I’m sure you’ve heard the statistics by now. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight poured in a record 155 million domestically in its opening weekend. It is now poised to reach the 300 million dollar benchmark after just 10 days. And some think it will overthrow Titanic as the highest grossing movie ever. It is indeed an incredible masterpiece. The stunning special effects, action-packed sequences, epic music, thrilling twists and turns, and of course a chilling performance from Heath Ledger all contributed to this powerful superhero movie. Not to mention the film’s critical acclaim, receiving a whopping 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. While all of these factors certainly created a “surround sound effect,” hyping up the movie in all directions, I’d like to examine another element driving the film’s success – its dedication to realism through extratextual content. (Before I go any further, I must warn you, I will draw on spoilers in my analysis…read at your own risk.)
As the Dark Knight got closer to its release date, Warner Bros. launched a “let’s give them everything we got” marketing campaign. There would be cool posters, exciting trailers, batman and Joker Peanut Butter Cups, partnerships with Dominoes, Got Milk, Comcast, Verizon, Kmart, General Mills (to name a few), and even a complete takeover of the mySpace homepage. All of these traditional forms of advertising certainly got people, and the media, buzzing.
But over a year before any of this, Warner Bros. collaborated with 42 Entertainment to launch an ARG (alternate reality game), so extensive, so compelling, that it made viral marketing efforts from Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project look like child’s play. Chris Thilk of Movie Marketing Madness, points out why the studio pushed an intricate online viral campaign in addition to its usual ‘branding barrage:’
“This separation is important since the two components are appealing to, if not drastically, at least partially different audiences. [Through the ARG] Online Warner Bros. has been able to activate a serious core of fans and Batman/comic enthusiasts who have reveled in being part of Joker’s army or in finding out what they need to do as part of the Gotham PD’s task force. But offline there is the larger movie-going audience that needs to be appealed to. So the elements that are crossing media need to not just be geared for audience that has “found” them through unlocking clues, but which sees them as part of the larger media landscape they live in.”
What Thilk is describing here is the movie’s remarkable ability to appeal to the casual fans and mass audience, who do not seek out online scavenger hunts but embrace the coolness of the trailer or the movie poster, as well as the enthusiastic fans, who may actively ignore traditional forms of advertising but revel in engaging, original content instead. And The Dark Knight’s ARG (check out the wiki) did not disappoint the latter.
It started on May 11, 2007 with the release of the official Dark Knight website. A week later, clicking on the bat symbol brought a user to the Harvey Dent campaign website, which simply contained Aaron Eckart’s picture and the slogan, “I believe in Harvey Dent.”
Meanwhile, in California, a comic book employee reported defaced Joker cards appearing in his shop with “I believe in Harvey Dent too! Hahahah!” stamped all over them.
Sure enough, when users went to ibelieveinharverydenttoo.com, they found a Jokerized Harvey Dent image.
Participants typed in their email address and received their first exposure to Heath Ledger’s Joker.
So after only a week, fans realized a recurring pattern: As Thilk writes,
“Put up a mysterious site, promise something in return for enough participation, deliver on that promise and then shut things down with the message that there’s more to come. Across this online effort the reward is, more often than not, a piece of the movie’s traditional marketing campaign, be it a poster or a trailer or something like that. This puts the audience in a position of power – Getting a look at a new trailer or whatever becomes dependent on their activity or at least their alertness. They *need* to participate or the goodies will go away. At least that’s the perception that’s created through such efforts.”
This sort of interactivity is not only the essence of viral marketing; it’s also the heart of transmedia storytelling. When a studio provides mysteries and answers through cross media platforms, fans essentially become willing participants in marketing the movie. They embark on a puzzle solving quest, craving more information and comparing notes with each other to heighten the experience of the story world. The question remains however, are such fans participating in this hunting and gathering adventure on their own terms, or are they just puppets who are carefully guided through a pre-determined story for advertising purposes?
At last year’s Comic Con, the Joker distributed “Jokerized” one dollar bills pointing people to WhySoSerious.com, a fgJoker costume website which told users to go to a certain location at a certain time. Hundreds of people followed the instructions. After the crowd assembled, a phone number appeared:
Those who called the number overheard a hostage message, solidifying the player as part of Joker’s crew and initiating the scavenger hunt. The San Diego participants collaborated with friends online, who would import the clues to the WhySoSerious website. In return, the ‘ground team’ received Joker masks and the online players got a first look at the teaser trailer for the movie.
Here in the second phase of the ARG, we see a level of immersion building. Fans joining Joker’s army were able to show friends their picture on the Rent-a-clown website, a fake clown rental company within the whysoserious game. Interestingly, participants in the ARG immersed themselves in the world of Gotham by working for the villain, a role not only much more realistic in the context of Gotham (Batman works alone) but also, arguably, more fun as well.
In retrospect, the focus around the Joker in the ARG fit the movie quite well. The Joker is so manipulative and conniving that in some ways, the fact that he instills chaos into real people makes sense. Players will do anything for answers (in this case information about the movie) and the Joker seems to exploit this within the ARG by sending participants around to solve complex puzzles, make phone calls, and go on real life scavenger hunts. In this way, the Joker demonstrates his power and his psychotic tendencies way before the film’s premiere–he has complete control over the players and the game. (it’s all part of the plan)
However, the blurring lines between reality and fiction have all kinds of moral and legal implications as well: do all of the players really know it’s all a game? Would they be tempted to break the law in honor of Joker’s “live in a world without rules” philosophy? As I examine the ARG further, you’ll see just how far players were willing to go.
to be continued…
P.S. Speaking of blurring lines between reality and fiction, could the ARG have had something to do with this recent incident?