Actor Ryan Reynolds was in the middle of filming the hit action-comedy "Deadpool" in Canada last fall when he came up with the idea for a viral video stunt. Reynolds, dressed as the foul-mouthed antihero, would visit a playground in a Vancouver suburb on Halloween and lecture local youngsters on how to fight crime.
The resulting video caught fire on YouTube, collecting millions of views.
"At first the idea was, 'Let's go door-to-door and go trick-or-treating,' but there were safety concerns," said Marc Weinstock, president of domestic theatrical marketing at 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the movie.
That promotional video, shot like a low-quality home recording, was just one of the dozens of ways Fox fueled anticipation for its new superhero movie, which broke box-office records in its Presidents Day weekend opening. The studio put up tongue-in cheek billboards, YouTube clips and launched social media campaigns to reach audiences worldwide, taking advantage of "Deadpool's" penchant for off-color humor and over-the-top, bloody violence to get potential moviegoers excited.
The effort paid off. "Deadpool," which cost $58 million to make, grossed $150 million in its first four days in theaters in the U.S. and Canada — by far the biggest opening ever for an R-rated movie. It was a stunning result for a relatively obscure comic book character — more than doubling analyst expectations for the movie — and could pave the way for a new subgenre of superhero movies.
The tally was welcome news for Fox, which has had mixed results from its earlier Marvel movies. While its "X-Men" films have enjoyed solid box-office returns over the years, the studio's attempted reboot of the "Fantastic Four" franchise became one of the biggest bombs of 2015. Deadpool is a shadowy figure in the X-Men family of comic book characters.
"Deadpool" was a gamble for Fox, given the film's R-rating and crowded marketplace. There are seven more superhero movies due out this year alone, including next month's "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" from Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment, "Captain America: Civil War" from the Walt Disney Co. and Marvel Studios, and "X-Men: Apocalypse" from Fox.
With "Deadpool," Fox had a chance to stand out.
"The problem for any superhero movies right now is that they all kind of look the same," said box-office analyst Bruce Nash of Nash Information Services. "Taking a different kind of approach with the movie, and its marketing, was a smart move."
The idea was for the advertising to reflect Deadpool's irreverent brand of hero — a gleefully vulgar mercenary with self-healing powers.
The global push began in March, when the studio revealed the first image of Deadpool, displaying the character on a bearskin rug (spoofing a famous photo of Burt Reynolds) to show off the signature dark-red costume.
To follow up, the studio pulled an April Fool's Day prank to announce the movie's "R" rating and assuage fans' concerns that the character would be toned down for general audiences. In the promotional spot, Deadpool kills talk show host Mario Lopez during an on-air interview with Ryan Reynolds.
Then, Fox got Conan O'Brien to change the rating of his late night show to TV-MA for one night in order to debut the "red-band trailer," industry jargon for previews with explicit content. That ad amassed 114 million online views.
"He's an antihero," Weinstock said. "We never tried to trick people. The lesson learned is, you have to be true to the character and what the fans expect."
Fox executives declined to say how much the studio spent on promoting the movie. Studios typically spend tens of millions on marketing such films, analysts say.
Of course, creative marketing never guarantees success. The long awaited comedy sequel "Zoolander 2" from Paramount Pictures last weekend amassed just $16 million in ticket sales during its four-day debut — despite having its own aggressive social media campaign featuring a Derek Zoolander Instagram account and a runway appearance by Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson at Paris Fashion Week.
What's more, it may be difficult for any studio, even Fox, to replicate Deadpool's viral traction.
"They've captured lightning in a bottle here," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore. "What works for 'Deadpool' may only work for 'Deadpool.'"
The film's appeal was worldwide. Outside the U.S. and Canada, the picture grossed more than $150 million through Monday according to studio estimates.
Studio executives took pains to convey Deadpool's acerbic attitude in its international marketing push. Humor is difficult to convey across cultural lines, so Fox hired local comedy writers to translate the feature and its marketing materials into languages such as Hindi. The marketing teams took advantage of elections in Italy and South Korea to display "Vote for Deadpool" posters, and distributed Deadpool masks at Brazil's Carnaval festival.
Reynolds hustled to promote the film, doing countless promotional shoots and traveling around the world to court audiences. In January, Reynolds attended a surprise screening for fans, followed by a Q&A session. In one stunt, he live-tweeted an episode of ABC's "The Bachelor" while in character.
"You can't underestimate the value of talent input," said Paul Hanneman, Fox's head of global marketing and distribution. "When someone puts that much effort into a campaign, you can see how much it reaps rewards."
Analysts said the no-holds-barred campaign also reflects the growing importance of social media in movie marketing at a time when positive reactions from filmgoers can boost box-office results — and negative buzz can kill a picture within hours of its first screenings.
One billboard widely shared on social media spoofed Nicholas Sparks movies, while another spelled out the hero's name in emojis (a skull emoji for "dead" and a "poo" emoji, and the letter "L"). Not everyone got the joke, Weinstock said, but passersby took photos and shared them on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.
"We're seeing a real shift where the social media component is becoming possibly the most important part of the marketing," Dergarabedian said. "It seems to have more sway and more importance than traditional marketing messages."