Southland Tales: A Transmedia Experiment Gone Awry
Part II: USIdent
Bear in mind that there's really not much info available about the website online anymore (at least, not that I could easily find), so I'm working with some vague memories. When I had the inkling of the idea of writing about all of this back in August of 2020 I was able to check some of the site out via the Wayback Machine Internet Archive. A lot of it isn't accessible anymore though, and virtually no one has written or talked about it since it was active in the late aughts. So yeah, probably not the most impactful of viral internet marketing campaigns.
The history of viral marketing for films is pretty interesting to explore. The Blair Witch Project's online marketing in 1998 was kind of a game changer due to the nature of that film, and its success certainly opened the door for other films to experiment. Cloverfield had an interesting mix of utilizing MySpace pages for its characters and also numbers for texting that provided a ringtone of the monster's roar. That campaign was able to not only drum up a lot of interest in the mystery of their project but even sucked up other marketing campaigns that had nothing to do with it. I recall spending time on the Ethan Haas Was Right puzzles and being convinced that Cloverfield was about Cthulhu, only to eventually learn that Ethan Haas had nothing to do with Cloverfield. You know you tapped into some strong (and potentially hazardous) word of mouth when something has taken on a life of it's own and consumes other products.
On the flipside, sometimes you have incidents such as the 2007 Boston Mooninite Panic, where a guerrilla marketing advertising campaign for Aqua Teen Hunger Force caused a bomb scare. There's a pretty broad spectrum of success and failure to look at, but I would guess barely being a blip in history is indicative of missing the mark.
Despite David Kelly's desire for a more interactive experience, the Southland Tales website was mostly an advertisement that only gave us a tiny taste of that alternate reality world. It was designed as a portal into USIdent, the government organization within the world that kept constant surveillance on citizens. Loading screens included a mix of quotes utilized in the movie and Adobe Flash animations, lending a certain cryptic tone that did have a dark (and dated) charm to it.
There's a tricky balance to being a viral success and a strong advertisement, and I'm probably not the person to figure out that balance. Still, there was something inherently hollow to the website, making it feel more like a basic advertisement and less like an expansion of the world. It wore the shell of USIdent to create that synergy with the world, but what it most likely needed was an infusion of fake history. My favorite example of that type of world building would probably be Arvid Nelson's writing in his series Rex Mundi and Zero Killer, where he would populate the backmatter with fake newspaper articles, maps, and other remnants of the history of his worlds.
Populating the website with extensive news articles about the Republican controlled Senate passing USIdent into law, Neo-Marxist guerilla style protests, and fake bits of Boxer Santaros' IMDB page would have given the website a lot more life. If I recall correctly there were aspects of character Krysta Now's lifestyle branding, but it was mostly just repurposed material from the film. They were sort of on the right path and I can appreciate them keeping an eye on the budget, but I think they just needed more gusto to bring the website to life and make it engaging.
Instead, we just got got ad's like the below, essentially telling us, "Hey, we did do more world building, but you gotta go pay for it and hunt these comics down." I can't really fault that because that's the point of the website, to push the product. I think it just could have used a bit more padding on the experience to sweeten the pitch.
Overall the website didn't add much of anything to the transmedia narrative. It imbued a little bit of tone and atmosphere, but beyond that there was nothing essential on the website that could have added or taken away from the main story. Which I am thankful for in the long haul because the last thing this entire property needed was to be split up even more. I generally think that the website part of a larger transmedia narrative needs to only enhance what already exists without having any exclusive content. Forcing people to go to a website to start, finish, or fill in necessary pieces of a story is not only annoying but it may potentially hurt your overall product by creating a sense of resentment. Seriously, never underestimate the powers of apathy or short attention spans.
So with that all said, I can't really say that this affected the overall autopsy of this transmedia narrative. It's like finding that the appendix was damaged during the train wreck, in that it's almost interesting but it had virtually no real use in the first place. Some theorize that the appendix acts as a storehouse for good bacteria, but like, then I'd have to keep going with the analogy and I'm pretty much done. So check back soon as I wrap things up with the final installment focusing on the film itself and my final thoughts on the transmedia aspect of Southland Tales.