The Most Relentless Movie Marketing Blitzes Of The ‘80s And ‘90s
While marketing has always played a part in determining the success or failure of a movie, it wasn't until the 1980s that studios really began doing all-out marketing blitzes to promote their films. Some of the marketing concepts, such as the distribution company for the indie horror film The Blair Witch Project arranging to have IMDb list the film's main actors as being “missing presumed dead," or Independence Day having a news special on Fox depicting a supposedly real alien onslaught, are meant to drive curiosity about the film's storyline. Others are intended to encourage filmgoers to buy merchandise connected to the film. In fact, some studios have made as much - if not more - money off merchandise connected to the movie than they did at the box office.
And it's not just the film companies that can profit from a successful marketing campaign; many outside brands, from fast-food chains like McDonald's to toy companies like Mattel, have found major success by agreeing to do promotional tie-ins with movies like Batman or The Lion King.
Whatever the specific aim, it appears that massive promotional campaigns for movies are here to stay. Here are some of the most aggressive film marketing campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. Which ones were the most memorable?
While how much money a film earns at the box office tends to get far more media attention than the numbers it makes from other revenue streams, merchandising can sometimes generate even more income than ticket sales. Take the 1994 film The Lion King. It is one of the most commercially successful animated films of all time, earning nearly one billion dollars worldwide. But as impressive as that is, that number pales in comparison to the fact that the film made more than one billion dollars in merchandising in 1994 alone. The marketing campaign featured numerous tie-ins with various companies, including Burger King and Mattel. All in all, there were nearly 200 licensed products, including clothing, toys, jewelry, bedding, books, and figurines.
A New York Times article from the time stated that sales of Burger King's Kids Meals had tripled since the fast-food chain had partnered with the film studio to put plastic The Lion King figurines in with the food. Mattel representatives believed that the stuffed animals and action figures based on the film's main characters would have a longer shelf life than similar merchandise from movies like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast because the merchandise was released in the summer and would sell through Christmas. In contrast, the other two films' products had been released shortly before that holiday. Kodak signed a licensing deal to give away tickets to the movie to people who bought six rolls of film, while Nestle made chocolate bars depicting scenes from the movie. In addition to the licensing deals, Disney also had its own products that tied into the film, such as the movie soundtrack (which topped the Billboard charts), books, and plush toys.
- Photo: Artisan Entertainment
Principal photography on The Blair Witch Project cost approximately $35,000. But the indie “found footage” horror film purported to be a documentary about the disappearance of three student filmmakers went on to gross nearly $250 million at the box office, largely because of a viral marketing campaign that heavily involved word of mouth and the internet.
In 1997 John Pierson began running some promotional footage of the film on his IFC television series Split Screen. He asked viewers to head over to SplitScreen.com to discuss whether the film's story was a hoax or whether there really was a witch hiding in the woods who felled the film students. Traffic on the website got so heavy that Pierson encouraged the filmmakers to build their own website for the film, which they did. The new site gave the backstory to how the student filmmakers had ended up in the Maryland woods and even posted photos of the filmmakers' abandoned equipment and of pages from what they claimed was the journal of one of the missing people.
After Artisan purchased the film's distribution rights (for a measly $1.1 million), it upped the marketing blitz. One of the most audacious marketing tricks was to arrange for the three actors playing the student filmmakers’ IMDb pages to say they were “missing, presumed dead.” One of those actors, Heather Donahue, attended a film screening where an audience member refused to admit she was alive, even after meeting her in person. “I said, ‘This is Heather; you’re talking to her,’” Kevin J. Foxe, one of the film's executive producers, told The Ringer in 2019. “He wouldn’t believe it. She showed him her ID. He’s like, ‘No, no, no, you’re not.’”
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
A science fiction-action smash released in 1996, Independence Day's plot revolves around an onslaught by extraterrestrials on several major cities worldwide and the attempted counterattacks by the humans that follow. It was a huge commercial hit, earning more than $600 million worldwide and spawning a sequel.
