For Humans Only: A Look Back at District 9's Success Story
by Alex Billington
August 14, 2009
It all began at Comic-Con last year. Banners and signs were placed throughout the San Diego Convention Center proclaiming in big block letters: "For Humans Only, Non-Humans Banned!" Either no one noticed them or, more likely, no one cared much about them. It wasn't until I got home from the Con and started thinking back - what the heck were they for? They all included a link to D-9.com and that was it. But even that site was mysterious. So I settled in, did some extensive research, and published the world's first article on District 9. It was an early look at the viral, and what it might be about, and from there we were off!
The viral got a lot of early viral followers interested. I had discovered that District 9 was "based on" director Neill Blomkamp's short film Alive In Joburg. We knew it was about aliens in Johannesburg and that a few viral sites for it existed. Everyone who had been a big part of the Cloverfield campaign of 2007 got excited again and started sifting through it, trying to uncover clues. Sony had already slated it for August 14th at that time (a date which hasn't shifted), so we all knew it was a long way out, but still didn't uncover any new clues for roughly 9 months. It wasn't until ShoWest when we would get our first real glimpse at District 9.
I had heard some rumors that the Sony presentation at ShoWest was the place to be, because their might be footage from D9. Up until that point, we'd seen nothing, not a poster or a photo or anything. Luckily I knew what it was about going in (at least with Alive In Joburg on my mind), but no one else did. And all of my peers were a bit blown away. They didn't show much of the action, but they gave us an early look at the real-world documentary-like style. Talking with everyone else afterward, they all seemed to be as excited by the footage as I was. The article I wrote included the noteworthy "Keep Your Eye on This" in the title.
From that point forward, the flood gates slowly started to open. The first photo hit in mid-April, just a few weeks later, showing Sharlto Copley with an alien eye that I don't think many people noticed at first. Then, on May 1st in front of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Sony introduced District 9 to the world. That first teaser trailer, designed to surprise people a bit like Cloverfield, really did shock and awe audiences. I kept hearing from numerous friends that a hush would come over the audience when the words "They Are Not Human" appeared on the screen. That was the start of the next level of excitement for fans worldwide.
With the hype continuing to build and my heart pumping fast every time I heard the words District 9, I set out to uncover anything else I could and be the first to debut it, just like before. Next came a photo of Sharlto in Rolling Stone and an interview with Peter Jackson that shed some more light on the story. But that was nothing compared to what was uncovered one Wednesday afternoon. No more than five days after the first trailer had hit featuring a scene with a "blurred out" alien, someone had found a trailer with the alien's face no longer blurred and subtitles for what he was saying. Yet again, Sony had upped the ante.
At this point, District 9 could've hit theaters the following week and been successful. It didn't need any more buzz. The marketing had done its job and there wasn't much more that I thought would impress me (I was wrong). As we neared the end of May, I started getting emails with photos of bus benches containing "For Humans Only" advertisements. As I was driving home from lunch, I noticed one no more than a minute from my apartment. That was just the start of their massive advertising campaign that has been one of the most innovative and exciting campaigns I've ever seen. An immersive viral experience found everywhere.
Those bus stop ads turned out to be a small piece of the bigger picture. Billboards, banners, posters, and stickers started showing up everywhere indicating that "Non-Humans Were Seen in the Area." You've probably seen one of these in your neighborhood, even if it wasn't placed there by Sony, which is part of the brilliance of this marketing. Your local movie theater probably has a few of them up as well. They don't indicate they're for District 9, but they bring you into a world that is straight out of the movie. Add to that the viral websites and viral videos that started showing up, and fans were really starting to get drawn in.
Everyone knows how this story ends. The highly anticipated full-length trailer hit in July in front of Bruno and continued to build immense buzz. And then Comic-Con swung around in late July. Sony had decided to unleash District 9 in its entirety at the Con, which was a very smart decision. The movie came out of the Con with an incredible amount of buzz, as it had lived up to everyone's high expectations. Comic-Con is relentless, fans can kill a movie, and it's hard to get them to really talk about something; but with District 9, all they needed to do was show it, let Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp talk, and it was a guaranteed hit.
District 9 arrives in theaters today and it's expected to be the sleeper hit of the summer (alongside of The Hangover). Not only was the marketing campaign brilliant and fun to follow, but it's a fantastic movie, too. It currently has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the best reviewed films of the year. Impressive for something that no one even knew about a year ago and that no one had even seen footage from (or cared about) until March. For that matter, most people didn't even really know about District 9 at all until the trailer in May. Now the entire world is talking about it. We've come a long way since Comic-Con last year!
So here we are now, on August 14th, a full 380 days since that first article on District 9 was published. It's so satisfying to know that we've come this far and it's actually as great of a movie as I hoped it would be. "I guess they're expecting something quite epic come next August?" They most certainly were. It's a marketing campaign I won't forget (like Cloverfield or The Dark Knight), but more importantly, a movie I won't ever forget. Neill Blomkamp has done so much with a $30 million budget that it's almost unbelievable (watch my interview with Neill). Now it just needs to open huge this weekend and it'll have made its mark on history.