'Avengers' Beat Dr. Doom, but Can They Conquer Fickle Movie Public?

New Film Won't Be Hitting Screens Until 2012, but Marvel's Promotional Activity Is Ramping Up

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Marvel Entertainment's superhero team The Avengers has saved the planet from time-traveling world conquerors, alien baddies and outbreaks of witchcraft. Now they have to take on an even more daunting task: getting would-be moviegoers excited about a film that isn't slated to open until 2012.

SUM OF THEIR PARTS: For the 2012 'Avengers' movie, Marvel is using logos to tie toys to their umbrella platform.
SUM OF THEIR PARTS: For the 2012 'Avengers' movie, Marvel is using logos to tie toys to their umbrella platform.
Comic-book aficionados are well aware of Marvel's ambitious plan: It is releasing several films starring individual characters such as Iron Man, Captain America and Thor in hopes of stoking even greater buzz for a new movie about one of its superhero teams, The Avengers (made up of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and others).

The world at large, not as intensely interested in the comings and goings of people in garish costumes, may just shrug. To counter that possibility, Marvel has to work to ensure each film in the series leading up to its "Avengers" extravaganza -- Thor and Captain America will be released in 2011 -- is well received critically, is financially successful and can be used to drive buzz about and reference to the larger story at hand.

Marvel is about to use another avenue to spark buzz for its mammoth movie project. The company is working with various licensees to have products labeled with the phrase "Avengers Assemble" hit the marketplace, largely starting in late spring (although some product has cropped up in months past with the release of "Iron Man 2").

"You're going to see 'Avengers Assemble' logos and icons take more prominent positions," said Paul Gitter, president-consumer products for Marvel Entertainment. "On a lot of the packaging you're going to see everywhere, Marvel does tie back into 'The Avengers,' and the umbrella platform we have set up."

Among the goods set to roll out are a full line of action figures, vehicles and role-playing items from toy maker Hasbro; arts and crafts products from Crayola; die-cast toy vehicles and play sets from Maisto; and footwear from Brown Shoe. Additional licensees include Fruit of the Loom, Kids Headquarters, AME and Jem Sportswear.

The idea, said Mr. Gitter, is to keep fans and would-be moviegoers paying attention not only to news about each release, but also to a broader story playing out over a longer period of time. "You're going to build momentum by using each of the preceding brands almost as a marketing vehicle" for things to come, he said.

"Give consumers a way to 'live' the story and you will ignite their interest in the story brand, and then the brand story of the movie itself," said Sophie Ann Terrisse, CEO at STC Associates, a New York brand-management consultant.

There's a larger goal, too, said Mr. Gitter: "The big play here is that Marvel is really looking at our films more as brands and less as films. The goal here is to become more of a household name similar to Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. We want Marvel to take a much greater position in the minds of the consumer when they are thinking about our properties."

Marvel, recently acquired by Walt Disney, has strong reason to actively manage its characters. The company produces its films, but partners with other studios -- in the case of "The Avengers," it's Viacom's Paramount -- to get the movies out to the public. Sony distributes its "Spider-Man" movies, while News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox has handled its "X-Men" movies. Because box-office results can be fickle, Marvel also needs to keep a larger narrative unfolding in order to ensure seats will be filled if any one movie misses the mark.

Following the larger story seems to be driving anecdotal buzz: There's been nearly nonstop chatter about the movie from its stars and director, something which is almost unprecedented when a movie is still in preproduction. Actor Jeremy Renner has been on MTV to discuss the uniform being worn by his character, Hawkeye, a Marvel hero who has excellent archery skills. Actor Mark Ruffalo, slated to take over the role of the Hulk, has generated conversation by discussing the special effects expected to be used with the rampaging green juggernaut.

Additionally, each separate film contains subtle clues -- "Easter eggs," in comic-book-movie parlance -- that refer to the broader "Avengers" story. Captain America's star-spangled shield turned up in "Iron Man 2," for instance. Such appearances may play more directly to hardcore comic-book fans who know what the icons represent, but they spark chatter.

One academic who studies comic-book culture agrees with the strategy. "Even if the movie is years off and dependent on other properties, Marvel has already kind of assured the fan public that it will be for them, making it more and more an eagerly anticipated event," said Bradley Ricca, a lecturer in English who teaches about comics at Case Western Reserve University.

Whatever Marvel learns in its efforts, expect to see lessons learned applied well beyond the release of "The Avengers" film, said Mr. Gitter. He alluded to a plan in development pegged to 2017, but declined to offer details. As they say in the comics, to be continued.

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