Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” and Its Space Age Marketing Strategy

Academic paper.

Films can elicit any possible range of emotions, no matter what. They can make a viewer happy, sad, angry, disappointed, anxious, or any combination of these. However, while this is the main goal of most movies, all movies still have a financial incentive. Creating a film isn’t free, and studios must be paid back by people watching the film. This profit focus has led to studios trying to find the easiest way to guarantee profits, and in the 1980s, they found it. The high-concept movie is a type of film designed to profit by appealing to the largest audience. But in order to reach this large audience, a studio must buy an expensive marketing campaign for the movie. “The Martian”, directed by Ridley Scott in 2015, is an example of a movie with this type of marketing, to extreme effect. “The Martian” was the 8th highest grossing film in 2015. The multifaceted approach to marketing the 2015 film “The Martian” was designed to target both the general science fiction audience and the hardcore fans using creative and varied methods. This unique ad campaign involving social media, short promo videos, and direct collaboration with NASA led to a variety of memorable marketing material and very high box office numbers.

One of the reasons that the advertising campaign for “The Martian” was so intricate and expensive is because “The Martian” is the type of film that is designed to reach the widest general audience. These types of movies are called high-concept films, which are much more formulaic than independent or experimental movies. This trend of high-concept films first began in the 1980s with large budget action movies such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Terminator” which were designed by movie studios to bring in the largest audience possible by having good action, visuals, and story. Large box office numbers were needed to finance large budget films, so studios created movies that follow a few key style conventions that reliably bring viewers. The conventions are specific and easy to follow, but the definition of high-concept is still very broad. The premise of most high concept films can be quickly and succinctly explained to someone who has never heard of the film (Lewis). For “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, the explanation would be “an archeologist races against Nazis to locate the Ark of the Covenant”. With this short and simple description, a person already knows the basics of the film, what they should expect, and can quickly decide if they want to watch it. Most of these films have a chronological, cause-and-effect style narrative. By telling a story this way, audiences can tell what is happening in the film, how it relates to other events, and why it might be happening. It also is most like real life, which makes it easier to follow than a more abstract cinematography style. High-concept movies also normally end with the protagonist achieving a conclusive victory over the antagonist. By allowing the protagonist to win and giving a conclusive ending, the films leave the audience feeling satisfied and happy, which is much better for increasing theater attendance of general audiences than a feeling of disappointment or discontent. If someone had good feelings at the end of a film, they are more likely to recommend it in order to share those good feelings with others.

High-concept films also commonly avoid a few types of narrative topics. Commentary on religion is usually avoided to prevent alienation of a section of potential viewers and any other potential controversy (Wyatt). Gratuitous violence and sex are also uncommon. This doesn’t mean there isn’t blood or sex in high-concept movies, but the violence usually refrains from taking that next step into gore, and sex is used to propel the narrative or develop a character. Another trope that is avoided in high-concept films are dreams and visions as plot devices. While auteur movies often have these, they aren’t in high concept films. The reason is related to the cause-and-effect style narrative. Cause-and-effect narratives and dreams don’t mix well, because if a character does something because of a dream that can’t easily be traced back to a concrete cause, then the film isn’t following the conventions of high-concept films.

Most high-concept films follow this code very closely. While it is an effective way to bring in general audiences, patrons of auteur films might be driven away (Lewis). By following a formula, high-concept films run the risk of becoming predictable or stale, which has led to the term being used in a derogatory fashion by some viewers. They might call a film high-concept to say that it doesn’t do anything new, doesn’t experiment with any ideas, or is simply playing it too safe. While this does happen more often with high-concept films than other types of films, most large studios that produce them are willing to take the risk. It is a worthy gamble because high-concept films have shown to be easily the best way to guarantee a large audience. This means that most film studios give large budgets to high-concept films, because they are more willing to take the chance of producing a bland movie that makes a lot of money versus trying something completely different and producing a film that is a box office flop.

The first high-concept films were released in the 1980s, but the style of filmmaking was so successful that it has remained continually popular without fail since its creation. For example, “Jurassic Park” is a high concept film directed by Steven Spielberg that was released in 1993. It can be explained as “dinosaurs are brought back from extinction to be theme park attractions.” Another film, “Groundhog Day” is a high-concept film released in the same year. While it isn’t an action film like all the others mentioned already, “Groundhog Day” still follows the rules of high-concept films. The narrative, from the perspective of Phil, is chronological. He learns how the time travel along with the audience as the film progresses, and it is laid out in an understandable manner that is simple to follow. It is a comedy and is just one example of how the definition of high-concept is unrelated to the genre of a film. Action, comedy, horror, science-fiction, fantasy and others can all be high-concept films or not. One example of a film that is similar in description to “Groundhog Day” but isn’t a high-concept film is “Primer”, released in 2004 and directed by Shane Carruth. It also involves time travel but presented in a much more complex and involved manner. It has multiple timelines all affecting one another and people meeting themselves from the past, which results in a very complicated movie that wouldn’t work as a high-concept film.

The idea of high-concept films has been very lucrative for mainstream Hollywood by providing a relatively simple and replicable technique for making profitable films, no matter the budget. However, some people would argue that it has been to the detriment of the film industry overall.

