If you’ve spent any time on social media in the last few weeks, you’re almost certainly now aware that this Friday, M. Night Shyamalan‘s latest horror film, The Visit, opens in theaters. The film, which is about two kids who visit their creepy grandparents in rural Pennsylvania, has been heavily promoted on Snapchat via 10-second ads in its Live Stories feature. The trailer has been showing up in the Twitter feeds of people who have been tweeting about the VMAs and The Walking Dead. YouTube and Vine influencers have hosted advanced screenings and then plugged it to their multitudes of followers. Filmmaker Eli Roth and producer Jason Blum created special Snapchat stories for the film on their CryptTV digital network. In addition to the now old-school techniques such as its own Facebook page, where it has over 650,000 likes. The Visit even has a presence on Wattpad, the storytelling app, where Wattpad writers have been posting original stories inspired by the movie.
However the movie fares at the box office (Shyamalan has been riding a bit of a cold streak), Universal Studios, which is releasing it, won’t be able say that horror-loving social media denizens weren’t aware of it.
This aggressive push into the mobile-social space has become a normal part of doing business at Universal, which has been leaning into digital marketing more heavily than any other studio in Hollywood. Last year it was the first studio to buy ads on Snapchat–for The Ouija Movie and Dumb and Dumber To–and it devotes, on average, 20% of its entire marketing spend to its digital efforts. That’s about twice what other studios are allocating. On last year’s social media-themed movie Unfriended, Universal tipped the balance even more, spending 60% of its marketing budget on digital platforms. The strategy helped the low-budget film–it was made for a mere $1 million–gross $62 million worldwide.
Within Hollywood, Universal is known for its lavish marketing campaigns and deep pockets, but this is about much more than money. The studio is being incredibly savvy about how it attacks the ever-changing media landscape, which Universal’s EVP of digital marketing Doug Neil acknowledges is changing at “Mach 9 speed.” Never was this more on display than over the summer, when the studio’s digital play–a combination of meme-inspired Snapchat geofilters; Periscoped red carpet premieres; and a VR stunt that let fans observe the feeding of an apatosaurus–helped Jurassic World, Fast & Furious 7, Pitch Perfect 2, Minions, and Straight Outta Compton become the season’s biggest hits, pushing Universal into record-breaking history: It is the first studio to cross the $2.11 billion mark in domestic grosses in one year. And it’s mid-September.
Michael Moses, Universal’s copresident of worldwide marketing, attributes the studio’s strong digital presence to its “transmedia” approach to marketing, meaning that there is no church-state divide between traditional and digital media anymore–they are one and the same. He and his copresident, Josh Goldstine, work closely with Neil to craft campaigns. “There’s not a lot of competition or fiefdoms or ‘That’s mine and you can’t use it,'” Moses tells me one recent morning on the Universal lot in Burbank, California. “It’s required education. We just had a meeting three weeks ago where Doug led all the creatives and all the staff through, ‘Here’s what a Snapchat Story is. Here’s the ad unit and it goes like this, instead of like this,'” using his hands to indicate vertical rather than horizontal.
Not that there hasn’t been an acculturation process as the studio has dramatically shifted the way it thinks about digital. “Probably even three years ago, digital was seen as an after-market kind of thing. Like, we’ll do the campaign and then digital will push everything out after it’s launched,” Moses says. “So we had to completely invert that thinking and say, like with Pitch Perfect 2, digital’s coming first. They’re gonna lead.”
This meant launching a Pitch Perfect 2 Snapchat channel during production and having the cast actively post images and videos. “We were fortunate to have Hailee Steinfeld and a couple other girls who understood Snapchat,” says Moses. “We could give them a phone and say, ‘Take Snaps!’ We went from zero to 250,000 followers in no time. We’re up to over 350,000 now.”
Universal also took out paid ads on Snapchat Stories; became part of Facebook’s Instant Articles launch via BuzzFeed; populated Tumblr with Pitch Perfect 2 GIFs; sponsored the Britney Spears and Iggy Azalea video Pretty Girls on Vevo; and had the cast of Pretty Little Liars, which has over 1.4 million Snapchat followers, take Snaps at the premiere.
As for that red-carpet event, Moses called it “the most social premiere of all time.”
“An old-fashioned red carpet used to be very traditional,” he says. “You do your Entertainment Tonight, your Access Hollywood, your local crews and your photographers, and you’d wind your way down. On something like Pitch, it was completely inverted, so the primary stations were social stations. So Snapchat was set up, there was InstaStop [a place to take photos and upload them to Instagram], we had a live stream, we made sure the talent was all equipped because they all had active followings, so they were constantly updating.”
Universal also partnered with Snapchat on a custom geofilter for the premiere. “There were 1,200 uses of that just between the kids and the people that were there adding that to their Snaps,” Neil says. “People were taking pictures, then putting Pitch Perfect 2 Premiere on their picture, which was then going out to hundreds of thousands of people. So it’s just doing all those little things to amplify what’s happening.”
