Close-Up: What adland can learn from movie marketing

Hollywood is deploying increasingly innovative marketing techniques to create cut-through, Noel Bussey explains.

How much do you already know about Watchmen? How many articles have you read about it? Have you seen the trailer? Worn the condom? The pre-launch noise has been deafening, and indicative of the rise of movie promotions as one of the most sophisticated and creative sectors of marketing.

Promoting a movie used to be a one-way dialogue with punters, aimed at getting bums on cinema seats. A pre-release trailer cut from the film shown in cinemas and a shorter version as a TV ad, if the budget permitted, was about as much teasing as the public got.

Now, with the impact of the internet and an imperative to drive longer-term DVD sales, film marketing has become a hugely creative and financially successful industry.

Films such as The Dark Knight, Cloverfield and Watchmen have redefined how to build interest, and longevity of interest, in a film.

But for all its creative, innovative and cutting-edge marketing nous, it's still a sector that largely bypasses traditional creative agencies, with most of the leg-work coming from media agencies.

Howard Nead, a managing partner at PHD, which handles the Warner Bros business, says: "A lot of it comes down to editing the original film and putting out an interesting teaser: that's why it's cost-efficient just to use a media agency. But this also gives us the chance to do some really innovative stuff when a film warrants it."

To promote the launch of Warner Bros' The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, PHD used the movie's theme of a man born old and growing young as a starting point for its media strategy. The agency brokered a deal with Absolute Radio to reverse the usual order of Absolute DJs; the breakfast DJ, Christian O'Connell, took the drivetime slot, for example.

Giles Hedger, the executive planning director at Leo Burnett, says: "You're basically building a brand from the bottom up. When a film is launched, the company is already looking at the DVD sales after it drops out of cinemas, and then the second or third film in the franchise. When it's done well, it is implemented with the kind of military precision that any brand could learn a lesson from."

Movie marketers have also spearheaded the use of alternate reality games, and again there are lessons here for mainstream advertisers. ARGs can build a huge amount of consumer interaction if the idea is interesting and well developed. The ARG campaign for The Dark Knight involved players visiting an actual shop and answering a phone call as part of the game.

Chris Edwards, the head of strategy at New Media Maze, which specialises in film marketing, says: "During the past few years, film marketing has increasingly focused on media integration."

Edwards adds: "We have seen more traditional and digital media platforms working in conjunction. Similar integration is already being seen in non-film marketing. Fallon's work with Cadbury is a great example of TV, online and print channels working in harmony."


Warner Bros' Watchmen, which opens this week, is based in an alternative reality where vigilantism has been made illegal and masked crusaders have been driven underground. However, they are brought back into the spotlight when one of their kind, the Comedian, is killed.

Initial marketing for the film was based on an official website, which carried a wealth of downloadable content - from an iPhone application, to downloadable widgets and even a production diary from the shoot.

Then, in the following weeks, the site was expanded to incorporate an 80s-style video game that could be forwarded to friends and which became the most downloaded feature on the site.

So far, so conventional. Then came the blue condoms. One of the stars of the film is a blue character called Dr Manhattan. Blue condoms were handed out on Valentine's Day, in packaging claiming "we're society's only protection". An interesting little marketing stunt for the film, perhaps? Well, Warner Bros' marketers denied they had anything to do with the prophylactics in question.

There's no doubt that mystery and confusion is part of the marketing armoury for the film, creating a puzzle for punters to try to solve.

There have also been a number of unbranded Watchmen trailers containing content that doesn't appear in the film, such as a public service broadcast, called The Keene Act and You (the Keene Act is the bill that makes vigilantism illegal) and which serves as a warning about the dangers of taking the law into your own hands. It ends with the line: "Remember, it's not illegal to be vigilant. It is illegal to be a vigilante."

The film, and a number of others like it, caused a stir with bloggers and prompted a number of user-generated copycats. Type Watchmen into a search engine to get a flavour of the fan base that the film's marketing campaign has helped to drive.


Paramount's Cloverfield is a film about a monster attacking New York, as seen through the lens of the characters' mobile phones and video cameras.

The brainchild of JJ Abrams, it was heralded as the first film that had the marketing in mind while it was being written and shot.

Its details were shrouded in so much secrecy that the project wasn't given a name until the very last minute and the first piece of advertising was a mysterious trailer - with no name or branding - which showed clips from the night of the attack.

It was launched before the Transformers film (therefore hitting the target market) and started a huge online debate among web users. This was followed by a website, called 1-18-08 (the date of the film's launch), with sporadically uploaded pictures that were time-coded so users could start to put together a chronological set of events, but still no explanation of what the film was about.

After a couple of months of media silence, the campaign started again in December 2007 before the January launch.

First came a full trailer that explained more about the film and gave it a name. People were placed in the cinema by Paramount to make recordings of the trailer that were then posted up on the website

As well as a plot synopsis, called "how vague can we be?", the site included a downloadable widget that held the first five minutes of the film and an introduction by Abrams.

Running alongside all of this was an alternate reality game that centred on the lives of the characters, with a competition to create a new flavour of Slusho - a made-up ice drink that appears in the film.

It was then revealed on the main character's MySpace page that he was heading to Japan to work for Slusho - setting up the start of the film, which takes place at his leaving party. Phew.

Was it worth the effort? Well, the film raked in $41 million when it debuted in the US in 2008, making it the best January opening ever recorded.