It’s hard to get noticed. This is especially true in the world of movies, where sometimes there are so many different trailers that they can all feel like white noise. Sometimes, that works in a movie’s favor. If people are already excited about something, they don’t need a ton of marketing to convince them to see it. Other times, it’s important to make a splash.
Creating a campaign that stands out usually means doing something different. Often in the digital age, campaigns will move into the virtual space, where marketers can be more creative about fan engagement. A movie’s success obviously depends on the people who make it, but it can also depend on how many people are actually interested in seeing it. Making audiences feel like a movie is worth seeing is tricky business, and many marketers are trying crazier things than ever before to make sure that their film gets heard above the noise.
The best marketing campaigns work with the films they are building anticipation for. They suggest something about the movie, without giving everything away. They let you know you should be excited for what you’re about to see, but you should still see it. Here are 15 of the craziest marketing schemes for movies that actually worked.
15. World War Z
After years stuck in production limbo, World War Z needed something to turn perceptions around. That something came in the form of a viral video campaign, one which placed viewers inside the world of this disease-riddled society. The videos describe a series of bizarre occurrences around the globe that appear to be connected by something unknown.
The videos make the crisis seem like an urgent one, and asks people around the world to take action before it’s too late. The video also urges viewers to go find Crisis Zero, the name for the disaster being described, online. These viral videos gave World War Z a grounded sensibility that most zombie films lacked. It made the movie look more like an actual crisis than like something removed from our world. It also helped to rehabilitate the film’s shattered image. The move paid off, and the film made over $200 million domestically.
Prometheus baffled audiences upon its release. On paper, it sounded like a sure thing. Ridley Scott, director of the very first Alien is coming back for a sequel. What could possibly go wrong? Well, depending on who you ask, the answer is either a lot or a little. What’s up for little debate, however, is the success of the Prometheus marketing campaign. Here, viewers were treated to several videos, including a TED Talk from the year 2023 that featured Guy Pierce as Peter Weyland, the head of Weyland Industries.
The campaign also included a website for Weyland Industries, one which introduced viewers to the company and to Project Prometheus. This campaign was effective in part because Prometheus itself was shrouded in mystery. The websites and videos gave fans a taste of the movie to come, providing clues that built to the film’s release. Though the film itself was divisive, the marketing helped the film become a modest success. Prometheus ultimately made over $400 million worldwide.
13. District 9
In a lot of ways, District 9 was a surprise. It didn’t have any top-of-the-line stars, and the director wasn’t a particularly well-known quantity at the time. Still, the film struck a chord with audiences, and that probably has something to do with the film’s clever marketing campaign, which integrated the film’s story of an alien migration with the real world. District 9 is really an allegory for apartheid (it’s set in South Africa, after all) and its marketing made that idea crystal clear.
District 9 created “For Humans Only” signs, and then scattered them in large cities all over the world. These signs suggested the kind of segregation that District 9 depicts, but it also allows viewer to get a sense of what they’re walking into without ruining the entire film. The campaign clearly worked. Despite its lack of star-power, the film made tripled its budget domestically, was critically adored, and was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture.
Ryan Reynolds loves Deadpool even more than you do. It’s no surprise, then, that he was everywhere in the months leading up to Deadpool‘s release. Deadpool was marketed in every shape and size imaginable, from clever billboards, to interviews to, perhaps most importantly, a Tinder profile for the character. Ryan Reynolds promoted the film in character, and wore the costume more often than he maybe needed to.
The brilliance of the Deadpool campaign was in the consistency of it. No matter where the character appeared, he was always completely snide and self-aware. Reynolds was so competent as the character that it sometimes felt like he didn’t even need a script. In case anyone was wondering whether Deadpool’s hilarious campaign worked, it ended up grossing $760 million on a relatively slim budget. Deadpool got people excited by showing people what it would be, and then delivering on that promise.
11. Paranormal Activity
Although it spawned several mostly maligned sequels, the original Paranormal Activity had a rather brilliant idea to market itself to the public. The studio website for the film famously allowed audiences to hit a button labeled “Demand it.” If you chose to do so, you were taken to a page that allowed you to vote for the movie to come to your city. At the center of the screen was a counter, showing the demand from people across the country. If the counter reached a million, the movie would go nationwide.
