Alex Sanger, Universal’s digital marketing EVP, opens up the studio’s social media playbook
Nobody thought it was possible but last weekend, Universal’s “Cocaine Bear” nearly gobbled up “Ant-Man” at the box office. Much of that success can be linked to its ingenious meme-driven marketing strategy, which exploited the inherently goofy possibilities of a movie with a name like “Cocaine Bear” while still making sure that people knew that this was a real (and very fun movie).
When it came to identifying that “Cocaine Bear” will make for a strong, meme-worthy campaign, Alex Sanger, Universal’s executive vice president of global digital marketing, read the room.
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“[Director] Elizabeth Banks gifted us all with this film and the pure, carnal delights it consistently delivers on every level,” Sanger said. “She grabbed the world’s attention from the day the title announcement went out and never let go. There was rabid interest online about this movie. You rarely see that kind mania for a title. Just the words ‘Cocaine Bear,’ and people lost their minds.”
The battle for box office supremacy probably should have been an easy win for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” After all, we’re talking about a Marvel Studios superhero sequel entering its second weekend in a fairly barren marketplace. But with a precipitous, nearly 70% drop from the weekend before and iffy word of mouth, “Ant-Man 3” made less than $10 million more than the No. 2 film, “Cocaine Bear,” which had a budget somewhere in the $35 million range (most of that going towards the creation of the bear and her cubs, courtesy of the wizards at Wētā FX).
The “Bear” win also comes on the heels of Universal’s other highly meme-able hit “M3GAN,” a fun horror-comedy that made $173 million on a budget of just $12 million and earlier 2022 successes like “Violent Night” and “Minions: Rise of Gru.”
“Every movie’s so different,” Sanger said. “I would say that when me and my team first saw the trailer for ‘M3GAN’ and we saw her doing that now iconic dance, we were so excited. We had a feeling that it would be an internet sensation. We started prepping for the trailer debut with GIFs and images from the movie to respond to what we hoped would be a viral moment.”
What makes “Cocaine Bear” even more “memetic” is that it was actually based, in part, on a meme (you know the one). “Obviously ‘Cocaine Bear’ is inspired by a true event. The movie takes place in the ’80s, but there was also a meme back in 2010 of a bear running through the snow violently covered in powder saying, ‘I f–king love cocaine,’” Sanger explained. “Foundationally, ‘Cocaine Bear’ was already ingrained in a classic history of internet memes. That’s not something we ignored. We embraced it. We were like, ‘OK, we need to acknowledge that history, and pay homage to it.’ So, as we built our overall digital strategy for the film, we made sure to recognize and lean into the absurdity of ‘Cocaine Bear’s’ online legacy. It was a signal to us of how far we could take things, riffing on what existed, and hopefully create outrageous memes that could become new classics as well.”
Sanger and his team set boundaries for their approach — for one, they wouldn’t anthropomorphize the bear (although internally they still referred to her as “Cokey” and for Valentine’s Day they did create a chatbot with the bear).
“She’s not actually on her phone posting on her social,” Sanger said. Instead, they embodied the “spirit of the film” (in Sanger’s words) — the goofy, gory, self-aware and gleefully over-the-top fun of the movie. They created an 8-bit, “Pac-Man”-style video game for “Cocaine Bear” which plays to the movie’s overall tone and the movie’s shiny 1980s setting.
Another aspect of the campaign Sanger and his team were very aware of was how often they would engage with fans and other brands from the “Cocaine Bear” handle. “We didn’t want to wear out our welcome,” Sanger said. “Believe it or not, we were deliberate about taking a less-is-more approach on this campaign.”
He pointed to TikTok, where, at the time of our chat, “Cocaine Bear” had “over 36 million hashtag views on that platform, and we’ve really only posted about 18 to 20 times on there. But we still heavily engaged with other accounts and creators on the platform.”
If somebody spots a giant bear on a Ring camera, that’s an opportunity for “Cocaine Bear” to chime in. A discovery of cocaine in the Pacific Ocean that led to Cocaine Shark possibilities? Quit drilling, you’ve struck oil, er, cocaine. “For us, when we saw things that were organically happening, when the culture started to take the baton and run with it, that was the holy grail,” Sanger said. “We didn’t come up with the name Cocaine Shark, that was something that people just coined. That’s, for us, a real mark of our film breaking into the cultural zeitgeist.”
They also leveraged the personalities of the cast, chiefly Scott Seiss, the comedian with the brilliant “disgruntled worker” routine who is in “Cocaine Bear” and who they partnered with for social content. (His “Cocaine Bear” posts have been typically wonderful.) “Those were real needle movers,” Sanger said.
Sanger points to not only the discussion of “Cocaine Bear” on social media but also the “earned media,” particularly in print and online editorial about the movie and their campaign, in places like the L.A. Times and, now, TheWrap.
Looking ahead, Sanger sees a big possibility in some of the other “strong flavor” Universal movies like “Strays,” which, like “Cocaine Bear,” hails from producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller and “Renfield,” a horror action comedy starring Nicolas Cage as Dracula.
“Those are the filmmakers and types of movies that we’re so lucky to be able to work with because they have a built-in interest and talkability in digital,” Sanger said. “We love leaning into and leveraging the stickiness, high concept, talent and organic conversation appropriately, taking advantage of it on every campaign when it makes sense.” In terms of movies that don’t make sense for this approach, M. Night Shyamalan’s more somber thriller “Knock at the Cabin,” which Universal just released, had no such shenanigans.
Sanger and his team’s approach also extends beyond the theatrical window, as he is seeing with “M3GAN” (now streaming on Peacock and available to purchase elsewhere on home video). “As a movie like ‘M3GAN’ moves from the theatrical window into the PVOD window, we are working closely with our colleagues in Home Entertainment to ensure that we’re treating ‘M3GAN’ carefully; like the brand that she is, maintaining a consistent tone of voice, because we know ‘M3GAN’ is coming back,” Sanger said. “There’s ‘M3GAN 2.0’ [in 2025]. We’re now in the position of protecting it as existing IP and that her voice doesn’t get diluted,” Sanger said. “When we come back, we have to maintain who M3GAN is and her very specific voice.”
With the success of “Cocaine Bear,” Universal might want to keep that voice alive too. Or maybe it’s more of a roar?
Drew Taylor is a reporter at TheWrap. Before joining the organization in 2021, Drew was a freelance film journalist with a keen interest in animation and Disney history. Drew has been covering film, television and theme parks for 15 years. He has written for the New York Times, the New York Daily News, Time Out New York, Collider, The Playlist, Polygon, Vulture, Box Office Magazine, AOL Travel and Syfy. He was the executive editor and social media manager for Moviefone before it was purchased by MoviePass. Additionally, Drew co-created and co-hosts “Light the Fuse,” a weekly podcast dedicated to the “Mission: Impossible” film franchise that recently celebrated its 200th episode milestone. He also authored the book “The Art of Onward,” about the making of Pixar’s 2020 fantasy film, and provided liner notes for several Mondo vinyl releases for Pixar features (“Up,” “Coco” and “Lightyear”).