“The Martian”, released in 2015 and directed by Ridley Scott, is a classic example of a modern high-concept film. It can be simply explained to someone who has never heard of it as “an astronaut is stranded on Mars and must survive by himself.” It follows a chronological narrative structure, with Mark Watney (Matt Damon) being stranded at the beginning of the film, fighting for survival in the middle, and being rescued during the climax/end of the film. The film’s narrative was propelled by actions of the characters and reactions to complications during the mission, so it also fits the cause-and-effect rule of high-concept. It also has an overarching story that appeals well to many people, with an even blend of comedy and suspense. It stars lots of A-list actors like Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, and others. It is very visually appealing, with good cinematography and realistic depictions of Mars and the spaceship. All these things, while great for the quality of the film, add up to a very large budget of $108 million. The increase in quality would also correlate to higher box office records, but studios like to have the best chance possible of high box office turnouts. To improve this, 20th Century Fox launched a massive viral marketing campaign leading up to the premier of the film to augment the more classic techniques of advertisements and billboards.

The regular part of the marketing campaign of “The Martian” had lots of advertisements across social media and television, billboards and posters printed, and the actors starring in it did worldwide press tours, as for most large-budget films. The campaign was underscored by the catch-phrase “Bring Him Home”, referring to Mark Watney. The more experimental part of the marketing campaign, and why it makes such a good case study, is the viral marketing portion of it. 20th Century Fox used the internet and social media to its fullest extent in order to reach many viewers in new and unique ways, along with creative ways of reaching other science fiction fans and readers of “The Martian” book on which the film is based. For example, 20th Century Fox paired with NASA and NASA released multiple tweets, presentations, and videos explaining the science of real-life missions to Mars. This was done in preparation for the release of “The Martian”, to get people excited about space travel, and it benefited NASA by increasing awareness of what projects they were working on. All of this culminated in NASA hosting “Martian Day” in August 2015, promoting both the film and NASA. The viral marketing campaign also included short videos that were set in the universe of the film, to give viewers an understanding of some of the characters before the movie released. They are made as video diaries describing the training process for the astronauts before their journey. In the videos, Mark Watney and Rick Martinez (Michael Peña) tell jokes and are very lighthearted about the tests, while Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is intense and refrains from humor. This mirrors the characters’ personalities in the movie, and also served as a type of preview for the style of the final film.

“The Martian” also benefitted from a release date in the middle of a figurative science fiction gold rush in the film industry. Lots of popular films were set in space or involved futuristic elements, which were represented in flashy visual effects and set pieces. Films such as “Avatar” in 2009, “Inception” in 2010, “Gravity” in 2013, and “Interstellar” in 2014 were massive critical and commercial successes. Any film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began in 2008, could be added to this list as well. This all benefitted “The Martian” because general audiences had already spent years going to big budget science fiction movies, so they already knew that they liked that style of movie. This meant more people were willing to go see “The Martian”, which led to greater box office participation and higher revenue.

Finally, “The Martian benefitted from already having a standing audience of fans, in the form of “The Martian” book readers. The film is based off a story written by Andy Weir and published chapter by chapter in blog posts. The book is described in the New York Times as being very technical. It caters to the “nerd culture” and solving problems with technology and cleverness, not brute strength like many other hero stories (Schwartz). Even though it was published for free on a blog, it gained a large enough following to get published as a regular book. A week after the first copies hit the shelves, the book was already number twelve on the New York Times best sellers list. This shows the massive following that the book had and could overlap with the film. All the writers of the film had to do was cater to that same niche. They succeeded by focusing multiple scenes on technical descriptions of how Mark Watney should be rescued, and why one method might be more effective than another. Most notably among these scenes is when Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) explains his idea on how to get the HERMES crew back to Watney faster than any other method using the “gravity assist” from Earth and the rocket booster from the Chinese government. He describes the strategy in its entirety to the other characters in the film, but this scene is mainly used to show the audience what is happening and why. The writers of the film had to remember to follow the rules of the high-concept film while still meeting the needs of the niche that read the book, so they did this by balancing the amount of technical jargon. There was enough that the book readers would feel at home watching the movie, but not so much that the larger audience of general science fiction movies would feel lost.

All these advantages combined to make “The Martian” a very successful film. It utilized the techniques of high-concept films to the greatest extent possible, by telling an organized and complete story with compelling characters and challenges to overcome, set in a genre that is extremely popular in film right now. Besides just the high quality of storytelling and visuals, the film was successful because of its groundbreaking uses for social media and viral marketing as tools for advertisement. Combining this with the an already large following from the novel, “The Martian” is a perfect representation of how to execute a high-concept film.

Works Cited
Wyatt, Justin. High Concept Movies and Marketing in Hollywood. University of Texas Press, 2015.
Schwartz, John. “’The Martian’ Brings a Nerd Thriller Into the Mainstream.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 May 2018.
Barnes, Brooks. “’The Martian’ Tops the Box Office.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Oct. 2015.
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.
Maestu, Nico. “1980s: Corporations and Formulas / High Concept / MTV / New Technologies.” Film Studies 107. February 24, 2019. Santa Barbara City College. Microsoft Powerpoint Presentation.

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