Film marketing through trailers, endorsements, celebrity appearances and interviews, is a million dollar business. In a highly competitive market with an incredibly engaged audience, film studios and distributors are finding new ways to attract filmgoers to the multiplex. Viral marketing is becoming more and more common – the seemingly “grassroots” campaigns (often backed my millions of dollars) to promote film in interesting and creative ways is shockingly effective.
In film, viral marketing isn’t just a cool website or additional videos – it’s often a piece of advertising or not only requires audience participation, but adds to the story and world-building of the film itself.
Viral campaigns continue to be an effective means to keep fans and audiences involved and interested in the pending release of films. Plenty of movies, including Toy Story 3, Inception, Fight Club, Tron Legacy, The Amazing Spiderman and Pacific Rim (to name a few) have employed viral marketing campaigns to great success.
Do you buy into the hype? As a film fan, I’m not ashamed to say that a truly stellar viral marketing campaign would get me to the theater.
Horror genre films have this viral marketing game locked down. More recent films have benefitted from the genius marketing for the Blair Witch Project . The website still exists – with missing persons reports, personal videos and family photos of the “missing” filmmakers. The website still retains the eerie quality that led thousands (if not millions) of people to believe that the film was based on true events. The film was made for a reported $20,000 and raked in over $284 million at the box office – an incredible return on investment.
“Based on true events” and shaky-cam films like Paranormal Activity and Last Exorcism used social media to their advantage. It’s widely reported that Paranormal Activity was brought to the attention of DreamWorks – Steven Spielberg took a copy of the DVD to his Pacific Palisades estate, watched it there, and then found his bathroom door inexplicably locked from the inside. He thought the movie was haunted! Word of mouth and disturbing trailers had people demanding that the film be shown in their area – in fact, the original Paranormal Activity website included a “Demand It” icon, allowing users to vote for the film to play in their City. Last Exorcism featured a ChatRoulette prank, for which unsuspecting users (read: pervs) thought they were chatting with a cute girl, who showed off her 360-degree head spin. Simple. Scary. Effective.
Viral marketing campaigns often make me think of the myth of the Orson Welles’ “panic broadcast” – an on-air radio enactment of War of the Worlds – a Martian invasion of Earth. “Upwards of a million people, [were] convinced, if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders.” However overblown this urban legend may be, the format was unprecedented – with the first two thirds of the 62-minute broadcast presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress.
There’s been a lot of viral campaigns that instill a sort of “realism” in their marketing. District 9 had a brilliant campaign that carried over the segregation and xenophobia against aliens in the film into our real world, with bus stops, train stations and other public venues in major cities plastered with “Humans Only” signs and public service announcements.
J.J. Abrams, with his flair for mysteries spawned an impressive campaign for Super 8. Obsessive fans analyzed the trailer footage to find a hidden message: “The Scariest Thing I Ever Saw”. If that wasn’t enough, the website launched with a simulated 1977 computer interface – leading to more footage and more questions. Fans flocked to websites to find clues and unlock mysteries that they knew nothing about – generating serious interest and conspiracy theories. Often, we’re most interested to see films that we know nothing about.
Cloverfield was another J.J. Abrams produced film that gave almost no details on plot, but had audiences guessing and theorizing over the question: “What is Cloverfield?” The trailer was simple – a party scene, shot in camcorder style, gives way to complete chaos. “It’s alive! It’s huge,” someone screams, and soon the screen goes black. There’s no hint of a title. Just a release date of 1-18-08. Simple… Cue internet sensation – and an absolute NEED to find out what Cloverfield is.
The tie-in to Cloverfield was an “official” site for Japanese drink Slusho, which was somehow tied to events in the film (the party in the trailer is for Rob, a character who is leaving for a job with Taraguto Corp – parent company of Slusho). The campaign followed up with news reports of attacks against Tagruato, “deep sea ingredients”, and eco-terrorism, along with blog and video entries by the cast of characters. Even if these side stories were never fully explored in the film – it created an “extended universe” or reality in which these events could occur.
Ridley Scott’s Prometheus also managed to create a snapshot of the not so distant future, with an elaborate introduction to Weyland Industries. The fantastic campaign featured Guy Pierce as the fictional Weyland Industries head Peter Weyland, giving a TED talk in 2023. The clip was first screened at an actual TED talk event:
Weyland Industries has a company website (https://www.weylandindustries.com/), complete with number of employees, investor information and corporate timeline. The film went on to release promotional materials of Weyland Industries’ new product, the David8 Android (played by Michael Fassbender).
Creepy and completely effective in getting my attention (I’ll take one David8 to go).
By far, my favorite viral marketing strategy was the one rolled out for The Dark Knight. Fans were absolutely frenzied for information on how Christopher Nolan would introduce the infamous Joker (perfectly played by the late Heath Ledger) in his Batman universe. 42 Entertainment was responsible for the absolutely brilliant “Why So Serious” marketing campaign. It began with the launch of a website featuring the fictional political campaign of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), with the caption, “I Believe in Harvey Dent.” The site aimed to interest fans by having them try to earn what they wanted to see. Almost simultaneously, a “vandalized” version of I Believe in Harvey Dent, called “I believe in Harvey Dent too,” was established – where e-mails sent by fans slowly removed pixels, revealing the first official image of the Joker with a hidden message that said “see you in December.”
WhySoSerious.com sent fans on a scavenger hunt to unlock a teaser trailer and a new photo of the Joker. Further messages led to scavengers hunt with hidden messages, instructing fans to uncover clues at certain locations in major cities throughout the United States, and to take photographs of their discoveries. The clues combined to reveal a new photograph of the Joker and audio clips. A similar treatment of scavenger hunts (including graffiti websites addresses and the batmobile tour) was used for The Dark Knight Rises.
Absolute genius. Fans were already excited for this film – the hype helped The Dark Knight reach over $1billion in ticket sales.
Now, 20th Century Fox is pulling out all the stops for the X-Men: Days of Future Past viral campaign. A Trask Industries website has sprung up, featuring Sentinels – fans of the comics and cartoons are familiar with “Sentinels”, the robots designed to hunt and eradicate the mutant threat.
Tying in to the events of the film, the studio has also launched www.thebentbullet.com – JFK and the Mutant Conspiracy – implicating Magneto in the mutant plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy.
I was already excited for this film, but the effort and imagination going into promoting this film will absolutely make it a box office smash.
Most of these films already had great appeal before their release. The complicated marketing strategies may not have been strictly necessary, but they definitely added a level of intrigue. Despite the commercial motivation, most fans appear to be enjoying the shift from straight forward commercials and posters, to inclusive and active strategies. Viral movie marketing encourages engagement with audience, wider conversation and expands the worlds of movies people love.
Do you buy into the hype?