A “box office success” doesn’t earn that accolade by pure luck or merit. The main reason people flock to see a new release in such big numbers is largely due to marketing – a lot of it.

A heap of cash goes into driving awareness of a Hollywood release and securing its success – nearly as much, if not more, than goes into producing the film itself.

Image Source

It should follow, then, that there are lots of lessons to be learned from how the studios choose to spend that money.

Here are 10 marketing lessons you can take away from some of Hollywood’s biggest box office successes.

1. Monsters University (and Swiffer)

In the run up to the release of the second installment in the Monsters Inc. franchise, Monsters University, Pixar was responsible for some pretty awesome marketing strategies: The “Monsters University” website, for one. The film is close to four years old, but the site’s still well worth checking out.

Designed to replicate the style and features of a genuine American university website, it’s an excellent example of movie marketing that merges the fantasy of the film into reality (something we’ll see another example of and discuss in more detail later).

What I wanted to talk about right now however, is this 30-second ad:

It’s a collaboration between Pixar and Swiffer – a household cleaning brand owned by P&G.

Now, you might wonder what a cleaning product brand has to do with Monsters University. That would be a fair question. And the answer would be… absolutely nothing.

And that’s the key.

By thinking a little outside the box, Pixar and Swiffer found a way to collaborate that promoted both brands equally. The concept is simple – the Monsters make a mess and a Swiffer product comes to the rescue – but the execution ensures the ad succeeds in driving awareness of and excitement about both products (as much as anyone can get excited about a cleaning product, at least…)

The lesson

Work with brands that complement but don’t compete with you.

How to apply it

Find a brand that’s keen to get more creative with their marketing and that – as above – complements your offering (or has the potential to) but isn’t in competition with you. This could mean approaching prospective brands by email, by phone, or in person. You could even try putting an ad out on social media, and waiting for brands to come to you.

2. Star Wars:The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens continued one of the most-loved and influential movie franchises in cinematic history. There was no doubt it would be a huge success but this didn’t stop the studio from reportedly spending more on marketing than production ($200 million on production and $223 million on marketing, to be precise).

A big part of that strategy was to ensure the film was literally everywhere. Think of pretty much any object – chances are in the months preceding the movie’s release, it was branded and sold as a Star Wars product.

Image Source

Of course, the studio knew that regardless of the franchise’s popularity, it was fighting back on the damage done by George Lucas’ 1999 and – to a lesser extent – 2002 and 2005 additions to the series.

They used nostalgia as a way around this.

To reassure fans that J.J. Abrams’ contribution to the Star Wars’ universe hadn’t gone the way of the same mistakes made by Lucas, Disney incorporated elements of nostalgia into its marketing.

One trailer featured Han Solo saying “It’s true – all of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi – they’re real.”

This wasn’t really a comment to the characters on screen – it was directed at the audience, a reference to the fact that parts of the Star Wars’ universe that fans had been missing were back.

In fact, every Force Awakens trailer features references to the original films, “all designed to reassure us that it’s the spirit of 1977 (and not 1999) that’s being captured today.” – Dan Golding, Kotaku

The lesson

Learn what your fans love most about your brand, and incorporate these features into your marketing whenever and wherever you can.

How to apply it
Make sure you’re tracking campaigns so you know exactly what people are responding to and what they aren’t. Then, analyze successful campaigns in order to pinpoint what it is that’s working and what your consumers like. If you can’t figure that bit out for yourself, or you want confirmation that your conclusions are correct, pick some of your best customers and ask them.

3. Toy Story 3

The third part of the very-much-loved Toy Story series was destined for success long before it hit screens. It wound up being Pixar’s biggest grossing film to date (topping $1 billion worldwide).

While the size of the franchise’s fanbase and the quality of the film itself (it received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture) might have had something to do with that, we also know that few films manage to make big bucks without some pretty solid marketing leading up to their release.

The Toy Story marketing team employed all the usual tactics you’d expect from a blockbuster budget – they advertised on TV, in print and in cinemas, and on social media.

But they also did things like this.

They figured out that twenty-somethings were going to be an important demographic for the film, but that many of the more traditional marketing tactics they were employing, like TV and print campaigns, would primarily target families and children.

To ensure it didn’t overlook this critical group, Pixar decided to show special “cliffhanger screenings” at colleges around the country. Each screening lasted 65 minutes and was designed to get viewers talking, and leave them wanting more.

The lesson

Leverage exclusivity and leave your audience wanting more.

How to apply it

Offer your best customers early access to new products or content. You can also try experimenting with content upgrades – hiding a portion of your content behind a paywall that visitors can only access if they give you something you want (like an email address or a share on social media).

This trick can boost the impact of your content substantially simply by “leaving your customers wanting more.”

4. Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War is the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and one of the many, many superhero films of recent years.

It kind of goes without saying that standing out in the superhero-movie market isn’t easy – even when you’ve got a cinematic powerhouse like Marvel Movies behind you (which, fun fact, is owned by an even bigger enterprise – Disney).

So, even with this backing, reaching out to new audiences in the superhero niche is tough. Instead, studios have to come up with elaborate ways to engage their existing fans.

The marketing team behind Captain America: Civil War did this with their “Choose Your Side: Team Captain America or Team Iron Man” campaign.

This was a message that was carried through the movie’s poster campaigns that pushed the divide between the characters…

Image Source

…and that later asked fans to choose their team.

Image Source

It featured subtly in the movie’s Super Bowl commercial…

…and on Twitter, via custom emojis that would appear automatically when a hashtag like #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan were used:

Image Credit

Marvel even partnered with brands including Pizza Hut, Audi, and Skittles, the latter of which designed custom packages asking consumers to choose their team.

Image Source

The lesson

Engage your audience by providing ways for them to interact with your brand.

How to apply it

There are many ways to get customers interacting with your brand. One of the most commonly used – and most effective – is through a competition.

Ask your customers to create something and submit their entry via social media using a hashtag. Take a look at Starbucks #WhiteCupContest for an example of what I mean.

Other tactics you might want to try include:

  • Creating a forum or group on social media and incentivizing regular interactions.
  • Asking customers to complete an action in exchange for exclusive content or a discount.
  • Hosting an industry event or Meetup.

5. Minions

Minions, the 2015 spinoff to Despicable Me, had one clear marketing strategy in mind:

Be everywhere.

No expense was spared to ensure the movie’s success, and it worked – by September 25, 2015, it had taken in $1.127 billion at the box office, making it the 10th highest-grossing movie of all time.

So what did this strategy include?

The Minions’ marketing team also launched countless branded products including, oddly, Minion bananas.

Image Source

The lesson

You’ve already heard it but, be everywhere.

How to apply it

Needless to say, the more cash you have to spare, the easier it is to “be everywhere.” That’s a given. But it doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from the Minions’ marketing strategy.

Instead of investing all your budget into a single tactic, try dividing your budget between as many tactics as possible.

  • Invest in paid ads on multiple social media platforms.
  • Investigate affordable ways to advertise locally.
  • Share the burden by collaborating with other businesses and leveraging each other’s audiences.

6. Maleficent

Disney’s Maleficent is described as a “dark fantasy” film that’s based on the classic fairy tale Sleeping Beauty.

As a standalone film that puts a unique spin on a much-loved story, Maleficent was bound to be a tougher movie to market than many of the others discussed here (if it’s a sequel, you already have a fanbase to count on).

Strategies included tying a book into the movie, leveraging Disney’s Instagram account and a Facebook page that featured – among other things – craft tutorials such as this:

Image Source

What I want to draw your attention to however, is how the movie got audiences excited about its release by encouraging them to get into character.

A New York Times article demonstrated how to to achieve the super-contoured cheeks sported by Jolie’s character (Maleficent herself), while various YouTubers were commissioned to create tutorials showing how to recreate the unique looks seen by characters throughout the film.

Image Source

They even got the stars to dress in outfits appropriate to their characters at the movie’s premiere, ensuring the film’s unique ambiance was maintained at all times.

The lesson

Retain a consistent brand image, and as much as possible, stay in “character.”

How to apply it

Create clear brand guidelines and ensure that every member of your team not only has access to them, but understands them and knows when and how to apply them.

These guidelines might include:

  • Visual brand guidelines like logos, colors and fonts
  • The tone you want employees to adopt when talking to customers or clients
  • Your brand values
  • Your dress code (if you have one)
  • When you expect these guidelines to be followed

7. Pitch Perfect 2

The second film in the teen musical comedy series (the third film is due for release at the end of this year) nearly tripled the box office take of the original. I’m going to take a wild guess that this is in part due to the initial film drawing in a pretty loyal fanbase. The rest will be down to the film’s marketing, much of which took place over social media (and is currently being replicated to drum up early interest in Pitch Perfect 3).

As we’d probably expect, the franchise has built a healthy following on both Facebook and Twitter, as well as on Tumblr, Instagram, and Snapchat:

Image Source

In addition to taking advantage of the free marketing opportunities offered by each channel, the Pitch Perfect marketing team invested heavily in paid promotions. Better yet, they haven’t been afraid to experiment with new concepts.

Some of the things they did included:

The lesson

Be creative with how you leverage social media – don’t be afraid to experiment with new channels or features.

How to apply it

Refrain from sticking purely with “what you know.” In 2017, there is so much more to social media than Facebook and Twitter (and so much more we can do with those platforms than we’ve ever been able to before).

