How would you react if you were to, say, visit an electronics store thinking you’d be participating in a survey, when a maimed contortionist demon-child suddenly lurches at you from behind a 4K-television screen? What would you do?
This exact scenario was put to the test for us in a promotion for Paramount Picture’s recently released Rings. In the latest addition to marketing agency Thinkmodo’s roster of record-breaking viral marketing videos, visitors to Prisco Appliance & Electronics in White Plains had no idea revamped horror villain Samara Morgan (played by Rings actress Bonnie Morgan) was waiting for them behind a rigged television.
Of course hilarity ensued, and like the prank’s victims, the video’s view count zoomed by — up to 200 million views in just the first 24 hours, quickly surpassing Thinkmodo’s previous campaigns, including the Carrie coffee shop telekinesis promotion as well as that frighteningly realistic demon baby for Devils Due.
It turns out one of the brains behind the high jinks, producer Sam Pezzullo, is a former Westchester Magazine Wunderkind (nominations are now open!). And being Thinkmodo’s only permanent staffer other than founders James Percelay and Michael Krivicka, Pezzullo plays a large part in coordinating these campaigns. Naturally, we had to get his word on how it all came together.
How did you choose the location?
The location scout was pretty lengthy; we looked at a lot of different places in New York. We really needed a small, independently owned electronic store, and there’s very few of them in existence. Prisco was just perfect: the size, the location, the layout. And Nick [Prisco] and his whole team were just so accommodating. It made the choice really easy.
Take us to the drawing board. How are these things conceived?
The client comes to us, in this case it was Paramount Pictures, and they say they would like to promote their film. Thinkmodo comes up with the concept, we figure out how to execute the production, we manage the entire production, and then we also handle the launch of the video and the media promotion and the seeding of that video to online and television media outlets.
At this point we have such a good track record that [clients] trust our judgment. We only pitch a concept if we are confident that it’s going to be a grand slam.
So where does your role come in?
That’s sort of a loaded question. To be totally honest I do almost everything, along with James [Percelay] and Michael [Krivicka]. We are a really small team; James and Michael are the co-founders of Thinkmodo. They started the company about six years ago, and I joined the team four and a half years ago as a producer. So I’m the only other permanent member, and we are all involved in every stage of the process.
There’s only three of you, do you outsource talent?
It’s definitely a huge part of the equation. Almost everything we do involves some sort of really unique build or fabrication. In this case we had to transform an appliance store into an electronic store, and we had to build the special rig with the mechanism to hide our actress and we had the lowering television screen. So we find people who specialize in set direction and fabrication, and we hire actual crew members.
Was this something you knew would blow up so quickly?
I don’t think we expected it to be this gigantic. But we have had a lot of success in this genre before, with promoting horror films specifically. We also did the devil baby, which was one of the more successful campaigns we did. We did the Ouija prank with the girl whose eyes pop out of her head.
It’s a pretty proven formula for success when you take an aspect of the film and amplify it in the real world to scare the crap out of people and get those reactions.
Do you think viral marketing has more potential than standard advertising?
Think about it like this: when was the last time you shared a commercial? Commercials are meant for advertising, where it’s so obvious. With our videos, the branding is very subtle. It’s really about creating entertainment for people and subtly connecting it to either a film or a brand. And when you release something digitally in today’s day and age, its just a great platform for people to share that content and talk about it and engage with it, and that’s really what ultimately creates the viral sensation.
Anything we do, there’s some layer of relatability, in the sense that you can imagine how you would react in that situation. It sort of motivates you to share and I think it’s more enjoyable than just seeing an advertisement on a billboard or on a T.V.
Have you ever witnessed a participant react extremely negatively?
I will say, knock on wood, we’ve always been very lucky. We’ve never had a situation where someone reacted super negatively. Even if they did, they’d immediately realize it was a prank and something fun and harmless. And the entire crew comes out and we give them a round of applause.
From left: Producer Sam Pezzullo, Co-founder Michael Krivicka, Actress Bonnie Morgan, and Co-founder James Percelay
Can you give us a sneak peak on some upcoming projects?
Everything we do is so top secret until the video comes out. But, I can say that you can expect more of the same stuff, but also some really incredible, cool things.
Aside from these hidden camera prank videos which we’ve become famous for, were also famous for videos that involve some sort of unique invention. We recently built a flying snack tray called the Jerkybot to promote a beef jerky brand. We have something coming up that’s in the same vein, but I would feel confidently saying it’ll be our coolest invention yet.