Would you break the laws of physics, and travel through time to change history?
That’s the core question fueling 12 Monkeys, Syfy’s new drama adapted from Terry Gilliam’s beloved 1995 film of the same name (which in turn was adapted from a French short called La Jetée). Premiering tonight at 9/8c, the show is a bit of a time travel experiment in itself, shifting 20 years from its cult-classic origins to contend with a central paradox in 2015: How to create an utterly new and original 12 Monkeys experience on television that doesn’t alienate the original movie’s devoted fans.
“Pre-sold ideas and IP… can be a challenge,” admitted Michael Engleman, EVP of marketing, digital and global brand strategy for Syfy. “They either come with baggage – ‘I remember so-and-so series from the ‘80s and boy did it suck’ – or they’re so beloved that fans who remember are toe-tapping on the sidelines, waiting for you to screw up their favorite book, movie, show etc. But net-net, the upside outweighs the challenges. Existing IP allows us to target and tap into an existing fan base, work hard to win them over… and, in success, we have a small army of enthusiastic brand ambassadors.”
A first-look trailer for the series released last July called back to the psychological grimness of the film and made sure to showcase its iconic red monkey art. At the same time, where Gilliam’s original was dreamlike and frequently questioned its protagonist’s sanity, Syfy’s version is clearly a much less hallucinatory affair, grounded in realism and carefully plotted for episodic distribution. The goal, said Engleman, was to “showcase passionate, relatable characters facing the kinds of extraordinary circumstances and stakes only imaginable in science fiction… [to] showcase the gritty realism of the show, the emotion and the high-octane storyline.”
That initial trailer played at Syfy panels at San Diego Comic-Con, which ramped up to a more high-profile event at New York Comic-Con, where “we knew 12 Monkeys could have an enormous impact… with the ability to influence consumers closer to our launch,” said Engleman. The well-covered NYCC event featured an exclusive screening of the first 10 minutes of the pilot followed by a panel with show creators Travis Fickett and Terry Matalas, showrunner Natalie Chaidez and a special appearance by costar Emily Hampshire. It was a chance to further solidify and darken the lines between the movie and the series, and further spotlight the show as its own, very unique entity. Blogs and other publications buzzed accordingly.
But PR efforts and trailers aside, the fun of science-fiction series is how they lend themselves to marketing innovation. Futuristic scenarios call for futuristic initiatives, or at the very least heightened interactivity. Engleman’s team has not disappointed with 12 Monkeys. Teaming for the first time with social agencies Glow and The Audience, Syfy’s interactive Evidence Wall on its website offers a fun way to sift through the show’s intricate backstory, and the hashtag #unmakehistory has let people chime in on Facebook and Twitter with their own time-travel dream scenarios.
“We’re steadfast on giving our fans a custom built path into our content that make sense for them,” said Engleman, “ways to experience and interact with the characters and mythology of the show on their own time, on their favorite platforms.”
Meanwhile, a December takeover of New York’s Grand Central Station offered an epic array of imagery to an epic amount of foot traffic, covering areas ranging from hallways to turnstiles. And it didn’t hurt that the subway is a particularly good location to encounter outdoor marketing for this show that feels like a gritty, underground realm in its own right.
But perhaps the most intriguing initiative that has surfaced during the ramp-up to tonight’s 12 Monkeys debut has been the continuation of a partnership between Syfy and the Philips Hue lighting company. What began with last summer’s low-brow spectacular Sharknado 2 has “since grown into something bigger and more dynamic,” said Engleman, “a dynamic that’s fresh, new and a lot of fun for fans of the show and gadget-heads.”
This web-enabled immersive home lighting experience is accessed via the Syfy Sync app for phones and tablets. Viewers with a Philips Home lighting system can pair the app with their bulbs during the live airing of all 13 of the 12 Monkeys episodes, treating themselves to a specially designed “lighting track” that pairs the on-screen action with illuminant changes in tone, color and intensity. It’s an intriguing new way to drive tune-in that could be the beginning of a revolution in living-room viewing.
“It’s another example of technology fundamentally changing how we engage with and immerse ourselves in content,” said Engleman, which, with a show like 12 Monkeys, results in a pitch-perfect marriage of concept and content.