My Favourite Viral Movie Marketing Campaigns

On the first Sunday of this past reading week, I took a trip to Toronto’s Cinesphere. Located on the grounds of what was formerly Ontario Place, the Cinesphere was the first ever permanent IMAX screen back when it first opened in 1971. The film that I decided to watch was 2010’s Inception, and as the screen dimmed and I anticipated that the movie would be starting, something else began to play. The screen displayed a large brightly lit, Russian music hall that being taken over by terrorists. As the counter-terrorist unit arrives to the scene, you realize that they possess some kind of device/ability that manipulates time, which helps them defuse bombs that the terrorist group had placed around the auditorium. As the crew escapes, they state that they “have the wrong guy”, and a large graphic stating “Tenet – Prologue” appeared as the screen faded to black. When I got home that night, I went down a deep rabbit hole of revisiting some of my favourite movie viral marketing campaigns over the years that left myself and other film fanatics excited, surprised, and speculative. Here are my Top 5 most memorable movie marketing campaigns (that I actually experienced). The Blair Witch Project is considered to be the pinnacle of this concept, but seeing as I was only four months old at the time of its release, I can confidently say that I’m qualified enough to talk about it.

  1. Paranormal Activity


Although the build-up to Paranormal Activity wasn’t as interactive and rich in content as the others on this list, this movie shifted the genre and brought a new aesthetic style to horror. The original trailers of Paranormal Activity were anchored by the inclusion of terrified audience reactions to the movie, and I remember being extremely curious about the movie after seeing the looks of stress, horror, and dismay on their faces. Another aspect of the marketing campaign that was unique included the studio creating petitions to get Paranormal Activity to be screened in cities and towns, under the pretense that the movie was not being picked up by theatres because it was too scary.

  1. Deadpool


After years of over-the-top, cheesy superhero movies (that I’m a huge fan of, for the record), the R-Rated Deadpool was a welcome satire of the tired genre, blending self-aware comedy with comical violence that left both fans and critics happy. Deadpool’s marketing campaign included staged interviews and public service announcements that descended into chaos, a variety of billboards that depicted Deadpool vandalizing real advertisements, and a “12 Days of Deadpool” Twitter campaign that capped off with the release of the film’s trailer. The movie’s restricted rating was initially considered a death sentence for the franchise, but clever marketing, a faithful adaptation of the character, and genuinely funny moments quickly allowed Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool to become a household name in North America.

  1. Inception


Prior to the release on Inception, a website containing the movie’s now-famous spinning dreidel totem. After months of spinning, the top finally stopped in December 2009, and clicking the totem led to a website where the user was able to play a maze game that resembled the dream world in Inception. Beating the first level revealed the film’s poster, and as you progressed you were also able to unlock the film’s trailer. Media journalists also received manuals, QR codes, and mysterious images all relating to the movie, though nobody was able to decode what they meant at the time. Some other campaigns that Warner Bros. rolled out for Inception included in-universe videos, a mobile app called SCVNGR, and many other standard marketing tactics.


  1. The Dark Knight


As previously mentioned, The Dark Knight’s promotion began with surprise screenings of the movie’s visceral prologue, where the Joker and his goons rob a bank. The Dark Knight’s marketing efforts went above and beyond any public expectation, as it included scavenger hunts, fans being able to call a phone number to join the Joker, and fake Gotham City newspapers. This immersive campaign was spearheaded by a fake Harvey Dent website, promoting the fictional politician’s run for mayor. This website was continuously updated with campaign videos, news reports, and a real-life rally meetup in support of Dent. The last, and probably best aspect of The Dark Knight’s advertising was a worldwide event that sent fans on a city-wide hunt for clues that ended with fans that completed the hunt receiving a Batman mask and propaganda items, a Gotham-themed pizza, and access to an online forum. This was a truly expertly crafted promotion of The Dark Knight, and only one other movie that I have experienced trumps it.

  1. Cloverfield


To this day, J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield still remains a masterclass in drumming up public interest for an unknown property. Through an untitled trailer, fake social media accounts, and an entire virtual reality game that crafted the world of Cloverfield, rumours and speculation surrounded the film for months. Unfortunately, none of these websites and accounts are around anymore, but I recall an absolute online frenzy regarding this movie, even before its title was released. Like Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield was a found-footage movie that revealed next to nothing in its promotion, and yet, it had movie fans captivated from day one. Another part of the marketing was the meticulous creation of background plots, companies, and products that appeared in Cloverfield through the different forms of media mentioned above. For example, Bad Robot (the production company of the film) created the story of a deep-sea drilling company called Tagruato that awakened the film’s monster, delivering it through YouTube videos and blog posts. This was just one of many stories that Bad Robot conveyed, and the lengths that the studio went to in order to attract a following is unparalleled. 

Posted in Blog.