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3Qs: The movie trailer? So 1998

A viral marketing campaign for the summer blockbuster movie “Super 8” hit the Web more than a year before its theatrical release last Friday. We asked senior academic specialist Terrence Masson, director of the creative industries program at Northeastern, to analyze the impact of using social networks to drive audiences to the movies.

How important are viral marketing campaigns to the success of summer blockbusters, such as “Super 8?” Which other movies have benefited from viral advertising?

Viral marketing, which entails a lot of marketing nowadays, is really critical to the success of films, whether they are ultra low-budget movies or mega blockbusters. It grew out of the necessity for low-budget movies, like the 1999 film, “The Blair Witch Project,” to create an affordable marketing campaign. “Blair Witch” was among the first films to hit a home run doing this, and this was way before social networking and the Internet really caught on. They did it with limited Internet release of information, as well as books, audio and fake news releases to the media.

The simplest form of viral marketing is just word-of-mouth. With “Toy Story 3,” short behind-the-scenes documentaries with the Ken doll and other characters were released to get the word out. Two of the most popular angles to take are blasting the social networks with additional content or using a combination of disinformation and secret clues, which “Blair Witch” started and “Super 8” director J.J. Abrams has taken to the next level.

Social networking and video-sharing sites saturate the fabric of our culture. In this Web 2.0 world, do filmmakers feel pressured by moviegoers to create elaborate content beyond that of the film itself to keep audiences interested?

Rather than feeling pressured, I would say interactive media professionals are excited. It’s a whole market revenue stream and creative outlet. Abrams really took it to the next level with his TV series, “Lost,” which took full advantage of the Internet — with massive amounts of online discussion blogs, disinformation and back story detail, and its own Wikipedia site.

How do moviemakers keep a film’s details— including plot twists and ending — from leaking onto the Web weeks and months before a movie hits the big screen? In which instances will filmmakers intentionally leak information?

When you don’t want to leak information, the most successful example I can think of is “Avatar.” It was the anti-viral marketing, with total secrecy. How do you do that? It starts early with the first drafts of the scripts. In the past, I’ve received numbered, coded copies of scripts that are specifically tagged to me personally, so if any pages get out, it could be traced to me. They also do this with DVD screeners before Academy Award voting, and before films are released in theaters. Those are digitally watermarked, with a highly sophisticated, secret technology. It’s a really effective deterrent.

These days, leaks are also done on purpose for obvious reasons — to build hype and get the word out early. People can get so sick of seeing regular trailers, but that technique works as well. Right now, the mass marketing campaign for “Green Lantern” is overwhelming. This is rare now because of the cost; it’s not done as much outside of huge blockbusters.

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