These days, movies have two marketing campaigns. There's regular marketing, with trailers, posters and interviews. And then there's viral marketing, aimed at fans on the internet — which often includes crucial info about a movie's backstory. Here are nine movies that make more sense if you followed their viral campaigns.
1) The Blair Witch Project
As one of the first and best viral marketing campaigns, The Blair Witch Project deserves top billing. The movie's budget was pretty small to start, and considering the Internet wasn't as widespread or connected in the late '90s as it is today, the campaign worked wonderfully. But not only was it effective in increasing movie attendance, it revealed some background information in the year leading up to the movie's release.
It documented the entire history of the Blair Witch, from 1785 to October 1997 (right before the movie came out), plus bios for the three students who disappeared with pictures from their childhood. The victims' families were also interviewed in a few clips, and there was even a creepy time capsule that reinforced the idea that the movie was based on true events.
What it boils down to — and what other movies would do well to remember in the future — is that the key to good viral marketing is filling in whatever holes the movie's story has, while enticing audiences with information that will help unravel the mystery. The Blair Witch Project wrote the book on it, but we'll see if the other movies managed to take its advice.
Much of Cloverfield's success was owed to the buzz surrounding a great viral marketing campaign (J.J. Abrams had done something similar for Lost, and thus had a good idea of what he was doing). It all started by releasing some untitled teasers attached to blockbuster movies that were in theaters at the time, like Transformers.
This sparked massive speculation about the plot, with ideas ranging from Voltron to Eldritch Horrors, a la H.P. Lovecraft. Eventually working titles like The Parasite, Slusho, and Colossus surfaced before Abrams started rolling out more of the campaign. Slusho turned out to be a fictional drink and he also invented a Japanese drilling company called Tagruato. Websites for both the drink and the drilling company added to the lore of the movie, all while insinuating connections between the monster and these made-up companies.
Those us who paid attention to the viral campaign learned that Tagruato, the makers of Slusho, had been drilling in the ocean, in a deep-sea drilling campaign opposed by the environmentalist group TIDO. Slusho has a secret ingredient that makes people "big and strong" — and this may actually come from the monster, or the monster's spawn.
In any case, Tagruato disturbed the undersea resting place of the monster, which destroys one of the company's drilling rigs in retribution. Rob, the main character of the film, is going to Japan to work for Tagruato on Slusho, which means he sort of deserves what he gets.
3) After Earth
As a disclaimer, we understand that this movie was pretty bad. Regardless, the movie was so poorly handled that the only way to truly grasp what was happening was by examining the viral marketing found on an odd video, some books, and a website, afterearth.com. Unfortunately, the marketing was also handled poorly, ensuring everyone's confusion.
For those who didn't bother learning all of the info buried in the marketing, the story of After Earth starts in the '20s, when scientists discover an alien ship and use it to create every technological advancement in actual history, basically. But then we screwed up everything because humans are greedy (or something), and we had to abandon the planet.
The only ark that survived landed on the planet Nova Prime, which unfortunately happened to be a planet that the alien Skrel liked (for some reason). This led to a war with them, in which they deployed genetically engineered monsters called the Ursa, which were really good at killing humans because they smell fear (I know). This led to the invention of Ghosting — eliminating all fear, to become invisible to these monsters.
At this point, all of this backstory only barely connects to the actual movie — but it does answer some questions. And while at first you want to give the creative team some credit for coming up with this elaborate story, you might want to revoke that credit, after realizing that hardly any of this made it into the movie, thus making it basically incomprehensible. If you managed to read about this beforehand though, you were probably the only one who had some idea why anything in After Earth was even happening. (Sort of.)
4) The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The first Amazing Spider-Man had a pretty active viral campaign, revolving around a website at markofthespider-man.com and a fake Oscorp website. (Read a detailed archive of the film's viral marketing here.) Among other things, these sites revealed more about Oscorp's "animal mutagen" experiments and just why and how Curt Connors was becoming the Lizard.
But the movie's sequel seems to be doing way, way more world-building. The Daily Bugle's Tumblr is running a series of newspaper stories hinting at the origins of almost every villain in the Spider-Man universe, including some who will only pop up in the sequels and spin-offs. This Tumblr also shares plenty of insight into the workings of OsCorp, which plays an even larger role than it did in the original Spider-Man trilogy.
Since the movie isn't out yet, it remains to be seen whether or not this will help audiences understand the movie better — but I can't imagine it will be a waste. The team has done such a thorough job of fleshing out details, it would be more likely that they run out of new angles to explore once the second movie is released and they have to start advertising for number three.
