Hacker Flick “Swordfish” Taps Web Promotion, Contest

Following its "A.I." campaign, Warner Bros. continues to throw sizable resources behind "stealth" movie promotions on the Web.

Date published
May 29, 2001 Categories

Warner Bros. Pictures’ upcoming release of the action-adventure “Swordfish,” coming to theaters this summer, is being launched with an elaborate integrated marketing and advertising campaign.

Seeking to tie promotional efforts into the movie’s theme of hacking and cybercrime, Warner Bros.’s campaign for “Swordfish” centers around a Web site with ten hidden “levels” of password-accessible content.

When the campaign launched in March, visitors to the site were greeted only with a cryptic page that simply denied users access. But as weeks went by, the Warner Bros. released more passwords into the public domain through a variety of tricks.

“Each level was to be revealed by a password, and the passwords were revealed over time at a week to two week intervals,” said Don Buckley, a senior vice president at Warner Bros. Pictures and head of the company’s interactive marketing group. “It reflects the essence of the movie, which is about hacking and the pursuit of money that’s been squirreled away [electronically] … and so we thought ‘let’s reflect this in the structure of our sites.'”

As a result, eagle-eyed viewers can find passwords in the film’s television spots and movie posters.

Additionally, the New York-based Warner Bros. interactive marketing group tapped AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ (like the studio, each a unit of AOL Time Warner) to distribute some of the clues. For instance, a “gabrielshear” AOL IM screen name (taken from the character played by John Travolta) doles out passwords.

Unicast Superstitials, and static and rich media banner ads on AOL and elsewhere also provide hints. For instance, mousing over a banner on Warner Bros.’ sites voices one of the passwords necessary to get to a new level of content.

Next week, Warner Bros. said it would begin sending out rich media emails promoting the film. Recipients of the opt-in emails would be rewarded with a password if they forward the message to friends.

Warner Bros. also integrated elements of its out-of-home ad campaign with Alley-based startup Streetbeam’s infrared beaming technology. The upshot of that effort, which is taking place in New York and Los Angeles, lets PalmOS PDA users download a password and film information from bus shelter and phone booth placements.

Ads in Sunday’s New York Times and other major print outlets will feature bar codes readable by Digital:Convergence’s :CueCat scanner. More ads will appear the day before and day of “Swordfish”‘s June 8 premiere. The bar codes will link to a special Web site, Buckley said.

The :CueCat effort is also supported by a radio campaign currently running in the top 60 markets, encouraging listeners to pick up a :CueCat device for free at electronic retailer Radio Shack (with which Digital:Convergence has a longstanding distribution agreement).

Even traditional film publicity efforts are being tied into the “Swordfish” campaign. Stars Travolta, Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry were coached to let passwords slip during interviews, while another password is to be revealed Tuesday night through an “Access:Hollywood” segment on the film.

“There are just so many opportunities,” Buckley added. “We’re trying to use every one we have. For instance, during live coverage of the premiere, we’re going to stream it, and the host is going to reveal passwords in between interviewing celebrities on the red carpet.”

“We’re not trying to hide the movie, we’re trying to expose it,” he said.

Sensing a trend here? Earlier this year, the Los Angeles-based studio launched a much-touted, very hush-hush campaign for “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” which included a tightly integrated online and offline components (for instance, a clue in a national print ad would enable users to access a new Web site).

“The idea is to treat the Web site as kind of the center of this activity, when every offline exposure of the movie in some way brought you back to the movie, and vice versa,” Buckley said.

Warner Bros. has actually been running this sort of promotion since 1994, when it first promoted a Web site for “Batman Forever” in its offline ads.

“We used exposure on subway posters, reader ads on the front page of the New York Times … any way possible to get the URL out there,” Buckley said.

Unlike that inaugural effort, the “Swordfish” campaign is aiming to reel in viewers with a significantly deeper level of cross-media integration and user participation. But while the “A.I.” work has groups of Web denizens wrangling with staggeringly complex puzzles, the more straightforward “Swordfish” promotion is meant to reach everyone.

“There was never to be any less than six means by which a password is given out,” Buckley said. “With that redundancy … You don’t need the :CueCat, you don’t need a Palm Pilot. Most of the passwords are even being trading freely and frequently on message boards.”

Nevertheless, one element of the campaign Buckley and company are hoping stays quiet is a very specific enticement to see the movie. Hidden within each content level is a 4-digit alphanumeric keycode. By the time the movie debuts in June, all but the tenth keycode will have been made public. That final code will appear only at the end of film itself.

Once users drill down to the innermost level of the site using the final keycode, they’ll be eligible for a giveaway that includes a $50,000 GMC Yukon Denali and $25,000 cash, a Dell 4000 Inspiron PC, and more.

“We know that someone eventually is going to post that tenth keycode, though we believe a significant number of people will go to see the movie,” Buckley said. “We believe people are saying ‘we know that this is a movie, but we’re having fun.’ That’s been pretty gratifying.”

“And, it’s an evolving game, and there is a payoff,” he added. “So it’s not just fun to uncover various levels, but you might win a truck.”

It’s nigh impossible to rate how such campaigns’ bottom-line impact on big-budget release like “Swordfish” or “A.I.” But one measure might be fan reaction — and like the studio’s work for “A.I.”, there’s been a fair amount of buzz around the promotion, with user groups and Web pages springing up as a result of the promotion/contest.

“There was this guy who started a Web site that reverse engineers our own site — he’s been looking at our code for months,” Buckley said.

Regardless, with two major summer releases tapping elaborate Web campaigns to build buzz, the studio is clearly serious about its online marketing. Buckley declined to specify how much Warner Bros. has dropped on the online campaign to net such results, but said that “it’s a big summer movie, so we’ve invested accordingly.”

Some savings certainly came from Warner Bros.’s relationship to America Online, which Buckley described as “a big partner.” For instance, the company has inventory on AOL Instant Messenger and throughout the America Online service up to the film’s launch.

Such campaigns typically take enormous internal resources and coordination as well. As a result, the final campaign required buy-in from Warner Bros. Pictures’ national promotions and advertising units, the company’s in-house creatives, and Web designers, along with Buckley’s 12-person Web marketing group.

“There’s not one department in the marketing group at Warner Bros. who’s not represented in this campaign by some idea,” Buckley said. “We meet for a day, come out with strategic point of view based on what we know of the positioning of the film. As we get insights, we propose ideas to everyone else in marketing group … and invite criticism and new ideas. For instance, the Streetbeam idea came from a designer.”

“We try to do this with all of our movies, where we have true integration with every corner of the marketing group … both in New York and Los Angeles,” he added. “But this was one of the ones that took it to a higher plane.”

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