Even by Hollywood standards, 2012 is having a blockbuster summer. When Avengers Assemble (aka The Avengers) opens this week, it will be preceded by a trailer for another mega-budget superhero film, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, which is due to open in July, a fortnight after The Amazing Spider-Man. If you factor in Pixar's latest outing, and additions to the Bourne and GI Joe franchises, then Prometheus – the new sci-fi from Sir Ridley Scott – starts to seem like an unknown quantity. And if there's one thing movie studio marketing departments abhor, it's an unknown quantity.
Prometheus, which opens in British cinemas on 1 June, started life as a prequel to Alien (1979), but the director now downplays the connection between the two films. Besides, the teenage boys to whom such things are inevitably advertised are too young to recall the thrill of Scott's sci-fi classic, or its 1986 sequel Aliens. Perhaps this is why the film's first big trailer was heralded online by a brief trailer of its own, and why those trailers have been supplemented by such a smart and intriguing viral marketing campaign.
Ten years ago, filmmakers were focused on creating great DVD extras to draw in audiences with added value after their feature left the big screen. Now, the emphasis is on clever, pre-release online advertising – and Prometheus has broken the mould.
At a TED conference in February a "screening from 2023" was played, in which the character Sir Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the future's most powerful billionaire industrialist, explained his philosophy and that of his company, Weyland Industries. The clip spread across the web faster than the most popular of genuine TED talks.
This month, the fictional Weyland Corporation released an online advertisement for an eighth generation android called "David", which looks human, and is capable of simulating emotion or, conversely, performing tasks that its masters might find "unethical". Michael Fassbender gives a bravura performance as David, which he will doubtless repeat in the film itself.
The extensive Weyland Industries website (weylandindustries.com) ties these viral strands together with delightful infographics and witty corporate detail. In the late 21st-century, it claims, Weyland has 837.53 million employees, one per cent of them androids. "At Weyland Industries," the site suggests, "we apply science, technology and our unparalleled global network of resources to the pursuit of Building Better Worlds... As the largest company on the planet we have taken it upon ourself to constantly explore, expand, and discover what lies beyond our own heavens."
In Prometheus, Peter Weyland dispatches a team of scientists and space travellers to a far-off planet, to search for what he believes might be the extra-terrestrial origins of life. The fate of their ship's namesake – the Greek god Prometheus, who was punished for giving fire to the mortals – might be a clue to what awaits them. And yet, the events of the film remain a mystery.
Journalists are yet to see it in full, and this far-reaching online campaign cleverly establishes the premise, without ever giving away anything significant about the plot.
The studio behind Prometheus is 20th Century Fox, but Scott appears to have been as invested in the marketing as he is, famously, in his films. His own production company, Ridley Scott Associates, created both clips: Scott's son, Luke, directed the TED 2023 video, while another RSA director, Johnny Hardstaff, was responsible for the David advertisement.
If Guy Pearce needed a model for the driven, fearless, fabulously successful Sir Peter, he could have done worse than study Sir Ridley.