'Iron Man' vs. 'The Dark Knight'

Which Superhero Movie Packed the Biggest Media Punch?

By Published on .

Antony Young
Antony Young
Summer blockbusters "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight" both showed superhero-like powers when it came to pulling in box-office receipts. "The Dark Knight" delivered a thumping $158.4 million last weekend -- an industry record. "Iron Man's" $98.6 million initial weekend take surpassed all expectations. Talented directors, great lead talent and sensational reviews from critics were naturally a major part of both films' successes. But the marketing and media behind these two Hollywood franchises was a critical ingredient to maximizing both films' potential.

Paramount developed the "Iron Man" media strategy for Marvel Entertainment's first funded production, while Warner Bros. was behind "The Dark Knight." The companies took quite different media strategies. Let's review how well they did.
5 stars Outstanding/Innovative
4 stars Highly effective
3 stars Good
2 stars Disappointing
1 star Disaster
Communications and Content Strategy
"Iron Man": 4 stars
"The Dark Knight": 4 stars

The two films had entirely different communication strategies. The "Dark Knight" strategy centered around teasing the film and gradually piquing interest. Warner had a well-known franchise, an established fan base and a built-in trailer in "Batman Begins." Advertising for "The Dark Knight" gave very little of the actual story away, focusing instead on other aspects of the movie. Warner devoted a much bigger chunk of its efforts to developing supplementary online material that could be spread virally -- building upon the storylines, the Gotham City setting and characters such as the Joker and Harvey Dent -- without disclosing many plot elements.
'Iron Man' vs. 'The Dark Knight'
'Iron Man' vs. 'The Dark Knight'

Because Iron Man is a much lesser-known superhero, the movie took a much more traditional media approach, focusing on generating awareness and promoting the material itself -- the effects, the best scenes and the best lines, in addition to leveraging its celebrity cast of Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow. Online efforts revealed footage rather than just featuring trailers. As a consequence, audiences had a pretty good feeling they knew what they were going to see at the film itself.

"Iron Man": 4 stars
"The Dark Knight": 3 stars

The release strategy in this instance was a crucial and ultimately influential decision. Paramount made the correct move in opening first with "Iron Man" on May 2. This allowed them to lead into the summer blockbuster season, avoiding the full brunt of media noise from the likes of "Speed Racer," "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." It had the other benefit of putting some daylight between itself and "The Dark Knight" marketing push. This was critical in the need to establish awareness of the lesser-known franchise.

Early Buzz: Targeting Opinion Formers
"Iron Man": 5 stars
"The Dark Knight": 2 stars

To create early buzz, both films needed to activate their fan bases. Marvel and "Iron Man" demonstrated their experience in speaking to the Comic-Con crowd to ultimately upstage "Dark Knight" efforts. They literally stole the show at the July 2007 San Diego event. Appearances of the Iron Man suits and Robert Downey Jr. were well-received. "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau screened film clips that were followed by the only standing ovation of the entire show. Favreau later said the fan reaction persuaded Paramount to go full-throttle on marketing support. Whether true or not, this got fans more solidly behind this film.

"The Dark Knight" was light in comparison, launching the viral online campaign using skywriting planes and Joker-ized dollar notes. But a lack of trailers and no-shows from Chris Nolan and Christian Bale left fans at Comic-Con feeling empty. According to BuzzMetrics, early blog volume for "Iron Man" was consistently higher than for "The Dark Knight."
Because Iron Man was a much lesser-known superhero, the movie took a much more traditional media approach, leveraging its celebrity cast of Robert Downey Jr., among others.
Because Iron Man was a much lesser-known superhero, the movie took a much more traditional media approach, leveraging its celebrity cast of Robert Downey Jr., among others. Credit: Paramount Pictures

Online Marketing
"Iron Man": 2 stars
"The Dark Knight": 4 stars

Warner Bros. showed a lot of imagination with "The Dark Knight's" online marketing program, compared to what were more standard platforms for "Iron Man." They developed an elaborate online viral campaign that entailed a series of interactive experiences, competitions and story builds, including more than 30 different "Dark Knight" websites. "Dark Knight" fans who went to WhySoSerious.com in December found themselves invited to a scavenger-hunt challenge with instructions that sent them to bakeries in 25 different U.S. cities. After asking for an order left for "Robin Banks" ("robbing banks"), they were given a cake with a phone number written on it. Inside the cake was an evidence bag that contained a Nokia cellphone and a Joker playing-card with more clues. There was a website of the fictional newspaper The Gotham Times, a site for Gotham City's district attorney, Harvey Dent, suitably defaced by the Joker, and even a site for the subway map of Gotham City.

"Iron Man": 3.5 stars
"The Dark Knight": 4 stars

Both websites were of an exceptional standard. The usual synopses, photo galleries, trailers, wallpaper and screensaver downloads prevailed. I give "The Dark Knight" website the slight edge here. The design was visually arresting, and I enjoyed how the full trailer immediately played in widescreen as the intro to the website. I liked the "Experience" section of the "Iron Man" website, which introduced the characters with scenes, audio and pictures from the film.
The websites for both films were of an exceptional standard, but 'The Dark Knight' site got the slight edge due to its visually arresting design.
The websites for both films were of an exceptional standard, but 'The Dark Knight' site got the slight edge due to its visually arresting design.

