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.