Around 10 years ago, the movie industry cottoned on to a handy commercial use for this massive, messy but powerful thing they called The Internets: viral marketing.
They realised that by harnessing the power of Google, the Blogosphere and, er, the Forumverse, anyone could successfully market a movie by spending next to nothing.
Fake websites, videos, pictures, teasy snippets of information let loose in webspace created instant chatter and pre-release buzz.
Join us then, as we look at the evolution of viral campaigns over the last decade - the successes, the failures and the 'What were they thinking!?'s We'll also flash a glimpse at campaigns set to ignite a geek near you sometime soon...
1. Fact Or Fiction?
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Back in 1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez built on a successful Sundance debut by launching BlairWitch.com, perpetuating the idea that the events depicted in the film were real.
Viral Pieces: Archive photos, police reports, interviews and a detailed backstory added to the illusion that the movie was cut from recently discovered footage. See it here.
Infectious? Definitely. Blair Witch showed studios and filmmakers that the web could be a powerful ally. Nothing has come close to it in terms of blurring the lines between reality and fiction, and films like 2012 and District 9 are still flogging the expanded-mythology horse today.
2. The Viral Video Begins
Fight Club (1999)
Director David Fincher filmed two 'Public Service Announcements' to get people talking about Fight Club. They never made it into cinemas, so he put them online instead.
Viral Pieces: Video, Promotional Website. See it here.
Infectious? Debatable. Hardly anyone saw the PSAs at the time, while the Fight Club site looked sort of cool but was a bit of a mess. FIncher's failure made it clear that viral video strategy would need to be more direct (and to be fair, he was trying it before the age of YouTube).
Next: Memento, A.I. Artificial Intelligence[page-break]
3. Flash Saves The Day
Otnemem.com (geddit?) was an early example of a Flash-powered site that thought outside of the synopsis/stills/downloadable wallpaper box.
Designed by Memento short story author Jonathan Nolan, it offered clues to the film’s core mystery.
Viral Pieces: Police reports, news cuttings and crime-scene Polaroids. See it here
Infectious? More elaborate Flash sites are a mainstay of movie ad campaigns now, but few get as much input from the filmmakers.
4. All In The Game
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Spielberg’s android epic took the viral phenomenon one step further with the introduction of an ARG (alternate reality game) nicknamed ‘The Beast’.
Viral Pieces: A network of websites containing cryptic clues. See the archive here, hosted by the community that finally 'cracked' the game after months of work.
Infectious? TV shows like Lost and Heroes have since inspired effective ARGs, while the movies didn’t produce another real success until a certain ‘Why So Serious' campaign.
Next: Snakes On A Plane, The Da Vinci Code[page-break]
5. The Power Of The Blog
Snakes On A Plane (2006)
In 2005, New Line Cinema wiped the dust off an old script called Venom and sent it out for a rewrite under a less cryptic moniker: Snakes On A Plane.
Screenwriter Josh Friedman (War Of The Worlds) passed on the project, but talked it up on his popular blog (“It’s the Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles!”).
Viral Pieces: Friedman's enthusiasm was the touchstone that sparked a multi-headed online fanboy frenzy. Fan-made trailers, poems, foreign translations (all here.) See Friedman's original blog here.
For a (very short) while, there were whispers of a creative revolution. 'Forget small, unreliable focus groups. These Internet guys can not only promote our movie, they can help us write it, too!'
Infectious? Sort of. Filmmakers’ production blogs are now an integral part of pre-release publicity. But after Snakes poisonous box office, they’re no longer asking for quite so much outside input.
6. Promos Win Prizes
The Da Vinci Code (2006)
Sony teamed up with Google to run ‘The Da Vinci Code Google Quest’, a series of online puzzles and challenges in which players could compete to win a luxury holiday and a host of Sony gadgets.
Viral Pieces: Cryptic puzzles hosted at google.com/davincicode (since removed).
Infectious? Nope. Too ambitious. The sheer scale of the Google Quest project and its subsequent logistical hitches meant – in terms of mainstream movie virals – that nothing like it has been attempted since.
Next: Cloverfield, The Dark Knight[page-break]
7. Product Placement
The JJ Abrams-produced creature feature enjoyed a huge viral campaign squarely aimed at the social media-savvy generation, including a rack of teasers, cryptic sites and even a fictional beverage - Slusho!