The studio spearheaded a massive marketing campaign for the film, beginning with a commercial that aired during Super Bowl XXX. They also entered into co-promotional deals with companies such as Apple Inc. The weekend before the film was released, Fox aired a half-hour special on the film. This special opened with a 10-minute-long fake news report about an alien invasion. This strategy had echoes of the fake news reports in the 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, which reportedly resulted in some believing that an actual martian incursion had taken place.
- Video: YouTube
In 1984, The Terminator, a science-fiction action film about a cyborg assassin sent back in time to eliminate a woman whose unborn son would go on to save humanity from extinction, was released. It became a surprise hit out of nowhere. Years later, it also spawned a sequel, 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The original film was made on a $6.4 million budget. That was approximately one-third the size of the estimated promotional and merchandising budget for the sequel. And as Schwarzenegger explained to CinephiliaBeyond.org, the star was very much involved with the marketing of the sequel:
My job, unlike other actors, is not finished with the day that will be the last day of shooting. My job continues with meetings here every week - two, three times - about marketing and merchandising. Should there be a doll, or should there not be a doll? Should there be a video game or not? I’m going all the way through with the project, including the marketing and the publicity campaign.
The marketing blitz included promotional tie-ins with the fast-food chain Subway and merchandise such as action figures and video games. It also included a partnership with one of the biggest rock bands in the world. As director James Cameron explained to The Ringer in a 2021 interview:
The machinery at TriStar Sony is working and they’re saying, ‘Well, we’ve got to do a music video.’ And so they go to Arnold - they didn’t talk to me - and they say, ‘We want you in a music video with some act.’ Arnold says, ‘OK, look, if you’re going to do a music video, you get the biggest band in the world. I don’t even care who they are.’ They flip open Billboard: ‘Guns N’ Roses makes sense. We’ve got a rose in the movie and bloody guns. Good, do it.’
The band agreed to make the music video after going to a special private screening of the film. The song chosen was “You Could Be Mine.” The marketing blitz paid off, as Terminator 2: Judgment Day ended up being a huge hit, ranking as the top-grossing film for 1991.
- Photo: Universal Pictures
When Jurassic Park opened in theaters in 1993, the film was supported by a $65 million marketing campaign, which was one of the most extensive advertising blitzes in film history at the time. What the dinosaurs in the film would look like was shrouded in secrecy because, as a source told Entertainment Weekly, director Steven Spielberg wanted “to make audiences think of them like the shark in Jaws and the alien in E.T.”
In addition to using this mystery to help build buzz for the film, the marketing blitz included a plan to build a Jurassic Park water ride at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, FL, and signing licensing deals with more than 100 companies such as Kellogg's and Kenner Toys. These promotional deals resulted in approximately 1,000 products.
- 633 VOTESPhoto: 20th Century Fox
In 1999 Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace served to re-introduce - or simply introduce - the iconic science fiction film franchise to movie audiences. It had been 16 years since Return of the Jedi had been released, and The Phantom Menace - which was set 32 years prior to the events in the earlier films - would be the first of what George Lucas hoped would be a trio of beloved prequel films.
Plans for the prequels were announced in 1993, but filming on The Phantom Menace didn't start until June 1997. Although not officially part of the marketing campaign for the prequel, Lucasfilm entered into a licensing deal with Hasbro/Kenner in 1995 for the Power of the Force line of Star Wars action figures. The toys were a huge success and helped to renew interest in the franchise. The following year Lucasfilm created the multimedia Shadows of the Empire storyline, which consisted of books, comics, video games, and toys that were marketed across a wide range of platforms. Shadows of the Empire debuted a new storyline featuring both established and new characters from the Star Wars universe. Then in 1997, the original trilogy of Star Wars films was re-released in movie theaters.
These comprehensive marketing strategies confirmed that there was still a considerable audience for all things Star Wars. On November 18, 1998, the first official trailer for The Phantom Menace was released to great excitement. But the marketing campaign for the film got fully underway on May 3, 1999. On that date, an event dubbed Midnight Madness took place at various Toys ‘R’ Us stores across the country. Huge crowds lined up for the opportunity to get their hands on the dozens of new products connected to the upcoming feature film. These Midnight Madness events were so successful that they became a Star Wars tradition in the years that followed.