Step 1: Change the goal post of the definition of “hype”
Step 2: Create hype
Let’s say you have a product that you want to build hype around. How do you go about it? If you’re Scott Rosenberg and Ervin Rustemagic (of Men In Black fame, which started as a comic book) then you go about it an atypical way. Rosenberg and Rustemagic purchased the rights to a western comic book called Tex. Tex was a good comic but at the time, Westerns weren’t a popular movie genre.
So they spruced up the comic to a Sci-Fi Western!
Then it languished in development purgatory. For years. So Rosenberg came up with the novel of idea of making the script into a “graphic novel”. If he couldn’t get the script onto the big screen, he’d get in paperback! This is because lots of popular comics and graphic novels are turned into movies (i.e. Spiderman, Captain America, etc.)
This is where step 1 comes into play. Rosenberg had to make the script the #1 graphic novel in the country. Rosenberg intentionally choose graphic novel instead of comic as the format because to be the #1 comic in the country, he’d have to sell almost half a million copies. For graphic novels, it’s a more manageable low tens of thousands.
So Rosenberg got a bunch of the 144 page graphic novel printed up. Normally graphic novels are priced $10-$15, but because he need to move a lot of copies he priced them at $4.99.
In addition to selling through normal comic distribution (which Rosenberg negotiated a few rules to make happen), he contacted a number of prominent comic book stores throughout the US and had them “purchase” the graphic novels for essentially nothing. The comic book stores had to “purchase” them or else it wouldn’t be counted as a sale. Rosenberg then gave the stores a check to purchase tens of thousands of dollars of the graphic novel. Overnight, thousand and thousands of copies of the graphic novel were “sold”. The comic book stores would sell them for 50 cents or just give them away from free. Unsold ones were tossed into the dumpster.
This is where step 2 occurs. Rosenberg wrote a press release claiming the high number of sales and that it outsold Frank Miller (of Sin City fame). Also, Entertainment Weekly reported the sales chart of one store (which received the deeply discounted copies) which happened to list Cowboys and Aliens as the best selling graphic novel of the month.
A few years later, Cowboys and Aliens hit theaters.
Of course, he didn’t actually sell the copies that were actually given away. This is arguably fraud. However, it does show their creativity in convincing the studio heads / decision-makers in getting a stalled project moving.
When faced with a hurdle, a lot of creativity (as long as it is not fraudulent) can take you a long way. Another great marketing story is in my article about Shep Gordon.