How Digital Marketing Helped ‘Avatar’ Break the Box Office

    by Nick Mendoza
    February 8, 2010
    August 21 was celebrated as "Avatar Day." Today, it should be remembered as the dawn of the most comprehensive digital marketing campaign ever developed to support a film.

    Do you remember August 21, 2009?

    Moviegoers in more than 100 IMAX 3-D theaters worldwide watched 16 minutes of footage from a new James Cameron movie. That same day, Ubisoft debuted a trailer for a videogame based on the film, and Mattel unveiled action figures inspired by the film’s characters. A day earlier, the teaser for the very same film broke a record on Apple.com after beng streamed more than four million times on its first day.

    August 21 was celebrated as “Avatar Day.” Today, it should be remembered as the dawn of the most comprehensive digital marketing campaign ever developed to support a film. Below are the details of four key components of the campaign, each of which are represented by important characters and creatures within “Avatar.”


    The Tree of Souls: Social Media

    i-b8946213596644dc547c25aca097043b-Avatar Facebook.png

    In the film, the Na’vi believe that the Tree of Souls, a place where the souls and voices of their ancestors rest, was the heart of what connected them to each other. This is also a core idea with social networks, which are often built from relationships rooted in our past.

    Social networks are frequently tapped for film marketing, and “Avatar” successfully built connections and conversation on Facebook (close to 1.3 million fans), MySpace (close to 800,000 friends) and Twitter (over 25,000 followers). According to Sysomos, a social media analytics firm, “Avatar” was the most talked about film on Twitter in January 2010. Some of those tweets resulted from a “Tweet to Listen” promo that required fans to send a message on Twitter in order to listen to music from the film. “Avatar’s” social media strategy also branched out to YouTube (close to 11 million video views), Flickr (over 1 million photo views) and a TypePad blogging community (close to 4,000 members).

    The Hometree: Avatar’s Website

    i-eb88195750d6ae5a8247fe03b5560a51-Avatar website.png

    The immensity and visual richness of the Hometree on Pandora reflects what’s been cultivated on the film’s official website. Visitors have access to more than the standard fare of trailers, images and background materials. The website offers 14 side-scrolling square boxes that showcase many of the digital initiatives that make this movie stand out. Fans have access to the story, character bios, the music, and wallpaper downloads; but they also have opportunities to contribute content and showcase their interest in the film — including Pandorapedia, a wiki for all things “Avatar,” and the previously discussed blogging community (which includes photo caption contests and timeless topics such as “Why Are Avatar Aliens Blue?”).


    And just as humans destroyed the Hometree in pursuit of self-interest and wealth, the film’s homepage had its own destructive moment in mid-August when fans crashed the site while trying to secure free tickets for “Avatar Day.”

    The Banshee: The AIR Interactive Trailer

    Avatar’s interactive trailer soars over previous movie trailers thanks to its integration of social media feeds, and 11 points of interaction that provide viewers with one-click access to each character. (Viewers can simply click on a character in the trailer in order to unlock additional content.) The trailer was built using the Adobe AIR platform, which gives developers flexibility. The result is that fans receive a more exciting experience, similar to that offered by Banshee jumping in the film. The trailer is a moving and frequently refreshed gateway to the film, seemingly alive and fluid the moment it begins. The trailer also includes three options to purchase tickets.

    i-c90e22083c539ba4a3f82b97360b7e8f-Avatar trailer and social media icons - small.png

    Hallelujah Mountains: Augmented Reality

    In the film, the gravity-defying Hallelujah Mountains challenge perceptions, which is also what augmented reality strives to do by presenting an engaging experience that floats in front of the viewer’s eyes. Mattel created “Avatar” toys that buyers could activate and “bring to life” through webcams and special product tags, while Coke Zero produced custom cans that opened up the world of Pandora at AVTR.com.

    The end result is that “Avatar” is now the biggest box office movie of all time (not adjusted for inflation). The movie has eclipsed $2 billion in total ticket sales, driven largely by 3-D revenues and international interest. Cameron has once again orchestrated a cinematic milestone.

