Film Fund-amentals: Viral Marketing and the New Reality

As Ronald Reagan once said, facts are stupid things. In light of this, the impending release of the faux documentary Apollo 18 and the viral advertising campaign surrounding it is a pretty good reminder about the slippery post-modernist nature of facts in the virtual universe.

Much like The Blair Witch Project, Apollo 18 claims to be found footage that conveniently milks thirty years worth of urban folklore and displays an odd resemblance to the equally bogus (well, most likely) “lost footage” from Apollo 20 that has been on YouTube since 2007. Likewise, everyone involved with the movie is playing it cagey (for example, no names have been released for the actors in the movie). Maybe it’s real and maybe it’s not. It’s practically up there with the Alien Autopsy video.

Viral marketing isn’t really a new concept, though the term wasn’t widely used until 1996. In the film industry, the old Hollywood studio system of peppering magazines and gossip columns with manufactured tidbits about their “stars” was a forerunner to the approach. It was a means of creating a marketing presence that extended beyond any single film by etching out a persona that represented the star as a concept.

The key has always been to create a buzz that extended beyond any conventional forum created by any PR department. At its most successful, viral marketing results in a situation in which the consumer is actively engaged in pursuing (directly or indirectly) the product (either knowingly or unknowingly), which in turn allows the product to become an increasingly major component to the consumer’s environment. At its best, the viral marketing campaign will appear spontaneous. In reality, it is an induced state.

As The Blair Witch Project demonstrated back in the late 1990s, the internet is an ideal forum for such marketing strategies. This movie created the core model for viral marketing (and distribution) that was later advanced even further by Paranormal Activity. Both films have become essential studies for indie distributors. They have also demonstrated the wild power of such marketing techniques when released through the internet.

Thanks to social networking sites, the potential for viral marketing is now greater than ever. Contrary to what some people would like to believe, the approach is neither easy nor necessarily cheap. The Blair Witch Project spent nearly $1.5 million on its viral marketing campaign. Paramount Pictures spent nearly $10 million on advertising for Paranormal Activity. Viral marketing can be done for a lot less, but so far the success ratio has also been much lower. This is lunch money compared to what is spent on a major movie, but it is still a lot of dough.

Paranormal Activity made incredibly effective use of Twitter. In a way, it was almost too effective. Some folks have gotten it into their heads that all they have to do is set up a Twitter account and then kick back. It doesn’t quite work that way and the rules for creating a successful Twitter campaign are still evolving. So far the single greatest success in Twitter awareness has been achieved by Charlie Sheen in a grim reminder that it’s all publicity. Personally, I prefer the more honest state of Twitter befuddlement provided by Roger Corman in his account.

But one of the most unique aspects to viral marketing is not the marketing itself. Increasingly, the dominant focus of any viral marketing approach is to shape (and alter) our perception of reality. When it first came out, lots of people thought that The Blair Witch Project was a real documentary. A major part of the success of Paranormal Activity was its ability to look like footage from a security camera. Leaving no trick unturned, Apollo 18 is heavily promoting itself as the “truth” behind the “vast conspiracy.”

Pretending to be real is a big factor to this marketing method. Several years ago, when The Dark Knight was filming on location in Chicago, cell phone videos began popping up online from fans who managed to sneak onto the set. Of course this was all bunk (then and now, The Dark Knight sets are guarded more zealously than the NSA) and the amateur videos had been created by Warner’s PR department. It worked (and worked brilliantly) thanks to the already heightened fan interest in the movie.

On the negative side, publicity for The Fourth Kind kept hinting that the movie was based on a real case. If anyone were to Google the name of some of the main characters, the search engine would steer them to bogus newspaper stories that seemingly confirmed certain aspects of this claim. It was all bogus, and while the movie made a decent profit, it didn’t seem to have been helped all that much by this smoke-and-mirrors stunt.

The creation of this alternate reality can, when successful, heighten audience awareness of the movie. Unfortunately, it also heightens the general state of unreality that extensively pervades our culture. A lot of the recent political debate on the debt ceiling issue has been a dark tribute to the warped power of bad information and false realities. Everything has its up and down qualities, but the unique power of viral marketing through the internet has a potent feel that is sometimes almost scary.

But for many filmmakers, it is also becoming essential. Just watch out for going to the dark side.