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National Treasure

Project type:
Movie promotion
In support of:
National Treasure (Disney & Jerry Bruckheimer)
Fall 2004
Yikes! The movie promotion shotgun has been pulled out, and National Treasure is its target.

National Treasure seems to be Disney's attempt to turn Nicholas Cage into Indiana Jones, and create a new movie franchise in the process. Cage plays the leader of a group of archaeologists, treasure hunters, or, as they prefer to be called, "treasure protectors". The treasure in question here is one that was collected and hidden back in the early days of America by the Founding Fathers (in the movie's world, anyway). Following the rules known to all good treasure hunters, the Fathers left puzzle-like clues to the location of the treasure all around the artifacts of the country they were creating -- on the Liberty Bell, on the Great Seal of the United States (and thus the dollar bill), and so on. As Cage, his partners, and, by proxy, we viewers encounter and solve these puzzles, we're led to a map to the treasure, which is drawn, of all places, on the back of the original Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, some Bad Guys have been following the same clues, and their plan is to break into the National Archives, steal the Declaration, and use the map to make off with the Treasure, coming away with a priceless document to boot. Cage's attempts to alert the authorities go unbelieved and unheeded, so what else is there for them to do but beat the Bad Guys to the punch and steal the Declaration first? Will Cage and his buddies figure all this out before the Bad Guys do? Will it all come down to one last puzzle, which they solve just in the nick of time? Will Cage save the day and get the girl? No doubt. It sounds like a fun premise for a holiday-season popcorn movie, and, if this one works, there are plenty of other treasures where that one came from. Nicholas Cage and the Treasure of Doom. You get the idea.

So, how is Disney using the web to promote this movie? Answer: In more ways than you could imagine. The web site for National Treasure is a mind-boggling collection of games, promotions, offsite links, and more games. This is a broad-brush approach to promotion: Just on the home page of the site, we're offered:
  • Three opportunities to see the movie's trailer -- a "regular" trailer, a "smart trailer" (of which more later), and a special ten-minute trailer on AOL and (there's no direct link to this trailer, just a statement that the long-form trailer exists).
  • Two different contests, both of which are currently (as of October 26) presented as "Coming Soon". One will apparently be some sort of "instant win" game based on entering the serial number of a dollar bill. The other is unspecified, but may be the contest advertised in an earlier version of the site, which noted that visitors would be able to "join the hunt for the National Treasure and enter to win Big Prizes".
  • A photo gallery and downloads, with more to come inside.
  • A note urging you to "get your treasure trading cards now!" (More on this later.)
And we haven't entered the main site yet! To do this, we get into the spirit of treasure hunting by clicking the letters E, N, T, E, and R on a mystical-looking dial. This gets us to a more or less typical presskit site -- plot synopsis, cast and crew information, and more photos, trailers, and downloads. But more interesting stuff lies ahead.

Building traffic with trading cards -- Will it work?

In this site, and elsewhere as we'll see, Disney has made a major commitment to the use of "digital trading cards", a promotional tool developed by a third-party company, TokenZone. As you move through the site, you can "collect trading cards" about the movie: these are typically images taken from the film. Once collected, they appear on a personal TokenZone page that looks something like a trading card album, as shown here. (Of course, you have to register with the site and create a Disney ID in order for all this to work.) Spend a certain amount of time on the site, and you get a few cards, presumably drawn at random from the complete set of cards about the movie. Come back tomorrow, and get some more. Play and beat one of six (!) Flash-based puzzle games, and you get still more. As with any kind of trading cards, you might find yourself with duplicates, so Disney/TokenZone provides a page that allows you to contact other players and work out a trade. Further, Disney is running trading card promotions with many of their other movies and DVD releases, and you can collect and trade cards for them, too.

The TokenZone idea, from the promoter's perspective, is clear and is certainly worth trying: visitors will (they hope) want to rack up more cards, so they will spend more time on the site, take part in more activities, and generally get a stronger bond to the property and the property's company. From the visitor's perspective... well, it's not clear to me what the point of the promotion is -- there don't seem to be any prizes or other external reasons for visitors to collect these cards, other than simply to build up a collection of them. The National Treasure home page says something about how you should "find the clues to unlock the digital treasure"; whether that's a reference to the cards themselves or something else isn't made particularly clear.

