Universal Pictures’ “The Five-Year Engagement,” a comedy starring Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, debuted in theaters on April 27, 2012, the same day the last of sixty three posts went live on tomandviolet.com, the faux blog and primary online marketing vehicle for the film. Working under contract to Jetset Studios, MWS Media created and maintained the custom WordPress site running tomandviolet.com, and managed the content updates for Jetset throughout.
The Intent of Tomandviolet.com
Almost exactly four years previously, Universal employed a suite of fake websites, including the Blogger blog ihatesarahmarshall.com, to promote another Jason Segel comedy, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” The site was presented as written by Segel’s character, Peter Bretter, and featured thirty five text and video posts from late February to mid-April 2008, running roughly parallel to the events in the first third of the film.
Tomandviolet.com is a larger-scale endeavor in the same vein, with nearly twice as many posts running from early December to the film’s release in late April. Where Ihatesarahmarshall.com was “written” solely by Peter Bretter, tomandviolet.com is presented as an engagement blog with the posts largely shared by the fictional couple, Tom Solomon (Segel) and Violet Barnes (Blunt).
In addition to text and video posts from Tom and Violet, tomandviolet.com includes in-character “guest blog” video posts from several members of the supporting cast. To push the in-world illusion farther, each post has comments from Tom and Violet’s friends and family and a guest book page for the general public to play along.
Although an “official” website for the film exists, only tomandviolet.com is promoted in the theatrical and restricted trailers, print and outdoor materials.
Tomandviolet.com – Ingredients
Tomandviolet.com is a self-hosted WordPress installation (as opposed to a site hosted on wordpress.com) with a custom theme built with the premium Catalyst theme and Dynamik child theme. I created the theme from Photoshop comps designed by Jetset Studios using both original material and assets provided by Universal.
Since the conceit is that tomandviolet.com is a personal blog written by a couple of ordinary folks, in-character video posts featuring Segel, Blunt and other cast members were simple embeds from Tom and Violet’s YouTube channel.
Custom functions were necessary to force WordPress to display comments on blog post archive pages.
In addition to the usual backup, anti-spam, caching and SEO tools, the following plugins were used to create the tomandviolet.com custom WordPress site:
- AddThis Social Bookmarking Widget – a simple solution for social sharing, and just the sort of thing people with nominal technical savvy (like Tom and Violet) would utilize… with the added benefit of real analytics tools for the marketing folks at Universal.
- Artiss YouTube Embed – Used to add a YouTube playlist widget in the sidebar.
- Comments Notifier – Allows more than one person to receive e-mail notifications of new comments, a must on a project with numerous caretakers at the interactive agency. Necessary to monitor and vet the “guestbook” entries from the public, which utilizes the built-in WordPress commenting system.
- Disable Check Comment Flood – Essential to enable pre-populating and post-dating of the fake comments on each blog post.
- Simple Local Avatars – Since each blog post comment is actually from a fictional person, I created user accounts for each character. This plugin provided a simple means to assign each user with an avatar — a must when your comment authors are actually characters played by actors.
- User Switching – This plugin hugely simplified the process of adding comments from different “users” to each blog post.
- WP-ViperGB – A guestbook plugin, somewhat customized for this project, enabled real people to celebrate the engagement of Tom Solomon and Violet Barnes.
Here’s what I learned from creating and maintaining the custom WordPress site for “The Five-Year Engagement.”
As convenient as the premium WordPress theme framework Catalyst can be for rapid custom theme development (especially testing and employing custom css), I found it a little restrictive when it came to some of the more non-standard needs of this site. Catalyst (and its option-packed child theme, Dynamik) is great for most clients’ needs, but the next time something like tomandviolet.com comes along, I’ll probably either build the theme from scratch or work with a more flexible theme framework like Thematic.
It’s a testimony to the health and vitality of the WordPress community that most of the functional demands of tomandviolet.com were met by free, out-of-the-box plugins. I’ll take spending time plumbing Google and WordPress.org for the tools to do the job over re-coding the wheel any day of the week!
The key to successfully executing this five-month project was to automate and streamline as much of the process as possible. Thankfully, nearly all sixty-plus blog posts were written by Jetset Studios, filmed by the cast, and approved by the filmmakers and studio well ahead of time, and revisions and changes (a given when dealing with the onion-layered hierarchy involved in making and marketing a major motion picture) were minimal.
New content posted every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at ten AM Pacific time for twenty two weeks. I took full advantage of the WordPress “schedule post” function, and the Disable Comment Flood and User Switching plugins made things much more manageable than would have otherwise been possible. Even so, I made sure to double-check the blog on post mornings — WordPress is great, but it’s still important to keep a human eye on things to make sure the trains run on time.
I handled WordPress updates as needed, and worked with the Jetset Studios sysadmin to optimize caching and performance. Some performance issues could have been anticipated; in the future I’ll be sure that the client’s servers are ready for the lucky curse of minor “viral” success.
Starting with an early Huffington Post nod, buzz for tomandviolet.com has been favorable and the intended audience seems to like it. I’m going to assume Universal wouldn’t be cool with me revealing specific traffic data for tomandviolet.com. That said, we can look at some publicly available information:
- Guest Book Comments: 500 and counting.
- YouTube Views: Nearly 80,000 and counting across eleven videos featured on tomandviolet.com.
- Google Page Rank: 4
- Opening Weekend Box Office: $10.6 million. But it’s a long summer…
Of course, that last one is what really matters! If tomandviolet.com helps make “The Five-Year Engagement” this year’s “Bridesmaids,” perhaps Universal will want a custom WordPress site for the sequel in a few years. Surely Tom and Violet will want to blog about their first pregnancy..?
Potential For Marketing and Storytelling
MWS Media’s responsibility on tomandviolet.com didn’t extend beyond creating the custom WordPress site and publishing the content. Still, since MWS Media provides a variety of creative services and I am first and foremost a creator and storyteller, I can’t resist sharing some thoughts on the potential of a faux blog as a marketing and storytelling instrument.
By adding scripted comments to the mix and inviting actual users to contribute to the discussion via the guestbook, Universal took tomandviolet.com a step farther than ihatesarahmarshall.com. The next step for future projects (by Universal or anyone else) would be to create content that didn’t simply shadow the original script but actually adds to the story and enhances the storyworld in a substantive way.
I haven’t seen “The Five-Year Engagement” yet, and it’s been months since I read the script, but presumably, like other Jason Segel scripts, there’s a strong “B” plotline involving a couple of the secondary characters — see “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” for the example of the religiously uptight newlyweds. A faux blog, focused on secondary story, would be a great way to add depth and new information to the tentpole content.
Plan From Inception
It’s not enough to build a story-driven marketing effort around an existing script and the moving target of talent availability and willingness to participate. Future marketing efforts like tomandviolet.com could really shine both as promotional vehicles and storytelling opportunities, but only if auxiliary experiences (some might say “transmedia content”) are considered from the inception of a project.
This is not to say that the screenwriter needs to concern themselves with actually creating the auxiliary experience. It might be enough to insert “sockets” in the the primary story for others to “plug in” supplemental content. That said, the screenwriter should organize their backstory ephemera in such a way that its useful to other creators. In other words: screenwriters need to think in terms of storyworlds, not just stories.
What if the creator of a project doesn’t have the resources of time or energy to build their screenplay out into a fully realized storyworld, ripe with opportunities for expansion? That’s where people like me come in, of course!
What Do You Think?
Have you been following tomandviolet.com? Did you see “The Five-Year Engagement?” How well do you think the custom WordPress site helped drive moviegoers to the film? Did tomandviolet.com enhance the movie for you? Let me know in the comments!