In an era in which film promotion routinely outpaces a movie’s production budget, viral marketing has become one of the most attractive targets for a successful advertising campaign. But unlike conventional marketing, which targets things like television ad space or billboards, viral marketing is far less understood and much more unpredictable. However, the upsides of a successful viral campaign are almost limitless.
Starting with recent video “Devil Baby Attack,” here are seven film-related viral campaigns that have proven enormously successful.
1. Devil’s Due (2014)
The viral marketing video that’s currently taking the Internet by storm is the “prankvertisement” for Devil’s Due by Thinkmodo, and it’s getting the kind of attention that marketers can usually only dream about. Now Thinkmodo’s second successful prankvertisement — following its ad for Carrie, which involved a supposedly telekinetic girl in a coffee shop — don’t be surprised if you start to see more and more ads of this type pop up in the near future.
Published on January 14, the YouTube video entitled “Devil Baby Attack” has already received 10.6 million views and has generated huge awareness for the small-budget horror film Devil’s Due that most people weren’t even aware existed before the YouTube video went viral. Featuring a surprisingly realistic animatronic demon baby in a carriage that scares New Yorkers all across the city, the video has seeped into every corner of the social media landscape, including Facebook, Twitter, and various blogs.
For those that attempt a viral marketing campaign, the “Devil Baby Attack” video is a perfect example of how powerful a force such a strategy can be as the advertisement continues to sweep across the Internet. But will the viral video equal box office success? That will be something marketing firms watch closely, as Devil’s Due arrives in theaters on Friday.
2. The Last Exorcism (2010)
The viral marketing campaign tied to The Last Exorcism is probably the best example of what the marketers behind Devil’s Due hope to accomplish by the time it hits theaters.
At a time when the website Chatroulette was at the height of its popularity, the team behind The Last Exorcism employed a fake video that showed a young woman seductively unbuttoning her top before becoming possessed and popping out at the viewer with the a URL of the film’s official website. Later on, various reaction-style videos would pop up all over the Internet, further cementing the viral marketing campaign’s success in getting noticed.
The Last Exorcism would ultimately go on to earn $67.7 million at the box office on a budget of only $1.8 million, and there’s no doubt the strategy was successful in pushing the film’s visibility on a small marketing budget. Of course, the film’s success can also be attributed the to the fact that the movie was actually pretty good — the film currently has a 73 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — but there’s no doubt the marketing was able to draw additional attention from filmgoers who might have otherwise ignored it.
3. District 9 (2009)
While District 9′s viral marketing campaign wasn’t nearly as extensive as some of the later examples on this list, it more than makes up for that lack with creativity and simplicity.
District 9 revolved around the idea that aliens had been stranded in Johannesburg, South Africa, since 1982 and have been discriminated against ever since. The marketing team began to place fictitious segregational billboards around major cities that read “Humans Only” in public places such as bus stops. Because both the film and director Neill Blomkamp were not at all well-known at this point, the posters were successful in gaining attention from both filmgoers and non-filmgoers alike, who were equally interested in uncovering out the story behind the posters.
Later, websites began to pop up related to the fictional Multi-National United organization that polices alien activity in the film, as well as an anti-MNU website, which decried actions by the organization. All in all, the promotional material did a wonderful job of putting District 9 in the public eye while defining the metaphorical basis of the film, which discussed South African apartheid and discrimination in general.
4. Cloverfield (2008)
The 2008 sci-fi monster film Cloverfield is a clear example of how successful viral marketing can push a film’s box office results upwards, especially upon release. Directed by Matt Reeves and produced by J.J. Abrams, whose previous marketing success with the hit series Lost certainly tipped the director-producer off to the power of viral campaigns, Cloverfield’s marketing was one of the key factors in the enormous buzz the film had leading up to release.
A series of websites were created that focused on the fictional drink Slusho! and the fictional Japanese company Tagruato. As speculation mounted as to what these companies meant for the film itself, a number of websites were also created that contained puzzles, including one that provided a number that when texted from a mobile phone, provided a ringtone of the unrevealed monster and a wallpaper of a destroyed Manhattan.
