One night while watching Charlie Rose, Watson Design Group’s chief creative director, Fernando Ramirez, found the key to his future. On the program, molecular biologist James Watson explained that while every other researcher was hitting a wall, he shifted his perspective. Ultimately, he and two other scientists shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1962 for their work with DNA. They made big discoveries—including the structure of DNA—by looking at the problem in a different way. “That’s my design principle,” Ramirez says. And that’s why he named his website design company Watson Design Group (Watson/DG).
That ability to shift perspective while delivering insightful, cutting-edge websites to promote movies as disparate as Cloverfield and Cinderella has kept the Los Angeles–based Watson/DG in business for more than a decade. Technology changes, social media platforms come and go, and expectations rise—and Watson/DG has become the go-to design studio for franchise-promoting websites. Lately, it seems, the nineteen-person-strong company has been on speed dial to promote tentpole movies, ranging from The Hunger Games franchise to Star Wars: The Force Awakens to the independent releases Amy, Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
“Early on, we were the viral guys,” Ramirez says. “Then we became the horror guys. Then the action guys.” With The Hunger Games franchise, Ramirez says, film studios “now see us as problem solvers. We get hired to elevate the brand—make it feel different, deliver a high-end design sensibility and a modern take on the franchise.”
If you want a glimpse into the future of the web, the nearly two dozen folks at Watson/DG can provide a preview. “A few years ago, we worked on websites,” creative director Hleb Marholin says. “Now everyone is on social.”
Social content is where everything is going, Marholin predicts. “People don’t want to search for information. They want information to find them. It’s fascinating, and for our clients, it’s a bit scary.”
Ramirez agrees. “There’s a lot of fear in the industry that websites will go away, and social and mobile will take over,” which only makes it harder for studios to find an audience through online marketing of their films. The way forward, Ramirez believes, is to accept social content as a way of searching and to understand that social media is about being part of a community and a conversation.
Keeping up with trends on social and mobile media is a never-ending challenge, according to vice president of production Jordan Cuddy-Angel. “Anything we do today is going to be uncool in three weeks. That’s just the nature of the medium. Facebook rolled out a native feature called Collages, Instagram lets you make carousels of images and Snapchat lets us post cool, timely stories that people find and put on their own feeds for their friends to discover.” To promote A24’s supernatural thriller The Witch, Watson/DG has been posting Snapchat stories about Donald Trump with the headline “Evil Takes Many Forms.” Timely, yes. In a month’s time, social and mobile users will have moved on. Watson/DG plans to move with it.
To help its clients thrive on social media, Watson/DG hired its own senior copywriter and strategist, Arin Delaney. Delaney says part of her role is to make sure Watson/DG stays savvy in the social space. “We pay attention to the psychology of sharing,” she says, “so we can create content that makes people look funny, cool or in the know.”
One of the coolest ideas ever was the Tinder stunt Watson/DG launched to support the film Ex Machina, in which an artificial intelligence (AI) comes to life and asks, “Do you think I’m real?” To drive interaction around the film’s premiere at South by Southwest (SxSW), Watson/DG created its own AI. Using a headshot of Alicia Vikander, who plays the AI Ava, Watson/DG posted a Tinder profile of Ava, backed by its own, hand-coded AI. The post captured hundreds of matches from unsuspecting SxSW attendees, who engaged in conversations that began with questions like “Have you ever been in love?” and “What makes you human?”
Although hundreds of responses on social media may not seem like much, Watson/DG got what it wanted—press attention. In short order, more than 50 news outlets, ranging from Time to WIRED and Mashable to Vulture, were reporting on Watson/DG’s SxSW catfishing exploit.
“We broke a few hearts in Austin,” Delaney says, laughing. “Turns out, there are a lot of horn dogs at SxSW. At least some of them got to see Ex Machina for free.”
WHAT'S A NICE GUY LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS?
In Hollywood, which is home to an industry typically driven by status, backstabbing and the bottom line, Ramirez is a relationship guy. His big break came when a friend of his took a plane ride seated next to an executive at Paramount Classics. They exchanged business cards, and the next thing Ramirez knew, he was invited to pitch a website for Hustle & Flow.
“I’m super lucky,” Ramirez says, shaking his head in disbelief at getting the gig. “I’m not a business guy—I’m a designer,” Ramirez says. “But I know how to balance passionate creatives on one side and clients on the other.” Ramirez cares so much about the integrity of his work that he actually got fired from a job for refusing to change a color on a website. “I know how to deal with people like me,” he says, “but I also understand the real business needs of the client whose main goal is to sell a ticket.”
It’s a business need Ramirez has been able to fill since 2005. Forming Watson/DG with a developer, Ramirez went on to create websites for Black Snake Moan, Tropic Thunder and The Darjeeling Limited, before being tapped to create three viral sites for Cloverfield in 2007.
