The Martian has become director Ridley Scott’s biggest movie ever at the global box office with $487.4M through Sunday. Of that, $213M comes from domestic in an all-time best for the helmer, and $274.4M internationally. The latter figure tops Gladiator and its $270M and leaves only Prometheus ($277M) standing in the way of a career international high. And this is all before before China and Japan even release meaning $500M is in sight. The Martian lands in the Middle Kingdom tomorrow.
With classics from Blade Runner and Alien to Best Picture Oscar winner Gladiator, the 78-year-old Scott has had his share of cult, critical and box office success. But what is it about The Martian, roughly budgeted at $110M, and its Robinson Crusoe vibe that has hit such a mark with international audiences?
The relatable and easy-to-comprehend storyline lent itself to this becoming an all-audience pic. But it’s more strategic than that. From astronaut outreach programs to original in-world prologue videos, the international participation of the cast, and even a spoof cooking show showcasing potato recipes in Korea, the global campaign is a fine example of an approach that has paid off big time.
On paper, the story of a man stranded on the red planet who uses his scientific skills to survive for two and a half years’ worth of “sols” while NASA and his own team attempt to rescue him, could have fallen victim to fall sci-fi fatigue. The past two years have seen a space pic stake out the autumn frame to great success. Gravity, followed by Interstellar last year connected with audiences in serious ways. But The Martian marks something of a departure from those films, and for Scott, with lead Matt Damon’s everyman persona infused by terrific wit (Drew Goddard wrote the script based on Andy Weir’s book). International critics particularly responded to the comedy in the film. From Austria to Belgium, Denmark, France, Mexico, New Zealand and the UK, reviews pointed to the humor mixed with smarts — notbaly, the HFPA has granted it comedy status for Golden Globes contention. But some of that science is actually pretty cool and relatable, even for a mass audience.
That was a big goal for the marketing team. Fox’s EVP International Strategic Marketing, Britta Gampper, tells me “The science aspect of this movie, without it being educational, made science cool again. It put the sci back into sci-fi and served up in such a fun way.” For the campaign, “We tried to capture some of that without feeling like we were lecturing.”
The simplicity of the poster has also been highlighted as a key factor in the marketing. The shot of Damon’s face with the three little words “Bring Him Home” added a message of “humanity to what could be perceived as a regular sci-fi movie,” emphasizing the emotion of the film, says Gampper. (I find it also recalls another Damon film, Saving Private Ryan, which saw his character as the focus of a high-stakes mission, although I’m told that wasn’t intentional.)
Internationally in particular, the Fox marketing team employed shots from the film of people around the world watching the rescue mission on TVs in big venues. “The idea that every person matters is a strong emotional through-line. A massive rescue mission for one person resonates in our time. It’s the world coming together,” says Gampper. That helped The Martian become that all-audience movie of the fall.
Early on, the Fox team began with set visits in Jordan and Hungary to whet the press’ appetite while the first footage screened for exhibitors at April’s CinemaCon. A first character poster appeared in June, just ahead of those prologue videos, which helped humanize the characters and set the scene, followed by the trailer. That scored 18M views in about two days. Then, Fox showed its confidence in the film, moving out of Thanksgiving and back to the same slot where Gravity bowed in 2013.
Scott, Damon and cast members including Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Donald Glover attended The Martian premiere in Toronto along with Weir. In Toronto, it blasted off to great reviews and sparked Oscar talk, particularly for Damon’s sly, funny, dramatic and engaging lead performance. More premieres were held in London and other cities while Scott did stops in France and Berlin after Damon did early press in Asia.
He recently returned to Asia to attend the Chinese premiere which was held on Friday with Scott, Sebastian Stan and local actress Chen Shu who figures in a particularly pro-Chinese storyline within the film. Stan is also a big star there thanks to the popularity of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Damon has the extra good will that comes with having spent a lot of time shooting The Great Wall in China this year. We’ll know more about the Middle Kingdom’s reception later this week.
Going back to after the Toronto premiere in September, Fox arranged to screen the movie to the crew of the International Space Station who then tweeted about it. The social outreach has been global with hashtags like #themartian, #journeytomars, #yearinspace, #potatochallenge and #bringhimhome drawing comments from all over. A popular soundtrack and The Martian Official Game with the goal of saving Damon’s Mark Watney, and Microsoft’s Hack Mars contest, also upped the profile.
Promoting the film to an audience with an affinity for space, Fox collaborated with the organizers of World Space Week. The global event ran from October 4-10, fortuitously timed to the release of the movie, and involved special screenings and educational outreach programs including in Russia. There was also promotion at German Aerospace Day. Local astronaut Alexander Gerst, a member of the European Space Agency and a top candidate for a future mission to Mars, tweeted about the movie to his 216K followers. Russia and Germany are now both Top 10 markets for the film. Domestically, co-stars Mackenzie Davis and Stan also visited NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston; Davis and Ejiofor went to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.
To get women interested; there were female screening programs which brought in women in the field of science who are well known. Chastain’s consultant, astronaut Tracy Dyson, notably attended the Toronto premiere.
On TV in the UK and Spain, Fox employed disruptive broadcast stunts whereby there were a series of 10-second messages from Watney/Damon which interrupted programming. The idea was to capture viewers’ attention for a longer spot that aired in the same shows.
The second trailer for the film was launched in conjunction with an event out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Global science and entertainment press got a tour of JPL and a panel discussion with Scott, Damon, Weir, NASA’s Dr Jim Green and astronaut Drew Feustel. “NASA was a wonderful collaborator“, says Gampper, “our mutually beneficial partnership exposed the film to a whole new audience and brought awareness to NASA’s current space travel initiatives” especially as they plan to send astronauts to Mars. The fact that water was found on the red planet during The Martian’s early run, was the kind of promotion you can’t plan.
A notable event was held for influencers at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah who then got the word out via social media. Perhaps one of the most influential influencers was Korean “cheftainer” Choi Hyun Seok who made a parody video (see it below) which went out on leading local portals and social channels, generating significant views and publicity. It was followed up by a longer video a week later where he provided tips for cooking with potatoes (also below).
Korea is the film’s 2nd biggest offshore play, just behind the UK, with about $34.3M to date. The market is pre-disposed to sci-fi that blends in emotional or cerebral aspects — both Interstellar and Gravity were big hits there. The Martian is the No. 11 movie of the year and the No. 6 Hollywood title.
So, will everyone and their brother try to make a space movie now? “You need the right one,” says an exec, “but studios will try to be that all-audience movie in early October, every fall.”