Secrecy was also an important factor in Cloverfield’s marketing strategy, as images and the first trailer revealed the desolation of Manhattan by a large creature but with no clear indication as to what the creature would look like. This lead to widespread Internet speculation that the film was anything from a live-action adaption of Voltron to a new adaption of Godzilla or even a spinoff of Lost. The risky campaign ultimately paid off, as the film earned $40.1 million in its opening weekend while going on to earn $170 million worldwide on a budget of only $25 million.
5. Super 8 (2011)
Given Abrams’ previous success using viral marketing campaigns, it shouldn’t be any surprise that he continued to employ the technique when it came to his 2011 sci-fi film Super 8. With an extensive viral marketing campaign that sent fans to a series of cryptic websites while keeping the secrets of the alien hidden, Abrams was again able to stir huge amounts of interest as moviegoers flocked to the theaters to reveal the mystery.
Super 8′s campaign began with a trailer that shows the aftermath of a U.S. Air Force train derailment coming from Area 51 and a creature escaping from one of its hatches. Keen fans aware of Abrams’ penchant for hidden messages discovered the hidden words “Scariest Thing I Ever Saw,” which led to a website containing clues revolving around the film’s storyline. Styled after the interface of a PDP-11, the computer was later revealed to belong to Josh Woodward, the son of Dr. Woodward, who was in his search for his father.
Like Cloverfield, the most talked-about part of the film in its lead-up to release was the alien itself, which Paramount and Abrams kept secret not only up until release but also deep into the film itself.
6. The Dark Knight (2008)
With buzz already reaching fever pitch as Batman fans awaited the return of the Joker to the cinematic landscape, Warner Bros. began a viral marketing campaign for the film that was able to fan the fire even more.
Before the first trailer for The Dark Knight had even premiered, Warner Bros. began to launch a series of websites revolving around the world of Gotham City, including a legitimate-looking campaign site for Harvey Dent. Besides introducing the motto “I believe in Harvey Dent” and giving fans early access to themes explored in the film, the Joker would later take to the same sites, defacing them and making his presence felt. Soon after, emails sent to the vandalized website would remove the pixels blocking an image and revealing to fans the first official image of the Joker. Warner Bros. would again use viral marketing to push the film, as it sent fans on a scavenger hunt at Comic-Con that would unlock a teaser trailer and a new photo of the Joker.
While the marketing for The Dark Knight isn’t likely to have made a huge impact on a film that was destined for box office success, there’s no doubt the campaign served to keep fans interested in the movie long before it had even reached theaters. Additionally, the themes of anarchy and chaos in the film were perfectly suited for a campaign on the Internet, where Web anarchy has become the weapon of choice.
7. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
When it comes to viral marketing campaigns, The Blair Witch Project stands out as not only the first successful use of the now-familiar strategy, but it is still considered by most to be the most successful viral marketing campaign of all time.
When the Internet was still in its early stages, the marketing campaign for The Blair Witch Project was aided by the fact that the found footage/”mockumentary” genre was still mostly untapped — especially when it came to horror films. For a movie that was more scary for what it didn’t show than what it did, the campaign for the film was crafted around attempting to make it appear as though the events of the film were not fictional but a true account of a documentary shoot gone wrong. With a website purporting to show police reports and real evidence related to the case, buzz for the film reached previously unseen levels for a low-budget horror flick made for less than a million dollars. Adding to the mysterious viral marketing campaign was the fact that the three filmmakers remained behind closed doors until The Blair Witch Project box office phenomenon had run its course.
Of course, that’s not to say that everyone believed The Blair Witch Project was depicting real events, but if you ask anyone who followed the film at the time of release, they’ll tell you that the vast majority of moviegoers were unconvinced as to whether the film was fiction or nonfiction. And for a film with a production budget estimated to have been about $60,000, the viral marketing certainly paid huge dividends, with a $140 million domestic gross and a $108 million overseas gross for a worldwide total of $248 million.