Digging into Cloverfield, the team at Watson/DG discovered one of the characters wearing a T-shirt for Slusho!—a fictional Japanese drink. So they built a website where fans could “make” their own Slusho! using different flavors based on a secret ingredient that came from somewhere deep in the ocean. They made Slusho! T-shirts available for purchase on Amazon. They even designed a generically crappy website for a fake multinational company called Tagruato and its advanced technology division, Bold Futura. A map on the Tagruato site that locates deep-sea drilling operations hints at a critical plot point in the movie. It also hints at the depths to which Watson/DG is willing to go.
“Instead of building an electronic press kit, we built an experience,” Ramirez says. When Cloverfield was launched, Ramirez remembers, Watson/DG was able to attract a huge amount of organic attention by doing something different. “It changed Watson/DG in Paramount’s eyes,” he says. The result: more and bigger-budget projects from Paramount and a slew from other movie studios, including Fox Searchlight Pictures, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Disney, Lionsgate Entertainment and Universal Studios.
Today, Watson/DG’s adventurous use of technologies like WebGL—a real-time graphics library that enables the use of advanced 3-D visuals, games and data visualization in a web browser—has liberated the studio from the constraints of static websites. With the ability to incorporate new levels of depth, motion and interaction, Watson/DG’s microsites are becoming ever more cinematic. Using snippets of film, illustration and sound, the sites engage the viewer, invite sharing and whet the appetite. Moments of drama lifted from Spotlight are grainy and compelling. Clips from Amy suggest the same dramatic arc as that featured in the Amy Winehouse documentary. On the Tumblr site of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, GIFs emulate the low fidelity of a high school senior’s film project.
All the stops came out for Birdman, winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 2015. In an attempt to capture the spirit of the main character’s tenuous state of mind, Marholin designed a website that combines GIF animations, clips from the movie’s sound track and a brilliant use of keyboard interactivity that displays quotes from the characters. As a meteor streaks out of the sky in a 3-D animation, pieces of the falling star flake off into fragments. Click on one to play a movie clip. It’s a bravura piece of WebGL site design, one that stays remarkably true to the volatile emotional core of the film.
WALKING BACKWARD FROM THE MOVIE
The team at Watson/DG lives and breathes movies. Posters for Mockingjay, The Expendables, The Kings of Summer and The Grand Budapest Hotel—all gifts from movie studios—adorn the office walls. “When we leave on Friday, we talk about the movies we’re going to see that weekend,” Cuddy-Angel says. “When we come in Monday, the first things we talk about are the movies we saw. That’s the conversation we have—day in, day out.”
Those conversations continue in the brainstorming meetings with which Watson/DG kicks off every new project. Who is in the meeting? “Anyone we can get in the room,” Ramirez deadpans. That means interns, receptionists and avid fans, according to Tracy Robinson, office manager and self-described “den mother.” If you care and are interested, you’ll find yourself in the room. As Robinson says, “To tell the story, you have to want to tell it.”
What’s interesting about the initial brainstorming session for designing a site like Birdman, Marholin says, is that they talk about everything but the website. “We talk about themes the movie explores. What is it trying to tell us about character? You have to find what’s interesting about the movie. For Birdman, it’s the story, not just the actors. It’s sound, artistry and cinematography. As we figure out how to represent that, eventually, the website grows out of these conversations.”
The first brainstorming session starts wide. It begins with a reading of the script and often an advance screening of the film. Ramirez says they ask clients, “What’s the feeling you want someone to get when leaving the movie theater?”
By the second round of brainstorming, the list of participants is shorter. “We scale down to tighten our focus,” Ramirez says. Passionate fans “with a really big voice” are always welcome, Ramirez says. “If you have something to say, we want you in the room.”
The trick is to find the audience, engage them and then build anticipation over months at a time. And to do so without revealing too much of the film.
“When working with clients, it’s all about trust and transparency,” Cuddy-Angel says. “When we define the real problem, we have the opportunity to reveal the best solution.”
For the 2015 release of Disney’s live-action remake of its animated classic Cinderella, the problem that immediately became apparent was that, in this version, Cinderella had a nineteen-inch waist. “It set off a firestorm on social media,” Cuddy-Angel says. “People were commenting: ‘Cinderella looks like a waif.’ The property had twelve million Facebook fans, so there was a lot at stake.” Watson/DG needed to position its marketing to emphasize Cinderella’s independence and courageousness. The solution is a Tumblr site that sumptuously blends fairy tale with action-oriented exhortations of self-esteem. Messages like “Kindness & Magic,” “Fearless” and “Destined for Greatness” are presented in lush, aspirational visual landscapes that keep the focus on the essence of the tale.
Like Cinderella, Watson/DG may well be destined for greatness. And certainly for a larger space. Today, the employees of Watson/DG are working their small-screen movie magic from a decidedly unmagical neighborhood on Melrose, but that’s about to change as Watson/DG prepares to double its square footage and move to the 20th floor of a building on Wilshire Boulevard, across from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). For Ramirez, who first studied painting at the Otis College of Art and Design, the cultural element of the neighborhood is a big driver for the move. “As a creative studio, it’s important to us to be able to walk across the street and be inspired by art,” he says. “That’s huge.” If they ever run out of inspiration, LACMA hosts a matinee film screening series every Tuesday. Pass the popcorn. ca