The New Movie Marketing (Part I)


I. “We ain’t one-at-a-timin’ here.  We’re MASS communicatin’!”1

Not to belabor an obvious point, but making movies is an expensive process.  If you subtract Colin2 and a handful of other extremely low budget movies from the equation, the lowest cost movies, such as My Date with Drew, come in at one thousand to fifteen hundred dollars.  Once you get to the 1992 cult classic, El Mariachi3, which helped launch Robert Rodriguez’s career, you begin to see costs edging seventy-five hundred dollars, in early 1990s money.  (To give some perspective on just how much money that was, a semester at The University of Texas at Dallas cost one thousand ninety-six dollars in 19924.) At this point, unknown directors who are trying to get their dreams on film begin to come up with creative methods to fund even those relatively mediocre budgets.  Rodriguez chose to perform drug trials to earn money for El Mariachi.  Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan used friends for his first film, Following, which took over a year to film because they all had day jobs and could only shoot for fifteen minutes at a time on the weekend.

Today, meaning 2012 for future audiences would be film makers have access to online begging (a word used in the kindest possible sense) via their Facebook and other social networks as well as the venerable  Kickstarter especially is useful because it enables the creators to directly petition a much larger target audience than they might already have contact with.  It also offers an opportunity for them to learn the most effective ways to pitch ideas, as well as a glimpse into the everyday life of people searching for grants. The Guild, on the other hand, went in the PBS direction and appealed directly to its viewers for funding.  Obviously, as PBS and NPR find out year after year, this method proved effective for them and was able to sustain them to until they discovered a more permanent source of funding.  It’s hoped that this technique can continue to work for many, many years.  Even so, the feasibility of using that method to bankroll a two hundred million dollar movie seems unlikely.  The long term effect of Kickstarter, meanwhile, has yet to be seen, of course, but offers an interesting study for the future.

Once a film maker finds a way to fund their project, if they find a way to fund their project, then they have the less than glamorous task of promoting it.  According to Reuters, “. . . for every dollar spent on producing a major film, the studios have been spending 51 cents-58 cents to release and market it in the United States and Canada.”5  While that might be an easy enough feat for a movie such as Colin, it’s difficult to see how much advertising someone can get out for thirty-five dollars.  Worse still, how well could that compete for the eyes of would-be viewers up against a juggernaut such as Iron Man 2, which had an estimated marketing buy for prints and advertisement of one hundred million dollars? 6

To make matters worse, films in the mainstream, movies released by the studios are expected to open big or fade away.  In the modern day of make it or break it opening weekends, most films no longer have the luxury of building up a strong word-of mouth campaign.  Take one of the classics and most beloved movies of all time, the original Star Wars, and compare it with a more recent film such as The Avengers.  When Star Wars opened in limited release in 1977, its opening weekend take was 1,554,475 dollars7, which in today’s money is a little under six million dollars.  The Avengers, on the other hand took in eighty and a half million dollars on its opening day8, and that was just its domestic take.  While Star Wars was allowed to flourish and reopened on more screens launching a franchise, news reports about The Avengers pointed out that it was only number two in opening day box office.  (To put it another way, rather than congratulate the film on its opening, they chose to point out that it did worse than Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows, Part II.)

Both Star Wars and The Avengers benefited from an extraordinary amount of buzz, some manufactured, some genuine word-of-mouth generated.  Buzz becomes the life blood of any marketing campaign, for movies or any other product.  As Henry Jenkins said in the title of his blog post, “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead.”  If word of the film cannot get out, then the movie dies on the vine.

The trick for the modern day movie maker, producer, and even studio is to come up with ways to spread buzz, to create a need that only the film can fill. Many methods have been tried over the years to create that indescribable buzz.  Some early movies tried spectacle that would have made the promoter in King Kong blush.  There have been examples of reverse word-of-mouth, a declaration from the ads to not reveal the shocking ending.  (This in modern times seems to have translated into the ubiquitous “spoiler alert,” where people find themselves self-censoring, saying only that you will not believe the ending.  This was both the rise and fall of M. Knight Shyamalan.) Finally, they had good-old-fashioned word-of-mouth, the most untamable of beasts, since so many people have trouble explaining why they tell anyone about a product or movie, even after they just talked about it.

The emergence of the television was a boon to the advertisement of films, but generally only those that had major studio backing.  The divergence of cable channels, the no longer exactly true idea that there is a channel for every lifestyle and personality, offered a chance for more obscure films (and bands and books) to have their moment of discussion, to inform more people of its existence.  The advent of the DVR has virtually killed the thirty second ad spot, which has led many film makers to fully embrace the goldmine of advertising potential, The Internet.  The greatest function of the Net is the interactive nature of it; rather than submissively watching an ad on TV, people go searching for news and information about a film they had just heard of.  One person actively searching out the film could be much better than ten people saying that they had heard of it.  The Internet has opened up new possibilities of advertising for all types of movie makers, not just those that can afford a one hundred million dollar ad buy.

