Marketing ‘Tron: Legacy’ Brings the Hardest Sell Yet
The futuristic movie “Tron: Legacy” is not just pushing the boundaries of special effects. It is redefining the Hollywood hard sell.
By the time the movie arrives in theaters on Dec. 17,Studios will have spent three and a half years priming the audience pump. The most recent push came last week at International, the annual pop culture convention here. For the third year in a row, Disney teased fans with exclusive “Tron: Legacy” footage. No other movie has guest-starred here so often.
“We’re going to show you five minutes of the movie every year for 20 years,” the comediansaid as he introduced a third trailer for the film to about 6,500 people on Thursday.
The selling and selling (and selling) of “Tron: Legacy” is the Hollywood marketing machine in its highest gear yet. Marketing campaigns for what the industry calls “tent-pole” movies — big budget, big risk, big potential payoff — have traditionally started about a year before their release in theaters. Increasingly, that is scarcely enough time.
With DVRs undermining the No. 1 tool for promoting movies — television commercials — studios are trying to create Internet brush fires on behalf of their coming releases. One variant is a controlled burn: carefully doling out bits of information over months and years.
Lead time also makes a big difference when it comes to breaking through the advertising clutter and competing entertainment options. In a post-“Avatar” world, the goal at the multiplex is to make movies feel like must-attend events; longer campaigns can help achieve that.
At the same time, the risk for motion picture studios is bigger than ever. Special effects movies like “Tron: Legacy” can easily cost more than $350 million to develop, produce and market. A studio does not want to release a behemoth like that without a megawatt campaign.
It is not just the movie business that is experimenting with a longer selling cycle. Television, too, is seeing a new model emerge. That the comedic musical “Glee” was the No. 1 show of the 2009-10 season was no accident. Yes, the execution of the show mattered. But so did the marketing muscle that Fox put behind it.
Most new shows get eight weeks of promotion. Fox gave “Glee” more than a year’s worth. The network started to push the show in February for the May premiere of a single episode, then spent the summer fanning the sparks — screening the pilot at summer camps, streaming it on Fox.com and blanketing beaches and concerts with fliers.
“We worked those kids like crazy over that summer,” said Joe Earley, Fox’s president for marketing, in reference to the “Glee” cast. “As reach is becoming more challenging, you need more frequency.”
“Glee” returned for a short run in September. But Mr. Earley kept up the promotional pressure until a second batch of episodes arrived in January.
Comic-Con, which ended Sunday, is important for entertainment companies because it is a prime spot to start one of those Internet fires, said Sean Bailey, Disney’s president for production. “People look to Comic-Con to guide their moviegoing decisions for the rest of the year,” said Mr. Bailey. “It’s a barometer of what’s cool.”
The original “Tron,” released in 1982 and loaded with computer-generated effects, was a hit with the young male crowd, who quickly turned a related arcade game into a success. But the movie failed to attract a wide audience. The story — a man is pulled inside a video game and is forced to play space-age gladiator games — turned off mainstream moviegoers.
“It went beyond suburbia’s ability to deal with it at the time,” said Steven Lisberger, who directed and wrote “Tron.”
Disney cannot afford to have “Tron: Legacy” play out in similar fashion, which is one reason it is spending so much time trying to position the film in the marketplace. “We really want to open it up — the message is that this is a film that everyone will find cool and contemporary and relevant,” Mr. Bailey said.
The studio first decided to “activate” core fans, Mr. Bailey said. Disney unveiled a “Tron: Legacy” teaser trailer at Comic-Con in July 2008. Over the next year, Disney released more video, introduced an ambitious online game and fed bloggers a steady drip of news.
In July 2009 at Comic-Con, Disney introduced a walk-through experience (lots of vintage arcade games) and a-enabled scavenger hunt through the streets of downtown San Diego. A second “Tron: Legacy” trailer appeared with “Alice in Wonderland” in March.
Last week, the studio built an even more elaborate walk-through experience that recreated sets from the movie and attracted over 7,000 visitors over three days. Disney also released a third trailer. On the convention floor, Disney gave people a peek at the coming merchandising storm: talking action figures with digitally projected faces, iPod accessories,sneakers inspired by “Tron: Legacy,” and clothing.
With the core audience on board — the online game now has about 4.5 million active users — Disney is turning its attention to the people who make the difference between a hit and a blockbuster: mothers, children and nontechnophiles.
The monorail atgot a “Tron: Legacy” makeover. The Disney XD cable channel will present an animated mini-series in the fall (followed by a regular series, to be announced). Most important, Mr. Bailey and his studio colleagues are working to hammer home the message that “Tron: Legacy” is more than a chase through a virtual world.
“It’s very focused on a father-son story,” Mr. Bailey said.reprises his role from “Tron” as a talented video game programmer; Garrett Hedlund plays his son.
“Tron: Legacy,” filmed using advanced 3-D cameras, will inevitably be compared with “Avatar,” which opened on a similar date last year and sold more than $2.7 billion in tickets at the global box office. That is perhaps an unfair bar to set.
But six months before release, there are signs that Disney is succeeding at turning its movie into a cultural event.
Without Disney’s prodding,echoed the movie’s aesthetic — sleek black uniforms, white and blue glowing light — in a recent menswear show in Milan. , Katy Perry and have all sported “Tron”-esque fashions. Audi has designed a concept car openly inspired by the look of the vehicles in the movie. The music group the Black Eyed Peas featured a flying “lightcycle” — “Tron”-speak for a motorcycle — on its recent concert tour.
“If this thing isn’t a hit,” said John Juarez, a Comic-Con attendee, “somebody at Disney is going to have a lot of explaining to do.”