Marketing Lessons From Suicide Squad's Box Office Haul

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“We may be only a little more than halfway through 2016, but I’m prepared to call it: ‘Suicide Squad’ is the worst movie of the year,” wrote Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday last week. Three days later the film grossed about $135 million at the box office, a record for an August release. And the Post was in the majority.

So what gives?

Marketers. New York Times reporter Brooks Barnes outlined five strategies used by Warner to promote the film. Let’s look at those through SIPA-tinted glasses.

1. Print can matter. “Warner showed that one of the oldest items in the movie marketing toolbox—the poster—can still be extremely effective, as long as the images swiftly communicate novelty,” Barnes wrote. The posters depict skulls. “It oozes personality…,” wrote James Whitbrook on the site io9. “The posters won’t decide the ultimate fates or quality of these movies. But… they really show that having a sense of fun and personality can go a long way in how you view a movie.”

SIPA takeaway: No, skulls aren’t the answer unless your vertical is medical examining. But instilling “a sense of fun and personality”—profiles, gamification?—can pay off. And the idea of a poster—something people will keep and put on a wall—is a good one. I’ve pointed before to the attractive RigData calendar, one of their most in-demand items every year.

2. Diversity in casting. “Warner’s president of creative development and production has pushed to make the studio’s casts more diverse,” wrote Brooks. “…Black, Hispanic and Asian consumers go to more movies per capita than whites, according to [MPAA] research. And when people see themselves represented onscreen, they are more likely to pay attention.” (That goes for any screen.)

SIPA takeaway: Pursue diverse “casting” in your exploits. Maybe that means reaching out for a new webinar speaker or conference keynote. Or maybe it’s encouraging your content folks to dig a little deeper into your niche for some new stories. It’s all about revenue, and selling subscriptions, events, webinars or sponsorships will benefit from a larger, more diverse audience.

3. Flood the market. Warner first released footage in July 2015, just after filming began. Ten posters debuted in January 2016, along with a trailer with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” playing. (It generated 180 million views.) TV ads started running in early June, and they produced 11 character ads/videos and another 11 special designs for last month’s Comic-Con. They also used Snapchat a great deal.

SIPA takeaway: 1) Releasing a sneak peek of something could build momentum—a short video interview with an upcoming speaker; an exciting montage of an upcoming event. A year before seems like a lot but keeping event communities active requires year-round outreach. So don’t let a good audience dissipate. 2) What’s your Comic-Con? Is there an industry event that you can be a bigger part of?

4. Tattooed ads. Warner set up a tattoo parlor at the South by Southwest festival where you could get tattoos themed to the film—like permanent ones. Then the cast and crew got matching tattoos and started putting them on others. Social media loved all of this, and publicity followed.

SIPA takeaway: Not sure getting Health Care Today inked on your biceps is going to generate the same buzz as Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn. The bigger idea is to think visually and socially. Maybe it’s a photo of the month. I’ve pointed before to Cablefax Diversions, where they spotlight interesting trips or hobbies of employees. A sports host this morning put a timed poll on his Twitter feed.

5. Harley fever. Their Harley, played by Margot Robbie, quickly looked like the breakout character, so Warner revved up the toys, video games, costumes—Halloween’s coming—books, etc. With other films to her credit, Robbie also became a frequent visitor on talk shows.

SIPA takeaway: Find your Harley. What’s catching on in your circles? Is it a particular webinar or speaker? Can that speaker talk you up in other places? Is it a new community you’ve developed? Maybe it’s a weekly quiz. Niche the niche, someone said at SIPA 2016. Ride what's popular.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…