Before the digital age, the main channels through which movies were promoted were fan magazines, radio and word-of-mouth. Famously, the latter worked for Alfred Hitchcock, when promoting his classic horror, based on Robert Bloch’s book of the same name, Psycho (1960). The director had to fund the project via his own company, Shamely Productions, after Paramount Pictures restricted the budget due to their dislike of the film. In order to create the word-of-mouth buzz that would help the film become a success, Hitchcock didn’t allow for critics to have private screenings, and placed a strict “no late admissions policy” that would see latecomers unable to enter the film, on the premise that not viewing the picture from the very start to the very end would be a disservice to (would-be) spectators.
Today, distributors use social media in order to create an effective ‘buzz’ surrounding a film that’s impending release. In 1999, The Blair Witch Project used a website filled with fake police reports and news reports, as well as excerpts from Heather’s diary detailing the disruption caused by the ‘Blair Witch’ as a pivotal part of their marketing, alongside having the cast marked as “missing, presumed dead” on their IMDB profiles, and handing out flyers asking for information about the missing teens, at the film’s screenings. The Blair Witch Project’s online campaign is recognised as one of the first successful online marketing campaigns for films.
The Dark Knight (2008) similarly used a website, ‘IBelieveInHarveyDent.com’ where fans could see Heath Ledger as The Joker, as part of a cryptic and puzzle-led 12 month marketing campaign leading up to the films release.
Paranormal Activity (2007) utilised Facebook and targeted fans by adding a “Demand It” button on their Facebook page and the film’s official website pages, in order to convince a distributor to release the film by having a record of the high demand for the film, after it’s Screamfest success. This was followed by a ‘Tweet Your Scream’ campaign, wherein fans filmed themselves watching Paranormal Activity and tweeted the recordings of their screaming and scared reactions to the film. It’s reported that the campaign was inspired by that of The Blair Witch Project.
Other successful film marketing campaigns include 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which managed to achieve 1 million views within 23 minutes of release on its trailer, using social media to promote the film. Pitch Perfect 2 (also 2015) was the first film to use Snapchat as an advertising tool. Snapchat’s popularity as a platform has led to a 2016 film entitled Sickhouse being made and marketed entirely on Snapchat, successfully merging the mediums of production and distribution, and, much like the controversy and questions surrounding The Blair Witch Project, left viewers questioning if what they were seeing is real.
Of all the films that have used social media and digital marketing as a marketing tool (that being, almost every single one since The Blair Witch Project), Deadpool is noted as a stand-out example, using Twitter, Instagram and even Tinder to promote the film. The strategy paid off and saw Deadpool become the highest grossing 18 rated film in history.
It’s often said that the contents of films reflect the attitudes of society. However, the way that films are marketed reflects the direction in which society is going, and it undoubtedly appears to be headed further towards digital marketing and social media, as that is what is most effective. The average Facebook user has over 300 friends, and so to share a film trailer or company advertisement and get it in front of that many people on Facebook is instantly more effective. The success of social media and digital marketing comes from the fact it can reach more people, and quicker, than any other form of marketing.