The Smartest Movie Marketing Ploys

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Matt Groening

The Simpsons on a family outing in The Simpsons Movie.

Marketing a summer movie is a bit like choosing the right outfit for a porn convention: in a crowd of exhibitionists, it takes real creativity to stand out. This summer, an unprecedented pack of special effects and star-laden popcorn films are competing for moviegoers' attention, the films' trailers, billboards and MySpace pages creating a kind of white noise of potential entertainments. "Consumers have become inured to this constant bombardment of information," says Robert Passikoff, president of the market research firm Brand Keys. "It becomes tougher to actually reach out and touch the people, to make them feel, 'This is something I absolutely can't miss.'"

Summer, more than any other season, is dependent on marketers, because summer films usually have just one weekend to make an impression before the next event movie juggernaut rolls into theaters. While a March release with little competition, like the comic-book epic 300, is able to build on good word of mouth from week to week, a July release like Transformers has only one week to win over theater goers — the week in between sequels for Die Hard and Harry Potter.

Now that the summer movie season is officially half way through, we wanted to single out some of the smarter marketing ploys so far. We're leaving out the sequels, since those films come with an unfair advantage. Here's the best of the rest:

Release Date: May 2
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Challenge: A little movie called Spider-Man 3 came out the same week. Perhaps you've heard of it?
Solution: Give the chicks a place to roost: A shamelessly girly poster printed with blue gingham. Online recipes for "I hate my husband pie" (bittersweet chocolate drowned in caramel). Free gift bags at Mother's Day screenings. In a fair fight, Keri Russell's sassy pie slinger would beat Kirsten Dunst's helpless MaryJane from Spider-Man any day.
The Payoff: $17 million so far at the box office, very respectable for an indie acquired for $4 million at Sundance, and a good launch for a potential girls' night rental.

Knocked Up
Release Date: June 1
Studio: Universal
Challenges: An R rating; a star no one's ever heard of.
Solution: Embrace reality. Stars of summer are supposed to be hunky. This one was chunky. So what? An exhaustive publicity blitz introduced Americans to their new every-guy, Seth Rogen, while posters featured a giant picture of Rogen with the alarming question "What if This Guy Got You Pregnant?"
The Payoff: $136 mil so far. A new leading man is minted.

Release Date: June 29
Studio: Disney/Pixar
Challenges: "What food product company would want to market with a movie about a rat?" said producer Brad Lewis when I visited Pixar in May. Plus, there was that hard-to-pronounce title. And, unlike their animated competition, Shrek the Third, Rat's marketers couldn't rely on red carpet interviews with celebrity voices like Justin Timberlake to fill seats.
Keep it simple. Pixar released a 10-minute clip of the film online, gave critics plenty of access and let a good movie sell itself.
The Payoff:
It broke $100 million at the box office, without any help from Taco Bell.

The Simpsons Movie
Release Date: July 27
Studio: Twentieth Century FOX
Challenge: Appeasing 18 years of rabid Simpsons fans
Stage insidiously witty, smart stunts: 7-Elevens are transformed into Simpsonian Kwik-E Marts. Various cities of Springfield in the U.S. lobbied to host the premiere; Vermont's emerged victorious. Grown-ups are using Simpsons character avatars in their online communications.
The Payoff:
Doh! This one's not out yet. Stay tuned.