Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Its Groundbreaking Marketing Campaign

Who killed Evan Chan? Over 15 years on, the marketing campaign for Steven Spielberg's A.I. remains unique.

When it came to Steven Spielberg’s 2001 sci-fi film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Jeanine Salla played a low-profile yet important role. Educated at Bangalore University, Salla was an expert in engineering and machine intelligence, and considered so important to the makers of A.I. that she was given a credit in the movie’s posters and trailers.

The only thing was, Jeanine Salla never existed.

Before the spring of 2001, almost nothing had been seen of Spielberg’s latest sci-fi movie. That the director had taken over the project from his late friend Stanley Kubrick was well known, as were its origins in a story by British sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss called Supertoys Last All Summer Long. But Spielberg had remained secretive through A.I.s shoot, with cast and crew forbidden to talk openly to the press about its plot. According to this 2001 piece from Entertainment Weekly, actors were only given incomplete chunks of the script.

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When the first trailer emerged for A.I. that Easter, Spielberg fans not only got their first proper look at the film, but also something more unexpected. At the end of the promo, three pages of credits come up, listing the cast, the effects studios and select members of the crew. And there, next to composer John Williams’ credit, is the name Jeanine Salla, who’s listed as something called a Sentient Machine Therapist. 

What viewers didn’t know was that a quietly groundbreaking marketing campaign had begun – and Salla was the first thread of a much larger mystery unfolding on the web. Googling ‘Jeanine Salla’ back in 2001 brought up a number of results, including her personal website and a site purporting to belong to Bangalore Worldwide University. Together, these and other web pages pitched unsuspecting visitors into a futuristic murder scenario, which in time became known as The Beast – the first instance of an alternate reality game being used to promote a movie.

The campaign had actually begun on March 8th, 2001, almost a month before the first trailer and poster officially kicked off A.I.‘s marketing. That day, a series of between 30 and 40 individual sites went live around the web, all designed to fill in disparate parts of a much bigger picture. In the world of The Beast, it’s the year 2142, and a colleague of Dr Jeanine Salla – a man named Evan Chan – has died in an apparent boating accident. Salla, meanwhile, suspects foul play.

By poring through the various websites and hundreds of individual pages – as well as adverts, phone messages and other odd bits of data – players could follow Salla on her hunt for the truth behind Chan’s death. The concept was a bold one for a major Hollywood studio at the time; The Blair Witch Project had used the web to promote its found-footage horror a couple of years earlier, but nothing of this scale and complexity had been attempted before – and given that A.I. was a $100 million summer film, not a micro-budget indie horror, the campaign brought with it a certain amount of risk. What if nobody even noticed Jeanine Salla’s name on the advertising material? Or worse, what if a few people googled the name, clicked on a couple of links, and then forgot about it? 

The web of 2001 had yet to be transformed by social media. There were chat rooms and message boards, but no Twitter or Facebook, and certainly no YouTube, where a sharp-eyed commenter might have spotted the Jeanine Salla anomaly and flagged it up for half the world to see. So for the first few weeks, the fake web pages, secretly set up by Microsoft Game Studios, remained worryingly quiet.

Everything changed when the canny minds in charge of the campaign got Harry Knowles involved. In April, Knowles got an anonymous email recommending he do a search for Salla’s name. After around the sites which came up in the search results, Knowles noticed that all the IP addresses were registered to the same company; realizing that it was all something to do with A.I.s movie marketing campaign, he began writing about it on his website, Aintitcool.

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When the first news story went up, it was the traffic equivalent of lighting the blue touch paper on a firecracker – visitors to the various websites connected to The Beast sky-rocketed. From there, the mystique around the game began to snowball, as web users began sharing their own discoveries in message boards and comments sections. In this 2001 Ars Technica thread, for example, you can see the intrigued reactions from users as they share their discoveries on the web – which included mythical tech companies and strange news stories about robot emancipation groups. 

This Aintitcool post, from April 12th, shows how quickly film fans got involved with the Beast mystery. Someone got hold of an A.I. film poster and noticed that, hidden on the reverse, a series of ringed letters spelt out the words “Evan Chan was murdered” and “Jeanine was the key.”

Other clues dug up included a hidden telephone number in A.I.’s American film trailer, which, when called, provided the following message:

Welcome my child. Once upon a time there was a forest, that teemed with life, love, sex and violence. Things that humans did naturally. And their robots copied — flawlessly. This forest is vast and surprising. It is full of grass, and trees, and databanks, and drowned apartment buildings, filled with fish. It can be a frightening forest, and some of its paths are dark, and difficult. I was lost there once – a long time ago. Now I try to help others who have gone astray. If you ever feel lost, my child, write me at thevisionary.net. And I will leave you a trail of crumbs…

On and on the mystery went, requiring its followers to translate texts from other languages, solve puzzles and sort through a bewildering mountain of futuristic news stories. One publicity stunt even involved the staging of “anti-robot” demonstrations in American cities, including New York and Chicago. 

