Generating interest in a series that has a built-in superfan base who is intimately familiar with the content ahead of time may seem like a marketer’s dream, but the intense scrutiny and pervasive demands to maintain “canon” usher in a unique set of challenges. Such was the case with HBO’s new post-apocalyptic series, “The Last of Us,” based on a video game created by Naughty Dog in 2013. But thanks to a dedicated fan engagement strategy, including a pre-premiere experiential screening series, the show’s debut on Jan. 15 became the network’s second most-viewed in a decade.
Remaining faithful to the game’s IP was a top priority for the video game’s creator, Neil Druckmann, head of Naughty Dog, who is also the series creator and co-show-runner. Thanks to his attention to detail; a two-year-long promotional strategy helmed by HBO marketing vp Emily Giannusa; numerous experiential, digital and social activations; drops of “breadcrumb content” to feed the fan frenzy; and an always-on listening strategy, the series is off to an impressive start. (Check out an in-depth interview on pop culture fandom with Giannusa here.)
A key stop along the series’ experiential journey was a series of six New York City screenings at Angelika Film Center, Jan. 11-12, where VIP influencers and fans entered an immersive, in-world experience resembling an outpost for the show’s revolutionary militia group, the Fireflies. Dimly lit, eerily apocalyptic and chock-full of Easter eggs and authentic props specific to New York City in the early 2000s, the cinema lobby takeover let attendees interact with several characters manning outpost stations, explore vintage props and, post-screening, nosh on mushroom-themed food and beverage—a nod to the show’s zombie-like creatures, which are infected by a mutated Cordyceps fungus.
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As superfans could likely attest, the devil was in the details. The event’s theme was derived from the overall campaign wrapper, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness, Look for the Light.” When attendees entered the space, they were asked to indicate on a map where they had journeyed from and report on the number of infected people that were present there. Another character positioned beside a wall of vintage radio equipment strove to “recruit” guests as Firefly rebels, gifting them a pendant and enlisting their help to crack a code by flashlight.
“We wanted to provide an experience whether you were a superfan of the game or a new fan, with little touches to delight the masses,” says Giannusa. “The experience was fun and exploratory. Everyone felt like they had a role to play. A lot of our fandoms want to be a part of our stories and be a part of the rich worlds that we build. And we gave folks the opportunity to do that. To turn a screening into an exploratory, immersive theater that 1,500 people can get through before a show premieres was pretty rewarding and cool to see.”
Additional experiential touchpoints and details included a photo experience featuring a dead “infected” attached to a faux wall, built from the same 3D scans used to create them in the series; touches signifying the theater’s abandonment and destruction, such as Cordyceps fungus-infested theater seats and a fallen chandelier; and show props like character Ellie’s backpack and a Cordyceps infection scanner.
Plenty of fun props and media from the time period added to the experience, like issues of the now-defunct “Village Voice” newspaper from 2003, brochures advertising the new PATH train expansion planned for 2004 and film posters of fictional movies from the video game, such as “Dawn of the Wolf,” and real movies from 2003, including “Matrix Revolutions.”
Topping it off was the cinema café’s multisensory, creepy atmosphere. A panning spotlight shined through the room’s boarded-up windows, calling to mind the watchful eye of FEDRA, the militarized Federal Disaster Response Agency in the series. Sounds of “clickers,” or the infected that have reached an advanced stage of the disease, permeated the space. Music recordings from various decades, which attendees discovered through encrypted messages between Firefly rebels, played intermittently. And show-themed snacks, including truffle popcorn and, on VIP night, mushroom martinis, were served throughout the evening. Agency: Giant Spoon.