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His voice has become iconic and it’s never good news when he calls — but 2 million people had custom chats with Ghostface as part of the marketing campaign for Scream VI, a sign the idea rang true with fans.
“When the marketing is fun, audiences think the movie is going to be fun and they want to go on the ride with you,” says Marc Weinstock, Paramount Pictures president of worldwide marketing and distribution. “When you start with a great movie, and a great concept, you definitely have a head start.”
While teaser clips of Ghostface terrorizing a bodega or lurking on a crowded NYC subway may have been enough to get some fans into theaters for Scream VI, for modern audiences with limited patience for advertising relying solely on traditional marketing tactics just doesn’t cut it. Giving fans the opportunity to have Ghostface call them — or phone an unsuspecting friend — was just one of the tools Scream VI used to reach audiences in an unexpected way.
“Traditional advertising doesn’t work by itself,” says Weinstock. “You need everything. You need to be hit from all sides. For campaigns to be successful, they really have to break through culturally, and that’s what we like to do. I think that’s a hallmark of a really good campaign.”
And it’s easy to swing and miss, according to experts. “Most advertising is completely annoying,” says Jae Goodman, founder of Observatory (formerly CAA Marketing), who works with brands like Netflix, Nike and Gibson. “There’s all the data in the world to support that with each passing day humans have less tolerance for interruptive advertising. It is rare when a campaign breaks through.”
If box office is any indication, which it often is, Scream VI slashed through the noise. The latest Scream film from Paramount and Spyglass has made more than $120 million at the worldwide box so far — including a franchise record $44.5 million opening weekend in the U.S.
“When it’s Scream number six, you want to go at it and say ‘Alright, what’s going to be different about this one?'” says Weinstock. “We came up with a line ‘New York, new rules’ because we know that people like all the rules of the franchise, and we really embraced the New York City of it.”
Maximum Effort co-founder George Dewey notes that eyeballs are harder to come by than ever but it’s not impossible to fill theaters. “A lot of successful films have proven people want to go to the movies, but you have to give them a reason to get out of the house,” he says, adding that effectively making New York a character was a smart move.
“I think it’s maybe underappreciated how good a marketer he is,” Dewey says of Weinstock, who he worked with for four years, including on the Deadpool campaign. “He has a sixth sense for finding those things within films that are organically of interest to audiences and highlighting them in non-artificial ways. I think that’s what you felt with the Scream campaign. It’s not easy to market a film on the sixth go around.”
Dewey says Paramount’s recent marketing track record shows it’s no fluke, noting that it was a bold move to delay the Sonic the Hedgehog release and redesign the character after widespread fan backlash and proof that the team is plugged into the culture and able to quickly pivot.
“There are so many ways Sonic, Top Gun, Smile and Scream could have not worked, says Dewey. “To those of us paying attention, Marc’s streak at Paramount over the last 18 months has been incredible.”
Top Gun: Maverick dominated the domestic box office last year, and Smile went viral pre-release thanks to a creepy stunt involving actors staring at the camera from behind home plate during Major League Baseball games. The idea to have Ghostface pop up on live surveillance cameras across the country was a “cousin” to that idea, Weinstock says. “When we had the success after Smile, we were like, ‘Alright, how do we top ourselves?'”
Ghostface made a cross-country trek from Sonoma to New York City, hanging out in areas Paramount knew had live cams that people regularly checked in on from home, and ending with a stop at the Empire State Building on the day of the Scream VI premiere. They didn’t announce the appearances other than to give local law enforcement a heads up — and it’s a good thing they did.
“We got a little notoriety when people were phoning 911 because they were nervous the Ghostface character was sitting in their town,” Weinstock says. “It sort of took on a life of its own.”
The campaign took it a step further, in a meta nod to the franchise itself, and created a Reno 911 spoof where a trio of the Biggest Little City’s finest (Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenney and Carlos Alazraqui) discuss a serial killer who’s committed “stabbing, stabbing, egregious stabbing.”
Dewey says interacting with the zeitgeist, now a hallmark of Maximum Effort’s work, is critical to being a good marketer in 2023. “They were able to turn what could have been a potentially uncomfortable conversation into a really positive one,” he says. “Even the choice of Reno 911 as a property was interesting. It’s light, it’s nonthreatening, it’s playful.”
In addition to the custom calls and live cam cameos, Paramount freaked out fans at the Grévin museum in Paris by replacing a wax Ghostface with a person in the costume; recreated set pieces in Santa Monica so fans could walk through scenes from the film; and had a partnership with BJ Novack’s pop-up restaurant Chain for a “Stabby Meal” promotion that Weinstock says sold out in 12 seconds. They also shot seemingly endless original social content with the cast — like a video about how to survive a Ghostface spree and a game of “What’s in the Bodybag” — and leaned into Jenna Ortega’s Netflix hit by opening ticket pre-sales on a Wednesday.
“Each of those is a great idea as a standalone,” says Goodman. “The fact that this is a movie campaign makes it even more remarkable because movie marketing is so formulaic.”
As a marketer, he says he understands why that is, adding “They’re time-tested methods that work. You show off the content and people see a franchise or star they love and they go see a movie or stream it.”
Goodman says what may seem like complacency is actually a reflection of risk tolerance. “That’s compounded by the fact that each movie is a very expensive startup company that has a very short window in which it needs to succeed financially.” Here, he says it’s clear Paramount was “willing to withstand the additional risk tolerance for the chance that better marketing will give you better results.”
When it comes to existing franchises, despite having a built-in fanbase, he says each campaign requires a different strategy.
“At this point you could do a billboard that just says Fast in a particular font and a certain percentage of the audience will show up at the theater,” says Goodman, adding that those fans wouldn’t even need to know the storyline because they’re going for the adrenaline rush. “With the that franchise, you simply need to remind people that the thing you’ve been waiting for is here.”
But, Fast & Furious is an outlier, he notes. And Scream VI wasn’t just another installment in an ongoing franchise, it’s the sequel to a reboot. “They needed to signal this is not just another Scream movie. We’ve not just rebooted but reinvented it,” says Goodman. “Great marketers, in my opinion, are moving toward content experiences that attract and engage instead of interrupt and annoy.”
Says Dewey, “It’s almost too reductive to call it marketing because it’s really brilliant strategy as well. They took Ghostface, Jenna Ortega, and New York as a character and elevated these threads to make this not feel like Scream VI, but a Scream you’ve never seen before.”
When it comes to the challenge of attracting audiences in the limited attention economy, Weinstock certainly responded to the call — even if he didn’t pick up when his own phone rang in a meeting.
“I got a call. It depends on your carrier, but mine actually said Ghostface. I got scared for a second. I was like ‘Oh my God.’ Then I was like, ‘Oh, wait. This is our thing!’ I didn’t answer,” he recalls with a laugh. He’s thrilled that other’s did, though. “I mean, 2 million calls in 10 days is amazing.”
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