After The Blair Witch Project defined the idea (see below), movie tie-in websites that carry the fiction of the film online have become increasingly common, though only a few of them have been as successful as that particular web-based walk in the woods. The following ten (including TBWP) are the very best of the bunch, rising above the pedestrian - don't feel too bad, The Amazing Spider-Man - and achieving multimedia marketing transcendence (unlike, say, Transcendence).
N.B. A.I.'s website, http://cybertronics-corp.cloudmakers.org, deserves a tip of the cap, but as it now contains malware, it doesn't deserve a click of the mouse.
The original and the best, this takes us back to a simpler time when the internet was a mysterious pursuit, adopted by slightly overeager early adopters (as this now highly ironic Onion article shows). Fully grasping the word-of-mouth magic that they had on their hands, the distributors invested a lot of money into peddling the myth that the film was real, suggesting that the three young filmmakers really were missing. Although the site today has a promotional intro that gives the game away, it still has the convincing-looking sections describing the “Mythology”, “The Filmmakers”, “The Aftermath” and “The Legacy”. As well as this, marketers distributed missing person flyers at film festivals and even altered the actors’ IMDb pages to suggest they were still missing. All in all, it worked brilliantly, making the most of the burgeoning interwebs to spread rumour, doubt and enormous excitement.
The Bent Bullet is a site particularly pleasing for history buffs, with archive footage of JFK interspersed with cleverly-edited shots of Michael Fassbender as everyone’s favourite metal magnate, Magneto. It’s well presented and has the feel of authentic digital journalism – reminiscent, in fact, of the New York Times’ lauded Snow Fall. At the centre of it all is the ingenious idea that Magneto himself was responsible for Oliver Stone’s favourite conspiracy theory about the “magic bullet”, while there are also hints of Mystique’s involvement, with mention of Lee Harvey Oswald’s “double”. Our favourite nugget is the glimpse of a poster with JFK’s photographs, boasting the headline, “Wanted For Treason” – it’s near identical to a real flyer distributed in Dallas the day before the President was shot, with just the prose beneath the photos undergoing some small, crucial tweaks. The Trask Industries website is similarly slick and professional, with some authentic-looking films promoting the company. Of course, both sites can only be so convincing, given that they’re all about mutants. Still, the Marvel and Fox logos at the bottom are a bit of a shame, as is the text on the Bent Bullet’s title page: “A fictional experience from the world of X-Men: Days Of Future Past”. Well, duh.
If The Blair Witch Project kicked off the in-universe online experience trend, The Dark Knight scored three hat-tricks, growled at the referee, then vaulted out of the stadium with a handy grapple gun. Instead of mocking up just one dead-end website, the geniuses at 42 Entertainment decided to take things truly viral. From just two lines of dialogue – “Why so serious?” and “I believe in Harvey Dent” – came a whole host of websites, videos and real-life challenges. Online, the official-looking campaign of Harvey Dent for Gotham’s District Attorney did battle with the Joker’s anarchic takeovers. For a campaign meant to promote a summer superhero film, it also managed to be remarkably creepy – click on www.ibelieveinharveydenttoo.com, for instance, and be sure to highlight the page with your cursor. All in all, a ridiculous amount of content surfaced – including a whole fake newspaper, The Gotham Times – every bit of which was enthusiastically hunted down and loudly trumpeted by fans. The whole campaign remains something of a gold standard for viral marketing, particularly when you consider the film’s subsequent $1 billion box-office takings.
We all know how J.J. Abrams loves to keep a secret (rumour has it his children are permanently banned from ever opening their Christmas presents, with toys and trickets sitting, still wrapped and gathering dust, under a long-dead Christmas tree), but he outdid himself in producing and promoting Cloverfield. First came the teaser trailer, lacking both title and explanation. Then came the online tie-ins. We got a website for fictional Abrams-universe drink Slusho!, deep sea drilling company Tagruato and a couple’s personal website – where, for those who lack the hacking know-how, the password is “jllovesth”. We really can’t emphasise just how much stuff was thrown out into the online ether. The main characters even had their own MySpace pages), unfortunately just missing the burgeoning Facebook wave. You may not remember who Lily Ford is, but MySpace sure does, complete with photos of her “life”. Sure, it all looks a bit much in retrospect (and Super 8’s similar efforts weren’t nearly as effective), but at the time, it sent film fans and internet sleuths half crazy.
