Having a marketing campaign go viral requires a strong concept and a lot of luck. For filmmakers, a viral marketing campaign can really make a movie, long before it ever hits theaters. The best campaigns capture the interest of fans before the film’s release and set up a world that exists outside of the movie. Even if the film fails to live up to the viral hype, a successful marketing campaign has enough power to make the film a box-office success. If the movie comes anywhere close to living up to the viral hype, chances are it’ll be a wild success.
Over the years, we’ve seen some amazing examples of viral marketing done right. In many of the examples on this list, the hype leading up to the theater was greater than the hype leaving it, but that’s not necessarily a terrible thing because many of these movies would have never ever been seen without their respective marketing campaigns.
With the prevalence and oversaturation of social media networks in our lives today, going viral has never been more beneficial and never more difficult. The right campaign needs the perfect amount of mystery and intrigue. If it reveals too much, the Internet sleuths will solve everything and ruin everything all at once. If it’s too vague, it won’t capture the interests of enough people. There’s no real formula as to how to make a successful campaign, but there are some similarities among the members of this list. Many of the campaigns attempt to blend the movie world with reality in some way, no matter how silly that may seem. When the fictional world crashes into our own, it seems to generate some intense interest among fans.
Whatever their individual strategies are, each of these marketing campaigns went way further than the traditional movie posters and trailers, adding their names to the list of the 15 most effective movie marketing campaigns.
15. District 9
Well before the movie was ever announced, the District 9 marketing team began to install billboards, bus shelter posters, bus graphics and bench ads all over the place. Even though there was different text on all of them, there was one consistent message throughout, “Humans Only” and a website address. The website set up a fictional company called “Multi-National United,” which laid out the rules for the segregation and separation of humans and aliens. It wasn’t until about one year later that District 9 was announced publicly and people started to connect the dots. Once word started to spread that these two initiatives were connected, the buzz grew.
Unlike most of the examples on this list, the Deadpool marketing strategy wasn’t just one thing. In fact, it was pretty much everything. On every social media site, every channel, every billboard on every street corner, there was something to do with Deadpool. It was exhausting. Led by the leaked test footage and charismatic lead actor, Ryan Reynolds, fans were bombarded with Deadpool marketing at every turn, and they ATE. IT. UP. In all my years, I’ve never seen a fanboy culture explode like I saw with Deadpool. That being said, the marketing team knew their market and they smashed it. They hit the humor buttons on comic book fans everywhere with as many poop jokes and inside jokes as they could write, two of the best kinds of jokes. It worked. Deadpool was met with fans piling through theater doors by the busload.
13. The Exorcist
Before the Internet and even before viral marketing was properly understood, there was William Friedkin’s, The Exorcist. It’s a little harsh to have this film at 13 because it pushed viral marketing (through word-of-mouth) into a place that it had never been before. After the early showings of the film began to generate some buzz, the studios decided that they wouldn’t release any images of the possessed Reagan (Linda Blair) on the basis that it was too shocking and frightening. Reports passed around like crazy of people fainting, running out of the theater, vomiting and even becoming possessed themselves. It created an uproar of excitement and controversy that led to massive box office numbers. Perhaps it’s a blessing that The Exorcist wasn’t around in Internet age because it suited that world so well.
12. Ex Machina
In probably the smallest example on this list, Ex Machina‘s marketing campaign was subtle but very creative. Because of the centrality of love within the plot of the film, the marketing team developed a plan to target Tinder app users at their conferences to drum up interest. Conference-goers who used Tinder were contacted by a mysterious woman who began to ask them questions about love and humanity. When the users checked out this mystery person’s profile, they were led to Ava (Alicia Vikander) and the website for Ex Machina. It’s been said that several users complained that this was an invasion of privacy, but they were probably just hurt that the one pretty girl who contacted them turned out to be fake. Actually that is kind of sad. Think of how excited they must have been.
11. The Hunger Games
When The Hunger Games was set to come out, the filmmakers put the fans of the books to work for them. Before anything was done from a marketing standpoint, they developed a massive fan base with whom they would interact with. From there, the marketing team created a meta-world that connected reality to the films and provided some backstory for each of the characters. This elaborate campaign went on for each of the films in the franchise and it touched nearly every social media network out there. While it may not have been as creative as some of the of the marketing strategies on this list, it was easily one of the largest. The incredible success of the films is not only indebted to the marketing team, but they do deserve a lot of the credit for keeping the buzz going over the course of several years.
10. Super 8
When the teaser trailer for Super 8 first came out, people were consumed with trying to figure out what the movie was about. The short teaser revealed no names, no clear faces, nothing except for a train rolling towards a truck. A while later, small connected elements began to pop up: a mysterious website, a letter, a Twitter account, etc. The most important piece of information, however, was revealed in the trailer itself. Some smarty-pants noticed that letters were being flashed on the lens of the Super 8 camera in the trailer. If you combined those letters together it read: “Scariest Thing I Ever Saw,” which was also a website. On that website was a timer and a few other things that gave hints about the film. It was all really interesting and got fans more excited than they already were.
