It started with coordinates posted to a movie studio's promotional Web site; it ended with chaos, confusion and, finally, a movie trailer. A dozen cities -- among them, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, London and, yes, Dallas -- were selected to host the latest installment in a viral marketing campaign for The Dark Knight. Locally, folks were summoned to a parking garage on the east side of NorthPark Center, with the promise of ... well, no one was quite sure. But no one, not even the promoters, had any idea what to expect when a crown of nearly 300 formed outside the mall.
The coordinates on the site were precise: +32° 52' 10.24", -96° 46' 16.74". But the first sign that things weren’t planned out terribly well was when two security guards showed up and asked everyone to move down to a lot adjacent to the parking garage. The dork knights didn’t know whether to believe the rent-a-cops or not. “Would The Joker follow their instructions?” a guy with gray-green hair asked. “Maybe it’s a trick. To get us off the trail.” Some followed the guards' request; about half stayed put. It was going to be that kind of afternoon.
The Web site was counting down to precisely 5:30 p.m. I got there at 4:45, and more than 25 fans were already waiting. But waiting for what? Some had read online that the new trailer for The Dark Knight would be screened for those who successfully completed … well, again, there was some confusion as to what the task The Joker had in store for these “clowns.” While they waited, some fans touched up their makeup. It takes time to get an exaggerated scarlet grin just right.
It was hard to estimate, but somewhere between a quarter and a third of the attendees were done up either like the Joker or one of his henchmen. I only saw one Batman T-shirt.
Bobby Cunningham was easily the best-dressed Joker at the event, right down to the purple jacket, the green vest and the pinstripe pants. Cunningham even called in sick to work so he could be there.
“I told them my sister had appendicitis, now I’ll have to go home later and Google the symptoms," he told Unfair Park. "Any excuse to dress up like Halloween.” His brother Jon came dressed as a goon. Jon wore a rainbow-color fright wig and a red squeaky nose, and he carried an aluminum baseball bat. “I’m the big comic book nerd,” Jon said. “Bobby, well, he just likes to dress up.”
Jon Floyd of Mansfield almost drove to Houston for an earlier stage of the viral campaign. “So, I wasn’t worried about the drive to Dallas,” he said. His emerald-dyed hair neatly framed his milky-white face paint. “I would have gone anywhere. I’m that nerd. I’m that guy.”
He said events like this one provide some gratification to fans like him who anticipate movies years before they’re released. “Viral marketing has been amazing for fans like me," he said. "It gives all sorts of stuff to look forward to from month to month. Just the other day I got a phone call from Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon.” By which he means, of course, actors playing the fictional Gotham City law enforcers. One hopes.
At about 5:15 p.m. the first Dallas police officer -- I’ll call him Jackson -- arrived on the top of the parking garage. I asked him if mall security called the police for reinforcements. He declined to comment and only advised me to “talk to the mall office, young brother.” I asked him if I could get to the office and back before 5:30 p.m. “Not unless you’re The Flash,” he said with a wink and a laugh.
But that was before the whole crowd tore through the mall -- past Eddie Bauer, Helzberg Diamonds and dozens of innocent patrons wandering the mall. Several shoppers stopped and pointed as the clowns charged past them. Part of the viral marketing forced those participants on the ground to have a “partner-in-crime” at a computer, who was supposed to relay new information posted to the Web site. At exactly 5:30 p.m., the two clown masses merged.
Following the clues, participants started counting the steps of a stairwell across from jeweler Bailey Banks & Biddle. Then the clues pointed the fans to a location in the mall. Like a cattle stampede, the mob ran at full speed into the mall, grabbed another clue, then ran back outside. But the fans never got to play the game past Steps 1 and 2 (out of 3).
Outside the mall, the mob searched for some trees with red leaves, and while they were outside a man in a gray-striped shirt approached them. He taunted the crowd for their inability to follow the clues and asked if they would like to join together for a chorus of “Kumbaya”. And that’s when mall security and half a dozen Dallas police officers swarmed the area.
Two officers confronted a dude named Dopey -- that’s what the other henchmen called him. They asked him questions about who was in charge and what they planned to do. Dopey tried to stay in character as much as he could. He never took off his mask, which at first led some to believe that the police were a part of the show. They were not. At all.
One officer barked at Dopey; he turned to the crowd and said, “All you guys affiliated with this deal, go to the northeast parking lot. Do not go back in the mall.” The game was over.
I started filming, like everyone else around with a camera or cellphone. One officer shouted, “You are not allowed to be videotaping! If you are, stop!” We stowed our gear, though I did keep taking notes. An officer approached me and asked if I had been filming before and what I was doing. I told him I was with the Dallas Observer, and he said media isn't allowed on the property. “You have to leave,” he said. Finally, he let me stash my gear in the car.
Everyone gathered in the parking lot, and strategies were hatched -- all for naught. A man in an AMC Theater uniform, presumably a manager, told everyone to follow him. He leisurely paraded the entire group through the mall to the upstairs theater. Once there, one of Joker’s goons passed out red “Keep This Coupon” tickets, and a lady goon handed out playing cards.
Then they corralled the mob into a long line that snaked across the theater. A woman handed out a red Warner Bros. notice about not bringing audio or video into the theater. She then informed everyone that no electronics would be allowed to enter the theater. Those with cameras or camera phones had to place them into plastic baggies and check them in before they could enter. Finally, each fan was wanded before being allowed into the theater. We spent about two hours to get a peek at a two-and-a-half-minute trailer.
After the preview, Warner Bros. folks brought a golden film canister down to the front of the theater. The lady goon held out a clown mask full of the red tickets. She called Dopey over, and he churned his hand around in the tickets, which sent them tumbling to floor like a bloody ticker tape parade. Dopey called out the winning numbers.
Bobby Schmidt, who's in a local band called Ravens End, won “Print No. 4” and was then instructed to share it with the world. (Which left everyone wondering why they confiscated all the cameras and cellphones …)
“Bobby didn’t even know where we were going,” said Eli Ellison, his friend and band mate. “He was just along for the ride.” Now they don’t know what to do with the film. “We called one studio, and they thought we must have stolen it or something.”
Turns out, Dallas police only knew about the event in advance because some overeager fans showed up four hours early. Autumn Troxell, one of managers at AMC NorthPark 15, said, “We didn’t know what was going on exactly until yesterday, what to expect, and we weren’t aware about the scavenger hunt at all.” Not until 300 clowns showed up just to see a trailer. --Daniel Rodrigue