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While foraging around the internet I noticed a wonderful thing. The Blair Witch Project website is still live.
I assumed that much like all movie marketing websites that are more than two years old, it would have been shut down or repurposed as a DVD product page.
Then again, The Blair Witch Project website is far more important and era-defining than any other traditional movie homepage with simple links to trailers and cast & crew biographies.
In 1999 I was beginning to use the internet for the first time and I was part of the gullible first-wave of audience members who truly believed that The Blair Witch Project was a genuine documentary. Thanks to its website fleshed out with fake news reports, interviews, a history of the Blair witch and stills from the evidence room.
This experience taught me an awful lot about low-budget film-making, the power of online marketing and not to believe everything you read on the internet.
The Blair Witch Project managed two extraordinary firsts. It set the template for the now ubiquitous ‘found-footage’ movie and it became the first example of online movie marketing that truly succeeded.
The film went on to make $248m worldwide on a budget of $750,000. It may still to this day be the most successful example of a viral movie campaign.
Here are 13 more examples of intriguing and mysterious movie marketing from the last 13 years:
Undoubtedly the most exciting thing about the Ridley Scott quasi-prequel to Alien, was the cunning online campaign that began in February 2012, six months before its North American release.
Linking up with the real-life global conference brand TED, a fictional talk set in 2023 (66 years before the events of Prometheus) was created starring Guy Pearce and uploaded to the TED Talks website.
The video doesn’t contain any direct reference to Prometheus itself. It was left to the film buffs among us to feel a shudder of fear and excitement when Guy Pearce ends the three-minute video with the reveal that he is Peter Weyland and the Weyland Industries logo, the evil corporation central to the Alien franchise, appears at the end.
TED had never been used for promotional purposes before and its exclusive hosting of the video generated millions of unique visits to its conference website.
Further teaser videos were created, including fake advertisements for the David android, with access granted via other exclusive links and promotions. The videos were intended to generate interest in the film’s characters and plot, thereby downplaying Prometheus’s connection to the Alien franchise.
This worked to some degree. The film grossed more than $403m worldwide. However watching the finished film reveals why the producers were keen to downplay the connections to Alien. Its ties to the franchise are somewhat confusing and illogical.
Toy Story 3
This supposed relic from 1983 was uploaded to a YouTube channel, rumoured to have been created by the film’s director Lee Unkrich, featuring genuine 80s toy commercials a couple of months before the film’s release in June 2010.
Massive kudos to Pixar for the horrible VHS degradation and sickeningly chirpy voiceover.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Quietly launched in July 2013 in order to tease the new X-Men film that's not due out until May 2014, this is a brilliant peace of soft marketing. A website for Trask Industries that makes no mention of its ties to the film, and only the most hardcore of comic book fans would get (and be quietly disturbed by).
Although the presence of Peter Dinklage on the last page is a bit of a giveaway.
The Dark Knight
The Batman Begins sequel received multiple awards for its online campaign. It began a year before the film’s release with the launch of a website featuring a political campaign for Harvey Dent, called IBelieveInHarveyDent.com. The website doesn’t exist anymore, so apologies for the lack of link.
Joker calling cards were left scattered around actual comic book stores in the USA, all inscribed with ‘I believe in Harvey Dent too.’ If you went to this URL you would see the same campaign poster ‘vandalised’ by The Joker.
After a short time, the image above pixelated away to reveal the very first official image of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
This Tumblr site being run as an offshoot of the fictitious newspaper The Daily Bugle is currently generating a huge amount of content that ties in to the world of Spider-man.
Daily updates feature extensive interviews, news reports and blog posts. Many of which contain numerous references to villains featured in the movies, and many who don’t… yet.
How to market a ‘found-footage’ about a gigantic Godzilla-style monster destroying New York? As cryptically as possible with a fictional soft drink.
Slusho had already been seen in other JJ Abrams productions. Further fake corporate websites were built for Tagruato, a Japanese mining company also featured in Abrams’ Star Trek sequels and fake Myspace pages were created for the main characters.
Well it was 2008.
These are some rarely seen public service announcements created to market David Fincher’s masterful dissection of machismo.
These early examples of tangential marketing were rejected by 20th Century Fox as being ‘too inappropriate’. The Fox executives instead chose instead to play Brad Pitt fighting with his top off focused trailers during WWF matches in the USA. This may have contributed to the film’s mediocre box office.
The above PSAs were released online by David Fincher, and later became a welcome extra on DVD releases.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel has some magnificent, fictional websites out there to promote it. There’s the impressively detailed Zubrowka Film Commission site and this gorgeous ‘historical study’.
Oz: The Great and Powerful
This is a great one to get lost in for an afternoon. Find your way to Oz in this immersive, HTML5 based, 360 degree Chrome experiment.
If you want to be really geeky about the creation of it and know some of the code used, here is the official case study.
After a teasing piece of animation featuring nothing more than a spinning top, the Inception website hosted a suitably mind-boggling game called Mind Crime, which players could complete using QR codes unlocking instruction manuals. Eventually the film’s poster would be revealed. Later levels unlocked trailers and other resources.
Many a horror film over the last few years has been marketed using the morally dubious format of prankvertising, some were way more effective than others, some were just crass.
The following examples however were all viral smashes and used various social platforms for winning effect.
Joining the long list of poorly received and unnecessary film remakes is 2013’s update of Carrie.
Uploaded to YouTube simply as Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise by the mysterious user CarrieNYC, just a week before the film’s US release date, this prankvert is actually very effective and it’s interesting to see the mechanics behind the stunt.
By 12 November 2013, a month after the film’s release, the video had been watched 48.5m times.
The Last Exorcism
Exploiting Chatroulette users and teenage frat-boys alike, this is an uncompromising and satisfyingly cruel bit of trickery involving a girl unbuttoning her top, only to stop before turning into a demon.
The video is probably NSFW, not that there’s any nudity in it, you just might raise some eyebrows.
This prankvert certainly overshadowed the movie itself. Even though it only appeared a couple of months ago, I couldn’t remember the name of the film and had to search ‘baby horror movie prankvert’.
The vomiting is a definite highlight.
For more on movie marketing, check out these 14 blockbusting examples of movie website design.