For 'Avatar,' An Unprecedented Marketing Push

The PR campaign for the movie Avatar is unprecedented in its complexity and technology. Jesse Baker reports on how director James Cameron is trying to take a movie based on an original story and build the kind of fan frenzy that comes with a franchise.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the new film "Avatar," a group of scientists and ex-military personnel take an assignment far from home.

(Soundbite of film, "Avatar")

Mr. STEPHEN LANG (Actor): (As Colonel Miles Quaritch) Ladies and gentlemen, you're on Pandora.

Ms. MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ (Actor): (As Trudy Chacon) You should see your faces.

SIEGEL: Pandora is a moon inhabited by 10-foot-tall blue aliens who have tiger stripes and tails. They're computer generated. "Avatar" comes out this weekend, and it's the focus of a lot of hype because of its unprecedented use of technology. And the director, James Cameron, has tried to do the same thing with the ad campaign: make it as technologically advanced as the movie. The campaign is intended to stoke fan frenzy before fans know what they're frenzied about. Jesse Baker explains.

JESSE BAKER: If you're looking for people who are predisposed to being excited about James Cameron's latest film, Gotham City Comics in Manhattan is it. Sejo Alepano(ph), who's shopping at the store, has seen previews for "Avatar," but can't quite figure out the whole part about the sci-fi epic being a love story.

Mr. SEJO ALEPANO: It was hard to tell. The blue chick seems kind of interested in him, but it was hard to tell whether or not she really liked him or she just thought, oh, he was kind of cool.

BAKER: The confusion in the comic book store hits right at the heart of the film's marketing challenge: How do you sell an action movie when there is no franchise? Fans have no idea what the plot of the movie is when there is no book or videogame or TV show that it's based on.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man #1: Nothing gets you into "Avatar" like the taste of a Big Mac.

BAKER: McDonald's and Coke Zero are deploying 3D technology to help push the film and their products using - stay with me here - augmented reality.

Here's how it works for Coke Zero. You drink a Coke Zero, log on to their Web site and hold the Avatar graphic off the side of the Coke can or bottle up to your Web cam and it's supposed to unlock a virtual 3D Sampson helicopter on your screen.

Professor PATTI WILLIAMS (Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania): Essentially, you're now interacting with the character in the film.

BAKER: That's Patti Williams, professor at the Wharton School.

Prof. WILLIAMS: And so there's a sense of me-ness that's now a part of this film or a part of this film experience that might not have been there before.

BAKER: She says James Cameron is trying to sell you on a movie by putting you in it or at least in a helicopter exactly like the one in the movie. Other PR pushes allow you to explore Pandora in a Land Rover or follow a Navi as they jump from tree to tree on a tightrope of jungle vines. Rita Drucker has spent three years on "Avatar's" PR push. She's the senior vice president of film promotions at 20th Century Fox.

Ms. RITA DRUCKER (Senior Vice President of Film Promotions, 20th Century Fox): It's very rare that in our business you actually get an opportunity to work on an original idea. It's not a sequel. It's not based on a previously published work. It's not based on a comic book of any kind.

BAKER: Yeah, but how do you do that? How do you build a franchise starting from scratch?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DRUCKER: Very, very carefully.

BAKER: Or by keeping the plot to a minimum and banking on fans losing themselves in an augmented reality to sell some movie tickets. Now, all the film has to do is deliver.

For NPR News, I'm Jesse Baker.

BLOCK: And tomorrow on the program, I'll talk with Avatar's director, James Cameron.

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