Viral Marketing for Motion Pictures… What’s the future of this trend? by COOP

Posted on September 15th, 2009
Posted on September 15th, 2009
Aquateen Hunger Force viral marketing campaign that caused bomb scares
(“Aquateen Hunger Force: The Movie” viral marketing campaign that caused bomb scares in Philly)


I dig viral marketing for its innovation and the way it can emmerse you further into a fictional experience.  While it reaches only the most tech-savvy of fans, a good campaign can cause an overnight sensation and facilitate unprecedented levels of interest in a film that might have been ignored back in the days before the internet. 

Studios have embraced the practice as well.  They now dump a portion of their budget into creating viral marketing for their new releases.  This works best for the genre flicks that have either a mythology or a mystery to work with.  Let’s look at a few of the best and most successful viral campaigns out there and through the process, try to determine which strategies studios and film pioneers will use next…

First, let me define the term “viral marketing”:  This is when the promoters/advertisers/creators of a project produce supplemental entertainment material (videos, web games, puzzles, publicity stunts, etc…) and spread it onto the internet where people can view it for free, and share it by word of mouth or sending it to others.  The goal is to generate more interest in the final product/film so the viewer will be more encouraged to spend money to see the primary product… and to contribute to its promotion.

First successful example of viral marketing for a motion picture:  Everyone remembers the hype The Blair Witch Project generated back in 1999.  Rumors that it was a real occurrence captured on camera gave believers and non-believers alike a jolt of chills once the film clips started showing up online.  Since nothing of the sort had happened since Faces of Death or Cannibal Holocaust claimed to show real footage of horror caught on camera, the “found footage” genre was ripe for a comeback.  What this film had that those didn’t was the internet.  By posting clips online, panicked people – thinking the footage was real – spread the word all over the internet.  I remember the week leading up to the opening of the film was full of online streaming interviews of supposed real-life Satanic priests, interviews with people who claimed to have seen the Blair Witch, diaries of a fictional serial killer who was influenced by the witch, and much more.

In 2001 the BMW car company hired a bunch of renowned directors to make James Bond-type short films featuring a hero driver (Clive Owen) getting into adventures while driving different models of Beemers. First episode (directed by the late, great John Frankenheimer) below…

That same year, Steven Spielberg teamed up with a viral marketing group to develop an interactive web game mystery to promote the movie A.I.  Unfortunately the web game was more favorably received than the movie. 

In 2007, viral marketing for the giant monster movie Cloverfield hit an all-time high when fans obsessed with the project began creating additional viral videos and web content devoted to the film.  Conspiracy theory-like websites appeared overnight to scrutinize every bit of Cloverfield material to try solve the mysteries of the project before the film released.  Even unrelated websites got caught up in the viral storm after fans suspected those sites of being part of the Cloverfield marketing. 

in 2008 and 2009, films like The Dark Knight, District 9 and 2012 have launched massive viral campaigns to promote their films. 

Today:  In anticipation of an eventual Cloverfield 2, fan-made viral videos have recently popped up, possibly hoping to become early unofficial trailblazers for the marketing of the next film. Viral clip below…

Also this year, the film The Fourth Kind is using Blair Witch-type marketing to promote the supposed true stories of alien abductees. 

What’s next for viral marketing?  Has the trend hit a wall or will it evolve?

Social networking has aided its longevity by using Myspace, Facebook and Twitter to easily promote word-of-mouth.  YouTube makes just about any video instantly available to anyone.  Here are some ways it could possibly go:

  1. I predict that mobile viral could be the next possible step.  With people becoming increasingly dependent on their mobile phone for text messages and multimedia, it could make the transmission and spreading of viral content instantaneous. 
  2. Also, with the emergence of “cloud computing,” (computer programs/operating systems that the user controls remotely through the web) viral campaigns can be integrated into nearly every computer program.  Of course the permission of the user is needed or else the marketing would simply fall under the category of a malicious and annoying virus. 
  3. Thirdly, I think the next and possibly biggest aspect of viral marketing is the creation of new content by users rather than exclusively by the initiator of the campaign.  An exceptional example of this idea in action is the interactive, alternate reality documentary called Lost Zombies.  The creators of the site encourage users to shoot videos, take pictures and write stories related to a worldwide zombie attack.  The site provides the guidelines and the users complete assignments to help perpetuate the story.  

Another realtive success story of this phenomenon happened when After Dark Films and challenged users to upload story concepts and actors to submit audition videos.  The online collaboration of users and filmmakers resulted in the horror film Perkins’ 14.  While the film was critically and commercially unsuccessful, it marks the first attempt at a feature film created by an online community.

Surely there are viral opportunities yet to be invented that will revolutionize the process.  Who knows, in a year or two, all of this might already be passe and obsolete.  Time will tell.


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    1. Priyanka D

      Good examples. Definitely hollywood is really tapping in to social media. In fact even here in India we have had some movies like Ghajini which were marketed only via online media, through the actors personal blog! and it was quite a hit!

    2. admin

      Very interesting, Priyanka! I have no doubt we will see more and more of online-only marketing, especially for indie features. I have yet to hear of a breakout hit here in the U.S. that ONLY marketed online but it will definitely happen soon.

    3. jeff

      Example of how this style of marketing worked. i was working in Yellowstone national park in the summer of 1999. First i must explain, we had no TV in YNP, one payphone per dorm, no interweb, and you got a newspaper every few days to a week. We even heard around the park about the “found footage” and the “Blair Witch”. No one was sure what the deal was. We knew it wasn’t real but it was fun. i had a few friends drive to the closest town to see the movie with the plan to do what, go camping afterword, it was YNP, that is what you do. After the movie, they changed their minds and tried to get a room for the night, but could not find one. So they found a campsite to where they could see the McDonald’s sign across the street. They knew it was a movie yet it was effective. i had to see it.

    4. Hilary

      Greta blog, and super examples of viral marketing. True Blood TV series was another great example. I work for, Canada’s largest online DVD rental service. You seem like a big movie fan, and we have over 72,000 titles, so I’m sure you’ll be able to find all sorts of movies you’ll love!

      Again, great blog, very interesting!

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