Paranormal Activity made film distribution a democratic process. It allowed audiences to demand the movie, and gave the studios backing the film a solid understanding of exactly how many people were interested in seeing it. In giving individuals the ability to demand the movie, they engaged audiences, building excitement, and also knew exactly how wide to distribute the film. It was a brilliant move, one that made the film over $100 million on a tiny budget.
10. The Muppets
At their best, the Muppets have a certain dry wit about them. The marketing for The Muppets took advantage of that very wit to parody other major releases it would ostensibly be competing against. These took the form of posters which parodied films like Twilight and trailers which parodied films like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. These tactics worked in concert with an active social media campaign to create buzz around the film that promised to be a reprieve from the typical summer fare.
The Muppets marketing efforts worked so well because they were light and funny, everything that this group of puppets was always supposed to be. The first trailer for The Muppets surprised audiences, transitioning from the trailer for a generic romantic comedy (Green with Envy) into a trailer for the actual film when Kermit abruptly shows up halfway through. The Muppets was a smash with critics and audiences. Sometimes all we really want is to hang out with a singing green frog.
Christopher Nolan’s films often feature incredibly elaborate marketing campaigns. The campaigns for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises were both heavy on viral media, as was the campaign for Inception. The website for the film was a simple image of Cobb’s infamous top spinning. In December of 2009, the top fell over to reveal something else entirely. Here, an entire game called Mind Crime was unlocked, which could be played to completion in order to reveal the poster for Inception.
An online prequel comic was also released, as were other pieces of viral marketing like a particularly strange manual. Inception was an original project for Nolan, which made the marketing even more essential. Audiences had to be excited for the film because of its connection to the director, its stars, and the promise of a completely insane plot. Inception certainly delivered on those goods, earning a Best Picture nomination, an incredibly healthy box office, and total dominance of the film conversation for an entire summer.
Chronicle wasn’t exactly made on a blockbuster scale. The film had a modest budget, and there were no big stars headlining the cast. In marketing the movie, things got incredibly creative. The film itself centers on a group of teenagers who, through their interactions with a mysterious substance, are granted extraordinary powers. One of these powers is flight, and so the marketing team behind the movie decided to make that power a reality.
The team had five teen-shaped model airplanes made and then flew them all over New York City. The finished planes were six feet in length, and only weighed about four pounds. The flight, which occurred on January 27th, 2012, only lasted for about five minutes, but it was long enough to attract some attention. The video of the teens flying over the Hudson River went viral. Clever marketing like this helped make Chronicle a runaway success, grossing over ten times the lean budget it was produced on.
Sasha Baron Cohen has been known for giving interviews in character and conducting rather elaborate stunts. For Borat, perhaps Cohen’s most famous and successful film, he decided to promote entirely in character. This decision was a brilliant one, introducing audiences to the character they would be spending the film with while giving them a sense of how funny the movie might be. Borat was everywhere. He showed up on national television plenty, but also on local news programs and a number of other, more obscure channels.
Borat was a film all about skewering American culture, and the promotional campaign just extended that idea. It showed us a foreign reporter eager to learn American customs, and desperately in love with Pamela Anderson. The marketing certainly seemed to pay off. Borat was nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay, and also managed to gross over $260 million on an $18 million budget.
6. Super 8
J.J. Abrams loves marketing ploys. The man behind the Cloverfield campaign worked similar magic for his own film, Super 8, which forced audiences to decode its trailers in order to lead them to a website. Once on the website, a fake computer terminal opens, and if you press Y a certain number of times, you could unlock something else related to the film or its universe. There was also an interactive trailer for Super 8 buried inside Portal 2.
Super 8’s campaign was an excellent example of what Abrams does with every film he’s involved in. He obfuscates and teases, but he never reveals anymore than he has to. He was similarly obscure when promoting Star Trek Into Darkness, and managed to cut together several Force Awakens trailers without revealing much of note. Super 8 shows us what Abrams does best. He creates an entire world for audiences to live in, but doesn’t ruin his movie in the process.
