Warner Bros. Web Campaign Goes Guerilla Route

What happened to Evan Chan? That’s the question Warner Bros. is hoping piques the interest of Web savvy movie fans in advance of its release of the film “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.”

While the film centers on the experiences of virtual boy David Swinton (played by Haley Joel Osment), the Web campaign behind the movie is shooting to not only build buzz about the film before its summer debut, but to set the movie in a world all it’s own.

The effort consists of more than thirty linking Web sites, which circuitously describe the life, times and death of someone named Evan Chan. The story starts at the online trailer for the Stephen Spielberg-directed film — or rather, in the credits. One Jeanine Salla is credited as a “sentient machine therapist”; typing her name into a search engine leads to her office Web page, family page, and the start of a trail of clues that take fans deeper and deeper. Along the way, there are opportunities to decipher puzzles. One, for example, is based on the periodic table of elements; another involves intuiting Chan’s user ID and password, and thereby gaining access to his “e-mail.”

The network of sites is almost indistinguishable as the movie promotion it is. Salla’s Web page features links to her Web calendar, personal pages and voicemail (which users can call). Other links lead users to additional sites featuring all sorts of legitimacy-lending minutia: white papers, press releases, Web zines, banner ads, pages for robot advocacy groups. And the effort goes offline, as well. People following the trail of clues report receiving phone calls and faxes containing clues, after entering their contact information into forms on certain Web sites.

Even WHOIS entries for the pages turn up even more questions — revealing non-existent persons, non-working numbers, and still more links.

For the interested, the trailer is accessible at the main movie site, aimovie.warnerbrothers.com, designed by New York interactive shop thoughtbubble.

Warner Bros. isn’t saying much about the effort or the spending behind it, except to express pleasure at the results thus far. “We’re really proud of it,” said a spokeswoman for Warner Bros. Pictures. “We think it’s working well, and we hope people keep discovering it.”

Clearly, the work has had an effect. Web pages documenting the campaign/puzzle have sprung up like wildfire, with movie sites like Ain’t It Cool News and established media outlets like BBC News checking into it.

Indeed, the effort has even spawned a club, of sorts, “the Cloudmakers,” who post and share insights into the puzzle. As of this writing, the group counts about 1,800 members on Yahoo! Groups, and more than 7,100 postings.

The Web campaign behind the film — which Spielberg took over after the death of original producer Stanley Kubrick — mirrors the marketing behind Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” Television ads for “Eyes” featured clips from the movie, out of sequence, mysterious and entirely inscrutable.

Additionally, the “A.I.” effort also calls to mind the successful — and critically acclaimed — Web promotion behind Artisan’s “The Blair Witch Project.” As with “A.I.”, the Artisan Web effort sought to put the rumor mill into overtime by suggesting that the film was less a thriller than a straight documentary — and as with the “A.I.” promotion, the “Blair Witch” initiative spawned numerous fan groups, postings and sites dedicated to unraveling the mystery.

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