"Iron Man": 4 stars
"The Dark Knight": 3.5 stars

TV and film trailers are the foundation of all big film releases and are important for driving awareness to the wider mass audience. For "Iron Man," TV was a crucial element, given its strategy to establish the lead character of the film. "Iron Man" kicked off its TV plan by revealing its first trailer in the Super Bowl. This was a smart decision. It helped announce the movie to the widest possible audience and drove press coverage of the movie early on. "Iron Man" was the third most-viewed Super Bowl commercial on the USA Today site the next day. "Iron Man" also benefited from synergies within Viacom (Paramount's holding company) to laser-focus on its core young male demographic, showcasing footage and trailers on MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, Spike TV and TV Land. There was a nice placement on CMT's "Trick My Truck," where the show did an "Iron Man"-style makeover of some guy's truck.

Warner rolled out over 15 different TV creative executions, each taking a slightly different tone. Some focused on Batman, some on the Joker, but most offered unique variations of footage from "The Dark Knight." They pumped these heavily in the three weeks preceding the release. The History Channel ran a special on the history of Batman that explored the psychology of the character, emphasizing his vigilante tendencies. MTV and MTV.com did some interesting promotions around "The Dark Knight," interviewing past Batmans from Adam West to Michael Keaton, and ran a piece on the influence of comics on "The Dark Knight." HBO screened "Batman Begins" and ran a special "First Look" preview program the week of the opening.

Marketing Partnerships
"Iron Man": 3.5 stars
"The Dark Knight": 2.5 stars

"Iron Man" got better synergies from its marketing partners and an estimated $50 million of additional marketing exposure. It worked with notable companies such as Audi, LG, Burger King and 7-Eleven -- impressive considering it was not an established brand or a proven box-office performer. Paramount ultimately gave back more to sponsors with highly visible branded integrations in the movie, from Tony Stark's asking for a real American cheeseburger (courtesy of BK) after being held captive by terrorists in Afghanistan to his driving an Audi 8 and using LG phones, both of which are credibly aided by the film's high-tech background.

Its marketing partner associations helped the movie cover a wide range of demographics, from affluent and aspiring adults aged 30 and over (Audi), to more child- and family-based audiences (Burger King), to males aged 18-34 (7-Eleven), which helped give their media plans more reach.
Paramount's partnerships with such notable companies as Audi, gave 'Iron Man' an estimated $50 million of additional marketing exposure.
Paramount's partnerships with such notable companies as Audi, gave 'Iron Man' an estimated $50 million of additional marketing exposure.

"The Dark Knight" had a wider list of marketing partners that included Nokia/Verizon, Comcast, Domino's, Giorgio Armani, Xbox 360, Hershey's and General Mills. They included highly organic brand integrations on their website. Comcast acted as a distributor of the Gotham Cable News station and its "Gotham Tonight" news show. The episodes, which chronicled the campaign of Harvey Dent, sightings of Batman and other local-interest items, were broadcast to Comcast subscribers and on Comcast's website.

"Iron Man": 3 stars
"The Dark Knight": 4.5 stars

Warner Bros. delivered a stronger PR effort for "The Dark Knight." This was illustrated most visibly in the final three-week buildup to the weekend release. Successive waves of stories about the film helped to build buzz and create demand for the all-important opening weekend. These started off with news of record advance-ticket sales, followed by speculation about Heath Ledger being posthumously nominated for an Oscar and announcements of unprecedented 6 a.m. screenings.

"The Dark Knight" managed the unexpected death of Heath Ledger with a high degree of tact and skill. Insiders at the studio commented that his tragic passing became a big boost for the film's awareness levels. Internal tracking showed that following his death, awareness levels of the film reached extraordinary levels, and more importantly, interest in seeing the film increased roughly 20%.
Antony Young is president of Optimedia U.S., a Publicis Groupe company. His first book, "Profitable Marketing Communications" (Kogan Page), was published late last year.

In Summary
Generally, first-weekend box-office receipts are a strong indicator of the film's marketing programs. Both films exceeded expectations. "The Dark Knight" looks set to be one of the biggest films of all time. Its success was built on a terrific film and Warner's ability to convey that. "The Dark Knight" displayed innovation, particularly on the web, and was much savvier in its PR efforts. It's clear that the unexpected death of Heath Ledger significantly boosted awareness of the film.

"Iron Man" did amazing things with a smaller budget for both the film production and the marketing. The Paramount marketing team had a clear strategy and executed it brilliantly. They used promotions to fully maximize this film's potential. They had the extra challenge of competing with the simultaneous launch of the "Grand Theft Auto IV" video game, which sold 6 million copies in its opening week. The film's $98.6 million weekend opening blew past analysts' predictions of $70 million. From where I'm sitting, I can't call a winner overall, as both studios delivered outstanding media and marketing programs with stunning results. Guess it pays to have superheroes on your side.
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