    So did the digital initiatives, awareness drivers and glowing online conversation contribute to this historic success?

    The goal of any theatrical movie marketing campaign is to get people to head to the theater, plunk down $10 to $15 and grab a seat for two-plus hours. On that front, the entire campaign has been an inredible success. It all started on August 21, 2009, the day that started the campaign and successfully moved millions of people to experience something new and mesmerizingly blue. Since then, moviegoers have felt compelled to tell their friends to see the film.

    As millions flocked to theaters and clumsily put on their 3-D glasses, they helped bring a now-famous Na’vi phrase to life: Oel ngati kameie (“I see you”).

    Nick Mendoza is the director of digital communications at Zeno Group. He advises consumer, entertainment and web companies on digital strategy, distribution and engagement. He dreamstreams and is the film correspondent for MediaShift. Follow him on Twitter @NickMendoza.

    Tagged: augmented reality avatar banshee facebook interactive trailer social media marketing

    9 responses to “How Digital Marketing Helped ‘Avatar’ Break the Box Office”

    1. Agreed… there were a lot of smart things being done, the website the web 2.0 social networking all of this played a role. The 3d glasses also helped a lot in making Avatar the best selling movie of all times. And the concept of the movie, “we against them” is very powerful, it’s the basis of religion, cults and “hooligans” squads, us agains them, except the us has a twist here.

    2. kob says:

      Avatar was a risky movie to make but so was Titanic. But Titanic did well (and in the pre-social network era) because if was, fundamentally, a pretty good movie. And so was Avatar, and no amount of social networking would have saved it if it was otherwise. That said, did social networking make a difference at the box office? How do you test for it?

      If the reviews had been terrible, the tweets would have been as well. So the reverse must apply here; if social networking can improve a box office, then it can help kill it as well. Which all gets back the main point: first it has to be a good movie.

    3. Nick Mendoza says:

      A bad film doesn’t survive past the opening Friday night in the age of real-time reviews and accelerated word-of-movie. “Avatar” would definitely have suffered at the box office if it didn’t live up to the hype generated since “Avatar Day.”

    4. Katalog says:

      It can be named ‘Marketing 2.0’ in the spirit of Internet and social networks.

    5. Avatar says:

      I agree in a way with Kob’s comment above. Titanic was a great movie and would have created a similar buzz. Since the Titanic predates the internet for a large part of today’s world, the buzz would not be easily accessible or monitored as it is today with hash tags and trending topics and fan pages.
      That said, Avatar’s story line has some great social angles. I think that not many of them were fully utilised.

    6. What a great movie. The digital effects in Avatar was what made the movie so amazing. Its always awesome to know how the movie was made.

    7. This film blew me away beyond anything i’ve sen before!! i thought it was fantastic. The specail effects were out of this world and the whole movie sucked you in from the first few moments. i was blown away by the awesomeness!! The message was strong and passionate and it really got to me. Us humans have a LOT of problms. i mean its always all about the money!! You really feal emotional for the natives. Even though i dont agree on their weird religion thing (i’m a catholic) its like a huge comunity with love and respect and faith. It is a very long film but its worth seeing in the cinema in 3D before its too late it action packed scary, exciting, romantic.

    8. While the marketing for Avatar did a lot of stuff right, I was very surprised that it did so well in sales. Even despite the fact that the movie industry is quite unique in not offering any kind of guarantees (imagine trying to sell consumables and not offer refunds if the customer isn’t satisfied), reviews will quickly sour even the best marketing campaign. So, honestly, I expected the movie sales to flop after the initial marketing buzz wore off and the reviews started to come in. Because the movie was just a remake of Pocahontas with special effects; the story was ham-fisted, the characters were cliches…it didn’t make sense that people would think it was very good.

      Oddly, they did. Which really reinforces the marketing principle of testing: never rely on your own expectations, or even the expectations of the people you know (everyone I’m close to thought Avatar was a very poor movie in general). Always test the people you’re actually selling to. I guess Cameron did!

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