In 2006, Platinum Studios published the graphic novel “Cowboys & Aliens”. It was promptly optioned by Paramount and Universal. That’s a very long story that I will probably never get into here, as it had much more to do with folks like Rich Marincic and Gregory Noveck than it did with me. That’s their story to tell, not mine. That year, though, I came up with something I called “Cowboys & Aliens: Worlds at War”.
The basic premise of C&A in case you haven’t seen it (and judging by the box office, most of you haven’t) or read it (again, signs say you might have missed the graphic novel, too) is that in 1874, an alien spacecraft lands in the Old West. Cowboys and Indians must band together to fight off these alien invaders and drive them from our planet, which they do. Worlds At War started a year later when they come back in force, all over the world. The plan was to find webcomic creators in every corner of the world to tell the story of an alien invasion in 1875 in their own country. What would aliens landing in feudal Japan look like? How would prisoners in Australia react when their English jailors were suddenly killed by demons from the sky? We would get as many different teams around the world working on it as possible. Simultaneously, Steve Jackson, great-great-grandson of Zeke Jackson (the main character of the graphic novel) would be blogging from his archeological dig in New Mexico. You see, he had always heard tall tales of his ancestor’s fight against monstrous invaders and was anxious to either refute or verify these tales. Over the next three years, Steve’s quest (detailed on his blog, Tall Tales) would lead him around the world, investigating other alien sightings all centered around the late 19th century. Followers would be encouraged to delve into their own family tree and share stories on Tall Tales about experiences handed down that they had investigated. Steve had photos of himself on his dig, a myspace page, several hundred friends there and his own blog when we decided to take it to the studio and get their buy-in on it.
In 2007, they looked at me like I was speaking some foreign language and eventually told me to politely go play my little games, as it would not help the marketing of the film one bit, four years out. Clearly, I didn’t know much about the marketing of the film which is mostly centered around buying every ad space you could for the 60 days before the film comes out. Obviously, that is how one creates a successful franchise in 2011, right? Spend tens of millions of dollars on traditional media buys instead of a bit of money on some weird marketing plan that got people involved in their entertainment, right?
We tried it on our own for a while. We hired a very talented webcomic creator named Jeremy Mohler and had him start the webcomic collective creation element while I ran the ARG (even thought we didn’t call it that at the time). Unfortunately, Platinum decided to spend money on some other things at the time and eventually it all dried up and the company could no longer keep paying Jeremy. You can see the start of his work here. It’s really an amazing start and I wish we could have continued it but without the studio’s financial backing, a small comic company just couldn’t afford to keep it going. I tried to keep the other parts going, but eventually the studio stepped in and decided we were getting too much attention that they needed to control. The facebook page (with nearly 2000 likes in ), the twitter feed (with about the same number) and everything else was handed over to them where it sat dormant for the next two years.
In November of 2010, nearly eight months before the movie came out, I sat in a marketing meeting on the Universal lot with Jon Favreau, Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer and every other bigwig from Dreamworks, Universal, Paramount and Imagine. (And I’m not bigging myself up by saying I was in that room. I was at the very bottom of the invites and barely rated a tiny chair at the far end of a very big table.) I piped up when someone asked “What is our transmedia plan for the next six months?” To which, someone in the digital department said, “Well, we’ve got a facebook page with nearly 2,000 fans already and a twitter feed with nearly the same number.”
In my tiny chair at the end of a very big table, I shook my head as everyone congratulated this person on a great start with so much time left to grow it.
More on this all later.