January 29, 2008 in Business

Adjusting strategy: Ledger’s death has ad plan in turmoil

Wall Street Journal The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

This undated publicity photo provided by Warner Bros. shows Heath Ledger as the Joker in the upcoming Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures action drama “The Dark Knight.” Ledger was found dead Jan. 22. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

For nearly nine months, Internet-savvy movie fans have been tantalized by a Web marketing campaign to slowly unveil the new look for one of Hollywood’s most popular characters: the Joker, nemesis to Batman and a central figure in the next installment of the Warner Bros. film franchise based on the Caped Crusader.

Warner Bros.’ online campaign, which still has months left to run, took an unexpected turn last week when Heath Ledger, the 28-year-old actor playing the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” was found dead in a New York apartment.

The death will force the studio to ponder how or whether to continue the elaborate Web campaign that was generating buzz for one of its most important movie properties. That question is made even trickier by the fact the campaign, to date, has been largely built around Ledger’s Joker, even though Christian Bale returns as Batman.

The Joker character became film legend in an earlier incarnation of the Batman series, when Jack Nicholson won praise for his deranged take on the comic-book villain. Ledger’s eagerly anticipated portrayal is said to take the character to a new level of violence and intensity that is darker than Nicholson’s.

A spokeswoman for Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc., said the marketing campaign was continuing but declined to comment further.

The campaign of “The Dark Knight” began to appear out in May. That’s when an inaugural political advertisement for Harvey Dent, aspiring Gotham City district attorney, appeared online without mentioning any movie.

Throughout the summer and fall of 2007, the campaign served up a labyrinthine adventure set in an alternate-reality Gotham City. The drive of the campaign was the slow reveal of the Joker. Ledger’s death puts into question the future of the Joker-centric marketing push for “The Dark Knight” and whether Warner Bros. will change tactics rather than risk a negative public response.

In December, the campaign subsided when “The Dark Knight” prologue was screened before IMAX showings of “I Am Legend” and the first full-length trailer for “The Dark Knight” made its debut. Both featured footage unveiling Ledger’s performance.

Such campaigns aren’t new. “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999 established that young movie fans could be enticed by online games that hold their interest for months before a film’s release. Online campaigns have become a standard feature of the marketing for certain films, especially comic-book fare like Batman.

The campaign is the work of 42 Entertainment, a Pasadena, Calif., independent producer of alternate-reality multimedia environments. The goal was to create a multiplatform story bridging the 2005 film – and its sequel.

Untimely deaths have interrupted movie marketing before – from James Dean’s 1955 death before “Giant” was released, to the accidental shooting of Brandon Lee on the set of “The Crow,” to the murder of director/actress Adrienne Shelley in the run-up to “Waitress” last year.

Web movie campaigns often rely on movie fan sites to whip up and maintain interest in the online initiatives. “We usually help kick off campaigns by spreading the word, and fans take it from there,” said Mirko Parlevliet of Coming Soon Media LP, which operates sites like comingsoon.net and superherohype.com.

Parlevliet said the viral campaign for “The Dark Knight” “was very detailed and got a great response from the fans,” adding that fans were rewarded for participating by gaining access to trailers, posters and photos. Warner Bros. released a statement last week expressing its condolences on Ledger’s death but didn’t comment on the status of the film, which is in post-production in Los Angeles. It is possible that some of Ledger’s sound-recording work was incomplete.

An executive at a rival studio said that while “The Dark Knight” is basically a big-budget movie with tragedy now attached to it, it would be unwise to change the marketing strategy or campaign at this point. “The best thing that could happen is that all this marketing stuff just goes on and the movie and the campaign don’t turn into some kind of weird grave marker,” he said.

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