I was poking around the interwebs on Friday morning when I stumbled upon something fantastic. Apparently, The Shape of Water has inspired a sex toy, and it’s selling out. The company behind it, XenoCat Artifacts, essentially answers the question the movie suggests, which is… what does the sea creature’s penis look like? After I finished laughing at this fabulous item, it occurred to me that, even though it is in no way associated with the movie, it could still be the first in what could be a brand new form of movie merchandising, and publicity divisions should be sitting up and taking notice.
This special dildo was all over social media on Friday after XenoCat tweeted it out, prompting a response from no less than the director himself, Guillermo del Toro. “I’m sure Dunkirk doesn’t have that problem,” he joked. Having clearly spent a lot of time imagining what this particular appendage looks like, he continued, “I don’t think it’s an accurate representation. It’s some sort of fan art … I guess.”
Reactions ranged from delighted (like me), to appalled (many, many people), but what was great about it is that it got folks talking. This isn’t necessarily something that a movie with 13 Oscar nominations desperately needs, of course, but a little extra juice certainly never hurts. This is where Hollywood’s PR pros and marketing mavens could learn a little something.
I’m not suggesting that each movie should be looking to find their audience with X-rated concepts like this one, though as we know, sex sells. No, what’s more interesting to me is coming up with potential strategies that will get audiences talking about a project before it even comes out, the kind that ensure audiences won’t be able to help but be curious about the film itself. Obviously, even if del Toro had been involved with XenoCat before his movie was released, that particular item would have been something of a spoiler, but the idea is still sound.
Neither Get Out nor Lady Bird really needed much in the way of box office help, with both movies doing exceptionally well even before the Oscar nominations came out, but that doesn’t mean that Universal couldn’t have come out with a Get Out tea service, or A24 couldn’t have provided doctors with special arm and leg casts for those Lady Bird fans who hurt themselves and want to take after Saorise Ronan’s title character and the pink number she wore on her broken wrist.
Perhaps a better example might be a disappointing film like the December comedy Father Figures, which got lousy reviews and performed poorly at the box office. With a clever marketing campaign that perhaps distributed DNA and paternity tests to people, thus getting them talking and maybe even laughing, the studio might’ve had a conversation starter on its hands, rather than an underwhelming movie.
I’m not the first person to think of something like this, of course. There’s Fooji, a marketing company that does, in fact, execute some interesting and outside-the-box marketing campaigns, primarily by delivering food and swag to fans to get them excited about a particular TV show or movie. They delivered apple pies to raise awareness for Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, employed drones to double as UFOs for The X-Files, and had followers tweet about both The Cloverfield Paradox for a chance to win free candy, as well as the upcoming remake of Overboard, offering fans a chance to win a free pizza delivery on National Pizza Day last week. The latter movie isn’t out until April 13, but there are a lot more people talking about it, if only as a thank you for the free pizza. We’ll see whether those folks remember that tasty stunt on opening weekend.
Now, a free pizza is no fish-man dildo, but it’s still pretty cool, and hammers home the point that there are more engaging, interesting, and entertaining ways to get the attention of potential viewers than most movie companies are currently employing. Look at the movies coming out over the next month or so and you’ll see there are plenty of opportunities for some real tomfoolery here, things that could boost the social media conversation surrounding those projects, and perhaps introduce them to the zeitgeist at large.
For instance, all I’ve heard about Annihilation is that two of the producers got into a fight about whether or not to support director Alex Garland’s vision. Sure, the trailer looks interesting, with Natalie Portman leading a squad of female soldiers into something called “The Shimmer” to see what the hell is happening, but why aren’t there pop-up interactive virtual reality locations sprouting across the country? You’re going to tell me that a few people getting the chance to experience this Shimmer thing aren’t going to light up Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever other platform they use to tell all of their friends about this?
Now, it’s a bit late for that idea to come to fruition, what with the movie hitting screens in just two weeks, but you get the picture. The possibilities are limitless, and if it means the difference between a successful movie and a possible flop, why in the world wouldn’t it be worth a shot? It’s fun to talk about XenoCat and its stimulating new product, but those kinds of conversations need to be happening much more than they are.
Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.