How savvy social media blitz paid off for Deadpool

Fox uses Facebook, Twitter, local comedians, spoofs and pranks in a marketing triumph as its R-rated superhero film breaks box-office records in its genre

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 February, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 3:39pm

Actor Ryan Reynolds was in the middle of filming the hit action-comedy Deadpool in Canada last autumn when he came up with the idea for a viral video stunt. Reynolds, dressed as the foul-mouthed anti-hero, would visit a playground in a Vancouver suburb on Halloween and lecture local youngsters on how to fight crime.

The resulting video caught fire on YouTube, collecting millions of views.

“At first the idea was, ‘Let’s go door-to-door and go trick-or-treating,’ but there were safety concerns,” says Marc Weinstock, president of domestic theatrical marketing at 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the film.

That promotional video, shot like a low-quality home recording, was just one of the dozens of ways Fox fuelled anticipation for its new superhero film, which broke box-office records in its opening weekend. The studio put up tongue-in cheek billboards, YouTube clips and launched social media campaigns to reach audiences worldwide, taking advantage of Deadpool’s penchant for off-colour humour and over-the-top violence to get potential moviegoers excited.

The effort paid off. Deadpool, which cost US$58 million to make, grossed US$150 million in its first four days in the US and Canada – by far the biggest opening ever for an R-rated movie. It was a stunning result for a relatively obscure comic book character – more than doubling analysts’ expectations – and could pave the way for a new subgenre of superhero movies.

READ MORE: Film review: Deadpool – Ryan Reynolds back as Marvel anti-hero in ultra-violent comedy

The tally was welcome news for Fox, which has had mixed results from its earlier Marvel outings. While its X-Men films have enjoyed solid box-office returns over the years, the studio’s attempted reboot of the Fantastic Four franchise became one of the biggest bombs of 2015. Deadpool is a shadowy figure in the X-Men family of comic book characters.

Deadpool was a gamble for Fox, given the film’s R-rating and crowded marketplace. There are seven other superhero movies due out this year, including next month’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War from Walt Disney and Marvel Studios, and X-Men: Apocalypse, also from Fox.

With Deadpool, Fox had a chance to stand out.

“The problem for any superhero film is that they all kind of look the same,” says box-office analyst Bruce Nash of Nash Information Services. “Taking a different kind of approach with the movie, and its marketing, was a smart move.”

The idea was for the advertising to reflect Deadpool’s irreverent brand of hero – a gleefully vulgar mercenary with self-healing powers.

The global push began in March, when the studio revealed the first image of Deadpool, displaying the character on a bearskin rug (spoofing a famous photo of Burt Reynolds) to show off the signature dark-red costume.

To follow up, the studio pulled an April Fool’s Day prank to announce the movie’s “R” rating and assuage fans’ concerns that the character would be toned down for general audiences. In the promotional spot, Deadpool kills talk show host Mario Lopez during an on-air interview with Ryan Reynolds.

Then, Fox got Conan O’Brien to change the rating of his late night show to TV-MA for one night in order to debut the “red-band trailer,” industry jargon for previews with explicit content. That ad amassed 114 million online views.

“He’s an anti-hero,” Weinstock says. “We never tried to trick people. The lesson is, you have to be true to the character and what the fans expect.”

Fox executives decline to say how much the studio spent on promoting the movie. Studios typically spend tens of millions on marketing such films.

Of course, creative marketing never guarantees success. The long awaited comedy sequel Zoolander 2 from Paramount Pictures last weekend amassed just US$16 million in ticket sales during its four-day debut – despite having its own aggressive social media campaign featuring a Derek Zoolander Instagram account and a catwalk appearance by Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson at Paris Fashion Week.

What’s more, it may be difficult for any studio, even Fox, to replicate Deadpool’s viral traction.

“They’ve captured lightning in a bottle here,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore. “What works for Deadpool may only work for Deadpool.”

The film’s appeal was worldwide. It took in more than HK$35 million in its first week of screening in Hong Kong.

Studio executives took pains to convey Deadpool’s acerbic attitude in its international marketing push. Humour is difficult to convey across cultural lines, so Fox hired local comedy writers to translate the feature and its marketing materials into languages such as Hindi. The marketing teams took advantage of elections in Italy and South Korea to display “Vote for Deadpool” posters, and distributed Deadpool masks at Brazil’s Carnaval festival.

Reynolds hustled to promote the film, doing countless promotional shoots and travelling around the world to court audiences. In January, he attended a surprise screening for fans, followed by a Q&A session. In one stunt, he live-tweeted an episode of ABC’s The Bachelor while in character.

“You can’t underestimate the value of talent input,” says Paul Hanneman, Fox’s head of global marketing and distribution. “When someone puts that much effort into a campaign, you can see how much it reaps rewards.”

Analysts say the no-holds-barred campaign also reflects the growing importance of social media in movie marketing at a time when positive reactions from filmgoers can boost box-office results – and negative buzz can kill a picture within hours of its first screenings.

One billboard widely shared on social media spoofed Nicholas Sparks films, while another spelled out the hero’s name in emojis (a skull emoji for “dead” and a “poo” emoji, and the letter “L”). Not everyone got the joke, Weinstock says, but passers-by took photos and shared them on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.

“We’re seeing a real shift where the social media component is becoming possibly the most important part of the marketing,” Dergarabedian says. “It seems to have more sway and more importance than traditional marketing messages.”

Los Angeles Times