The Pitch Perfect franchise is an obvious fit for the social media space. Its cast is almost entirely made up of millennials who, as Steinfeld demonstrates, know their way around Snapchat and have strong social media followings. Its core audience lives and breathes YouTube, so much so that Universal made a “digital request” to the filmmakers, asking them to cast an actual YouTube a cappella group, Pentatonix, in the film. (They were the Canadian competitors.)
But on a film like Straight Outta Compton, which stormed the box office in August, racking up more than $50 million its opening weekend, Universal had more of a challenge. The film had no stars and was about a subject–the gangsta rap group N.W.A.–that was not exactly mainstream. They decided to focus on the subjects of the film, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. During the Grammys in February, Universal ran a 30-second clip of the two rappers driving around Compton talking about their roots. Simultaneously, a trailer for the film went out on Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms, garnering 44.5 million views.
“I think if we’d just put out the trailer, it would have been a hot trailer, but it would have been less than, What’s the really exciting thing about this?,” Moses says. “And the exciting thing isn’t, like, it’s an origins story of N.W.A., it’s, we have Dre and Cube and it connects what was happening in the very pressure-cooker environment of the late ’80s, early ’90s with what’s happening today. So it felt calculated, for sure. But it felt appropriate to what we were doing.”
The campaign took off just before the film’s release, when Universal and its partner on the film, Beats by Dre, launched a meme generator that allowed people to insert their own hometown into the film’s black-and-white logo. The Straight Outta Somewhere meme instantly went viral: It was downloaded over 6 million times and trended at No. 1 for two days straight on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Sensing an opportunity, Universal then talked to Snapchat about turning the meme into a customized geofilter and running it the day before the film’s release.
“There were 9 million uses of that filter, seen by almost 200 million people,” Neil says. “My 13-year-old daughter was saying, ‘All my friends are putting this up! I don’t even know what Straight Outta Compton is!’ You know you have crossed over at that point.”
“So many times in a campaign, there are things you can show off about,” adds Moses. “But we always wonder: Is it truly a value to the movie? Is it getting people interested or actionable to go see your movie? We really thought that this one did. It was a cool thing that was happening in the culture all at once. Our mission on Straight Outta Compton was to make it a crossover film. To not just make it an African-American film, or a musical biopic, but make it a bigger kind of cultural event. In our gut, we believe that that played a big part in that.”
A successful digital campaign doesn’t always mean enlisting the latest hot app. For Jurassic World, which became the third-highest-grossing movie of all time, racking up more than $1.6 billion worldwide, Universal went more old school, creating a faux website for the Jurassic World theme park. More than 3 million people checked out hotels and restaurants in the park, what temperature it was, and tracked the wait time for the Gentle Giants Petting Zoo. There was even a site built around the park’s parent company, MasraniGlobal.com.
“I’ve been a big snob about, ‘Nobody needs a movie destination site anymore, Doug! Like, they don’t work, stop it!,” Moses says, laughing. “But it has to be the next-generation version of that, and I think that’s what they did on Jurassic. They turned me into a believer from a deep skeptic.”
The real question when it comes to digital marketing, of course, is how effective is it, actually? How can you tell that 20, 30, 60 million Facebook followers leads to movie ticket sales–or, in the parlance of movie marketers, “butts in seats”?
Moses admits that it’s a fuzzy science and that “social stats can be very misleading.”
“We have a vendor a week coming in here and saying, ‘We’ve cracked the code and we know’ [how effective social media is],” he says. “Social listening is a whole cottage industry unto itself. They’ll say, ‘We’ll parse the fire hose of everything that’s coming in on social, and we’ll let you know exactly what it means for your movie.’ I remain unconvinced.”
Still, it’s hard to argue that if a geofilter is blowing up on Snapchat–which has over 100 million users, most of whom fit dead-center into the millennial demo–it isn’t raising a hell of a lot of awareness about a film. Or that if trailers are being shared all over Facebook and YouTube that it isn’t translating into promotional currency. Also, many platforms–especially Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube–provide studios and networks with vast amounts of data about who is being exposed to advertising and how they’re responding to it, a service that is a value unto itself in terms of helping marketers refine and develop their messaging.
Even when things don’t work, Neil chalks it up to learning and research that pays off in other ways. “I look at a lot of it as R&D. We’re trying things, and I’m fortunate to have bosses that let us do that. It doesn’t always work. But we’re learning from it.
“You just keep trying things and you get it right and you jigger it. That’s true for all the social channels out there, like Periscope and Meerkat, the new live-streaming services. One of the guys on my team was Periscoping from the Furious 7 premiere. He was running up and down the red carpet to have this live stream. You don’t know until you try.”