Publicity and Promotion
By the early 1970s, promotional budgets sometimes exceeded a film's production costs. As new technologies change the ways in which films are viewed, from television, to video, to DVDs and digital downloads, they have also changed promotions, many of them using a number of media platforms.
b. William Schloss, New York, New York, 24 April 1914, d. 31 May
William Castle, the American film producer-director, was notorious for his inventive, humorous, and often excessive film promotions. Not only Hollywood's most famous showman, he also revolutionized film advertising.
After directing B-pictures for Columbia and Universal, including the acclaimed film noir, When Strangers Marry (1944), Castle came into his own when the studio system collapsed and films had to be marketed individually. He surrounded his low-budget films with inventive stunts that made each movie a unique event. Castle later became an independent producer, forming Susina Associates in 1957 to make five successful low-budget horror films that represented the apex of his gimmickry. For Macabre (1958), he purchased from Lloyd's of London $1,000 of Fright Insurance for each patron in case audience members should die of fear. House on Haunted Hill (1959) featured Emerg-O, inflatable skeletons that flew over the audience; 13 Ghosts (1960) was shown in Illusion-O, with glasses offered to help audiences see its onscreen ghosts, while Homicidal (1961) had a Fright Break when cowardly audience members could leave and get their money back.
Castle's exploitation strategies reached their most baroque with the infamous Percepto in connection with The Tingler (1959). He had every tenth seat in theaters where the film showed in the first run wired with army surplus electrical motors that were activated when the tingler—a parasite that fed off human fear—escapes into a movie theater in the film's story. The film also featured several announcements by Vincent Price, the first of which was accompanied by one of Castle's favorite gimmicks—a (planted) woman who fainted.
Although Castle would later insure the life of the cockroach star of Bug (1975) for $1 million, he changed his promotional tactics in the mid-1960s when he signed with Paramount in 1966 to make more upmarket pictures, including Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968). Castle now focused more on public relations, producing news releases for local television stations and leaking out information during production rather than creating theatrical stunts. He capitalized on the fame of the star, Mia Farrow, by inviting the press to watch Vidal Sassoon cut her hair for Rosemary's Baby for the fee of $5,000—a gesture that echoed earlier media furor over one of Farrow's haircuts. The film also had its own groundbreaking signature advertising campaign, which featured an unusually elliptical and suggestive trailer.
Castle replaced the self-effacing advertising of the classical era of film with promotional tactics that were often greater attractions than his movies. In so doing, he revived the showman for a more knowing generation, often capitalizing on audiences' desire to be in on the joke.
As Director: Macabre (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), Homicidal (1961); As Producer: Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Castle, William. Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America . New York: Pharos Books, 1992.
Heffernan, Kevin. Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business, 1958–1968 . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
Perhaps the most famous advertising campaign of the Internet era was for Artisan's ultra-low budget video
feature, The Blair Witch Project (1999). Tease sites were up months before the film's July 1999 release, based on a simple but ingenious premise—the claim that the film was true, taped by protagonists killed in the process of investigating a local urban legend. The film's official Web site stressed its authenticity with "newscasts" and grainy digital photographs of police "evidence," including abandoned cameras, film, and video cassettes. Before its release, the Internet Movie Database even listed its principal actors as "missing, presumed dead." Adding to the pre-release media synergy, the Sci-Fi Channel aired the Curse of the Blair Witch , a one-hour Blair "documentary."
Although Blair Witch became known as the first major Internet campaign and was arguably the first film whose advertising was more important than the movie, it did not radically change the way films were marketed. Although the film set attendance records and reportedly caused directors and producers to demand Internet campaigns, it depended on novelty and timing. Indeed, some advertising and Internet strategists suggested the film itself was of marginal importance, and that the real pleasure involved the viewer's movement between media, particularly the constant return to the Web.
Post- Blair Witch film Web sites acted more as traditional anchors, as places where viewers could download trailers, find information on cast and crew, and play games. Most subsequent efforts to create an elaborate Internet ad campaign have received little attention, as with the publicity for A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). Prior to its release, the film was surrounded with secrecy. Unusual for a summer blockbuster, nothing much was known about the film other than its stars, director, source material, and its history as a Kubrick-developed project. While the film's marketing strategy of secrecy and false leads—releasing a false scene-by-scene narrative breakdown to aint-it-cool-news.com and Web sites spreading false information about the film—resembled that of a Kubrick release, other aspects of its marketing were typically Spielbergian, including using the Internet to stress the links between the film and real-life events. The studio even hired scientists at MIT's AI Lab to help market the film and organized a symposium on AI research on 30 April 2001, which featured a five-minute A.I. preview and a personal appearance by star Haley Joel Osment. Internet promotions included a Web game with over thirty different sites focusing on characters who were not in the film, but featuring a real Manhattan phone number and voice mail.
Although this campaign went largely unnoticed, it capitalized on the Web leaks and false information that surround many high-budget releases. In the wake of Internet advertising, fake Web sites have been used for many films, often with little comment. Even print advertisements have participated in this trend, with the prerelease campaign for Laws of Attraction (2004) taking the form of fake ads for its divorce lawyer protagonist, Audrey Woods (Julianne Moore), without mentioning the film at all.