What’s Your Favorite Scary Movie?: Marketing the Horror Film

When it comes to the film business, marketing is half the battle. A film with even the hardest Hollywood hitters could not make it out of the gate without some publicity to fuel its exhibition run, a fact that was readily apparent to leaders of the indie movement in the 1990s. According to Alisa Perren in her book Indie, Inc.: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s, as event films and “standard studio fare” began to wear out the wallets of the studios and the minds of their audiences, and a younger generation of film-goers with new interests appeared on the scene, the need for an alternative form of cinema became apparent. To combat that strain that big budget event films put on their resources, studios began developing and adopting independent businesses dedicated to producing quality “indie” films. Without the pressure to appeal to a mass-market, such films became “vital sites in which to develop fresh talent, take creative risks, and experiment with new business models” (Perren 4). Though indies invited plenty of critical praise for their artistic integrity, their relatively low profits were not enough to keep the studios afloat. Thus, the indie-genre business model that would define the second half of the 1990s was born.

Miramax and Dimension fell under this category. Despite Miramax’s success as a producer of independent films, the company remained financially unstable as a result of indie films’ low financial returns. Hoping to create a new source of revenue to fund its artistic ventures, Miramax founded Dimension, a division specifically created to “give Miramax access to the exploitation market dominated by New Line” (Perren 49). Dimension marked Miramax’s foray into the genre business, one that would eventually secure the company’s place in Hollywood history.

What made the Miramax-Dimension team so successful was not so much the content that it originally produced but the marketing tactics used to advertise such content. In an effort to produce “indie blockbusters,” Miramax would highlight their films’ risqué or violent moments, hoping to pique the curiosity and low-brow interests of its audience (Perren 16). More significantly, though, the company would also pick fights with the MPAA over their films’ ratings, essentially creating the illusion of controversy in order to generate buzz.

Wes and Williamson

Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson made Scream a phenomena, complete with a cult villain, Ghostface. Image via Wes Craven, Flickr.

This “stir the pot” method, which helped indie films gain the attention they needed to survive, has since become integral to another type of film: horror. The launch of Wes Craven’s Scream in 1996 spurred a new interest in the horror industry, causing indie companies and studios alike to reconsider the genre’s potential. As more and more horror films started cropping up, it became evident that “stirring the pot” had been adopted by the growing industry as a way to attract audiences, beginning, notably, with Artisan Entertainment’s Blair Witch Project in 1999. The film, which follows three filmmakers as they investigate the legend of the Blair Witch, generated considerable buzz by manufacturing controversy: the company had IMDB list the key actors as “presumed dead” on their online database and even featured baby pictures of each person on their site, blairwitch.com, along with their backstories. Praised for its digital “anyone can do it” aesthetic and “the extent to which the film exploited its online extensions in creative ways,” Blair Witch became a trail-blazing indie figure (Perren 222).

Paramount capitalized on this method in 2007 with its release of Paranormal Activity. Also a found-footage film, Paranormal Activity documents the supernatural events that haunt a couple in their suburban home. Using footage from a real pre-screening that took place in Hollywood, California, the trailer depicts the frightened reactions from moviegoers as they sat down to “experience the movie ‘Paranormal Activity.’” The trailer’s claim, that Paranormal Activity is an “experience,” paired with its shots of terrified audience members, made Paranormal Activity one of the most profitable indie films ever made. (The budget for the film was 15,000 dollars. By the end of its run, it had made over 100 million.)

Taking a lesson from its horror counterparts, New Line hyped up its audiences as well with its release of The Conjuring (2012). At the film’s Chicago pre-screening, representatives unveiled warning posters claiming that “the film you are about to see is psychologically and emotionally disturbing” and pointing out the presence of a priest in case anyone needed “counseling” following the film.

While such movies did not generate the same type of controversy as films like Kids (1995) or The Scandal (1989), in that they did not launch public legal battles for the sake of gaining publicity, they still managed to attract audiences by imbuing the movie with a “forbidden” or “scandalous” tone. But one question remains: why? In highlighting their sexual or violent content, indie films aimed to trick audiences into the theater by making them think they were about to watch a particularly risqué or gritty movie.

The added scare factor that accompanies a “Based on a true story” tagline also reveals our anxiety over blended fiction and reality. Image via PicFont.com.

Horror films, on the other hand, don’t need to feign obscene content; the promise of violence is built-in to the genre. The goal for horror filmmakers in stirring up controversy, it seems, is not to blur the line between indie and big-budget but rather, to blur the line between real and imaginary. The critical praise that Wes Craven’s meta-film New Nightmare received for meshing “real life” with “reel life,” for example, signals the roots that such ideas were taking in the film industry early on, before the revival of the horror genre (Perren 128).

While indie filmmakers’ attempts to kindle controversy revealed its desperation to appeal to audiences beyond their niche market, the scandals generated by horror filmmakers work to highlight the genre’s basic foundation. But perhaps that’s why the horror business and the indie business are so compatible. To build their audience, indie films try to trick the eyes; horror films trick the mind.

Featured image via Catargiu Andrei, Flickr.


Indie, Inc.: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s.: University of Texas Press, 2013. Print. Texas Film and Media Studies Series.


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