Maybe collecting the cards is enough -- I certainly spent more than a little time as a kid collecting baseball cards, for no reason other than to get a big collection. But, today, I'm not so sure, especially when people are used to getting something a little more concrete in exchange for slogging through a site: consider the offers by I, Robot, SkyCaptain, and many other sites to to "win" a special trailer or desktop image by completing or scoring above a certain level on a Flash game. There was a physicality to collecting baseball cards that doesn't seem to be preserved here, even though you can pop up the cards into small windows and print them. I also wonder if there's some confusion about the marketing target for movie -- the general ad campaign doesn't seem particularly aimed at younger kids, but I have to think that's the primary audience for the trading card activity.

Will this work? I can only note that googling for "tokenzone" is not turning up large numbers of hits from happy site visitors talking about their card-collecting experience (one exception I've found: I've also been unable to find any TokenZone player willing to make a trade for any card in either the National Treasure or Home On The Range TokenZone sites: If there's no trading activity going on, I'm not sure how much activity is happening at all. I guess we'll all find out about the success of the idea together: Darwin's rules apply here, and if it works, we'll see more uses of trading cards in the future.

SmartTrailers: Trailers as navigation aids

The SmartTrailer feature of the site is also worth looking in on. Visit the page, and the trailer for the movie starts to play in a window at the bottom of the page. As it plays, key frames from the trailer drop out and land below the trailer window. You can then use these key frames to learn more about topics related to that part of the trailer: clicking on a frame brings up a set of small windows with still images, video, or text elaborating on that part of the trailer. For instance, clicking on the "Money Pit" frame brings up a set of windows that use video interviews, maps, and text to discuss a legendary lost treasure of Revolutionary-era gold. This is a clever way to present a substantial amount of material related to a movie, much better than the usual clump of web pages or random hunks of Flash. It's easy to spend more than a little time exploring this stuff, which of course is the whole idea. SmartTrailer seems to be a generic Disney technology; while it's only been applied to National Treasure so far, I won't be surprised if it shows up elsewhere.

Any problems?

Two parts of the site didn't work for me. The presskit part of the site a link called "Go Treasure Hunting", which brings up a set of pages with information about treasure hunting as a hobby: kid-oriented hints about being a good treasure hunter ("Always let someone know when and where you are going out hunting before you set out!" "Refill any holes that [you] dig in the ground!"), tips on how to hold your own treasure hunt (make your own "ancient" documents with paper, teabags, and an oven), and links to "treasure hunting" sites like and There's nothing overtly wrong with the page, but the connection to the movie doesn't seem well-motivated, and comes across as thin. Given all the other things happening on the site, it could easily have been omitted with no ill effects.

As a more substantial matter, I was surprised to find that one of the available downloads from the site is a Teacher's Kit, announcing that National Treasure isn't just a movie, but "an educational experience for Grades 4-12"! The kit contains a set of nicely illustrated games and worksheets suitable for handing out to students so that teachers can " you add the excitement of National Treasure to your lessons in American history". For instance, a class exercise in which students compare the original and revised wordings of parts of the Declaration is introduced with:

In National Treasure, Ben Gates gives a salute to the signers of the Declaration of Independence: "Here's to the men who did what was considered wrong in order to do what they knew was right." Then he steals the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives! Ben knows it contains clues and that other treasure hunters are after it. But hes willing to risk his own freedom to keep the Declaration (and the treasure) from harm. Like the signers, Ben does what he knows is right.

Students are also taught about a code that was used in Revolutionary times, and that just happens to be used at a key point in the movie.

I dunno. It goes without saying that teachers and schools are more stressed than ever, and that they can use all the help they can get. But there's just something about this guide that crosses a line for me -- do we really want teachers using their trusted relationship with students and families to be shills for a movie in exchange for a little bit of classtime help? Not as far as I'm concerned. And it's not just Disney -- Warner Bros. is playing the same game with their teacher's kit for Polar Express. This is a trend that I'd really like to see fade away.

Anyway: My point at the beginning of all this was that there is an awful lot of stuff happening on this site. It almost looks as if Disney is using it as a testbed for a whole range of different promotional opportunities -- see what works here, and roll out the winners elsewhere. Were I Disney, I'd be worried about diffusing their message for National Treasure with all these different offerings, but that may just be me. It'll be interesting to track future movie sites, Disney and otherwise, and see whether ideas that we first encountered here show up elsewhere.