For a horror movie that may not have the biggest budget or the widest release, marketing can be everything. It can make or break a movie. It’s what makes people aware of the film. However good or bad it might be, if you don’t make audiences aware of your movie they are not going to see it. That’s sort of just how it works. Sometimes a film might start its marketing campaign before it’s even made, sometimes it happens while the feature plays at festivals, and other times, the campaign is started just in time to promote the release. Whatever the approach is, there are a lot of ways marketing can work and a lot of ways it can fail.
Sometimes, the marketing succeeds so well that it winds up being better than the actual movie. This happens more often than you would think. People wind up anticipating so much out of a film that it’s almost impossible for it to live up to that much hype. This is a hard balance to maintain and is even harder to overcome. And, of course, there are times when the marketing really is just more interesting and well planned than the feature itself.
The Last Exorcism
The Last Exorcism wasn’t all that memorable, but it did have a great marketing tool right at the onset of Chat Roulette where people would begin to see a girl taking off her shirt in a seductive manner, which would then lead into her getting possessed and lunging at the camera, followed by info on the film’s release. It definitely took people by surprise and got them interested, and while it was a modest hit in theaters, much of that came down to opening numbers stemming from the success of the marketing efforts. It was probably the viral campaign that allowed for its sequel, the bafflingly titled Last Exorcism Part Two.
Paranormal Activity was, as one slogan went, “the first-ever major release film decided by YOU.” It was the first horror film that really took to social media as a marketing tool, which has now become standard practice. Shot for only $15,000 it used viral marketing to become one of the most profitable movies ever made, grossing upwards of $100 million in the US and Canada alone.
Devil’s Due had an odd campaign, using the plot—which was essentially a found footage Rosemary’s Baby—in tandem with a flash-mob style marketing campaign where people would go out onto the street with what appeared to be a possessed baby. The marketing was so absurd and intriguing that everybody reported on it, which then helped the film, but in this case the marketing wasn’t enough to save it. Devil’s Due made a dent at the box office but was largely forgotten and wasn’t particularly well liked by fans or critics.
Being a massive studio release and a sci-fi epic it’s a little hard to see Prometheus as a horror film, but it was. For as many big ideas as it tried to present, it was still chiefly concerned with shocking people. It tried to invoke the tone and atmosphere of the original Alien at ten times the cost. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work terribly well. Although the film does have its merits. Luckily, it put some of that massive budget to work on an interesting viral marketing campaign that basically covered events from now until the future in which the movie is set. These viral shorts also helped build up the prequel aspect that many felt was largely missing from the finished product.
Adam Wingard’s You’re Next had a great viral marketing campaign, using the wolf masks worn by the killers in the film. Not only would these masks be handed out and ultimately find their way into the hands of just about everyone, but the killers themselves would appear superimposed on the posters of other features coming out at the same time, making it look like a reflection, almost as if they were standing behind you while you looked at the poster. I would go to the theater and occasionally witness people glance over their shoulder to make sure no one was actually there. Sadly, this didn’t make people interested or aware enough to check it out in theaters en masse. The film instead found its audience on home video and streaming services like Netflix.
There will never be a more powerfully marketed movie than The Blair Witch Project. It changed everything in such a way that we are still seeing the ripple effect now. This film went to great lengths to make you believe it was real. These days, a horror film promoting itself as real doesn’t seem like much. Every found footage feature does it. But in 1999, it was huge. It had never been done before, at least not like this. And it worked insanely well. This marketing campaign got everyone interested, even people who didn’t really like horror. Everyone wanted to know the story of what happened to those poor campers. More than that, it promoted the simple, effective storytelling techniques of the feature itself.