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Adam D'Arpino

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The Greatest Viral Marketing Campaigns in Movie History

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Looks like Will Ferrell’s 2013 World Rob Burgundy Tour – which included in-costume stops on ESPN, FunnyorDie.com, the Olympic curling trials, not to mention a Burgundy-themed Ben and Jerry’s flavor and a brand of scotch – has paid off. “Anchorman 2″ has officially avoided the overexposure bug, raking in over $100 million at the domestic box office since it’s December 18th opening, quietly making it one of the holiday movie stampede’s most profitable flicks.

To celebrate the mustachioed one’s box-office victory we’ve decided to take a look back at ten viral movie marketing campaigns that left no corner of the cultural landscape untouched in their quest to get the word out, and succeeded.

10. THE SIMPSONS MOVIE

Did Fox really need to put millions of dollars into viral marketing to make “The Simpsons Movie” a runaway success? Probably not. But since “The Simpsons’” crudely-drawn origins, the show has been a marketing machine used to hock everything from Butterfingers to Michael Jackson-penned character theme songs, Fox’s effort to sell the long-awaited feature film only amped up their quest for total media saturation. The studio used the show’s iconic status to their advantage, not only making mainstream advertisements unavoidable to anyone with television, film, Internet, or street-side billboard access, but also catering to John Swartzwelder and George Meyer-worshipping diehards by converting 7-Elevens into Kwik-E-Marts and controversially altering major historical sites to bear Homer’s image.

9. THE SOUND OF MY VOICE

Indie darling 1-2 punch Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij kicked off their feature careers with “Sound of My Voice,” an oddball thriller centered around a young couple that sets out to to expose a cult leader. In an effort to promote the micro-budgeted festival favorite, Fox Searchlight and the filmmakers released a series of eerie clips that directed viewers to an actual cult meetings staged at the Ukrainian Culture Center of Los Angeles, which featured interactions with actors, eye contact exercises, and a Scientology-esque leveling system.

The movie only bought in about $500,000 in a limited release, but considering “Sound” was made on a nearly non-existent budget, the movie succeeded both in earning some modest cash, as well as kickstarting the careers of some talented young filmmakers.

8. BORAT

Before Sacha Baron Cohen’s nether regions were getting up close and personal with Eminem’s face at Music Video Awards and he was landing coveted roles in Martin Scorcese-directed kids movies, just about the only Americans who knew of him were the folks who had caught wind of his absurdly under-appreciated and short-lived HBO program “Da Ali G Show.” Of course, at least 75% of the genius of “Borat” was that nobody really knew who the guy behind the mustache was, and when he began making in-character appearances across the media world, word caught on rapidly, helping lead the movie to an insane box office showing. It also helps if your movie is straight-up funny, which pretty much everyone agreed “Borat” was.

7. INCEPTION

A major studio throwing major money at an untested, high-concept property happens in the movie business about, well, never. Christopher Nolan, coming off of his crazy “Dark Knight” success, might have been the only man alive Warner Bros. would be willing to toss $160 million at to film a concept that’s hard to explain in a single paragraph, let alone a single sentence.

The first trailers and images from the film revealed almost nothing about the movie’s plot, but showed a city bending in half like an urban burrito, which was more than enough for Nolan fans to become giddy with excitement. The dream-stealing element of the movie secret until close to the release date, when online games, “real” interviews with dream scientists and a strange “classified” 24-page manual sent to Wired Magazine drummed up more than enough buzz for Nolan’s mind-bendy movie to become a runaway smash.

6. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

A micro-budgeted found footage flick, “Paranormal Activity” took a page from the playbook (maybe the entire playbook) of a certain witch-centric movie coming just a few more entries down the list. After “Paranormal” gained buzz following screenings at small film festivals across the country, demand for the minimalistic ghost creeper became widespread and caught the attention of Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks.

Using the great early word to their advantage, the studio teamed up with eventful.com, allowing would-be fans to vie for the privilege of screening the movie in their town. “Paranormal”‘s hype machine, combined with trailers intercut with audience reactions to emphasize the communal experience of seeing the movie in theaters, led it to one of the most incredible returns on investment in film history.

5. DISTRICT 9

If you lived in a major metropolitan area circa 2009, there’s a good chance you spotted surreal “Humans Only” posters scattered around your neighborhood. Unveiled at San Diego Comic-Con in 2008, and lacking any further information about “District 9,” the posters directed inquiring minds to visit D-9.com, where they could explore maps, and learn more about the ominous-sounding organization Multi-National United.

Sony’s “District 9″ campaign was brilliant in that it snowballed fanboy interest by introducing the movies fascinating concept — aliens who are less invaders, and more a marginalized minority population — in a very slow and calculated manner. “District 9″ would end up succeeding financially both in the United States and around the world despite being a film deeply rooted in South Africa.

4. CLOVERFIELD

How do you market a movie that doesn’t feature a single notable face or name, and hinges on the main attraction – an enormous, vaguely reptilian monster laying spectacular waste to New York City – being kept under wraps until the date release? JJ Abrams and the folks behind “Cloverfield” solved this riddle slow-rolling information out to the public, starting with teaser trailers that didn’t even mention the film’s title.

In the months leading up to the movie’s release Abrams devotees practically did all the marketing heavy lifting themselves, devoting entire websites to uncovering clues as to what, exactly, had decapitated the Statue of Liberty in the trailers, and even creating their own fan art. “Cloverfield” ended up ended up cashing in on huge at the box office, and would go to help JJ Abrams bridge the gap between conquering television and conquering Hollywood.

3. SUPER 8

Another Abrams property with a similarly starless cast and a monster (er, alien), “Super 8″ took a similar aim to “Cloverfield,” keeping forum nerds across the net busy with a series of clues, websites, and countdowns launched after fans dissected the initial teaser trailer and uncovered a hidden message flashed in the last frames. The folks at Paramount also stepped up their integrated marketing for the release, arranging for a playable version of the movie’s train crash scene in the crazy popular first-person puzzle game “Portal 2.”

2. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

While the actual quality of the movie has been endlessly debated in the years since, and some money-grab sequels have done their best to sully the originals name, there’s no doubt “Blair Witch” revolutionized the art of drumming of hype for smaller movies.

All the way back in the late ’90s, far before the Internet was the cat-worshipping, selfie-sanctuary it is today, the “Blair Witch Project” team was launching a still-in-existence website that sold their low-budget found-footage tale as a true story. On Internet message boards, debates drummed up as to whether the material was real or fake, back before Redditors could call them out on their s?**t in a matter of minutes.The result? An outrageous $250,000,000 in box-office earnings, and a whole new way to market movies.

1. THE DARK KNIGHT

Unlike many of the movies on this list, “The Dark Knight” had all the money and star-power behind it in imaginable. With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan had delivered a rare superhero movie that was a huge hit with both the moviegoing public, as well as source-material diehards. So, of course the pressure was on to step up the gritty intensity in the sequel. It seems like a distant echo now, but when it was first announced that the hunky Heath Ledgers had been cast as The Joker, skeptical Batman fans widely questioned if he had enough chops to pull off a Joker twisted enough to fit into Christopher Nolan’s dark Gotham sprawl (Spoiler: he did).

With their viral campaign, Warner Bros. released a series of websites dedicated to Harvey Dent’s campaign, as well as The Joker’s nihilistic sense of humor, which included the first uncanny images of Heath Ledger as The Joker. The rest, of course, is box office and movie history.


Categories: Features, Lists

Tags: Adam d'arpino, Clover field, J.j. abrams, Movie Marketing, Super 8, The Blair Witch Project, The dark knight, Viral marketing