How Fox Marketed ‘Gone Girl’ Into a Hit by Keeping Its Secrets

Spoiler avoidance, timing and targeting males all contributed to its breakout opening weekend at box office

Generating heat for Ben Affleck‘s “Gone Girl” — a dark whodunnit with major storyline surprises — without tipping its key plot twists was a tricky test for Fox’s marketing team.

With a stunning $37 million opening weekend at the box office now in the books, it’s safe to say they aced it.

“It was a campaign of mystery,” Marc Weinstock, president of domestic theatrical marketing at 20th Century Fox, told TheWrap, “Did Nick Dunne kill his wife?” It was also back-loaded, with carefully timed screenings, early social media, strategic targeting of males — and determined spoiler avoidance.

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“Gone Girl” was based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, which had been read by six million people. But Fox’s research showed that number represented only about eight percent of the potential moviegoers.

“We wanted to get everybody, of course,” Weinstock said, “but the focus was on the 92 percent that hadn’t read the book, and the idea was to get them excited without giving away the movie.”

It started early on with a social media campaign directed at the followers of director David Fincher and the film’s stars, including Affleck, and co-stars Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry.

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The next step was coordinating the campaign and the timing of the premiere and screenings. They decided to premiere “Gone Girl” as the opening film at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 26. That was a week before the film’s nationwide opening, rather than at an earlier festival like Toronto’s, and helped keep the plot elements under wraps a little longer.

“After that, it started to take on a life of its own,” said Weinstock, “and the reviews hit.” The critics were sold — it’s at 87 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes — and those became a part of the promo push, along with a full-court publicity press from the film’s talent.

The “Gone Girl” book was far more popular with women than men, and early tracking suggested the film would play that same way, so Weinstock and his team came up with a plan to draw men.

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The tagline “Date night movie of the decade” was added to many of the TV ads and other materials. The irony of using that line, given the film’s dark plot, might have been lost on those who hadn’t read the book — but it did the job. Males made up nearly 40 percent of the first-weekend audiences, contributing to the film’s breakout performance.

Because of the strong reviews and its skew toward more adult audiences, Fox and co-producer New Regency are expecting “Gone Girl” to have a long life in theaters, so the marketing campaign will evolve.

And now that the film’s in theaters, some of the pressure to keep the twists quiet is off.

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“The ‘talk factor’ is very much part of the campaign for this movie and it’s all kind of out there now,” Weinstock said, “so we’ll probably be a little more free with Rosamund going forward.”

The campaign will require some further tweaking if it can continue to be a part of the conversation as the awards season draws closer.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Weinstock said, “and I think we have a good shot.”

That’s another part that is no longer a secret.