“To be the first to enter the cosmos, to engage, single-handed, in an unprecedented duel with nature—could one dream of anything more?”
– Yuri Gagarin, Russian Cosmonaut
The Martian released in the United States on 2nd October, 2015. The story of The Martian revolves around astronaut Mark Watney’s lonely fight for survival on Mars and his struggle to establish contact with NASA after being left behind by his crew. It is considered the most successful of Ridley Scott’s films to date. It grossed a worldwide sale of $630.2 million, earned widespread critical acclaim and won several global awards including 7 nominations at the 88thAcademy Awards.
The Martian was released on the heels of two blockbuster outer space films, Gravity and Interstellar. Matt Damon had played a similar role in InterStellar and Ridley Scott’s previous film Exodus: Gods and Kings failed to deliver at the box office. The landscape at the time of launch presented the above hurdles and yet the film went on to become the whopping success that it did.
This case study will attempt to show how a successful marketing campaign built a credible ecosystem with scientific authenticity that consumers bought into and actively consumed, using the following arguments:
- Capitalizing on the scientific realism of Andy Weir’s book
- NASA’s integrated partnership
- Expanding the world of The Martian through original content creation
- Immersive, Interactive and Experiential Marketing
Capitalizing on the scientific realism of Andy Weir’s book
Andy Weir, the author of the book on which the film is based, is a self-ascribed science geek. He began a series of blogs that cloud sourced opinions and inputs from scientists, including Fred. J. Calef from NASA. It resulted in a self-published book on Amazon in 2011. The book made an unbelievable climb up the Amazon and NY Times bestseller charts within months and soon Random House came on board to publish his book as a hard cover. Andy Weir had aimed at creating a realistic portrayal of a man’s survival in outer space backed by authentic science and an optimistic, albeit wry outlook. The character, Mark Watney, a botanist, grew potatoes for survival; produced water; established contact with NASA using an abandoned Rover and eventually with the help of NASA fashioned it into a vehicle that enabled him to get to the Ares IV landing site in time to be rescued. Andy Weirs’ protagonist’s survival tactics were based on credible science. NASA’s invitation to visit the Jet Propulsion Lab and spend a week with the scientists and astronauts at NASAs Johnson Space Center was a recognition of Andy’s success at creating a believable Mars mission.
The Fox marketing team made a concerted effort to carry forward the large fan base of the book by including Andy Weir in press and audience interactions. This was a way of reassuring the fans that the film would stay true to the scientific realism contained within the book.
NASA’s Integrated Partnership
NASA was seeking public support for a mission to Mars around the time that Fox announced its intentions of making The Martian and optioning the rights to the book in 2013. NASA needed a budget of $18.5 billion approved by Congress for a planned mission to Mars somewhere in the 2030s. NASA was already familiar with the book and they seized on the opportunity to regenerate excitement around space travel with the film. Scott Ridley took Andy Weir’s association with NASA and deepened it into a collaboration that helped him create a bona fide space travel movie. Senior officials, including James Green the NASA director, who worked closely with the Obama administration and Dave Lavery who had worked with Mars Rover missions, consulted on the technical aspects of the film. NASA provided script, costume, production design and filming inputs. Jessica Chastain who played the captain of the mission in the film shadowed a NASA space commander.
As is clearly evident, the partnership was mutually beneficial and symbiotic. NASA’s vested interests enabled the marketing agency, Wild Card, to build communication and PR around the film that was aided by NASA. The astronauts in the film wore NASA branded suits and the NASA website carried information of the film and its trailers. NASA even held a ‘Martian Day’ at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to promote the film and build awareness around a real mission to Mars. On Monday, 28th September, 2015, NASA announced the discovery of water on Mars, which may have been a coincidence, but it served to fuel more interest around the release of The Martian. The credibility of the mission was inherently stamped within the content and the plausibility of traveling to Mars was real and thrilling. The Martian had begun amassing followers long before the film released.
Expanding the world of The Martian through original content creation
Creation of original content helped fabricate a world that the viewer could understand better and savor for its complexity and realism. 3AM, a subsidiary of the agency WildCard, worked closely with the Fox marketing team to build out a series of original videos around the film. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, ‘pop culture’s favorite scientist’ was roped in to create a high end, mini-episode of Star Talk which aired on National Geographic and explained the dangers behind the mission undertaken in The Martian. Another quirky video explored the mindset of the astronauts in an interview led by a real NASA psychologist as they prepared to depart on their Ares III mission. A farewell video from Mark Watney introducing the crew was shot with the actors in gear inside the space ship, Hermes. The in-film astronauts were treated like the real deal, celebrity astronauts setting out to conquer new worlds. The video ensured they came across as professional and believable. As a viral ploy, this farewell video was shared on social media by astronaut, Michael. J. Massimino. Another piece of original content woven around the hero was created in collaboration with Under Armour, the athlete clothing brand. They partnered with the Fox marketing team to portray Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) as a super-athlete training for the Ares III mission.
Original content was also created by talk show hosts and celebrities before and after the release of the film which helped build a diverse and international audience for the film e.g, 1) A parody by Jimmy Kimmel Live spoofed the film trailer in his talk show. 2) A Korean influencer and ‘cheftainer’, Choi Hyun Seok, spoofed the potato growing sequence in the film and also gave tips on recipes using potatoes. 3) A new plant species was named Solanum Watneyi as a tribute to Matt Damon’s portrayal of a botanist.
All of this additional content helped build the veracity of this universe, highlighted the believability of the characters and lent credibility to the mission. It also served to build humour and provoke curiosity which is essential to luring the viewers into theatres.
Immersive, Interactive and Experiential marketing
The Martian revolves around a problem faced by one man and his effort to solve this problem one step and one day at a time. The concept of problem solving lent itself organically to structuring games as well as interactive content for viewers to immerse themselves in. One of the most talked about marketing tie-ups was the one between 20th Century Fox and Microsoft. It was a three-part approach involving a Bing Map, a #HackingMars contest and an educational program for school kids. Microsoft approached partnerships with the view to harnessing as many verticals of the company as possible and thereby deploying more engagement across gaming, tech, TVOD and other pillars.
- The interactive Bing Map led took people through Mark Watney’s difficult journey across the planet Mars using a combination of actual Mars photos and footage from the film.
- The #HackingMars contest required a wider applicability of solutions arrived at by teams of three towards building an app, service, product, etc. The teams were given the opportunity of tapping into Microsoft’s tech experts for advice over Skype. The challenges were broadly based on Watney’s experience of his struggle for survival, extreme isolation and finding his way back home. The reward was a $25,000 cash prize.
- Bing and Microsoft crafted a curriculum on space travel to get children interested in outer space.
One of the big interactive initiatives was The Martian: Bring Him Home mobile game. This game required the viewer to take on the perspective of the Mission Control team and provide solutions to Mark Watney as and when he requested for help through a series of text messages. Fox also announced The Martian VR Experience where viewers would get to re-enact Mark Watney’s scenes. It was launched a year after the release of the film but built on the legacy of space travel and realism. It was an ambitious and expensive project taking the film to the next level as an experience. While this initiative was not a precursor to the film it did reflect the approach of the studio towards symbiotic marketing.
This immersive approach towards marketing provided users a more intense and rewarding experience of the film. It gave viewers leverage to help Mark Watney and experience his struggle for survival more intimately.
The universe of press conferences, festival releases, panel discussions, international cast participation, in-film product placement like GoPro and Albert Bartlett potatoes as well as a social media presence added to the film’s chatter. It was clearly the strategic partnerships and authentic world building, however, that took the film to its zenith and lent an aura of integrity to it.
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