On March 6, under protest from the original writer; after a public legal battle with Fox studios; and amid relentless fanboy hand-wringing, Warner Bros. will finally release its film adaptation of Watchmen, the 1986 comic book series written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons and collected in a slick book by DC Comics that at least one person in your subway car is reading. The “unfilmable” film has been a long time coming, with various directors and actors attached to the project. And in this post–Dark Knight era, where the right comic-book hero can pull a mammoth production budget and, in turn, make ungodly sums of money, comic book fanboys and Warner Bros. are trembling with anticipation.
But what about everyone else?
For months, obsessed bloggers have been salivating over every detail released about the movie—hyping casting rumors on message boards, carping on director Zack Snyder (300) and analyzing each new “behind the production” video released by the studio. And in an attempt to get the rest of us up to speed with the hard-core Watchmen nerds, Warner Bros. launched a viral campaign for the film in mid-January with their centerpiece Web site: TheNewFrontiersman.net. Heard of it? Didn’t think so!
Named after a conservative newspaper featured in the comic series, the site has a list of dispatches—mostly “evidence” culled from the Watchmen world—linking to fake news articles, pictures and videos. But as the engine of Warner Bros.’ viral marketing campaign, TheNewFrontiersman.net sputters. Most of the material is too complicated, self-referential and obscure to attract a mainstream audience—and that may also be what is wrong with the Watchmen movie itself.
Indeed, if ever there was a film to benefit from an online information campaign (character profiles, background material, plot synopses), it would be Watchmen.
So why did Warner Bros. go with a strategy sure to do little more than energize the base?
“You look at the ads for the Watchmen right now and it seems like superhero, high-action, comic-hero-type stuff,” said Paul Kontonis, co-founder and chief executive of the Manhattan-based Web production company For Your Imagination, which was hired by Warner Bros. agency MediaCom to create a series of original videos as part of the Watchmen viral marketing campaign. “If you’re not into capes and masks and all that kind of stuff, you might not be drawn to it. But there’s a lot deeper of a story line going on here.”
In an effort to hint at the more universal themes of Watchmen, For Your Imagination recruited the main character in one of its live-action Web series, “Kyle Piccolo: Comic Shop Therapist.” Mr. Piccolo, played by actor Eric Zuckerman, is a tubby, balding, charmingly cheesy guy who doles out advice from behind his glass-cased post at Midtown Comics on West 40th Street. Call him a pseudo bartender for comic-addicted everydorks. In three special Watchmen-themed Kyle Piccolo episodes, thanks to technology created by New York-based adware company Innovid, clickable “Easter eggs” link to secret files from TheNewFrontiersman.net and drive traffic to the site. For example, in the beginning of the first episode, titled “3 6 9 – Part One,” a blinking piece of graffiti appears beneath a clock on the wall. Click on it and it will take you to a local radio station reporting on Watchmen-related riots in 1977 in New York City. The next time you click on it, the URL will change to another piece of marketing material. These eggs never get old.
Among the comic nerds, the videos have been a viral hit.
For Your Imagination is also integrating Kyle Piccolo and Watchmen references into three other Web series on their Axis of Comedy network, including Curb Your Enthusiasm-inspired satire The Retributioners, bumbling Greek philosopher series Phistophicles and Abigail’s Teen Diary, which stars male, overweight comedian Hayden Black as a videoblogging 13-year-old teen girl. In a recent episode, she whines about her boyfriend’s obsession with the movie, and points users to episodes of Kyle Piccolo.
“We knew strategically that the goal was to keep the comic core engaged,” Mr. Kontonis told The Observer. “But to also try to reach beyond it. We call it delivering the masses—getting people who are not familiar with the Watchmen to kind of come into the world.”
For Your Imagination had the right ideas. But for those who haven’t been engulfed in the Watchmen world—a dark, disturbed America in which Richard Nixon is still president, a “Doomsday Clock” ticks ever closer to nuclear warfare and former comic-book heroes are vigilantes, rape victims and mercenaries—the characters and plot line remain opaque, making the marketing campaign more work than play for those less, or un-, familiar with Watchmen. And this is a problem for a film with a $120 million budget that’s going to need more than die-hard comic nerds to recoup its costs.
A Warner Bros. representative told The Observer that it’s the studio’s policy not to discuss the viral marketing campaign, so we can only speculate on what caused the fumbles here. Perhaps getting tangled in a legal battle left their hands tied. But we wonder: Why no genius viral marketing campaign à la The Dark Knight? In anticipation of last summer’s blockbuster release, which came with a price tag of $185 million, marketers created an online world for fans to essentially live in. There were separate Web sites dedicated to the city’s cab company, TV stations and subway system. Users subscribed to a real printed newspaper, The Gotham Times, which included news articles and advertising from Gotham City businesses. Networks were set up for supporters of the Joker, Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne, pitting them against each other; hard-core fans voiced their opinions about the characters across the Internet and in real life by making their own posters and buttons. Fans were more than passive consumers; they were part of something bigger, something fun.
Of course, Batman—with his almost Rand-ian, self-sacrificing, megalomaniacal goodness—is an easier character for a mainstream audience to understand than just about anyone in Watchmen, which features a motley bunch of antiheroes with complicated backgrounds and questionable moralities. But these qualities also make them more like us: They are emotionally vulnerable, they are human and they provide plenty of material for self-exploration. You may not identify with a Watchmen character, but you will certainly prefer one over another, depending on which weaknesses or predilections you find most abhorrent, or attractive.
Certainly, there was plenty of material to mine to move the conversation online beyond the fanboys and into the mainstream, where this movie hopes to belong. Who, besides fanboys, will watch Watchmen? We wish we knew.