The Film Industry Should Learn From M3GAN And Smile’s Viral Marketing

M3GAN debuted to $30.2 million over the weekend, beating expectations by about $10 million. It wasn’t enough to claim the top spot — Avatar 2 is still chugging away — but it was a fantastic opening for an original horror movie, the best since Nope's debut last July. With a budget of just $12 million, M3GAN is already profitable.

Its box office performance was buoyed by a successful viral marketing campaign by Universal. On Twitter over the weekend, I saw a flock of performers dressed as the titular android riding the subway and another clip showing a group crossing the road in single file. Prior to that, another crew of bewigged androids took the field at a Chargers game on New Year's Day.

Smile, which grossed a similarly impressive $216.1 million worldwide on a $17 million budget last fall, was likewise buoyed by a viral marketing campaign. That movie, in which people are overcome by a need to hideously smile before they violently kill themselves and pass the need to do the same onto whoever witnessed it, employed a similar strategy, positioning eerily smiling people in the stands at sporting events in the run-up to release.

As a fan of original movies, I'm happy that films with no attachment to pre-existing IP are doing so well at the box office. But I'm curious if there is any real takeaway from these successes for movies that don't have a similarly high concept. M3GAN and Smile are easy to summarize in one sentence: An android doll who looks like a robot in drag murders people. If you see someone smile a rictus grin and kill themselves, you only have a little while to live. Annabelle but high camp. The Ring, but with eerie smiles instead of VHS tapes.

There are movies with similarly succinct, easy-to-picture loglines that have flopped in the past year. Ambulance, which got Michael Bay some of the best reviews of his career and was relatively inexpensive to make for its scale, flopped, despite having a high concept premise: a heist goes wrong and two brothers must escape the police while trapped in an ambulance. The viral marketing that has elevated M3GAN and Smile could have helped Ambulance if Universal had tried something similar. That movie does present some difficulties — riding around in a fake ambulance to promote a movie is less fun for the public than dressing up as a creepy doll — but making people aware of the film's existence would have gone a long way.

When you get away from high concept films, questions about how broadly applicable Smile and M3GAN's strategies are begin to arise. How would you virally market The Fabelmans? Or Babylon? Or Tár? That last example may be the most relevant, given that, while the movie underperformed at the box office, it got memed into oblivion. A movie having great reviews and audiences being aware of its existence isn't always enough to convince them to go see it.

That’s especially true given that studios have made the window between the theatrical opening weekend and the subsequent VOD launch extremely small. If a potential audience member is interested in, say, The Fabelmans, but knows that it’s going to be available at home in a week or two, they have less incentive to leave the house to see it.

If original movies are going to recover, it seems like reconsidering the length of the release window is necessary. And, as M3GAN and Smile have proved, actually marketing it goes a long way, too.

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