Most of the web pages have fallen off the internet over the 16 years since The Beast went live, but one or two still exist. This Geocities site, for example, purporting to be the homepage for a company called Cybertronics Corp (the tech firm featured in the A.I. movie), provides an idea of just how big the game was. This site alone contains pages of information about the fictional entity’s research into cybernetics.

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In a bold bit of lateral thinking, The Beast had little to do with the plot of the movie, which told the story of a child robot, David (Haley Joel Osment) and his Pinocchio-like dream of becoming a real boy. Instead, the campaign’s aim was to draw people into the futuristic world of the movie, where robots are on the cusp of true artificial intelligence and rising water levels threaten to drown half the planet. The Cybertronics site contains no direct mention of A.I. itself, but one page mentions Allen Hobby, the scientist character played in the film by William Hurt. These and other small clues – such as a mention of “super-toys” provided tentative connections to the movie the game was advertising.

The Beast was the brainchild of Jordan Weisman, the game designer of such tabletop games as MechWarrior and Shadowrun. Together with co-producer Elan Lee, Weisman began to work up an alternate reality game concept – a game which, in Lee’s words, “[Blurs] the line between fiction and reality.”

The story itself was written by sci-fi and fantasy author Sean Stewart. On his website, Stewart explains the meaning behind that ominous-sounding name, The Beast: when he and his collaborators drew up a list of all the assets the game took in, the number came to 666. 

At the time, the people behind The Beast were kept firmly out of the spotlight – presumably to preserve the game’s enigmatic aura. Even when a publication like USA Today began to dig into the campaign in the wake of A.I.s release in June 2001, the question as to whether The Beast had successfully marketed the movie remained unanswered. How many people had actually got to the bottom of Evan Chan’s murder? Of those, how many were enticed to actually leave their office chairs and see A.I. in their local cinema?

In a 2006 interview with Gamasutra, Elan Lee admitted that their ARG was, from beginning to end, something of an experiment. When The Beast first launched, the team had no idea whether people would even notice the tiny clues left lying around on A.I.‘s trailers and posters. The little notches on the A.I. poster, which when added up yielded the phone number above, could have easily gone unnoticed. That The Beast became so popular was, Lee said, “Absolute luck.”

“I wish I could say there was this science, this beautifully formulated equation,” Lee admitted, “but no, we just guessed, and we got lucky.”

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Lee also revealed that there were a few clues that went unnoticed, even by its most ardent followers: “all the physical locations of everything we do in The Beast, if you blocked those out on a map, it would spell a word across the United States.” As far as Lee’s aware, nobody discovered what the word was.

“Yeah, no one ever saw it,” Lee said. “We had such high hopes. You know, I say whispering is more powerful than shouting. Well, sometimes it’s too quiet of a whisper.”

A Gamasutra article from 2005 reports that “over a million” people played The Beast. Certainly, A.I. producer Kathleen Kennedy was pleased with the game’s “different type of storytelling” – a kind of pre-Web 2.0 version of viral marketing.

“We knew it was experimental,” Kennedy told USA Today. “I believed in these guys and I so believed in the concept. I was so excited about accepting the challenge that I was the front-runner in convincing Warner Bros. to try this.”

As originally envisioned, The Beast would have served as the first phase in an even larger experience. Before the movie launched, a whole suite of tie-in console games, set in the same 22nd century universe as A.I., had once been planned. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly shortly before the movie’s release, Kennedy said that the web marketing campaign was part of “A very elaborate long term project with Microsoft and Xbox.”

The article goes on to state that an Xbox game was planned to launch near the movie’s release, with “others being released over a five-year period.” In total, there were three tie-in games planned, called A.I: The Circuit, A.I: Guardian, and A.I.: Chaser – all three were ultimately cancelled, perhaps because of the movie’s disappointing performance. Judging by the handful of screenshots left from their production, the world didn’t miss too much. 

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A.I. made less than $80 million in America, which was low given Spielberg’s box-office clout and the general interest surrounding the movie itself. All of this might suggest that A.I.‘s marketing campaign was something of a failure, but it remains a fascinating experiment in storytelling – and also a proving ground for future campaigns, such as the sci-fi shooter sequel Halo 2 and its curious I Love Bees game.

If nothing else, the breadth, ambition and sheer amount of work that went into The Beast marks it out as a unique footnote in film history; at its peak, the game had thousands of users all sharing their theories and findings on Cloudmakers – a Yahoo group dedicated to decoding the game’s secrets. Like so many parts of The Beast, that group has gone quiet, while only a small handful of websites and archived articles (such as this selection of design charts from its development) providing a hint of the game’s scale.

Fittingly, one of the few surviving pages is a fake obituary. It’s for Jeanine Salla, who died at the age of 77 in New York. 

As well as a Sentient Machine Therapist, the obit reveals, Salla could dive, sail, fly a helicopter, climb mountains, and also liked to collect antique sports equipment. Above all, Salla was The Beast’s equivalent of the white rabbit from Alice In Wonderland an enigmatic character who led unsuspecting adventurers into a labyrinthine world of intrigue.

Oh, and as for Evan Chan’s killer? If you really want to know the secret to the whole conspiracy, this 2002 thread at Home Theater Forum has you covered.