Follow some of the bigger social media news websites, like Social Media Examiner and Social Media Today, so you’re always on top of new channels to try out and features of existing channels that are worth playing around with.

8. The Dark Knight

When writing for the L.A. Times, Chris Lee described the marketing for the second film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy as “one of the most interactive movie-marketing campaigns ever hatched by Hollywood.”

He wasn’t wrong.

The idea behind the campaign was to immerse fans inside the movie’s universe – the world of Gotham. I honestly don’t think I’m capable of describing what an awesome job they did of achieving this. As movie marketing goes, this is pretty much its peak.

A big part of the movie’s marketing entailed executing a pseudo-real election campaign for Harvey Dent that featured a tour bus, rallies, a campaign website, merchandise, “official” emails and even phone calls for campaign supporters.

Image Source

Alongside this were hints at the Joker’s involvement – such as these Joker cards, which were left at various comic book stores:

Image Source

And these “Jokerized” dollars:

Image Source

At the same time, the public watched Harvey Dent’s image become defaced and replaced with the Joker’s unmistakable “smile”…

Image Source

…and were encouraged to keep up-to-speed with the latest happenings in Gotham courtesy of thegothamtimes.com.

In fact, this was such a comprehensive and multi-faceted campaign that I’m unable to describe the whole thing here, but you can read about the campaign in detail over on cargocollective.com.

The lesson

Get people fired up about your brand or product by launching a campaign that merges fantasy into reality.

How to apply it

Find a way to “twist” your product so you can weave a story around it which gets people talking. Taking a look at some past April Fool’s Day pranks from brands should give you some inspiration.

Once you have an idea, remember that the key to creating an effective viral campaign is in the planning – you need to know how all the elements are going to fit together and the timing has to be just right.

Building virality into the campaign – i.e. making sharing not just easy, but irresistible – is critical too. Incentivize shares by offering rewards, special privileges or entry into a prize drawing.

9. La La Land

There are many reasons La La Land is one of the most talked about movies of the last few months. It looks and sounds absolutely beautiful and, bearing in mind that this is coming from my limited knowledge of cinematography, is technically perfect.

But as we already know, a large part of the movie’s success – most movies’ success – comes down to marketing.

The specific element of La La Land’s marketing I want to draw your attention to is the movie’s posters.

Image Source

It’s not necessary to have any prior interest in musicals in order to enjoy La La Land, but if you are a fan of classic Hollywood musicals you’ll enjoy it all the more. It pays homage to films including Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, and An American in Paris – a theme that’s evident throughout the movie’s posters, which feel like they could have come straight from the era they’re paying tribute to.

In other words, the movie and its marketing are timeless.

The lesson

Create timeless content that never goes out of style.

How to apply it

In content marketing, timeless content is also known as “evergreen.” This is content that stays relevant pretty much permanently (I say “pretty much” because it’s unlikely anything will ever be relevant for the rest of time, even if can be described as evergreen).

An example of evergreen content would be a post like this. That’s because very little is ever going to change about writing a case study for attracting high-paying clients – the same rules will pretty much always apply.

The opposite of evergreen content would be the news. While there’s nothing wrong with creating content that loses relevancy fast, a great content strategy should mix both time-sensitive and evergreen forms of content.

10. Deadpool

Deadpool isn’t a normal superhero film. The characters have personality and its comedy is as important (if not more important) than the action.

Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos described it as “an inside joke aimed to please devout comics nuts.”

But don’t let that put you off if you’re not a self-proclaimed comic book nut.

Abad-Santos also says, “You don’t need to be an expert on the source material to keep up, because there’s no pretense with Deadpool, no deeper concern than having ultraviolent fun.”

Basically, it’s a cool film even if you don’t like superhero films. It’s just cooler if you do.

The somewhat anti-superhero themes of the film are evident throughout its marketing, which was based almost exclusively around a single running theme: to have fun.

Like this April Fools’ Day prank:

This iconic picture of Deadpool stretched out on a bearskin rug:

Image Source

And this Mother’s day Instagram post:

Image Source

The lesson

Have fun with your audience.

How to apply it

The best tip I can give here is to not take yourself too seriously (which, coincidentally, isn’t just a good rule of marketing – it’s a great life lesson, too).

Of course, this is business, so you have to tread a little carefully. There’s a difference between good, clean fun and doing or saying things that might offend.

Brand guidelines will help prevent you or your employees from stepping over the line.

What’s the best movie marketing campaign you’ve ever come across?


  1. Sujan, thanks for sharing these great marketing examples. I often employ lesson one by collaborating with other influencers who provide different services yet serve the same target audience. But your article has me thinking about other ways I can apply these lessons in my business.

    How is everyone else putting these lessons into action in their businesses?

Comments are closed.