Inside the Scary-Good Advertising That Made ‘It’ Such a Killer at the Box Office

Warner Bros. wasn't clowning around with its King adaptation

BK Foxx hand-painted this stunning ad on Canal Street in NYC.
Photo: twitter.com/coupercox

It, the film adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling 1986 novel of the same name, was an unexpectedly big hit at the box-office this weekend. Days before release, the smart money was on ticket sales of $50-60 million, which would have been totally respectable. The $123 million take that It pulled in was well above even the most aggressive expectations, leading to the widespread belief that Warner Bros./New Line will greenlight a sequel that adapts the second half of the book, where the kids from the first part have grown up but find Pennywise the clown isn’t yet defeated.

So, what lessons can we learn from the marketing of a movie about an ancient evil that takes the form of a clown with a red balloon?

 

Draft Off Nostalgia

If you watched the trailer for It and thought it looked a lot like an episode of Stranger Things, you weren’t entirely wrong, and that wasn’t an accident. The popularity of the Netflix show was in part powered by the nostalgia for the 1980s output of studios like Amblin Entertainment and Castle Rock, where groups of kids often banded together to investigate mysteries and face off against villains.

That success helped Warner Bros. sell It, which features a similar premise. The pump had been primed for this kind of story to appeal to the audience. The studio leaned into that with the trailers, showing plenty of footage of The Losers Club, as the kids dub themselves, riding their bikes around town as they meet to discuss the evil terrorizing their town.

There was also the frequent use of the line “You’ll float too,” which came from the book and would be instantly familiar to readers but which the general public may not have recognized. Used as a tagline on both of the posters, in the trailers, on outdoor billboards and elsewhere throughout the campaign, it spoke to existing fans but also served as a vaguely but genuinely terrifying tagline for the general public.

 

Go Experiential

One tactic the studio leaned heavily on was bringing the audience into the story and the terror in advance of release. It did that in three ways:

—Physical
29 Neibolt Street is, without spoiling too much, an address that’s important to the story. To underline that, Warner Bros. worked with out-of-home agency Grandesign to bring that address to life. The agency created a life-size reproduction of the house on a Los Angeles street corner, with people able to visit—only after making online reservations, though—and walk through it like a haunted house. The experience was guided by Georgie, the character whose death in the story prompts his older brother and the other kids to finally find out what’s happening and why so many people keep mysteriously dying.

Asked about the experience, Jasen Smith, innovative experiential productions and advertising stunts exec at Grandesign, emphasized the need to recreate the house as exactly and authentically as possible. After screening the movie months before release, Smith was given stills from the film, which he used to create a fully immersive environment. (See more from our talk with Smith in a Q&A at the bottom of this story.)

Another consistent physical element in the campaign was Georgie clad in his yellow raincoat. Street teams wore them in San Diego during Comic-Con to direct people to a VR experience and in Los Angeles to greet visitors to a haunted house installation (more on both those efforts below). He’s seen on the posters and in the trailers. A massive sidewalk ad on Canal Street in New York City, painted by BK Foxx and produced by Impermanent Art (with Lure Outdoor and Outdoor Media Group), also shows Georgie in his yellow coat peering down the sewer grate in pursuit of his lost boat, just before meeting Pennywise. Imperment produced several other creepy outdoor art pieces for It, as well.

—VR
If you couldn’t make it to L.A., Warner Bros. gave you another way to get inside the terror. The “IT: FLOAT” virtual reality experience took you through the streets of Derry and into the sewers as you followed the path that poor little Georgie took after he met Pennywise. Created by SunnyBoy Entertainment, the experience was available for a number of VR platforms and was part of the studio’s efforts at San Diego Comic-Con in July, where raincoat-clad children carrying red balloons directed people to a location where they could, as a group, enjoy a trip underground.

