Disaster Film 2012‘s Viral Marketing Campaign Is Also a Disaster

Warning: The below post contains spoilers for the upcoming Roland Emmerich-directed film “2012,” starring John Cusack, Thandie Newton and Danny Glover. Trust me, you’re not missing much.

Back in the winter of 2008, I had more than a few good reasons to be excited for 2012, due out on Nov. 13: I’ve got a soft spot for both John Cusack and the apocalypse, the teaser trailer gave me chills, and Emmerich films are a guilty pleasure. Also, I liked what was then the very beginning of a viral campaign to promote the film, focusing around the Institute for Human Continuity, a fictional organization created to choose via lottery who survives the Mayan-predicted end times — it reminded me of the revolutionary ARG known as The Beast, which created a fascinating interactive prequel to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. in 2001.

Over the past six months, the viral marketing folk at Sony have expanded the online world of the film, adding more content to the IHC and launching two additional sites (This Is the End and Farewell Atlantis, the latter promoting a novel written by John Cusack’s nice-guy-just-trying-to-save-his-kids character). They’ve also been making heavy use of YouTube to release videos.

The IHC YouTube channel is posting video responses to questions asked on webcams by “vloggers” — the vloggers are plants, but some effort was put into creating fake YouTube accounts for them. And one of them looks more than a little familiar — that’s right, kids, it’s Woody from Cheers! As Charlie Frost on YouTube, Woody Harrelson has been reprising his character from the film (alleged to be a conspiracy radio host) to rant about the impending end of the world, and it must be said that the actor has a real knack for vlogging. Beneath all the hair, Harrelson’s eyes hold the camera’s gaze all too easily, and his drawling delivery adds charm to the same tired conspiracy theories behind what might cause the world’s destruction.

Here’s the sad truth, though. While it’s always nice to see a major studio make use of existing social media tools in a fun and creative way (especially a major studio whose CEO hates the Internet), there’s a major disconnect between the marketing campaign and the actual film being promoted. See, a number of film web sites, including CC2k and Latino Review (Google-cached version only) got their hands on the script last year. And while changes to the script might easily have been made since these reviews were written, the fact remains that the IHC and Charlie Frost sites compromise rather than complement the dramatic thrust of the film.

After all, if the end of the world isn’t supposed to be common knowledge in the year 2012, why does the IHC web site state emphatically: “In 2012 a series of cataclysmic forces will wreak havoc on our planet”? Compare that to the premise as laid out in the teaser trailer: “How would the governments of our world prepare six billion people for the end of the world? They wouldn’t.” Not to mention this line from Latino Review’s script review: “Finally we reach the titular year 2012. By now, signs of impending doom have been steadily accumulating…Nevertheless, people are going about their daily lives as usual, oblivious to the doom in store.” Perhaps the people in the film don’t have the Internet anymore? (Now THAT sounds like a disaster film.)

You can’t claim that those working on the marketing campaign weren’t aware of the actual film’s premise — the involvement of Harrelson alone proves that someone involved with the making of the viral marketing actually read the script at some point. Not to mention that the Charlie Frost video Watch my animation matches with THE ACTUAL EXPLANATION FOR THE APOCALYPSE in the script.

Perhaps my expectations were too high for a movie made by the guy who thought outrunning the weather would be compelling action for a summertime audience. But in theory, Sony had the resources to ensure that the offline and online components of 2012 would work together seamlessly, and it’s frustrating to watch that opportunity squandered in this way. I would love to see the film effectively being advertised by Charlie Frost and the IHC. But that’s not the film we’re going to get.

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