'X-Files': A marketing challenge for rebooting franchises

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The truth is still out there -- on billboards, in sci-fi chat rooms and, on July 25, in a few thousand movie theaters.

While the audience out there for "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" remains unknowable, Fox hopes the spooky sequel can become the latest example of a successful "reboot": thawing out a dormant film franchise after years in deep freeze.

It's been a decade since David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson last appeared together on the big screen in "The X-Files: Fight the Future," the first cinematic offshoot of the TV series that ran on Fox from 1993 through the 2002-03 season. Since then, studios have released new installments of everything from 1980s actioners "Rocky," "Rambo" and "Die Hard" and comic book fantasies "Superman" and "Batman" to this summer's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

Although each reboot poses unique challenges for studio marketers, they mostly have been successful in relaunching properties. So it's no surprise that new chapters in the "Terminator" and "Beverly Hills Cop" franchises are in the works.

"There's always been an appetite for these movies," says Geoff Ammer, president of marketing at Marvel Studios. "Studio heads change, public tastes change. But what you really have in your vault is characters you've built an awareness of."

Awareness, yes. But relevance? Central to making and selling these reboots is satisfying the nostalgia of a built-in fan base while expanding the audience to a generation that, in the case of "X-Files," could think Scully and Mulder refers to an accounting firm.

Even more challenging, fans can be resistant to changes when updating a franchise, from casting ("Superman Returns") to CGI ("Indiana Jones") and even an MPAA rating ("Live Free or Die Hard"). "They have 20 years of loving, watching and quoting these movies," says Chris Thilk, author of the blog Movie Marketing Mania. "Now you're going to introduce something new into that?"

Much of this complaining occurs on the Internet, which was largely unimagined when many of these properties were last seen. But the Web is where studios and filmmakers have focused energy to generate good buzz and squash the bad.

Bruce Willis chatted with movie site Aint It Cool News readers, not only to promote the new "Die Hard" but also to pacify fans angered by its PG-13 rating. Sylvester Stallone had a sizzle reel of "Rambo" carnage posted online to assure fans that his cold-warrior character was still acceptably hard-core.

"We couldn't have created a piece like that because of the MPAA," says Tim Palen, co-president of marketing at Lionsgate, which released "Rambo."

At the same time, engaging connections to the past is key to marketing a reboot. The teaser trailer for "Indiana Jones" opened with a recap of the previous films and a shot of Indy's iconic fedora. Bus sides for "Live Free or Die Hard" featured only the words "Yippee-Ki-Yay, Mo-," trumpeting fictional cop John McClane's signature one-liner. The "X-Files" teaser poster showcases a giant "X" formed by Scully and Mulder's crossing shadows, which conforms to the moody atmospherics that fans remember.

Print materials for the recent "Rocky Balboa" and "Rambo" also traded on the iconic stature of the characters. The "Balboa" one-sheet featured the boxer with his fist raised and facing away from the camera; the "Rambo" campaign was a similar throwback, with a spray-painted Stallone in a bandana suggesting an ageless guerilla warrior (and concealing the star's actual age).

Because younger audiences drive moviegoing, many reboots are supported by youth-oriented promotions. Harrison Ford's face adorned breakfast cereals long before "Indiana Jones" relaunched; Papa John's introduced a "Superman" pizza; and even the hard-R "Rambo" tapped the under-25 set at an Ultimate Fighting Championship event in Las Vegas.

Palen remembers how Stallone was received by the UFC fans, many of whom weren't even born when Rambo last went to war. "The entire room lost their minds," he says. "It was like Jesus Christ had shown up at the Palms."

Now, with "X-Files" being reactivated, it remains a mystery whether Fox can similarly meld nostalgia with fresh enthusiasm.
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