Manufacturing pseudo-amateur blogs and social media presences is harder than it looks, which may be why some of the better recent campaigns have stuck to the corporate side. With that in mind, online promotion for Prometheus concentrated primarily on the business end, fleshing out a highly convincing site for Weyland Industries, the precursor to Weyland-Yutani. Within this is a truly fantastic promotion for David 8, “by far the most advanced and human-like cybernetic individual on the market today.” Ingeniously, they brought in real life corporate sponsorship from Verizon and Internet Explorer, giving it an extra layer of authenticity as well as some useful moolah. On top of all this, Prometheus secured an online coup de grâce in the form of TED. The hugely popular online lecture series agreed for the very first time to take part in a publicity campaign, resulting in Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) giving a speech at a TED event in 2023.
This is a fantastic example of just how immersive a site can be. Ahead of the release of Wall•E, when not much was known about the film, Pixar launched a website for “Buy n Large”, the monolithic corporation we saw in the subsequent classic animation. It’s detailed, convincing, and even has an intimidating disclaimer at the bottom: “By visiting the Buy n Large web site you instantaneously relinquish all claims against the Buy n Large corporation and any of its vendors... and / or strategic partners.” It’s even “© Buy N Large, 2057”. Unfortunately, in 2008 the site was pulled and the address (www.buynlarge.com) now redirects to the Disney website. There’s a bitter irony about a site that was intended as corporate satire subsequently being swallowed by a real life corporate machine, but it’s also quite appropriate. Fortunately, the excellent designer James Hutchinson helped create the site, and he has documented a fair bit of what it looked like and how it came together. Thanks James!
Now this really is scary. Ultimately meant to publicise Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, this pseudo-health site could easily trigger a hypochondriac panic in the casual observer. Beginning with the terrifying warning that just one in ten people survive contact with the “Simian Flu”, it provides a list of symptoms, tips on how to avoid getting it, and even a running (albeit fake) Twitter feed from "concerned citizens" about the virus. It’s brought to us by OPHA, the “Office of Public Health Awareness”, which also sounds pretty official. Again, the copyright spiel at the bottom is a giveaway (though it is flanked by an Anti-Ape Association logo), but otherwise it’s all quite paranoia-inducing – and with the ongoing Ebola outbreak, it’s also darkly topical.
In promoting the follow-up to the surprise dystopian hit The Purge, the marketing gurus went the whole hog with their online output. This is by far the most convincing promotional site on this list, from the blandly yet sinisterly patriotic URL (it's surprising it hadn’t already been snapped up by Sarah Palin or Rick Santorum) to the poll asking what you’ll be up to on “Purge Night 2023”. It’s intricate and well-designed, with some well-judged snippets of satire. The headline “Purge Prep: 6 Mistakes Of First-Time Purgers” could have come straight from Buzzfeed (all it lacks are some cat gifs), for example. It even has a delicious punch recipe! Well, we assume it’s delicious – we haven’t actually tried it, as it looks like it’d induce an immediate sugar-induced heart attack. Oh, and once again, we have a nice copyright detail at the bottom: “© 2023”.
After the storming success of District 9’s campaign (where real world signs warned that certain places were designated “for humans only”), Elysium went viral. The results weren’t quite as impactful, but this site does a good job of setting up the creepy world of Elysian perfection. For instance, if you choose not to connect to the site via Facebook, you get the following, all too familiar response: “Your decision not to connect via social network arouses suspicion. This has been noted on your record. Let us proceed.” From there, you answer various questions which are impossible to bypass, all creating a frustratingly realistic sense of Kafkaesque, emotionless bureaucracy run amok.
In 2005, Serenity – the little sci-fi that could (or couldn’t, considering the lack of sequel) – released some intriguing clips titled “The R. Tam Sessions” on a now defunct website. R. Tam is, of course, River (Summer Glau), and we get to see her being interviewed and committing a bit of the old ultraviolence. The complete series of short films is still on YouTube after being included on the collectors’ edition DVD. Though they didn’t help the film box-office-wise, the short films are well made, even with a clear lack of budget (for one, Joss Whedon plays the interviewer). Clearly this website malarkey can be a chance for something artistic, if you’re that way inclined.