II. “Just an old fashioned love song.”9

Buzz marketing is an old institution, existing back as far as people have had a product that they wanted to convince another person to buy.  Like viral marketing it is a “. . . manufactured marketing initiative . . . that [is] intended to capture people’s attention and get them talking.”10  An argument could be made that the earliest word-of-mouth push was Eve’s recommendation of the fruit in Eden.  Early in the book printing industry, books were pushed as true stories of adventures in an effort to boost the appeal of the book.  Big flashy displays, word-of-mouth, and the hint of truth in the fictional story are just some of the tools that film makers have used in the past to promote their movies.

Hollywood is no stranger to bold marketing strategies, sometimes given the derogatory and strangely quaint nick name “publicity stunts.”

The iconic sign that one upon a time read “Hollywoodland” was once the brain child publicity stunt of a housing developer that stuck around long after its origin faded from the mind.  This was viral marketing before viral marketing was cool.  One of the earliest forms of movie viral marketing was a push by Cecil B. DeMille to erect monuments of the Ten Commandments near court houses and public buildings in order to publicize his film The Ten Commandments. Charlton Heston went to several locations around the United States to dedicate the monuments as a promotion for the film.  As the film is still one of the most popular films of all time without the average person being aware of the connection, it is unclear if the strategy paid off in the way they hoped, but it obviously didn’t hurt.

Documenting all the successful and failed attempts at publicity stunts would be an epic work in and of itself.  Suffice it to say, from the days that film started out, people were finding grand, sometimes shocking ways to promote it.  Modern iterations have used leaked footage from sets, or accidentally recorded on set tirades.  (Some people have theorized that Christian Bale’s entire breakdown prior to the release of Terminator Salvation was a carefully orchestrated publicity stunt.  While this theory has never been verified, Joaquin Phoenix’s slow descent into insanity was a proven success as a publicity stunt.  Rumors of Bale’s bad behavior certainly didn’t hurt the movie.)  M. Knight Shyamalan worked with the Sci-Fi Channel to produce a “mocumentary” that was supposed to show an unauthorized view of him and his movie The Village.  The original intention was to show it as a straightforward documentary, which as we’ll see in discussing The Blair Witch Project could have had some considerable consequences.

Countless movies have drawn inspiration from the serial killer Ed Gein, from Psycho to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Rather than claim something as simple as inspiration, they often make use of the well-travelled “based on a true story” trope.

Claiming that element of truth, or in the modern parlance, “ripped from the headlines,” draws people into the movie, and gets them talking about it.  Conversations begin with, “You know it’s true.  There really was this family in Texas.” Or, “I drove by the house once, it was scary.”  From there the conversation carries on, and the movie is passed from one to another.

The other side of the true story trope is the urban legend.  These are stories that latch onto either the making of the film, or to the film itself.  Here we see legends about dead munchkins in the background of The Wizard of Oz (or even just the idea that the film syncs up with “Dark Side of The Moon”), a ghost haunting Three Men and a Baby, and rumors of a death curse surrounding Poltergeist.

Ooh. . . Scary . . .

Ooh. . . Scary . . .

These legends hang on despite any attempts to discredit them.  Most remarkably, they seem to persist through generations, leading ever new groups of people to obsessively watch The Lion King to see how the stars spell out “sex.”

To be fair, the perversions of the Disney studios are well established.

To be fair, the perversions of the Disney studios are well established.

This is marketing that advertisers wish they could do; a multigenerational drip seemingly passed through the DNA.11

One of the first films to try and take advantage of all of these aspects to create a truly viral marketing campaign, was The Blair Witch Project.

The film was made up of footage that was allegedly found after the disappearance of three young film makers. Not only was the urban legend of the Blair Witch presented as fact, but all the elements, how the film was made, how the footage was found, even the soundtrack that was released (based entirely off the tape that was in the car they arrived in) were all presented as true facts.  The interesting nature of the film coupled nicely with a relentless word-of-mouth campaign that ensured everyone would eventually see it.  (Sadly, its sequel did not fare as well, taking a beating both critically and financially.)

Ultimately, The Blair Witch Project helped to reveal one of the potential pitfalls and flaws in viral marketing.  It became increasingly clear that the campaign was being dishonest and that caused a backlash against the film.  As AdAge put it, “. . . the viral marketing behind ‘The Blair Witch’ . . . tried to trick audiences . . . .”12  While the film more than recovered its relatively small expenses, it is very difficult to find people that don’t have a negative view of the movie now.  That becomes one of the difficulties that viral marketing campaigns face: Not only do they have to pass the TARES Test13, they have to not be so pervasive that “. . . they are at risk of becoming part of the noise or worse.”14

To be continued . . .

End Notes

1. Joel and Ethan Cohen, “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?” movie, 2000.

2. Internet Movie Database,

The official budget for Colin, an independently made zombie movie, is a staggering 70 dollars.  According to the director, Marc Price, the movie was made on a camcorder he had, edited on software he had received from his school, and used his friends and volunteers as actors.

3. ibid

Rodriguez earned 3,000 dollars testing a cholesterol drug.  Production work on El Mariachi came in at 7,500 dollars.  The post-production, on the other hand, has been estimated at 220,000 dollars, which works against him by stealing some of his Indie cred.

