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Decoding the curious ‘Case 1017'

Times Staff Writer

The 43-second clip began streaming on YouTube’s “promoted videos” portal on March 15: grainy documentary footage discovered by some schlubby video diarist named Eric that hints at murder, a disease outbreak and some massive government cover-up.

To date, “Case 1017,” as the clip has come to be known, has been viewed nearly 1.9 million times, penetrating the more conspiratorial corners of cyberspace with unnerving speed -- a kind of clickable mystery wrapped inside an enigma that has gotten the technorati searching high and low for the big reveal.

Well, it’s finally here. As has been widely speculated on blogs, chat rooms, bulletin boards and various movie URL comment sections, however, it turns out the clip is part of a viral marketing campaign for the sci-fi thriller “Quarantine” that Sony’s plucky genre division Screen Gems plans to release on Oct. 17 (10/17 -- get it?). Today, after weeks of buildup, “Eric’s Video Blog” posted a teaser trailer for the film -- a remake of the experimental 2007 Spanish horror movie "[Rec].”

“Quarantine” follows a TV news reporter and cameraman on assignment covering a Los Angeles Fire Department battalion. A 911 call concerning unexplained screaming brings the first responders to an apartment building, where they discover a woman with a mysterious infection. When a number of residents there are savagely attacked, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quarantines the building, leaving everyone inside to fend for themselves . . . or to try to escape.

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The “Quarantine” clip is another reminder of how, in this brave new world of Web marketing, rules differ radically from other traditional media. “People don’t want to be marketed to, they want to be marketed around,” Marc Weinstock, Screen Gems’ president of marketing, explained of the ploy. “This isn’t like a Tide detergent commercial. They don’t want it to be in your face. They get a satisfaction from figuring it out on their own.”

What takes place in “Case 1017" fits into a wave of cloak-and-dagger awareness-building schemes that have swept Hollywood in the wake of YouTube sensation LonelyGirl15. Similar viral campaigns involving apocryphal websites, concocted “news” footage and do-it-yourself videos have helped stoke fan ardor for movies dating as far back as 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” and more recently “Cloverfield,” and are helping build anticipation for this summer’s Batman sequel, “The Dark Knight.”

“By creating this whole world, people are going to be invested in the characters and the story before we present them the trailer,” Weinstock said. “Now there’s a whole back story.”

He added: “People know something’s going on. They don’t know if it’s a great conspiracy. But either way, they don’t mind. They’re spending time trying to crack the code of this little film.”

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The shaky, hand-held action in “Case 1017" unfolds at night. Police officers, soldiers in body armor and a van from the CDC have cordoned off the area surrounding an apartment building. Bystanders beside a biohazard tent look on in confusion, and a helicopter buzzes loudly overhead. At the 30-second mark, the camera pans up to a penthouse window and a male voice exclaims, “I think somebody’s trying to get out of there!” when suddenly a shot rings out. An unarmed person apparently is the target.

In the buildup to “Case 1017,” most of the brief video postings by “Eric” -- who purportedly worked as an evidence logger at a police station -- had nothing to do with any intrigue, let alone any movie tie-ins. “Can anybody recommend a good restaurant? Or fun places to hang out in L.A.?” “Eric” asks.

After Eric’s blog post “please help me” was streamed 1.24 million times within a day of its posting (becoming the most viewed video on YouTube), the studio launched a second blog, “The Last Palm Tree,” supposedly written by a retired missing persons detective intent on helping figure out the mysterious incident, to synergistically bolster Eric’s blog posts.

“I think the whole viral marketing thing is actually done pretty artfully,” a comment on AMCTV.com’s “Monster Fest” blog said.

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chris.lee@latimes.com


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