Viral Pieces:Slusho.jp, 1-18-08.com, MySpace Rob Hawkins.
Infectious? The viral sites helped Cloverfield to a $40m opening weekend and laid down the gauntlet for future campaigns. The viral marketing was now becoming almost as important as the movie...
8. The Blockbuster Gets The Bug
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Joker hijacked the web for The Dark Knight’s revolutionary viral onslaught, created by 42 Entertainment – the guys behind A.I.’s ARG ‘The Beast’ (see no. 4).
Infectious?Knight’s inspired campaign cemented viral marketing as a legitimate way of adding ticket sales.
There hasn't been anything this exhaustive and integrated since, but expect 42’s next venture to be bigger and better – just imagine what they could pull if The Riddler becomes the bad guy of Batman 3...
Next: Wanted, Watchmen[page-break]
9. Candid Camera
In 2008, a grainy, black-and-white video popped up on the web.
Within weeks it had been watched millions of time, spreading via email links and word of mouth.
In it, a stressed office worker suddenly flips out: wrecking his cubicle, throwing computer monitors across the room and smashing up a photocopier.
You've probably seen it. But maybe you still don't know it was meant as a viral video for comic-book actioner Wanted, filmed by director Timur Bekmambetov.
Viral Links: Check out the video below.
Infectious? Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t. Someone forgot to tell Timur that viral vids only work if people have a vague idea what they’re advertising. Nice idea, but a total Stealth Marketing Fail. A tease needs a pay-off.
10. Be In The Film
The long-awaited comic-book adap went viral with an online version of fictional tabloid rag The New Frontiersman, offering alt-world videos and articles as ‘declassified documents’.
But the real ace up Watchmen’s sleeve was its YouTube competition, in which director Zack Snyder invited fans to upload their own ’80s-style commercials for a range of products from Veidt Enterprises.
Viral Links: thenewfrontiersman.net
Infectious? Too soon to tell, but fan-made homages, spoofs and trailers have been a staple of YouTube for years (see the Be Kind Rewind sweding phenomenon).
So there’s a huge creative community out there who are up for the challenge...
Next: District 9, Iron Man 2[page-break]
11. This Year's Buzz-Builder
District 9 (2009)
Carrying the viral torch into the next decade is Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi movie District 9.
The campaign centres on the eponymous district – an enclosed, Johannesburg-based ghetto, built to contain an alien race who’ve landed on Earth and are policed by a shady corporation known as Multi-National United.
(Their slogan: “Keeping humans safe by keeping non-humans separate” is sure to be misappropriated by BNP goons soon enough).
Viral Links: D-9.com
Infectious? It’s not a huge leap forward, but this is an accomplished and clever campaign that, Watchmen-style, blurs the boundaries between real-world/movie fantasy.
12. The Personal Touch
Iron Man 2 (2010)
During pre-production on Iron Man, Jon Favreau realised that you don’t need to build fancy websites to go viral.
The director was one of the first Hollywood filmmakers to embrace social networking, setting up a MySpace page to drum up support for his take on ol’ shellhead.
A couple of years on and he’s at it again, taking advantage of new-fangled microblogging sensation Twitter to get the word out on his superhero sequel. (He recently Twittered the first pic of Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow).
Expect many more filmmakers to follow suit soon enough - much to the frustration of the studio PR machine.
13. The All-Encompasing Mega-Viral Campaign
The internet marketing for Roland Emmerich’s latest orgy of destruction uses pretty much every trick in the viral book.
First up, there’s the website for the 'Institute For Human Continuity' – the fictional organisation set up to deal with the film’s Mayan-predicted global apocalypse – where you can register for a ‘survival lottery’.
Viral Links: instituteforhumancontinuity.org/
Infectious? This campaign inventively manages to combine elements from every successful viral strategy of the last decade. 2012 isn’t the end – it’s a new beginning…
Which is your favourite viral campaign? Any you wish you had an online version of Tamiflu for? Comments please!
For more about the key points in modern movie marketing, check out the latest issue of Total Film Magazine, on-sale Thursday 30 July. For a sneak preview, click here.
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