Updated August 3, 2023
Every year Hollywood strives to give the public what they want, whether that’s through original films, novel adaptations, or, more and more commonly, sequels and reboots. But making the movie is only half the battle, since getting tickets sold is an essential part of the movie-making machine. Enter marketing.
Throughout the decades, studios and filmmakers have gone to some pretty great lengths to ensure packed houses. Let’s take a look at some of the most ingenious examples.
1. The Blair Witch Project
As one of the originators of viral marketing, The Blair Witch Project’s inventive campaign featured fake police reports and interviews all indicating that the events depicted in the upcoming horror film were genuine.
Many were duped by the convincing campaign, with only the appearance of the film’s actors on news and entertainment programs removing any doubt. The film’s astonishing return on investment—from a $60,000 budget to a $248 million box office haul—is often attributed to said marketing. For an interesting trip back in time, visit the original website that started it all, which is still active.
2. The Dark Knight
The Blair Witch Project might have kicked off online movie marketing, but 2008’s The Dark Knight took it to new heights.
Presented as a sort of intricate puzzle orchestrated by the film’s villain the Joker, the campaign consisted of various websites, online and real-world scavenger hunts, “recruitment” opportunities for the Joker’s gang, and photo and trailer reveals.
The site is no longer live, but some dedicated fans have compiled an archive of many of its materials.
Long before the internet arrived with its marketing opportunities, Alfred Hitchcock was busy finding novel ways to drive people to his classic film Psycho, and changing the ways films are distributed in the process. The key points include:
- Until that time, all Hollywood films would play on a more or less continuous loop, and theatergoers might come in at any point during the plot (leading to the common exit phrase, “This is where I came in”).
- Hitchcock knew this loop method would spoil his film since his lead actress was only in the beginning of the film, and the conclusion was meant to be a surprise. He insisted theaters make appointment viewing for the film, and not allow latecomers.
- Theater-owners at first were none too pleased with the instruction, until they saw long lines forming for the picture since the unusual distribution by such a celebrated director piqued audience interest.
Following Psycho’s success, such appointment viewing became more and more common, eventually turning into the set standard we all know today.
4. Toy Story 3
Although the third Toy Story film was sure to be a financial success following the beloved first two installments and considering Pixar’s high quality standards, that didn’t stop the company from pulling out all the stops for the movie marketing.
Creating a YouTube account showcasing vintage toy commercials, the filmmakers then produced a faux 1980s commercial for the character Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, complete with a jangly theme song and fake VHS tracking interference. Soon after, they released a Japanese counterpart commercial.
These fun marketing materials are just another example of the immense creative talents at Pixar and shows the dedication they have to their material.
5. Fight Club
Debuting the same year as The Blair Witch Project, Fight Club also incorporated some unique tactics into its movie marketing strategy.
Of particular note are the faux PSAs shown in theaters featuring leads Brad Pitt and Edward Norton which highlighted the sardonic and acerbic nature of the film, along with its tendency to break the fourth wall.
Though the film was ultimately a financial failure, it has since gone on to become a cult favorite and the filmmakers’ commitment to the tone and world of the story certainly could be seen as a contributing factor.
When the remake for the classic horror film Carrie came out in 2013, the marketing department decided to get a little creative with their viral efforts, working off of the psychic abilities of the title character.
Using a team of actors and special effects experts, the marketers crafted a fake telekinetic event in a New York City coffee shop, featuring a stunt man’s “levitation” and the “spontaneous” movement of tables, chairs, pictures and books.
The end result was played out live for a number of unsuspecting patrons, and you can see a video of the event here.
7. The Simpsons Movie
After nearly two decades on television, The Simpsons had built a sizeable fanbase, one which was incredibly excited at the prospect of the long-in-the-works feature film.
One inventive film marketing tactic 20th Century Fox used was partnering with 7-Elevens across the country to create mock-ups of Springfield’s own Kwik-E-Mart convenience stores. This strategy included:
- Kwik-E-Mart signs, slogans and cartoon coloration for store exteriors
- Life-size Simpsons character decals inside and outside the store
- Products from the Simpsons universe, such as Squishees, Buzz Cola, Krusty-O’s, and Pink Donuts
All told, the marketing efforts proved greatly beneficial to both 7-Eleven and the studio, as the former saw a 30% increase in profits and the latter ended up with a film which grossed over $527 million worldwide.
8. Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters
This animated TV show turned film took a different approach in its movie marketing, with somewhat questionable results. The key details:
- Originally appearing on Cartoon Network’s more mature Adult Swim lineup, Aqua Teen Hunger Force was well-known for its surreal humor.
- When it came time to market the film, promoters played into this and crafted electronic signs featuring the “Mooninite” characters, who resembled Atari-era video game aliens, and placed the signs around major cities.
- Since Aqua Teen Hunger Force was largely a cult phenomenon, the general public was mostly unaware of the characters.
- Because of the characters’ relative obscurity, certain Boston government officials who had been alerted to the electronic signs believed the signs could be part of a terroristic plot, which subsequently led to a citywide panic.
Though the film company ultimately reimbursed Boston and Homeland Security for various expenses, the scare may well have helped the film, as it ended up grossing over 7 times its budget.
One the most fascinating movie marketing techniques on this list is the one used for 2012’s Chronicle, a smaller budget film about real people acquiring super powers.
To promote the film, the marketing team used remote-controlled airplanes which had been crafted to resemble human forms. The resulting footage shows some fairly realistic “superheroes”—when viewed from a distance anyway.
You can see footage of their efforts in this YouTube video.
