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.