—Online
The website for the movie was heavily geared toward bringing people inside the town of Derry. There were three options available for doing so: 1) An “Enter the Sewer Game” allowed you to navigate a paper boat through the sewers, avoiding obstacles along the way; 2) “The Losers Club” feature presented the story as told through the eyes of the kids, in the manner of a slideshow, just like what’s shown in the trailers; and 3) “Escape Derry” was an interactive feature that offered more of the story the more you scrolled down into the depths of the sewers.

 

Prompt People to Buy

That last online feature ended with a clear and distinct call to action to buy tickets. In fact, the movie’s official website was covered in various “Get tickets” prompts. Some of those were specifically for individual ticket sales, while others were for group sales, playing into the notion that horror movies are best experienced with others. There was even a “Ticket Finder in 360” feature that presented nearby theaters and showtimes in the form of red balloons floating around the sewer. As you turned the scene around, you saw more theaters and prompts to buy tickets.

 

Don’t Hide the Terror

Anytime there’s a new twist on an old character, hiding the revamped look and feel of that character becomes a marketing tactic. Think about the various Godzilla movies in the last 20 years, or the way new versions of Stormtroopers have been revealed in the lead-up to various Star Wars movies.

WB took a different tack here, releasing a good look at Pennywise over a year before the movie was scheduled to hit theaters. The studio obviously felt the clown’s look and feel (creepy and creepier) was going to be integral to drawing people in, showing it was far more menacing than Tim Curry’s Pennywise from the 1990 TV miniseries. While the clown would appear to varying degrees in subsequent posters and trailers, there was an obvious attempt to use the fear of clowns as a primary selling point, not something to hide until the last possible moment.

 

The IT Experience: Neibolt House Hollywood

I spoke with Grandesign’s Jasen Smith about the process that led to the creation of this movie-themed haunted house, and what the reaction to it was.

How much access to the movie’s imagery and other assets were you given?
I was able to screen the film four months prior to our execution to understand the house’s relevance and get an “inside” look to its vibe and feel. The house is so darkly and deeply detailed and decrepit that we really needed to be strategic in its recreation. If it didn’t come out authentic or as an exact replica, we risked blowing the entire execution since so many eyes were going to be on it—both publicly and from the studio and its filmmakers. The studio [Warner Bros.] was also able to provide screen shots from the film for interior looks, which became invaluable when creating an environment for our guests. The goal from day one was to immerse fans, physically, into this film on a level that hadn’t been attempted before.

What kind of lead time did you have?
I submitted the idea for The IT Experience in early June, and received the green light on the project roughly eight weeks before we opened the doors. It may sound like a lot of time, but to pull it all together like we did was ambitious. There were times everyone was doubting we would finish in time, but we did what we said we would do … we held a media event on Aug. 14. As our first guests were entering the house, our techs were running out of the back, having just finished. It came down to the last moment, literally. Nothing was prefabricated. We built the entire house from scratch, including putting up each piece of shiplap individually, and aging it piece by piece—all 30,000 of them.

What was the guiding force behind creating the story of the experience?
I wanted to create a viral destination. My initial inspiration was the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. You always knew someone who was going, and people always seemed to love it. Then came San Diego Comic-Con and I saw these insane lines for the Warner Bros. Blade Runner Experience. I fell in love with the authentic film props, the actors who were deep in character, and the world they created for the film. I left San Diego determined on having The IT Experience be a massive, super-viral, film-authentic, immersive production that entertainment marketing hadn’t seen before. In the end, I think we accomplished that.

How successful was the effort?
Our first allotment of times, 29 days worth, booked up in seven hours. When the announcement came that additional hours were being added, 100,000 people went to the website to grab those slots, which were gone in 23 minutes. To maximize our time open, we had a standby line for those who were willing to wait anywhere from five and a half to eight hours in the event a slot opened up. Only 8 percent of ticketed reservations no-show. Although this experience was free, the currency became people’s time, and it was great to hear “It’s worth it” as guests exiting the house told those who were still waiting to enter.