Marketing is a crucial factor in people’s decision to see a movie or skip it. Though there are some purists who insist on avoiding movie trailers in fear of spoilers, many of us regularly view them. For many big tentpole releases, the release of the first trailer attracts a stampede of viewers who want to get the first glimpse of the movie.
It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to argue that a trailer can make or break a movie. As CBS Films President Terry Press puts it, “The trailer is the single most important piece of advertising about a movie. There’s nothing else that comes close.” However, other marketing materials for films can certainly have an impact as well. A visually appealing poster can entice you to learn more about a film, just as a poorly-made poster can dissuade you from ever considering seeing the film. A clever viral marketing scheme can stick in people’s heads for a long time, potentially leading them to check out the movie.
Since moviegoers have a limited budget and limited time, decisions to see one movie versus another are often intuitive or impulsive. And since a key goal of marketing is to educate consumers about a good or service and steer them toward a purchase, movie marketing needs to do this task well. If not, the film studio might be out tens of millions of dollars. Some movies have had highly successful marketing campaigns, while others have failed horribly. Let’s take a look at some examples of movie marketing done right and wrong.
Blair Witch Project (1999)
Making a product feel real
One of the scariest elements of watching horror films is imagining, “What if this is real?” The filmmakers of Blair Witch Project had the brilliant idea to use this thought to terrify viewers before they even saw the movie. As one of the first films to use the Internet heavily for marketing, consumers at the time weren’t accustomed to the trickery that is now commonplace on the web.
The filmmakers created a website well in advance of the film’s release with the premise that the film consists of real found footage from a trio of college students who went out into the woods to make a documentary about the “Blair Witch” and vanished. Complete with fake police photos cataloging the evidence of the students’ disappearance, interviews with actors posing as police officers, and fabricated news clips about the students’ disappearance, the website set the stage for many moviegoers to believe that what they were going to see in the theater was real. Missing person flyers featuring the lead actors were distributed at some screenings to further add to the realism.
Turning a product into an experience
The genius of Psycho’s marketing is its air of secrecy. Instead of a typical trailer using footage from the film, director Alfred Hitchcock assembled six and a half minutes of himself giving a tour of the creepy set, teasing some plot details along the way. The trailer ends with a brief re-creation of the iconic shower scene. Another unique policy he implemented was not allowing theaters showing Psycho to let patrons in if the movie had already started. To come in late would detract from the experience! He also refused to have advance screenings for critics, with the goal of keeping the plot under wraps. All of these decisions amped up the secrecy of Psycho and enticed people into wanting to learn what all the fuss was about.
District 9 (2009)
Instilling the need to know more
District 9, an unconventional sci-fi thriller film, made clever use of viral marketing. The film’s plot centers around the appearance of refugee aliens who are subsequently confined to slums and mistreated. Partially shot in South Africa, the movie makes its connection to Apartheid, and racial discrimination in general, pretty clear.
This applies to its marketing as well. Stickers, wraps on buses, and billboards began to surface in some cities with the phrase “Humans Only” and links to websites. This was weird enough to pique many people’s interest, who then went online to see what was going on. One site allowed users to select between “human” and “non-human” and had alerts regarding the status of the aliens of the film. Another site was from the perspective of an alien character in the film who was advocating for better treatment of his kind. By bringing these mysterious elements of the film into people’s real lives, buzz was built up that brought people to the movie theater.
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John Carter (2012)
Failure to understand a target market
Since John Carter is one of the most expensive movies ever made, the fumbling of its marketing (among other factors) cost Disney a fortune. A marketing strategy that downplayed what should have been emphasized and vice-versa really doomed this movie from the beginning.
The trailer doesn’t mention the prior beloved films made by director Andrew Stanton, like Finding Nemo and WALL-E. It similarly fails to contextualize John Carter, a literary character whose name recognition has plummeted over the decades. Instead, viewers of the first trailer are given a boring mess of scenes that don’t effectively excite them to watch the full film. This, combined with a generic title and a lackluster final product, is a recipe for a box office nightmare.
While John Carter cost over $250 million to make, it only made back $73 million in the U.S. Though it had more success abroad, the massive production and marketing costs resulted in a major financial headache for Disney.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Failure to establish consistent branding
This is an example of a film that likely would have performed better if not for its marketing being riddled with inconsistencies. The title was a huge problem here. The film was initially called All You Need Is Kill, after the Japanese novel from which it was adapted. That was later changed to Edge of Tomorrow after fearing the first title was off-putting. But the film’s tagline, “Live. Die. Repeat.” also seemed to be contending for title status, based on its placement in the film’s advertising. Yet another poster put out while the film was in theaters appears to show the title as Live on the Edge, and next to the lead actors’ names is simply Edge.
Add all this up and you get a muddled mess, with very little consistency between trailers, posters, and other advertising materials. In addition, the trailer presents the film as a straightforward sci-fi action movie, when it is actually a quite unique and philosophical film to many viewers. Despite getting largely positive reviews from audiences and critics alike, Edge of Tomorrow (or whatever it’s being called this month) didn’t make much of a dent at the box office.
Last Action Hero (1993)
Failure to maintain contact with reality
This movie’s marketing serves as an example of what can happen when you try to go big but fail. Last Action Hero is a satire of action movies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as an action star in a movie within the movie. To create buzz about the film, a 75-foot balloon of Schwarzenegger’s character clutching a fistful of dynamite was inflated in Times Square. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal, but the World Trade Center had been bombed just days before the balloon went up. Understandably, many people were upset by the dynamite, so the balloon was deflated and in the dynamite’s place went a police badge.
Another marketing decision was even odder. Wanting to do something that had never been done before, arrangements were made to have advertising for the movie put on a rocket being launched into space. Naturally, the cost of sending marketing materials into space isn’t cheap: Columbia Pictures paid about $500,000 for this stunt. The problems began when NASA had to continually delay the launch. Finally, the rocket was launched, but not until two months after the movie had been released in theaters. Oops.
While some films survive or die on their own merit, it’s clear that marketing can have a big impact on a movie’s box office performance and its reputation among filmgoers. Taking an innovative approach seems to be a smart strategy to make audiences aware of the movie. Just don’t go too overboard with something so bizarre that it becomes the laughingstock of the Internet.