10. The Matrix
The question, “What is the Matrix?” was first introduced during the Super Bowl in 1999 for the upcoming film. The ad showcased the The Matrix’s highlights while tantalizing viewers with questions about the film’s approach and world.
After seeing the Super Bowl ad, film fans ran to their computers to search whatisthematrix.com, which revealed some more enticing tidbits. As an early example of online marketing for film, the website helped to generate buzz and dovetailed perfectly with the tech content of the narrative.
11. Black Panther
In 2018, Marvel Studios released their eighteenth movie, Black Panther. The film focused on issues of race and identity by portraying life in Africa and America, all tied into a superhero narrative. Black Panther’s cast was predominately black and featured Marvel’s first black director, Ryan Coogler, both positive steps forward when it comes to representation.
Wanting to highlight the positive qualities of the film, Frederick Joseph, a New York marketer, raised money so the Harlem Boys and Girls Club could go to theaters to see the film. Joseph then organized a GoFundMe on behalf of Harlem Boys and Girls Club so more children could see the film. In just a couple of days, the campaign raised thousands of dollars, sending 300 children to see the film, and serving as some great marketing the filmmakers couldn’t have expected!
Prior to its release, the official website for the film launched in 2016 and provided trailers, a picture gallery, videos and IT: Enter the Sewer, an 8-bit game. The marketing team also created social media accounts on different platforms to post scary images and captions to generate buzz.
Along with these efforts, IT’s director, Andy Muschietti, shared posts of his sketches, cast photos, and props from the film to gain interest from fans. All of these aspects helped propel IT to success, utilizing the powers of social media and fandom to their full potential.
Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time, was originally released in 2009 and was a must-see 3D film. The film’s director, James Cameron, was strategic about any information that was released prior to the premiere. This made fans intrigued by the mystery of the film, making them anxious to see it upon its debut.
Along with the mysterious presentation, Cameron started the trend of invite-only events to give fans a sneak peak of the film. During these events, information was given about Avatar’s toys and video games to help further increase buzz and generate a robust response online. As we all know from its success, these efforts paid off.
J. Abrams has long been known for his ability to create intrigue alongside spectacle, even dubbing some of his narrative and marketing techniques as a “mystery box” approach.
For Cloverfield, the Matt Reeves film he produced, this mystery box approach was greatly utilized to the film’s benefit, with a trailer being released in front of Transformers that included the jarring, provocative shaky cam footage but virtually no other information about the film. Only the release date was featured, with even the title omitted to help drum up interest and speculation.
Over time, an online campaign let details trickle out along with a phone number where you could get a ringtone of the film’s monster’s roar. The efforts worked, as the movie went on to be highly profitable, and even spawned a sort of anthology series.
15. Paranormal Activity
The Paranormal Activity films, now totaling seven with more likely on the way, had humble beginnings with the original film’s $15,000 production budget. Horror is usually seen as a good investment in the film business, since the genre’s fans are very passionate and good work can still be produced on a small budget, leading to greater profits.
Still, effective marketing always helps, something the Paranormal Activity creators knew when they launched a campaign designed to create excitement for the film. In a clever bit of salesmanship, the famed “night-vision” trailer showed audiences being thrilled and horrified by what they were seeing onscreen, and an accompanying website allowed new audiences to vote on whether the film would play in their area. That initial $15,000 investment? It resulted in a $194.2 million return.
While bigger is usually seen as better when it comes to marketing blockbusters, Marvel opted to go the other way with 2015’s Ant-Man, creating an eye-catching campaign based around the titular character’s stature.
To promote the film in Australia, tiny billboards, about a foot high, were created that displayed the film’s name and were affixed to various surfaces on streets in major cities. The company even went so far as to make a tiny bus shelter with a poster to mimic their standard, full-size counterparts. Some truly creative thinking on this one!
17. Ex Machina
When the sci-fi film Ex Machina debuted at the annual SXSW festival, its marketing team took a novel approach to getting the word out about it and its themes. The film centers on the question of when does artificial intelligence cross over into sentience, with the female android Ava being tested in various ways throughout the story.
The marketers flipped this testing a bit by creating a Tinder profile for Ava along with a Tinder bot. Those who matched with her then received messages from her with questions to facilitate a conversation. As the conversations continued, they helped to highlight the core themes of the film and ultimately pointed to an Instagram profile promoting the film’s release. There might have been a few broken hearts out there once people learned the truth, but the campaign certainly made for an intriguing way to attract attention.
18. William Castle Movies
We wrap up our list with the grandfather of movie marketing gimmicks, William Castle.
Castle was a director and producer who made dozens of films from the 1940s to the 1970s, though is most well-known for his gimmick-driven horror films of the 1950s and ‘60s. Some of the ingenious ways Castle drove patrons to the theater included:
- House on Haunted Hill – Certain theaters were supplied with a faux skeleton with glowing red eyes to be used during the final moments of the film, which floated above the audience to mimic onscreen action.
- The Tingler – For this film about a creature that attaches to the human spinal cord, Castle rigged certain theater seats with a vibrating motor so that they would shake during the film’s conclusion when the creature is on the loose.
- Homicidal – Castle placed a “fright break” timer near the closing moments of this film, allowing audience members to get a full refund if they were too scared. To dissuade them from going through with the refund, a “coward’s corner” was created with a yellow line, signs and recordings indicating the person’s cowardice, and a nurse to check their vitals.
- Mr. Sardonicus – The audience was allowed to vote on the villain’s ultimate fate in this film, between being cured or killed, with a subsequent ending for each option. Supposedly no audience ever showed mercy, though the existence of the “happy ending” itself has been called into question.
As you can see, long before the Blair Witch crew were cooking up novel ways to drive people to their screenings, clever movie marketing was already in full swing.