4. Susan G Broyles and Frank B. Morgan, Basic Student Charges at Postsecondary Institutions Academic Year 1992-93. Tuition and Required Fees and Room and Board Charges at 4-year, 2-year, and Public Less-than-2-year Institutions. Statistical Analysis Report(Washington, D.C.: ERIC Clearinghouse, 1993.)

5. Larry Gerbrandt, “How Much Does Movie Marketing Matter?” Reuters,

6. multipurposeponi, “How Much Does All This Iron Man 2 Marketing Cost?” Comic Book Movie,

7. Box Office Mojo,

8. Associated Press, “’Avengers’ Scores No. 2 Opening Day With 80.5 M

9. Three Dog Night, “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” 1971.

10. Balter, Dave, Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing( New York: Portfolio, 2005)

11. Snopes,

12. Aris Georgiandis, “10 Years after ‘Blair Witch,’ Viral Movie Marketing Grows Up,” Advertising Age.

13.  The TARES Test  was first proposed by Sherry Baker and David L. Martinson in their article “The TARES Test: Five Principles for Ethical Persuasion.”  They proposed that for advertisement to be ethical it had to meet five standards.  It had to be:

  • Truthful
  • Authentic
  • Respectful (of the viewer)
  • Equity
  • Social responsibility

The argument that these five needed to be fulfilled for an advertisement to be considered ethical.  Applied to The Blair Witch Project it fails on all levels.

14. Balter, Grapevine.


And Now A Word From Our Sponsor

My mother is alternately the prime target of advertisers and their worst nightmare.  She loves ads.  Having had a DVR for multiple years and using Hulu Plus for the majority of my TV watching, I’ve managed to go a good while without watching TV ads, which somehow she has yet to figure out, even though I remind her of this every time she asks, “Did you see that commercial?”

That ad? Nope. Didn't see it.

Unfortunately for the advertisers that spend their millions to spread a message of peace, love and chocolate based insanity . . .

. . . my mom, who watches these ads closer than she watches the shows that bracket them, usually can never remember what the ad was for.  Ads to her are just small bursts of entertainment, what I shall now and forever dub, “Microtainment.” (Copyright pending.)


Fact: I just bought her this DVD. She watched the entire thing.

Advertisers must just be in love with the Interwebs.  Back in the day, if we saw an ad that we liked, there was always the chance that we would never again see it, or might not even realize what it was for.  I can remember having discussions with my brother about Wendy;s “Ranch Tooth” ad because there was something fascinating about it, and people insisted on not believing us when we mentioned it.

(Interesting fact: Neither of us ever tried the sandwich.)

Now a days, when we like an ad, or just get suckered into watching one, we can pass it on, which, assuming we remember what the ad is about, must be a gold mine for advertisers.  My first ever blog post, back in the halcyon days of MySpace (Remember MySpace?), was entirely about advertising, because there was one ad that when ever it came on, I would rewind the DVR and watch.

(The World is just Awesome!)

So advertisement as viral media is a given.  They’re short (Microtainment!!), tell a quick story, and usually are a topic that the person passing along finds interesting.  Of course, there are some draw backs.  There is no question that people like me find  The Mark of the Spider-Man interesting enough to find out more about it, I once Googled (should that be capitalized?) the phrase “Who Is John Galt?” because I saw it on a shirt. (It made me sad.)  The ones who aren’t interested enough to look it up, but will still go see the movie, aren’t really missing out on much, but that advertising is still missing them; to them it is nothing but graffiti.  The Darth Vadar Volkswagen commercial suffers from a different fault, the revelation of the person beneath the mask.  Before that the ad had a stronger impact with me, because it was gender neutral, which meant it could be me making my daughter’s dreams come true through a kind of magic.  They took that away when they took off the mask.  Granted that might just be me.

It doesn't take much to ruin my faith in humanity.

The Old Spice Guy is a different sort of troubling.  I find his ads interesting and am fascinated by how they are made.  I love the parodies of it.  (Yes I am going to put the Grover one in here, how did you know?)

The problem is that I don’t like Old Spice because in my high school days, Old Spice was mocked as harshly as Brut.  It wasn’t just for the old people, which it was, it was a poor person’s cologne.  To me, the scent reminded me of my grandfather, who was the greatest man I ever knew, so it made me sad that I couldn’t use it, because I already had issues with how poor we were, and being young, things like that mattered to me.  Built in prejudices are hard for a company to overcome.  Re-branding is tricky, and usually they screw it up.

Which doesn't stop them from making really stupid attempts at it.

Still, the biggest problem I see is still the most basic one.  I never ate at Wendy’s, I don’t use Old Spice, and I didn’t buy a Volkswagen.  Simply put, the ads did not work on me.  The popularity of an ad has never really shown an increase in sales: sometimes the exact opposite.  There is also the problem that people occasionally just don’t remember what product the ad was for, and if the don’t remember, they certainly can’t buy it. (After all, do you remember which insurance company “Mayhem” is for?). Much like viral media, porn, and facts, advertising is a tricky thing. We can’t always define it or figure out why orhow it wors, but we sure know it when we see it.

(Because it always comes back to Nazis.)