr, Friendfeed and Twitter are also used to aggregate and syndicate every single item, enabling a broad audience of subscribers to pick up our daily updates by whatever means they preferred.
We weren’t just paying lip service to social media, so that we could name-check fashionable web 2.0 brands in press releases. Everything we did with these channels was driving towards finding a broader audience for our content, using the right tools for the right jobs, building a community of common interest around the unfolding back-story.
The numbers are all there if you want to look for them – evidence not only of quantity, but also of a quality of engagement going way beyond a hit to a website, or a click-through on a banner ad. The kind of engagement you only really surpass once you’ve got people going ten-pin bowling dressed up as Nite Owl.
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No place like Home™
Two years ago exactly, I was sweating on an event we were running in Second Life to promote the release of Zack Snyder’s “300″. I mean really sweating. Working in conjunction with friend and collaborator Neville Hobson, we were inviting a number of very influential bloggers and journalists to an in-world event that had an inordinate potential to go wrong.
It didn’t go wrong. It went off really rather well, after which I hid in an office in our building, called my wife, and broke down in tears. It was that kind of project.
The “300″ film-maker Q&A became the starting point for a series of movie promotions in Second Life, each of which was more technically and creatively ambitious than the last, promoting movies including DIE HARD, TRANSFORMERS and IRON MAN.
PPC quickly established ourselves as peerless in the field of marketing movies in virtual worlds, which is maybe why Sony got in touch with us to talk about doing the same in PlayStation Home.
With Home going open beta in December 2008, the timing in relation to WATCHMEN couldn’t have been better. December would see a sudden influx of many hundreds of thousands of PlayStation owners into Home, with Home cinema a likely first port of call.
We agreed to run a number of initiatives, starting with the release of the newly unveiled feature trailer in Home, making it the first trailer to play in the open beta. This was accompanied by a video message from Zack Snyder, welcoming everybody to Home and encouraging them to look forward to more from WATCHMEN in weeks to come:
The best of what we’d learnt from our work in Second Life then came into play on the day of the UK junket, as we brought Zack Snyder and Dave Gibbons together with a worldwide audience of journalists, bloggers and fans for a 45-minute Q&A in Silverscreen clubhouse. The Q&A was broadcast live over Ustream, opening it up to a broader audience online, and enabling us to take questions both from Ustream and from Twitter through the course of the event.
The machinima event promo gives a far better sense of what went down than I could ever hope to do:
These events tend to rely on a precarious amalgam of new technology and logistical mayhem, and can be nasty things to get caught up in the middle of. I ran three of them in Second Life, and drank a hell of a lot of vodka along the way.
With that in mind, I hadn’t really expected to be able to just hire somebody who could just step up and take over the reins. That’s exactly what Marc Berry did, ably supported by long-term virtual collaborator Dom from Deluxe Corporation and our metaverse consultant from across the water, Annie Ok.
The way it basically played is that with about a week to go before the event I put the fear of god into Marc, in terms of all the potential problems he was likely to face over coming days, then disappeared up north for a week on a family holiday. I got back just in time to join the audience – virtual and actual – for a perfectly executed event. While I’m on the record, I have to give Marc HUGE kudos for pulling it off.
The icing on the cake has been the WATCHMEN digital merchandise we’ve created and released, at no cost, through the PlayStation store. Annie’s staple involvement in the project was to cut us a rocking machinima promo showing off the Rorschach and Nite Owl costumes we produced, and that’s exactly what she did:
Again, you’re going to have to take my word for it that these have proven popular. The great thing about them is that, rather than spending big on producing a themed environment, something like this is relatively cheap to produce and travels through Home to wherever it is the people are. If our approach is about encouraging fans to wear there anticipation of a movie on their virtual sleeves, and to evangelize on its behalf, our work on Home on this campaign has to be scored as a ground-breaking success.
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The bigger picture
WATCHMEN has been a big deal for PPC Group as a whole. As well as everything here, we’ve worked on numerous international trailers and tv spots, a 30-minute programme, a 12-part press kit and a Metro cover wrap due to hit the streets in several European countries in just a few hours time.
[Update 12:45pm 06/03/09] The cover wrap looks thus:
It’s been a chance for PPC Interactive to show exactly what it is that sets us apart from the crowd, in terms of our preparedness to innovate and experiment, whilst retaining a clear sense of the need to deliver tangible results satisfying explicitly commercial criteria. To some extent I’ve had to ask the guys I work with – Saffron especially – to indulge me, and to forgive an almost unprofessional preoccupation with a single campaign, albeit the single most creatively aggressive campaign we’ve ever taken on.
It’s also been a chance for me to work with some of the amazing talents in my broader creative vicinity, all the way through to clients and film-makers whose preparedness to trust us with a $120m movie goes way beyond anything I’ve ever encountered.
But best of all? Well, if you’d sat me down, fifteen years ago, and talked me through what we were going to do with this movie, the fun we were going to have, the people I’d get to work with, and the story we’d have the opportunity to tell, and then you’d told me that someone was actually going to pay me to do it, I’d have kissed you on those cherry lips of yours, and called you a liar.
I got to live the absolute dream on this one. I don’t know what comes next, but it’s going to have to be good. Damn good. Because here I am. One minute to midnight. And it’s never felt better ≠)