5. The Simpsons Movie
The Simpsons Movie probably didn’t need to do an extensive amount of marketing. By 2007, everyone knew The Simpsons. They’d been on TV for almost 20 years. Still, the marketing team took a unique path to make sure everyone knew America’s favorite cartoon family was coming to a theater near you. Perhaps the most lauded part of the campaign saw 7-11 stores across the country converted into real-life Kwik-E-Marts over night. The Simpsons had very rapidly invaded our world, and generated a lot of buzz by doing so.
Although this aspect of the campaign was perhaps the flashiest, there was also a Burger King website that allowed you to “Simpsonize” yourself, and a partnership with JetBlue that christened the airline “The Official Airline of Springfield.” As you can imagine, it was hard to turn around without being reminded there was a Simpsons movie coming. Still, the strategy worked, in part because it integrated itself into our world, making everything seem just a little bit yellower.
4. 10 Cloverfield Lane
The marketing gambit on 10 Cloverfield Lane was abnormal, to say the least. Instead of building excitement for months before the film premiered, audiences didn’t even learn the actual title until two months before the movie was set to drop. No one knew the film was coming until, very suddenly, it was upon them.
This strategy worked, in large part because it existed in sharp contrast to the extended marketing campaigns that are the norm today. Fans of the original Cloverfield, a film which was itself very cleverly marketed, were completely shocked by the announcement of a sequel. The original Cloverfield created an elaborate mythology surrounding its release, involving various corporations, and it was also very careful to hide the titular monster until the actual film premiered. 10 Cloverfield Lane followed suit, building on the mythology of its predecessor both through its surprise release and an Alternate Reality game.
3. The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games had some initial advantages. It was adapted from a wildly popular book series, one with ravenous young fans. Still, the marketing team knew how to play these fans perfectly, building a campaign that took advantage of every possible aspect of pre-release anticipation. The marketing team created an entire virtual world, where you could unlock teasers, trailers, posters, and other merchandise for the film.
By the time of the film’s release, anticipation had boiled over into complete frenzy, and that frenzy made the film a bona fide hit. The Hunger Games still holds the opening weekend record for a non-sequel, and that was surely due in part to the bold marketing strategy for the campaign. The film made use of existing hysteria to build excitement for the film to a fever pitch. The sequels would follow suit, using a combination of in-world marketing and effectively edited trailers to fully immerse fans in the world of Panem.
Though it came out when the word “viral” was only used to describe a type of sickness, Psycho was marketed according to the very specific orders of its director, Alfred Hitchcock. First and foremost, Hitchcock was terrified of spoilers, and went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that no one entered the theater late. It didn’t matter who they were, they had to be there from the beginning of Psycho to its chilling end.
These rules were tightly enforced across the country, and they only built on the feeling that the film that was about to be witnessed was a truly unique experience. Psycho also promoted itself via a creepy trailer. The trailer, which lasts a little over six minutes, allows Hitchcock to guide the audience through the Bates house, describing the plot of the film as he goes. For Psycho, Hitchcock was completely in control of what people knew and what they didn’t. The film lived up to the anticipation he built around it, and went on to become a classic cinematic work.
1. The Blair Witch Project
Like Psycho, The Blair Witch Project also predated viral marketing as we now know it. Its campaign actually helped form many of the strategies that are now commonplace. The film created an in-world campaign, one that made it seem as though the makers of the film had disappeared in the woods as they began filming. The website for the film contains a detailed history of the “real” Blair Witch that the film makers were supposedly attempting to document, and a detailed look at each of the filmmakers, complete with biographies and childhood photos.
The Blair Witch Project was premised on the idea that these filmmakers had gone into the woods in Burkittsville, Maryland with the intention of documenting the paranormal, and had disappeared in their quest. The footage they shot was “found,” and gave rise to the found footage movement that still exists today. Verisimilitude was essential to this campaign. Viewers had to believe that these filmmakers had truly disappeared, and every piece of promotional material furthered that idea. The film was a smash hit, making $140 million on a $25,000 budget.
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