Everyone, film fan or otherwise, can likely share an anecdote about being completely overwhelmed while watching a film. Even a casual film fan probably has an anecdote about one or more movies that he/she couldn’t shake for days after watching. But how many have experienced a feeling of being wholly submerged in the existence of a film before actually watching it, before, essentially, anyone gets to see it?
Viral marketing, intentional or incidental, permits the opportunity for invested film fans to feel that very thing. If the right information finds the right pathway to the right people, a separate film experience can be built, one that’s more abstract and yet more alive, more engaging, involved, and more suitable to an exclusive experience for the most committed and obsessive movie fans.
This week, coincidentally, with the release of 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Brothers Grimsby, we see the return of two screen-familiar names who both, in earlier stages of their career, helped orchestrate two of the best viral marketing campaigns ever. And, for its part, 10 Cloverfield Lane has tapped into the lessons and energy of Producer J. J. Abrams’ earlier projects. The new film’s untracked production and casually announced release, combined with Abrams’ reputation as a viral campaign architect–perhaps most prominently in the presumptive sequel/prequel/thematic sister (??) Cloverfield— has ignited a residual viral enthusiasm that some might find very familiar if they are fans of the films listed below, the eight most brilliantly-conceived and delightfully infectious viral ad campaigns in movie history.
8. Paranormal Activity
We’re accustomed to it now. More than that. We’re annoyed by its overuse. But when the initial Paranormal Activity constructed its trailer primarily out of audience reaction, it also included just the right bits to pique the world’s curiosity toward the cause of the distress. To a casual or traditionally-informed film fan, everything in the trailer was cinematically unfamiliar in 2009. From the fixed domestic and participatory cameras to the green tone of the night vision falling onto the gleaming eyes of the screaming attendees, the aesthetic of the trailer suggested something new, and yet, as evidenced by the documented reactions, the movie was effective. So what exactly was it? The real-life backstory of the film infiltrated the buzz (the limited budget, the years in distribution limbo, the rumor of Spielberg’s involvement, etc.), but the content of the film was largely hidden. So it was borderline marketing genius when the ad campaign shifted toward being driven by online petitions, with TV spots encouraging viewers to sign the petition and demand the film come to their town. In one singular marketing model, one that may never be duplicated, the Paranormal Activity campaign built intrigue and co-opted its intended audience to both perform its work and measure the projection of its success.
7. Super 8
If there’s one indicator for just how effective J.J. Abrams is at serving up viral hysteria, it might be just how quickly his obsessive fans parsed out the flashing letters in captured in the camera lens in the first teaser for Super 8. A frame-by-frame investigation revealed the embedded phrase “Scariest thing I ever saw” which, when typed as a web address (the now defunct scariestthingieversaw.com), landed internet sleuths on a webpage designed to emulate a PDP11 command terminal. From there, a series of basic commands determined by god-knows-how-much guessing resulted in a printed picture. The printed picture lead to more websites full of “clues,” which were barely tangential extensions of what ended up being the central story of Super 8. None of the information was pivotal to understanding or enjoying the film, and yet it still felt so imperative to to the experience for those who allowed themselves to be tangled in the scavenger hunt.
6. Cannibal Holocaust
Cannibal Holocaust is viral the way that herpes is viral. Once Cannibal Holocaust went viral, it stayed viral. It has always been viral. One could argue that Cannibal Holocaust the movie is less famous than its own legacy, which is recounted to great effect here in The Guardian. The most renowned film in the cannibal-horror subgenre, Director Ruggero Deodato set himself apart through approach and dedication. When his film was completed, his filming of real-life indigenous people from the Colombian and Brazilian Amazon regions left him open to loud accusations of racist exploitation. His onscreen slaughter of animals left him battling charges of animal cruelty. And, most famously, the disturbing human death scenes in the film were so convincing that Deodato was literally put on trial for murder after contractually obligating his stars to hide from the media for a year in an attempt to capitalize on the convincing documentary structure of the film. The director was only exonerated when one of his actors showed up to disprove the charge. Shortly thereafter, the film was banned in over 40 countries, including a three year ban in America, and its reputation became its biggest selling point. Cannibal Holocaust was cutting edge in its format, every bit as influential in the development of the found footage trope as Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, and it contains at least one death scene that stands with the greatest of all time. But it’s not known for those things. In fact, most modern DVD covers advertise the film as “The most controversial of all time.” Intentional or not, Cannibal Holocaust was viral before viral had social media to hurry the infection, and it’s a virus that many movie-goers still frequently catch.
5. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
There is a very slim chance that The Brothers Grimsby will see Sacha Baron Cohen return to the level of comedic greatness he touched in Borat. I’m not one to root against any film, but if his newest turn were in any way comparable to his breakthrough hit, we would already know it. Because by the time Borat was a week from release, most of America had been introduced to the bit through the character’s appearance on local and national news programs and late night talk shows. Cohen’s early comedic personas (Bruno, Ali G, and Borat) all necessitated some degree of anonymity–the punchline, after all, was almost always the same: our culture’s xenophobia and ignorance coaxed out by the goofy, clueless foreign reporter. Once it was evident that his film was on pace to be a classic and thus, his name a household name, Cohen went into something of a beautiful comedic swan dive off of the cliff of obscurity into the world of non-HBO subscribers. Borat, the film, is a once-in-a-lifetime comedic relic (it is a perfect comedy), but his viral marketing tour served as the character’s brilliant final dance.
4. The Exorcist
The Exorcist, in some ways, was maybe the first film to go viral in the way we think of the term today. There are today still as many people who refuse to watch The Exorcist again as there are fans who insist the film is a must watch. Unlike Cannibal Holocaust, The Exorcist‘s inextricable shock legacy was not built blindly but rather from first-hand accounts of fainting, vomiting, and extreme psychological and spiritual trauma suffered by its initial audiences. All of these stories, some of which are collected by YouTube user Behind the Exorcist in the video below, built a word-of-mouth viral ad campaign, which ended up being incomparably effective in capitalizing on morbid curiosity.
Producer J.J. Abrams and Director Matt Reeves constructed a complex world of viral narrative prior to the release of Cloverfield. We’ve said plenty about Abrams’ “mystery box” approach and his personal philosophy that “mystery is more important than knowledge.” But it’s worth rehashing. Cloverfield had a legion of fans before it had a title, when it was just code words and dates. Weeks before the movie’s release, no one could say for certain exactly what the film was even about. And yet, because of the maze of clues thrown at rabid minds– from cryptic websites and dead-ends to the re-utilization of Slusho!, the product first introduced on Abrams’ show Alias years before, a Japanese soft-drink with its own convincing corporate website that advertised an irresistible “deep sea ingredient”– the movie defied all odds to become a huge commercial and critical hit, a fan favorite, and one of the best films about 9/11 that no one realized was about 9/11.
2. The Dark Knight
It’s hard to remember a world before Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker performance made its mark on our culture. But for millions, that Joker’s influence, as well as the extended imaginary borders of the Gotham in which he wreaked havoc, took hold a year before anyone saw that chilling, scarred face. “Hollywood ad guy” Gary Rosen recalls having fans chasing dollars that were drawn in the Joker’s likeness, hanging campaign pictures for Harvey Dent, and even calling numbers written in the sky. The pre-Dark Knight campaign involved headlines on real news sites, a traveling agency sending fans on trips around the world, and even a mock election. Sometimes we forget that Nolan’s Batman series was a reboot greenlit in close proximity to the most recent venture into the material, back when that wasn’t the expected standard, and the director’s approach was something completely different, both in cinematic and narrative terms. So The Dark Knight‘s viral campaign was exactly what the series needed to cleanse the palate of Schumacher’s failures and convince the fans that Batman Begins was only the beginning, not only the most interactive of its kind, but perhaps the most immersive and involving experience that many comic book and superhero fans have had with their most cherished material.
1. The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project opened on July 30, 1999. Just two weeks before that, the Sci-Fi network aired an unassuming documentary, seemingly a standard unsolved mystery investigation piece tinged with supernatural possibility, entitled Curse of the Blair Witch. We know now that the documentary was fake, just a daring and unique marketing approach, but a simple rewatch reveals just how convincing it might have been and also serves as a reminder for how brilliantly conceived the The Blair Witch is as a film entity. You’re not likely to find many people who will admit as much today, but, in the internet’s toddler phase, before most filmgoers realized the web’s potential as an investigative tool, Curse of the Blair Witch (which is every bit as small scale as the larger film) fooled a lot of people. I was one of them. I also watched the movie on its opening night in a theater with dozens of others. The film held the illusion with its complete lack of credits, music, production value, etc. For those few days between the film’s opening weekend and the eventual revelation that the movie’s stars were just stars and they were very much alive, The Blair Witch Project rattled a large portion of its initial audience. This is why The Blair Witch Project’s marketing wasn’t just the best (and, then, most profitable) viral ad campaign of all time, it was a successful viral hoax unleashed on a national level. And for those fortunate enough to fall for the bit, it resulted in a cinematic experience that will likely never be replicated.