Some of the Best Movie Campaigns—From Blair Witch to Hunger Games

Technology and social media give Hollywood ads real star power

The Oscars are back this Sunday, for the 85th time, and once again the world gets set to witness the motion picture industry honor its best, brightest and most beautiful—while snubbing others. As we debate who should take home this year’s little gold men, fill out our Oscar ballots for the office pool and prepare those trays of hors d’oeuvres, we consider some of the best movie campaigns ever, and some of the greatest innovations in the selling of one of America’s most important and enduring consumer products. Here, New York-based creative director (and hard-core film buff) Michael English, who has worked on ad campaigns for global brands such as American Express, Hellmann’s and Dove, looks at some of the stars of the genre.

There’s no question Hollywood has stepped up its marketing mojo to levels that never could have been imagined only a few years ago. Advances in digital technology and social media that afford studios more bang for less buck (the motion picture industry laid out $3.15 billion on marketing last year, per Nielsen) also have made selling the movies a more creative enterprise, as marketers have become more adventurous about executing campaigns beyond the printed page or small screen.

By far the biggest—and possibly most complex—marketing behemoth to come along in recent years revolved around Warner Bros.’ The Dark Knight. The viral initiative began more than a year before the film’s 2008 release, using a brilliantly designed, faux political campaign site for character Harvey Dent. Warner Bros. and its agency OMD then created scavenger hunts and teaser trailers in multiple cities and published a fictitious newspaper, The Gotham Times, which was handed out on street corners. Perhaps the oddest element? Cellphones were literally baked into cakes, which led fans to search bakeries for telltale “ringing” confections leading fans to the big reveal: Heath Ledger as one of the baddest bad guys in the history of cinema, The Joker.

The size and scope of TDK’s global marketing campaign created an entire world for fans and moviegoers—iconic and memorable. It also helped deliver a staggering $1 billion in ticket sales worldwide. And that success massively upped the ante for other marketers. No longer would a mere teaser video be enough to inspire fans to duke it out on message boards.

Warner Bros. and TDK director Christopher Nolan apparently felt compelled to one-up themselves with the 2010 release of Inception, whose promotional effort was even more complicated and convoluted. Employing sinister taglines in teasers (“Protect your thoughts,” “Thought theft is real”), Inception’s crowning moment utilized billboards in New York featuring the illusion of water gushing from windows—a masterful use of trompe l’oeil that fit perfectly with the film’s dreamlike alternate reality.

Of course, one could point to seven decades of TDK’s caped hero in the public consciousness for helping make the film such a monster hit. The same could be said of 50 million copies of The Hunger Games trilogy having inspired enough buzz to get people into the multiplex last year. But Lionsgate also benefitted from some 50 national magazine covers plus the distribution of 80,000 posters featuring the movie’s fresh-faced stars.

A promotional blitz started a year before the release also used Facebook and Twitter to bombard teens with games and an invitation to register for a “district” (an essential plot element in the story), then compete with players in other districts. A YouTube channel helped fans keep tabs on the movie’s production even before the first scene had been shot. Meantime, Tumblr and Twitter feeds offered daily Hunger Games-related fashion advice.

“We have a more direct relationship with our customer than we ever did before,” Tim Palen, Lionsgate’s CMO, told Adweek last fall upon being named one of its Brand Genius winners, in recognition of his work on Hunger Games. Said Palen, gone are “the days when you would put out a trailer or print a poster and wait till opening weekend to see if you were actually connecting with your audience. There’s metrics for how you’re connecting, where you’re connecting and where you’re not connecting” far in advance of opening weekend.

But perhaps the real beauty of the campaign was its subtlety in selling a story about forced killings while never once mentioning the words “kill,” “death” or “murder.” (The majority of the audience was made up of young girls who already knew that the cute boy survives.) What resulted was a female-driven movie that had the fifth-biggest domestic opening ever. (One can count on a single hand, with fingers left over, the number of female-driven productions among the 100 top-grossing pictures.)

