Amidst the various filmmakers and studios that screened footage of their upcoming projects at the 2010 Wondercon in San Francisco, Walt Disney continued their slow (if not altogether subtle) campaign for Tron: Legacy, easily one of the year's most highly-anticipated films. Rather than bringing in stars like Jeff Bridges or Olivia Wilde and screening clips or previews in the Esplanade Ballroom, however, Disney shrewdly hijacked some of the Friday night programming at the 'Con in order to raise awareness through an Encom-themed press conference in nearby Embarcadero Center. But despite Disney's ability to assemble a considerable crowd and hand out enough swag to ensure folks would be wearing "Flynn Lives" t-shirts at least all weekend, the questions remains: how successfully is their viral campaign going?
In the last several years, viral campaigns have become an increasingly important part of raising awareness for new films. Warner Brothers in particular boosted The Dark Knight's visibility by enlisting fans to participate in online games, shepherding them to dummy web sites, and even dumping one-dollar bills tattooed with pictures of The Joker onto the streets of San Diego during the 2008 Comic-Con. So far Disney has expertly mounted a grassroots campaign for the new Tron film by staging contests, hosting giveaways, and really making the fans an integral part of unveiling new promotional materials. But that's what they are: promotional materials. Last month, fans raced to unlock binary code that eventually showed just a single image from the film.
Friday night, Disney took this campaign to new levels when emails arrived in the in-boxes of journalists and fans alike, announcing an Encom press conference at 8:00 PM hosted by no less than Alan Bradley, the character played by actor Bruce Boxleitner in the 1982 original film. Subsequently, subscribers to the web site FlynnLives.com received another email encouraging them to meet at 6:30 in an adjacent hotel, where they would receive instructions (along with t-shirts and posters) on how to "disrupt" the press conference. (Cinematical's requests for interviews with Bradley were responded to politely by an "official" Encom p.r. representative, but currently we're unaware of any actual interviews conducted in conjunction with the event.)
Unfortunately, neither of the events were as well-organized as one might have hoped, whether from a journalistic or purely fan-driven point of view. The dissemination of shirts and posters went smoothly enough, but the process of describing the "protest rally" and the process of disrupting the press conference was shaggy at best. At the press conference itself, meanwhile, Bradley appeared with his wife Laura in tow – an obvious but much-appreciated concession to fans of the original who wondered where Cindy Morgan's character had been – but his speech, while interesting, didn't seem to unspool as expected given the promises of takeovers and disruptions: Bradley and his wife were already leaving the stage when an Encom representative approached them to announce how "technical difficulties" would require them to exit.
Immediately afterward, the "protesters" took the stage to make their case, and while their impassioned speech seemed to fulfill the demands of the event's makeshift narrative, no one appears to have been cast to, say, respond to their activities, making the event a one-sided confrontation with Encom at best. Finally, however, a helicopter bearing the Encom logo circled overhead, and a man parachuted out of it to land at Embarcadero Center. While the stunt certainly prompted a number of journalists to contemplate how long they would film if something truly disastrous was happening (until a boot landed in their faces, it was determined), the fact that the parachutist landed away from the stage and immediately drove off in an awaiting vehicle gave the attendees no sense as to the point of the exercise.
In fact, so ambiguous was the end of the press conference that one of the Encom reps actually took the stage again to tell the crowd to disperse. But if even fans aren't sure where the fictional story ends and reality begins, how effective can this sort of campaigning be said to be? There's certainly a case to be made for involving fans and future viewers in the larger universe of a film, but how much of this would be better served by, as many other films at Wondercon did, simply showing a preview or clip?
Admittedly, I've been thrilled by much of the marketing of the film thus far, not the least of which because Tron: Legacy is my most highly-anticipated film of 2010. Last summer when Disney put together a vintage arcade that contained models of the new light cycles, I stayed inside, giggling at the life-sized vehicles, until they physically ejected me. But there seems to be a line between introducing – or in this case, reintroducing – a film to audiences, and providing publicity payoffs that aren't worth the effort they require to discover. The idea of "overthrowing" a press conference seems theoretically exciting, but other than getting t-shirts, pins or other swag, how much are the fans benefiting from playing a part in something which, ultimately, provides almost no information about the film, and in this particular case, forces them to stand around in the cold and rain for hours at a time?
I won't pretend to know how the individuals who literally "overthrew" the press conference felt, nor judge those in the crowd who found it to be a fun, exciting, interactive experience. And of course, I have no actual idea how the events of the press conference play into or will possibly affect the film itself; but one can only assume that Disney and the filmmakers wouldn't leave the cinematic repercussions of even an insignificant moment in Tron's narrative to the unpredictability of attendance numbers, poor weather, or other unforeseen circumstances. But that said, I'm not sure I felt like the collective effort to attend not one but two events in adverse conditions balanced out the benefit of receiving another Tron t-shirt to flesh out my developing wardrobe of swag from the film.
But it's abundantly clear that the producers of these campaigns, and by extension the studios themselves, must dance a delicate line between generating interest in new and upcoming films and exasperating those same fans by making them jump through too many hoops to make the payoff – meaning the movie – unworthy of that effort. Will Tron: Legacy live up to its hype? I certainly hope so. But between now and its December 17th, 2010 release date, I think I would prefer to see a few more pictures, previews and story details, and fewer frigid evenings waiting for other fans to bum-rush Bruce Boxleitner. Unless of course I could maybe be one of those fans.