To pump up the upcoming release of the Carrie remake, the marketing team devised a really awesome setup in a New York City coffee shop to trick unsuspecting customers and make a viral promo video all at once. First, they set up a fake wall, paid some actors to participate in the hoax and rigged various props to make them seem like they moved all on their own. Once the real customers came through the doors, the cameras began to roll, catching a fake confrontation that led to a young girl unleashing her telekinetic powers a la Carrie. The entire thing was extremely well done and the reactions of the gullible customers were priceless. Once the video was uploaded it got about 50 million views, so I guess their plan worked.
8. Toy Story 3
In reality, Toy Story 3 didn’t need an over-the-top marketing campaign to be successful, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. The plan for the Pixar team was to create a live-action commercial for the Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, the antagonist of the upcoming film. The commercial, made to look like it was from the 80s, fit with VHS static and distorting colors, was to show how popular the bear was in this period, a plot point that would be essential to the film. These commercials were released on YouTube and became overnight sensations and fans of the Toy Story franchise clamoured to get a taste of the upcoming sequel.
7. The Simpsons Movie
The Simpsons is one of the most recognizable and beloved TV franchises of all time. Once the film was announced, the excitement was palpable. A feature film had been talked about for many years, but it seemed like it might not ever happen, so fans were chomping at the bit to see this one unfold. But it seems that Fox studios weren’t content with just ordinary hype, so they had their marketing team draw up a plan to set it ablaze. The plan was to run a few contests and set up a fairly elaborate website offering tours around a digital Springfield. Best of all, several convenience stores across the country were dressed up to look like Kwik-E-Marts, even changing some of the name brands of the goods inside to promote the film. These select stores were a major attraction for the short period of time and people were lined up to get photos outside and do some shopping inside.
6. MIB III
Word began to spread of a marketing effort for MIB III, when people began noticing marketing materials across the country, many of which led to a 14-year old named BugEyes. When you searched BugEyes, you would be introduced to this boy’s quest to prove that aliens, and the Men in Black, exist. As we got closer to the release of the film, the BugEyes story unraveled and he was eventually recruited by the Men in Black. While it was definitely targeted for younger fans of the film, it was still a nice little addition to the film’s marketing efforts. It doesn’t matter how silly something is, if people notice an extra effort being given, they’ll usually appreciate it, especially movie fans.
5. The Dark Knight
When The Dark Knight was announced, there was a substantial buzz already connected to it, but it wasn’t all that amazing. Remember, Batman Begins wasn’t, at first, considered the great film it is today, and no one expected Heath Ledger to lay down the performance he did, so the marketing team needed to do some magic to get people properly excited. First they created a few websites that set up Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) election campaign at ibelieveinharveydent.com. These websites were a fun distraction and built up Dent’s backstory long before the film’s release, but the true brilliance of the campaign started to show when the sites and the ads began being defaced by the Joker. The comic conventions and comic book stores also got some neat scavenger hunt treats that kept the excitement at an all-time high leading up to the film’s release.
The 2012 film Chronicle, is one of those smaller budget films that would have been almost invisible were it not for their brilliant marketing campaign. The idea was simple, since the movie revolves around teenagers getting some superpowers, like the gift of flight, the team devised a plan to dress up some remote-controlled airplanes to look like humans from afar. They flew these crafts up into the New York City skyline and soon caught people’s attentions. Not only did some spectators catch videos of these sights and post them to YouTube, but some of the news crews in the area also picked up the story and played it on the evening news. Talk about good publicity. A few of the videos went viral and people soon began to connect it to the upcoming movie, and a legend was born.
3. Paranormal Activity
With a paltry $15,000 budget, Paranormal Activity is a film that no one expected to do well. Initially, the film struggled to get a studio backing, developing some small word-of-mouth reviews around the festival circuit but never really able to take that next step. The story goes that once Steven Spielberg got a hold of it, he made some necessary changes, namely the ending and putting his name behind it, which at least got the film some limited release screenings across the country. From there, the marketing team took over. They began to ask fans to use social media to discuss the film after the screenings. With these plugs, they spent a significant portion of their budget playing trailers with these plugs and asking people to demand the film in their home city—while also committing to seeing the film if it does come. It was almost like pre-selling tickets for theaters and the buzz never died down. In the end, Paranormal Activity became one of the most profitable films of all time.
The marketing platform for Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield was by far the most immersive campaign ever put together. With numerous fake companies developed, interconnected websites, vague trailers, characters with elaborate backstories, and commercials and fake videos that served only to create a realistic environment for the film to take place in, the Internet was on fire with Cloverfield buzz. There were countless theories and confusion floating around about what was seen and what was said in the brief glimpses and trailers provided, all elements that were perfectly executed by the marketing team. The hype was so massive for this film that it probably even hurt the critical reception of the final product.
1. The Blair Witch Project
When The Blair Witch Project was coming out in 1999, it benefitted from near-perfect execution and timing. At this point in time, found footage films were relatively unknown and people were much more gullible about what was found on the Internet. The website that was created developed an elaborate hoax about the Blair Witch events and the missing students, convincing people that what they were about to see in the film was real. Even for those who were skeptical, there was a seedling of doubt that lingered that the events might actually be true. This made The Blair Witch Project one of the most hyped films that have ever been made. If you happened to have been around and involved in the campaign during its run, cherish that event because it’s unlikely that we’ll see anything come even close to that level of effectiveness ever again.