In the past few weeks, citizens of New York City and Los Angeles may have noticed a couple curious billboards advertising a company called Capitol Couture. One features a man wrapped in a burnt-orange-and-white houndstooth body suit and wearing gold wraparound sunglasses; the other features a woman in an abstractly stylized hat and visor staring back at a bottle of perfume labeled "CINNA" with the tagline "L'Essence D'un Champion."
Neither product is real, but if you're a serious fan of The Hunger Games, you have already figured that out. These ads are actually part of an ongoing marketing campaign for the second film in Lionsgate's highly lucrative franchise, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. But rather than straightforward posters and trailers featuring stars Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, the "Capitol Couture" campaign offers an exhaustively detailed dive within the high fashion opulence and ostentation of the main city of the quite fictional nation of Panem.
Capitol Couture was actually launched last year as a more contained effort in concert with the March 2012 release of The Hunger Games. But Lionsgate's in-house digital team has vastly expanded both the breadth of content and the complexity of its presentation, redesigning the site within Tumblr as if you are a citizen of the Capitol who is eager to catch up on all the most in vogue fashions of the 75th Annual Hunger Games. It is already one of the most peculiar and elaborate transmedia marketing efforts ever mounted for a feature film franchise, and as more elements from it continue to roll out in advance of Catching Fire's Nov. 22 release date, here is what you need to know about what's behind it.
1. It is meant for fans, not for newbies.
Don't expect any handholding with this campaign — to understand and appreciate it, you must be already well-steeped within the world of Suzanne Collins' bestselling trilogy of young adult novels, or, at least, the 2012 blockbuster based the first of those books.
And that's exactly the point, explains Steve Coulson, creative director for the transmedia marketing firm Campfire, which has created specialized campaigns for Game of Thrones, American Horror Story, and Discovery Channel's Shark Week (but has no involvement with Capitol Couture). These kinds of complex, "in world" campaigns, says Coulson, are designed specifically to boost the excitement of hardcore fans: "There is less of a likelihood that this kind of medium is going to bring in new audiences than it will engage existing fans and give them something to evangelize." The more excited you are about the movie, the more likely you are to talk about it with your friends who maybe aren't as passionate as you are.
2. It regularly blurs the line between fiction and reality.
Throughout the site, major fashion designers and labels from the real world are presented as if they also exist within the movies. "Take a cue from Effie Trinket, District 12 Escort, who upped the ante — as if we ever thought she could look better — in this Alexander McQueen monarch butterfly adorned ensemble," says one story about Elizabeth Banks' officious and fashion forward Capitol official.
Another story on "Cat Power" uses photos from Jean Paul Gaultier's real Paris fashion show of a woman with leopard print hair as a pointed wink to a character in Collins' final Hunger Games book Mockingjay.
The effect can be quite head-squeezy — and, in its way, a bit provocative, suggesting the Capitol's extreme wealth and frivolity satirized in Collins' book is much closer to our own world than we might want to think.
3. It also features designers from the movie itself, as if they work in the Capitol.
The lines just get blurrier in the section highlighting the designers for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire itself, all of whom are presented more or less as Capitol citizens. "They just emailed me asking me if I would like to be a part of it, right before I was going to take a nap," says 21-year-old designer Daniel Vi Le, who created many of the film's elaborate head and neck pieces. "I just woke up and ran to my computer. It was a 'pinch me' moment."
Le says he was totally fine with the conceit that he lives in the Capitol, especially since it gives him exposure he would never otherwise get at his age. "I think it's a great opportunity, how they're premiering up-and-coming designers," he says. "It's giving us an opportunity to flourish more than what we could ever imagine." In just the week since his profile went live on the Capitol Couture site, he's already noticed a marked increase in his followers on his Tumblr and Twitter pages.
4. It's written with a professional touch, but a marketer's eye.
The profiles of the Catching Fire characters are written with a kind of ornate panache usually seen in high fashion magazines, like this description of the dress worn by Jena Malone's Johanna Mason: "Constructed of artfully shredded and ruched chiffon and rags, the confection feels like flutters of paper in a gentle breeze." We also learn that Johanna has been "known to mumble" that she wishes she had Katniss' stylist Cinna, and that she "has a reputation for being snide with her prep team." Without the direct involvement of director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, however, all these details are ultimately driven by promotional, rather than creative, goals.
"Most of these [campaigns] are not created by the storytellers — the director of the movie or even the writers," says Coulson. "Predominantly, they are funded by marketing departments. So even though they expand the story world, they'll have a very specific agenda. And that agenda is really about getting bums in seats."
5. It hopes to elevate the Hunger Games brand.
Even the most devoted Hunger Games fans have to admit that the first film's depiction of the Capitol felt a bit undernourished (read: cheap). The latest trailer for Catching Fire has already made clear that the new film isn't skimping on the spectacle. But by embracing the chic luster and top flight design associated with the world of high fashion — right up to the entrancing opening splash pages for each issue of the site (pictured, above) — the Capitol Couture campaign can create an even more lasting impression that the production value for Catching Fire will better match fans' high expectations.
Of course, it is also an open question as to how much overlap there is between the core Hunger Games fanbase and those who regularly read Vogue, GQ, and Vanity Fair. But Coulson thinks the fact that the main site is on Tumblr automatically brings the campaign much closer to the Hunger Games' fans than a standard marketing effort could. "This is might be a little highbrow for what I suspect who this is aimed for," he says. "But Tumblr does skew younger. The system is built from the ground up to distribute and share this material. Most people will see this content on their own Tumblr dashboard, instead of going to a Tumblr website. That's how high school kids use the web. They're not destination visitors. They're social visitors."