It’s a question that has plagued film studios as long as they’ve been making movies; how do they actually make people aware enough of the movie to want to go see it? It’s a question that gets billions spent on it, that fuels everything from questionable fast food tie-ins (“Yo quiero Godzilla!”) to even more questionable moments of corporate “synergy” (i.e. suddenly every character on every TV show the studio produces needs to run right out and see the latest hit from the people who sign their paychecks.) But amid the noise, there are marketing techniques that aren’t just effective, they’re actually pretty fun to watch. Here are the four best.

ARGs

ARGs (alternate reality games) are essentially elaborate puzzles that flesh out more of the story for the movie, or reveal set photos or characters in advance. The earliest ARG for a movie was done for Steven Spielberg’s A.I., which featured an intricate network of websites with clues hidden in each one to unlock more of the puzzle. The puzzles were so intricate that they actually required the players to read the source code of the websites. But, showing how risky it can be, once fans discovered the movie had nothing to do with the vast conspiracy detailed in the ARG, it killed all the buzz it had built.

Over time, ARGs have evolved to feature puzzles such as locating real world items hidden by the producers to unlock more of the puzzle. This probably hit its full flower with Cloverfield, which was marketed almost entirely with an ARG that offered an elaborate background to the titular monster hitting Manhattan. Of course, it had almost nothing to do with the movie either, being an elaborate corporate espionage plot, but hey, it got people into theaters.

The Movie That Should Have Used It:

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.  Part of the reason “Scott Pilgrim” is tanking is that you need to already be familiar with the comic’s elaborate world; an ARG would have helped flesh out some background and maybe told us a little more about Scott himself.

Public Performance

Almost as fun as an ARG is the use of public performances and events. One of the great discoveries of marketing departments around the world was the fact that you can hire college students off of Craigslist to do just about anything. So, if you were selling, say, The Dark Knight, you could have fans all gather under a statue in Joker makeup in a huge, unnerving mob, or have a bunch of very serious young men and women campaign for Harvey Dent as district attorney, handing out campaign materials and signs.

Of course, this can backfire. Just ask the marketing team on I Love You, Beth Cooper, which paid a valedictorian to promote their movie in her speech in a viral stunt that failed miserably. Possibly it was because she mentioned the movie in the opening of her speech.

The Movie That Should Have Used It:

Robin Hood.  It’s a movie about archery, and there are plenty of unemployed ren faire actors around.  Why not promote a summer action movie with some actual summer action?

Unofficial Announcements

District 9 was one of the best movies released in 2009, but it was faced with a couple of problems, at least from the perspective of a marketing department. First of all, it was an action movie about apartheid. Secondly, it was set in South Africa, which meant the dreaded funny accent. So Sony had a bit of a challenge on its head; how to get the point about the movie’s plot across in a way that wasn’t boring, and maybe kinda deemphasized that it wasn’t set in the US?

Pretty simple; take out ads that looked like official announcements. Benches were marked “for humans only”; billboards explained that picking up non-human hitchhikers was a felony. Then they just tagged a phone number to the ads, and the movie’s website to the bottom of the poster, and created swarms of buzz around a movie that was shaping up to mostly be a cult oddity, not the breakout hit of the year.

The Movie That Should Have Used It:

Salt.  We’re surprised wanted posters of Angelina Jolie weren’t up in every major city.  Sure, “Salt” has done OK, but it hasn’t set the world on fire; a few surprises at the bus stop would have caught a lot more attention.

Pranks

Pranks used to be the riskiest kind of publicity stunt: people are easily offended, overly elaborate plans tend to fail, and sometimes people would actually get hurt. But technology marches on, and with the rise of the Internet, pranks have become not only easy, but vastly funnier because nobody gets hurt…well, physically, anyway. Take, for example, a recent stunt played on Chatroulette.

You might have heard of The Last Exorcism, hitting theaters this week. Or maybe you haven’t. But you probably HAVE heard about the producers putting a model on ChatRoulette, finding impressionable young men looking for boobies, and then scaring the absolute bejeezus out of them when the stripper turns out to be a creature from hell.

Because, really, there’s nothing American loves better than terrorizing fifteen-year-olds looking for nudity on the Internet.

The Movie That Should Have Used It:

Get Him To The Greek.  Universal leaned a little too hard on everybody remembering Forgetting Sarah Marshall and not hard enough on the unique craziness of Russell Brand.  Put Brand on Chatroulette and forget a marketing opportunity; you’d have a whole new movie!