The plot of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi film Prometheus—a sprawling exploration of the origins of man—may have raised some questions but the movie’s marketing campaign was, unquestionably, one of the most original and absorbing in recent memory. Ignition Interactive, the creative agency behind much of the Hunger Games’ online campaign (previously profiled on Co.Create), designed and executed a similarly complex and bar-raising effort that aimed to engage potential moviegoers in the mysterious world of Prometheus by utilizing bespoke content and some previously unexploited avenues for marketing.
While The Hunger Games had a rabid and active fanbase from the books long before that movie came along, Prometheus’ pre-existing fanbase was much smaller and less obvious. Film geeks and fans of Scott’s 1979 film, Alien (for which Prometheus is a prequel of sorts) form a dedicated core that Ignition was charged with expanding. The L.A.-based company did so by employing some of the tactics from the Hunger Games campaign as well as a number of new ones.
In the words of Ignition Creative Director Chris Eyerman, the first goal of the campaign was to "blur the boundaries between content and marketing, fiction and reality, story and game. It can be blurred to the point of invisibility, creating a holistic narrative experience that entertains and engages regardless of platform."
Here, Eyerman tells Co.Create how he and his team of 15-20 people accomplished that.
Surprise! Peter Debuts at TED
"My name is Peter Weyland, and if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to change the world." With that declaration, the marketing campaign was in full swing. Weyland, as played in the film by Guy Pearce, was speaking via video in a TED Talk from the future. 2023, to be exact (incidentally, the TED video shows Weyland at a time in his life that’s never shown in the movie. In Prometheus, Weyland appears as an old man). The TED Talk, which ran on TED’s blog, was an idea that came from co-screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Lost), and was produced out of Scott’s production company, RSA.
"If you want to score a hit, aim where nobody is expecting," says Eyerman. And nobody was expecting anything from TED. The fascinating, expertly produced TED Talk was done in TED’s riveting, crowd-pleasing style, and lent an air of authenticity to the launch. It also drove viewers to the campaign’s hub; the video’s endplate announced a new website for Weyland Industries. That high end, bespoke piece of content set the tone for the campaign that would have a few other surprises in store for intrigued audiences.
An Online Hub Gives Fans a Role
The Weyland Industries site is the core of the campaign. Phase one allowed visitors to sign up as investors and to learn basic details about the company. For those interested in going deeper, a puzzle was hidden in the site: A single star on the "About Us" page was blinking in Morse Code; fans who deciphered the code were led to a secret directory containing what Eyerman calls "one of the film’s most striking assets:" a high-resolution image of the star map on the ship of the Engineers, the human ancestors who are central to the film’s plot. "The image quickly went viral and helped sustain the momentum generated by the Ted Talk," says Eyerman. At the same time, it sparked online speculation about the details and meaning of the mysterious Project Prometheus mission.
"The audience should have an active role to play in the narrative and their own place in the story world," explains Eyerman. "Fans were given the opportunity to carve out an identity for themselves, whether as an investor in Weyland Industries—and by proxy, the Prometheus mission—or as a potential crew member training to be a part of the top-secret mission itself." Fans who engaged on this level were given torchbearer status, meaning they received new content first and they got acclaim on the property’s social channels.
Building Anticipation for Wondercon
In early March, "investors" in Weyland Industries were emailed an announcement of two new additions to the Weyland site: a corporate timeline that chronicled the company’s 83-year history; and a section of investor information in which a series of sharable infographics introduced shareholders to a wealth of information about the company’s activities and finances, and the funding for Project Prometheus. Deeper examination led to further discoveries, like this photo of Project Prometheus in action.
The weekend before nerdfest Wondercon saw "influencers" receiving Weyland business cards. Calling the number on the card led to audio ads for Weyland products and mention of a big announcement in the coming weeks. In turn, callers were texted back a first-look video of the David 8 android—another central character in the film. All this built excitement for the Prometheus panel at Wondercon and in turn drove traffic to the movie’s just-released trailer.
The Reveal of David 8—An Event To Rival a Major Tech Product Release
"The David 8 online announcement event had multiple touch points to maximize the program’s reach," says Eyerman. There were videos online and on TV for Verizon FIOS subscribers, as well as a series of print ads.
Access codes were distributed to select media and fans. Each unlocked an image of David (Michael Fassbender) expressing a particular emotion. All the codes together led to a full reveal of the David 8 page.
This was the high point of the campaign, says Eyerman: "It resulted in more social traffic than any other single date during the campaign, including the trailer’s release."
Linking In Influencers
The campaign found another unexploited site for its next surprise: LinkedIn. "We sent personalized 'InMails’ to contact influencers to apply for a job with the Weyland Corporation and take part in the Training Center experience," says Eyerman. The mere surprise of brazen outreach on an unorthodox channel sparked a series of tweets and articles praising the tactic.
Teaming Up with Microsoft and Building to a Pre-Release Fever Pitch
In May, an HTML5 experience engineered by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer team challenged fans to prove they had what it takes to join the Prometheus mission. "We kicked things off with a social puzzle framed as a collaborative application exercise," says Eyerman. To solve it, fans had to match an increasingly difficult memory/repetition test with hundreds of thousands of sequences. They gave the option to reduce the puzzle’s complexity by clicking a button to "Like" the Prometheus Facebook page; eventually, the puzzle became manageable enough to solve and phase 2 was unlocked.
Another site, Discover New Worlds, was launched to coincide with the transit of Venus, on June 5. The site was a platform to introduce the 63 colonies established by Weyland and encouraged users to uncover 20 pieces of new art hidden throughout the universe—art compiled by fans here.
Employee ID cards allowed users to receive a job assignment and an official date of employment; Project Genesis let fans assist Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in her search for ancient artifacts—a search that led across social media platforms and editorial sites. By trading tips and sharing strategies, fans could crack the code and unlock a hidden prize: a dossier of information about Dr. Shaw’s work.
Finally, Microsoft’s June 4 keynote speech at E3—four days before the movie’s release—had a surprise: Speaker Marc Whitten used a special section of the Project Prometheus site to unlock an exclusive clip from the movie.
But Wait, There’s More!
Moviegoers who stayed until the very end of the credits noticed a logo for the Weyland Corporation, the tagline "Building Better Worlds Since 10.11.12" and a URL leading back to the longstanding corporate timeline, which in turns led users to a new site: WhatIs101112.com.
Clearly something is in the works for this October 11, but Eyerman is keeping mum on details. "Yeah, something new happens at that time," he says. "I can’t say what but we’ll be doing a lot as a lead-up to that in the next three months."
Creating a Parallel Universe is Not Always Easy
"The biggest challenge, honestly, was that the movie was very secretive," says Eyerman. "So keeping the story going and keeping people interested with just the right amount of information was the line we tried to walk the entire time." That uncertainty about the narrative has, in many ways, been what has fueled the whole campaign. It was conceived as "a drip-feed of content" designed to encourage open-ended speculation. "The key is to never pre-package the answers. Insert gaps in the right places and create an environment where people are compelled to talk to each other to get the whole story."
Eyerman concedes that every transmedia campaign the firm undertakes for a movie raises the stakes. "We try to top ourselves every time," he says. "But really the thing we’re trying to do is tell stories through technology and bring the world of the movie to life for people to experience in community, and I think there’s always more to do there. The next campaign will be even bigger and better."