These days, the marketing campaign for a big tentpole begins the day that the film is announced. Hell, for some projects -- "Super 8," for instance -- the announcement is part of the marketing campaign. It's a long, hard slog, particularly for a film not based on material familiar to the general public, and it's something that a smart filmmaker will bear in mind throughout the entire process. Jon Favreau's come to know this world very well over the last few years with his two "Iron Man" movies, and when we sat in on a panel and caught up with him during interview rounds last weekend at WonderCon, he shared a certain amount of detail about his approach for this summer's hopeful blockbuster "Cowboys & Aliens," one of the few non-sequels and non-superhero movies competing in a marketplace that Favreau's already described as a potential "bloodbath."
Favreau claims that casting is one of his greater strengths, and the footage he brought to show off during WonderCon backed him up, biting into the star power of its two leads. Through all the explosions and spaceships, the moment that stood out most was stars Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig scowling at each other in a two shot. Favreau takes pride in maintaining the tradition, explaining, “A lot of these movies are about the effects and about the concepts. We’re one of the few movies that’s also about the cast and the stars. Typically before 3D, before visual effects movies the stars were the big point of departure for the audience. You’d be paying for the stars, you’d get the stars and you’d say ‘OK, who is going to see the next movie starring this guy?” "
Along with the film's star-power (Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde and Paul Dano are also among the impressive cast), Favreau's also banking on the film's high-concept to draw audiences in, even if he's aware that it's a double-edged sword. "The title was the original thing that drew me to it. I heard about it from [Mark] Fergus & [Hawk] Ostby [writers on the original "Iron Man"], when they were first hired to write it. I heard about it on "Iron Man 2" from Downey, when he was considering being involved with it. The best version of this movie could be awesome... After 'Zathura' having a title that people couldn't even pronounce, and a movie that never really dug in from a marketing stand point, I've come to appreciate something that's memorable. So the beginning of the campaign of 'Cowboys & Aliens' is saying 'here it is'... Now what we're doing is filling that box with what it is. Some people hear the title and expect that it's going to be a spoof. Some people hear the title, and hear what's been said about it, and think it takes itself too seriously."
But the director is adamant that the film shouldn't be a jokey parody of the kind that some people were expecting. "The fun comes out of the mash-up, it comes from the situation. It doesn't come from people making jokes that are dismissive of the stakes of the movie," he said. He's also keen to keep some elements of the picture under wraps: while WonderCon audiences were given a glimpse of the film's extraterrestrial antagonists -- which looked like something out of the "Lord of the Rings" movies, brutal and ogrish more than anything else -- Favreau told the audience: "By the way, you’re the only people that get to see that alien. We’re not showing anybody else. It’s not going in the marketing material so you get the only glimpse. There’s a whole end of the movie that’s all about the aliens on the ground that we’re kind of holding back from showing because we want to keep the sense of mystery."
It's an admirable stance, but Favreau admitted to us afterwards that, while he's keen to keep the creature under wraps, not everyone on the team agrees: "It’s still a conversation that’s going on. A marketing campaign more and more runs like a political campaign where there’s constant polling; there’s constant focus groups. These people are looking at taking the temperature of the audience all the time. The days of a bold visionary having a gut-feeling and going with their gut, regardless of what feedback they’re getting, those days are over I think.”
But the director also firmly believes that not putting your whole wares on display ultimately pays off -- "If you show two pieces to an audience, and one shows the entire movie, and the other holds things back, they will say that they like the one that they see everything in. But if you look at what they actually spend their money on, they tend to be more intrigued by something that holds a sense of mystery, where you feel you get to experience something new." We certainly hope he's right, and that we're able to walk into "Cowboys & Aliens" with some of the film's secrets under wraps.
Favreau's had immense success with comic-con audiences in the past -- "Iron Man" was a question mark in the eyes of many until the film's early sizzle reel stole the show at San Diego in 2007 -- and Favreau admits the role that the events have played in his career, and knows the importance of bringing your A-game to the geek mecca. "If I was to point to one thing that’s contributed to my career and the opportunities I’ve gotten it’s been the audiences at Comic-Con. I’ve bombed here before. I know what it’s like. I’ve underwhelmed them with footage from 'Zathura.' I’ve underwhelmed them with just showing a poster image from the first time for 'Iron Man.' That’s when I understood that you have to understand your audience. You always want to over-deliver; you want to do more than people are expecting.”
With "Cowboys and Aliens" hitting shortly after the San Diego Comic-Con, Favreau's promising something special for this year's event. "This year Comic-Con is going to be a week before we come out, so we got to do something big and different that nobody has done before. If we’re going to go, we better do something exciting.” We imagine that the film will screen across the weekend, but it sounds like the director has something else planned -- perhaps a wrestling match between Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, in full costume as James Bond and Indiana Jones.
We've got more to come from our talk with Favreau, and you can also catch up with more from yesterday about his new film at WonderCon here. "Cowboys & Aliens" hits theaters on July 29th, and it's already looking like one of the brighter spots of the summer. --reporting by Sean Gillane