Heath Ledger's face has dominated the marketing campaign for The Dark Knight since its summer launch, when fans surrendered their e-mail addresses to be among the first to see him in full makeup as the Joker. This past week, for better or worse, was no exception.
In the days following the death of the actor, who assumed the villainous role for the upcoming sequel to 2005's Batman Begins, visitors to the movie's official Web site were greeted with a photo of Ledger and a statement: "We mourn the loss of a remarkable talent and the passing of an extraordinary man who will be greatly missed."
It was a simple tribute to an actor whose sinister take on the iconic bad guy was credited with making The Dark Knight the most anticipated movie of 2008 even before he passed away on January 22. But it is only the first step in this new and unwelcome challenge facing Warner Brothers (WB): selling the public on a summer blockbuster following the real-life death of its villain.
As of press time, WB has not made an official statement regarding whether it plans to tweak its marketing effort in order to account for sensitivities in the wake of Ledger's death. Several spokespeople for the studio declined comment, saying it was too soon to discuss the matter, and would only confirm the film's July 18 release date.
But the consensus among marketing executives seems to be that there is little reason the campaign can't continue as planned - largely because it was time to move beyond the Joker anyway.
Several executives pointed to a January 13 Los Angeles Times article, in which director Christopher Nolan says that the Joker was only a peripheral character in the movie compared with politician-turned-villain Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart.
"Harvey Dent is a tragic figure and his story is the backbone of this film," Nolan tells the paper. "The Joker, he sort of cuts through the film - he's got no story arc, he's just a force of nature tearing through."
Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, an agency that recently promoted The Simpsons Movie and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, takes that as a signal that the campaign was about to shift.
"We are probably going to see a little bit of a return to that character, Harvey Dent" he notes. "They played up the evil side for so long, it's now time to play up the good."
Chris Thilk, who runs the entertainment blog MovieMarketingMadness.com, also says it's time shift focus to other characters in the effort. "You need to bring Batman into his own campaign at some point," he insists. "I do think it's a mistake to continue to focus on the Joker."
Another reason some say Ledger's absence may not have an outsized impact on the campaign is that he was a reluctant self-promoter to begin with. Several marketing executives who had worked with Ledger described him as a shy, introverted person who loved his craft, but did not relish promoting it, and would often resist appearing on talk shows or participating in junkets.
"I've heard he wasn't the most outgoing cat on the block," says Schafer. "There are some actors who just prefer to let their work speak for itself."
Still, no one suggests that the campaign will remain utterly unaffected. All eyes are on WB for the time being, and while most agree that the studio has thus far handled the situation well, with a great deal of class, it remains under immense pressure not to offend audiences. While this will not likely mean a drastic departure from the original plan, it will require the studio to avoid images or sound clips of the Joker that overtly reference death.
"Audiences understand this is probably the biggest movie of the summer, and that the studio has a situation on their hands. I think that gives WB a little bit of leeway on this," notes Schafer. "It also puts them under a microscope. They have no choice but to be sensitive."