5) District 9
Neill Blomkamp's first feature film had a powerful marketing campaign, that plastered cities and the Internet with plenty of background information about this movie. For a start, posters and billboards popped up all around the country promoting anti-alien propaganda, akin to Apartheid-esque segregation.
That much became apparent to anyone who saw the film — but it was the anti-segregation blog by alien Christopher Johnson that shed a lot of light on the situation in Johannesburg. The website is no longer up, but you can find an archive of the posts and comments here. They all reveal the plight of the aliens and the cruelty of the military company Multinational United. And because the movie focused so much on Wikus' transformation into an alien, a lot of Christopher's Johnson's story never made it into the movie. Yes, we know he was trying to escape, but not everything that led up to that moment.
Another Neill Blomkamp movie, Elysium had a strong viral marketing campaign that painted a much clearer picture of the actual space-station than the film itself. In the movie, Elysium was really just an elaborate set-piece for Matt Damon to run around while Jodie Foster was an evil politician.
The main thrust of the campaign was a "border checkpoint" booth at Comic-Con 2012, which housed some brochures and the creepy, human-robots that served as Damon's character's parole officer. The brochure showed what it would be like to live on Elysium, and directed readers to the website itsbetterupthere.com. The website allowed users to apply for citizenship to Elysium, look at product info from Armadyne (where Damon worked), explore the robot-police force's services, and browse house models on the space-station.
Sure, it painted a falsely rosy picture of the world, but it also informed viewers about the true schism between the lives of Earth-dwellers and citizens of Elysium. The propaganda made it easier to accept that, yes, the people of Elysium have no idea how screwed the poor are down on Earth. What's more, users got a more thorough look at the movie's futuristic technology than the movie itself really offered.
7) Pacific Rim
Though the marketing wasn't as viral as many other movies on this list, Pacific Rim's website had some tidbits that fleshed out the world of Kaiju and giant robots. It has a map of Kaiju attack points, with each incident offering a different glimpse into the film's setting. Some had detailed blue-prints of the Jaegers while others contained memos. Many people will find it difficult to understand all the information the map can offer, since each piece of information is presented in the language of the country where the "attack" happened. So unless you can read Russian, French, Japanese, and Chinese, good luck getting to all the background info.
There's also a nice little interactive map where you can explore the Shatterdome, where the Jaegers were housed in the final stand against the Kaiju. Each Jaeger from the film is on display with specifications about the robot and its pilots, and there are some details to be gleaned by exploring the lab, drive room, command center, and training room. Taken together, you can really walk away with a more fleshed out view of the world post-Kaiju attack. It's just a shame the marketing wasn't catchier — since the film could have done with more visibility.
8) Super 8
Considering it's another Abrams movie, this isn't a surprise — but Super 8's robust and detailed campaign revealed quite a bit about some elements of the film that were glossed over on screen. It started with the phrase "scariest thing I ever saw" at the end of the teaser trailer, which led to a website of the same name. Buried within was a count-down to a file being "downloaded," which, when finished, led to a puzzle and rocketpopeteers.com.
These two sites were then occasionally updated with new information and puzzles, peeling back the story of a man named Josh Minker and the astronaut initiative that had some connections to aliens. In the end, Minker was revealed to be the son of scientist Thomas Woodward — the man who derailed the train containing the alien and started the conflict in the first place. It all painted a nice picture of the government conspiracy to keep the alien's presence hidden, which only got a bit of attention since the main plot revolved around Joe and his friends.
Despite hosting a cast of scientists with questionable decision-making skills and a plot that got muddled in itself, Prometheus had a really smart marketing campaign. The website Weylandindustries.com has information on Project Prometheus — but it also has very interesting fictional investor information and a map of charted worlds.
You probably didn't realize it, but humanity has explored as far as 3,000 light years away from Earth in the year Prometheus is set in, and there are dozens of colonies on terraformed planets. What's more, its investor information is probably better (and more detailed) than many non-fictional companies. It includes everything from employee satisfaction, to android deployment, to stock prices, to a breakdown of all the Earth's resources.
Then there's the fake TED talk from 2023 which showed a young Peter Weyland launching his company and ultimately setting the stage for the movie's themes.
And if all that wasn't enough, there are detailed entries for every branch of Weyland Industries' technology, including bits of tech that weren't seen in the film. All of this information fills in many of the gaps left by the movie itself, and it makes you wonder whether Fox executives expected everyone to have perused their marketing materials before watching the movie. It's actually a shame that the film wasn't handled as well as the marketing, because if it had been Prometheus could have been one of the best sci-fi movies of the decade, instead of a relative disappointment.