‘Dark Knight’ Dilemma: How Did Heath Ledger’s Death Affect Film’s Marketing?

'The thing that is most appropriate is to get it out there so that as many people can see it as [possible],' producer says of late actor's performance.

BEVERLY HILLS, California — Imagine this: You’ve been handed a toy box filled with $150 million, one of the most iconic franchises in modern-day pop culture, and critically acclaimed acting heavyweights such as , and . With a mere seven months to go until you steer your film across the box-office finish line, however, one of the stars you’ve been staring at every day in the editing bay suddenly passes away, leaving a legion of fans in mourning. What do you do?

Heath Ledger’s shocking death on January 22 left behind many unanswered questions about the security of his family, the legacy of his career and whether the tragedy could have been prevented. Once the smoke began to clear, however, another conversation point emerged: How do you sell the biggest popcorn movie of the year in the midst of tragedy?

There was simply no playbook. Actors from John Candy (“,” “”) to Aaliyah (“”) to Tupac (“”) all had films released after their deaths and marketed upon their names, but such movies weren’t in the same financial stratosphere as “The Dark Knight.” The actor most similar to Ledger at the time of his tragic death was James Dean, whose “” and “Giant” were both released after his fatal car accident — but that was 50 years ago. The only deceased star whose situation even began to mirror the “” predicament was Brandon Lee, shot dead on the set of the comic book film “,” but Lee was a far lesser-known actor than Ledger at the time of his death.

“He was on another film,” director Christopher Nolan remembered recently of that uncertain time. “It had been months and months since we’d wrapped, and we’d cut a lot of the film together, and we’d watched the film a couple of times. We were about halfway through the edit process.”

Nolan knew that he had something special on his hands, as Ledger’s immersion into the role of the Joker was already building into the stuff of legend. Tragically, the star himself hadn’t lived to see the finished product.

“Unfortunately, he’d only seen the prologue,” Nolan said. “He’d only seen the introduction to his character that we shot with these IMAX cameras and put out sort of as a short film in IMAX on Christmas. We screened that for him, and he enjoyed it very much. I’m very pleased that gave him a taste of how it was going to come across. I was obviously never able to show him his finished performance. That’s very sad.”

As the film community mourned, rumors began spreading that Nolan and Warner Bros. would alter their marketing plans for the film, shifting the focus onto their other criminal, Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face . But ultimately — as evidenced by everything from billboards to action figures to viral-marketing techniques that had the Joker defacing Web sites and arranging mysterious meet-ups — the focus remained predominantly on Ledger’s madman.

Nolan and Warner Bros. realized that they had something few posthumous films could claim. Ledger had blessed them by leaving a very special gift behind: His greatest performance.

“I’m certainly very gratified, and very relieved, to see that people seem to be getting from his performance what he wanted them to get,” Nolan said recently of Ledger’s work, which is already earning Oscar buzz .

“We never wanted to have caricatures; we never wanted to have the actor peeking through and winking at the audience and saying, ‘Hey look at what a great time I’m having playing this funny, larger-than-life character,’ ” Christian Bale said. “Heath was wonderful with that. He completely immersed himself. He stayed under. When he was the Joker, he was the Joker throughout — absolute commitment to that. He portrayed him in a way that has not been portrayed before — this kind of anarchic, punk, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ approach to it — and Heath’s done such a damn good job.”

Once the internal discussions turned from panic to positivity, the marketing focus between February and Friday’s opening became clear: Praise the man, praise the performance. Encourage fans to see “The Dark Knight,” and pay one last tribute to one of this generation’s most talented actors.

“The one thing we don’t have, of course, is Heath here,” said Charles Roven, one of the film’s producers. “But when he passed … we felt that the best thing to do — and, in fact, his family supported this completely — was to do everything else like we would have.”

“I think Heath put so much into the role,” added Roven’s producing partner, Emma Thomas. “When you watch the film, you can see that he just inhabited that. And I think he would have been very proud of the work that he did, and I think the thing that is most appropriate is to get it out there so that as many people can see it as [possible].”

“So the campaign is not materially changed,” Roven agreed. “And if we’re fortunate enough, we’re hearing also the buzz of an Oscar campaign. We’ll do one if that’s the appropriate thing to do, and we’ll do one that we would have done whether he was here or not.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Dark Knight.”

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