The Stark Expo opens May 7. Located in Queens, New York, the event promises to be a World’s Fair style extravaganza showcasing tomorrow’s technological wonders in a maze of candy-colored pavilions, expos, and theatrical spectacles. The expo has an engaging Web site and a Facebook page, too. The thing is, it doesn’t exist.
This expo is part of a viral marketing campaign dedicated to Iron Man 2, a super hero flick from Paramount Pictures set to open the same day as the fictitious fair. Such campaigns could become even more prevalent now that Producers Guild of America has decided to give official credit to the producers of these intricate story tangents.
“It’s gonna be a real place?!?!?” asked one fan of The Stark Expo on Facebook. Her friend’s response: “No but a girl can dream….” The same dreamer wished another fan luck in her run on “a course around the future grounds of Stark Expo 2010!”
Since the fake company’s Facebook page was created – seemingly late last month – it’s generated thousands of fans, all looking forward to “Witnessing the future, firsthand.” Most seem to be in the know about the fact that Stark Industries and its Expo are associated with the upcoming movie, based on the Marvel Comics title Iron Man. Stark CEO Tony Stark – a.k.a. Iron Man – runs the defense industry firm.
On Thursday, fans were invited to “See the HazTech Exoskeleton at Stark Expo 2010.” Stark subsidiary AccuTech has unveiled “the latest breakthrough in anthropo-robotic physical enhancement,” a robotic armor of sorts allowing humans to perform acts of superhuman strength, such as breaking a brick in half like one would a chocolate bar. The company’s newest invention was touted on the Facebook page with a teaser asking, “Have you seen what just went on display at some of the Stark Expo 2010 pavilions? Here’s one we’re really excited about.” The Stark Expo Facebook fan base grew from around 5,600 to over 6,000 between Thursday and Friday.
The campaign is torn from the pages of other viral efforts for recent comics-inspired films, including Warner Bros. Batman movie, “The Dark Knight,” and Warner Bros. film “Watchmen.”
“It’s almost like the studios understand that audiences – while they’re excited for a big screen adaptation of their comic book heroes, there’s also a sense that the studios can really screw this up,” said Ian Schafer CEO and founder of Deep Focus. “So, they have to prove to the audience before the movie comes out…that they’re not screwing around. They’re investing everything in not just the production, but the story.”
The Dark Knight was released in July 2008, but elaborate viral efforts were trickling online as early as autumn 2007 when WhySoSerious.com launched, featuring a jack o’ lantern which slowly rotted as the days went on, revealing a scavenger hunt and message from The Joker on Halloween. Another component of the campaign enticed fans to submit photos of themselves as the sadistic character which were posted to RorysDeathKiss.com, a spoof of “Rory’s First Kiss,” the code name given to The Dark Knight during filming.
In March 2008, as the U.S. presidential elections heated up, Gotham’s candidate for District Attorney launched his own campaign. Ads for the fictitious candidate showed up online, linking to IBelieveInHarveyDent.com. The Joker’s answer to Dent appeared soon thereafter at IBelieveInHarveyDentToo.com.
Their desire to be in-the-know months before a film opens, as well as participate in the tales unraveling online makes fans of comics and their related franchises particularly susceptible to such marketing tactics. For instance, Iron Man fans have been helping create their own extensions of the Stark Industries side stories. “I have the bionic eye they are working on,” wrote one fan in a comment about AccuTech’s new robotic invention. “My cousin works at Accutech and he said I don’t want to miss the expo. I’ll be there!” stated another.
“Most of these things are appealing to a pretty small audience, but they’re the ones that set the initial barometer,” Schafer suggested.
As with other viral efforts, these campaigns are fed to key sites with loyal readers on the lookout for tidbits about their favorite pop culture titles and characters. Ain’t It Cool News reported on a Watchmen related site in June 2007, nearly two years before the film was released. The site’s founder, Harry Knowles, wrote that he had received e-mails from Rorschach, a primary character in the film; the cryptic message linked to RorschachsJournal.com, which allowed fans to send the obsessed character an e-mail message to which he responded – often with his catchphrase, “hurm.”
Other viral Watchmen efforts included a lush site featuring the contents of Rorschach’s Journal, sent to The New Frontiersman, a conservative news publication read by the character in the comic. TheNewFrontiersman.net also links to an “arcade game” related to the comic. A YouTube video featuring a clip from a 1970 edition of the fictitious NBS Nightly News cast about Watchmen character Dr. Manhattan also made the rounds after its January 2009 posting.
This muddling of film marketing with living narrative is evident in the fact that the Producers Guild just last week announced it would give credit to “Transmedia Producers.” The organization defines these producers as people who develop original extensions of “storylines existing within the same fictional universe” of film, TV, comics, “Narrative Commercial and Marketing rollouts,” and other platforms.
“What you’ll see is the people behind these stories are going to start getting credit themselves,” said Schafer, himself a member of the guild.
You can follow Kate Kaye on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.