While women are a tough sell to the masses, horror is a relative layup. But that hasn’t stopped the genre from giving way to some of the coolest innovations in movie promotion. One film in particular leveraged the Internet like never before. In July 1999, three student filmmakers made The Blair Witch Project, introducing the found-footage concept to the public (or at least becoming the first to successfully employ it—unlike 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust). Made for a reported $60,000 and eventually grossing $250 million worldwide, Blair Witch completely rewrote the rules while employing the most basic of marketing tactics: an original idea + one website + strong reception at Sundance = a $1 million studio acquisition + massive buzz. On opening weekend, Artisan, the distributor, bought a full-page trade ad. While hardly uncommon, the promotion was unlike any before it. Instead of touting the flick’s impressive opening grosses, the copy read simply: “blairwitch.com: 21,222,589 hits to date.” And with that, Hollywood was officially introduced to the power of the Web.

The campaign benefitted from two important factors: limitation and timing. The website was a relatively rudimentary platform back then. But the producers kept beefing up content over time, adding witchy stories and footage the directors had amassed in their eight days of shooting. And this being a time when the Internet was still in the discovery phase among consumers, it was the perfect moment to capitalize on free publicity via the medium. (A few years later, social media and Snopes.com would have shattered the myth Blair Witch’s marketers had carefully crafted.)

The first Paranormal Activity—another cheaply made film with a limited marketing budget—picked up where Blair Witch left off. The hook there was Paramount’s innovative use of crowdsourcing and viral tactics: 1 million viewers had to “like” the film to secure a national release. It worked, achieving that goal in just four days. The film would rake in $194 million and become the first studio film to rely solely on viral marketing. Similarly, The Muppets, released by Disney in 2011, used Facebook to find a “bazillion” fans who would compete for tickets to an advanced screening. (It got 1 billion.) It would become the franchise’s biggest success, and a follow-up is in the works.

Speaking of the enormous kid movie market, one of the most effective promotional tools has become targeting parents as well as their children. One of the more successful examples also came from Disney (this time with Pixar). Toy Story 3 in 2010 executed a viral blitz that was eye candy for young and old alike, using baby-boomer touch points like dating tips from Barbie’s Ken. It also targeted college students, who most likely saw the first two Toy Story films as kids, with Facebook sign-ups for a sneak peek months before the film’s release.

Meantime, Fox’s The Simpsons Movie from 2007 has to take the prize for best experiential campaign. 7-Eleven stores across the country were transformed into Kwik-E-Marts featuring products repackaged as those from the TV show. (Six-pack of Duff? That’ll be in Aisle 3.)

Of course, there are limits to blurring the line between fact and fiction—or maybe there aren’t? William Castle, a director/producer in the 1950s and ’60s, used some legendarily wacky tactics to pull people into his schlocky horror films—among them, posting nurses at theaters to hand out life insurance policies (in case moviegoers died of fright during the feature) and vibrating devices under seats.

Some of the best promotions, meanwhile, are the simplest. Consider Greta Garbo’s successful transition from silent films to talkies, riding on the tagline “Garbo talks!” Then there are the masses that flocked to Cleopatra in 1963 in large part because of the public fascination and tabloid obsession with Liz and Dick.

Word of mouth, encompassing all the social and digital channels out there now, has never been more powerful. As Sony Corp. of America and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton said at a media conference in California last week, as quoted by Adweek’s sister publication The Hollywood Reporter: “The biggest issue for movie studios has always been that some films are good and others aren’t so good. Originally, marketing was supposed to smooth that out—but we can’t do that anymore. With social media, you can no longer hide the goods.”

Whether it’s Gone With the Wind or Gone in 60 Seconds—the 2000 action flick starring Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie that, despite uniformly sorry reviews, went on to pull in a reported $237 million at the box office—all the hype and star power and $100 million marketing budgets cannot guarantee that a movie release will score with the capricious consumer.

Which means that despite all the glamour and allure of Hollywood, selling a movie isn’t, at its most basic, really all that different from selling a car or soap or a box of cereal. The consumer—not the screenwriter or producer or studio suit or critic or marketer—is king.