Movie Promotion in the Digital Era

A couple of months ago, I got into a discussion on the Guardian comments section of an article bemoaning how modern movie posters were ‘dreadful'. The writer interviewed a designer who complained about how difficult it was to compress a whole movie into a single image.

The whole movie summed up in a single image: 'Matt Damon is in it"

The whole movie summed up in a single image: 'Matt Damon is in it"

This made me think. Why, in the digital era, do we still rely on a static .jpg to tell us everything about a movie? I’m talking about the movie poster and what's happening, or should happen, to movie promotion.

With so many other options available in the digital world, should the movie poster still be the main expression of movie promotion? Or do we have a chance to create something new?

The Blair Witch Project case

I remember when The Blair Witch Project was launched. It was the first widely released movie marketed primarily on the internet and it was huge. Was it real? Was it fake? I organised a playdate with a classmate I didn’t like just because she was the only one with internet at home (hard times) and I really wanted to check out this movie about potentially real witches. 

The movie's website featured fake police reports and newsreel-style interviews. These augmented the movie's found footage framing device and sparked debates across the internet over whether the movie was a real-life documentary or a work of fiction. This noise helped a $60,000 budget movie become a $248.6 million box office hit.

This was back in '99 and the beginning of the internet itself, but we should still think about how a story built around a movie can affect promotion. If we look at the most successful movies of all the time, in the first 5 we see that 4 are sequels or part of a saga. If we look at the top 10, 8 are part of an existing universe. That’s pretty impressive. But what does this tell us? It tells us that we don’t want these stories to start and finish with the movie. We want more. Of course this 'let’s create universes’ Hollywood trend has multiple reasons, mostly economic ones, but let’s focus on how this is reflected in the few lucky new players in the game.

“Let’s create universes. And lookalike posters”. 

“Let’s create universes. And lookalike posters”. 

The Hunger Games

The most brilliant example of the past few years is the promotion for the Hunger Games saga. This series of beautifully crafted websites told stories about the Hunger Games world with a fashion-theme that entwined fake interviews with sly nods to the second film in the series, Catching Fire.

The capitol website featured political propaganda that made us feel more connected and curious toward this world than a photoshopped Jennifer Lawrence jumping through flames ever could have done (no offense to Jennifer Lawrence).

Collateral promotion poster vs. Official Poster

Collateral promotion poster vs. Official Poster

Creating a new universe

Fortunately, not all movies are sequels or prequels of established universes. This gives us the unique opportunity to create this expanded universe with promotion.

So in the digital era, we’re not looking for another Saul Bass. We’re not after the perfect image that squeezes in and sells what the movie’s about. We need to create powerful worlds that tell us stories about what we’re going to see. We want to give audiences a taste of it and then let them crave to see how the story plays out.

This feels like a chance that both production companies and designers shouldn’t miss.