In its 40 years, the Alien franchise has become too unruly to define. Its seven sprawling installments, including two movies that crossed with the Predator franchise and a quasi-prequel that was only loosely tied to the original, have strayed far from where the franchise started—a horror film set in outer space.
The next movie, Alien: Covenant, due out in US theaters today, purports to return the franchise to its roots. Director Ridley Scott said the film will “go back into the back door of the very first Alien” movie. “I wanted to really scare the shit out of people,” he told The Guardian.
Indeed, all the movie marketing has aimed to scare as much as intrigue. Starting with the very first movie poster from last November, the sequel—which is actually another prequel to the original Alien but a sequel to the last prequel, Prometheus— has channeled the dark, eerie imagery of the 1979 original. It depicted the new breed of alien, a Neomorph, protruding from the shadows in the ominous fashion of H.R. Giger, the original Swiss designer of the Alien world.
The taglines, “run,” “hide,” and “scream,” resemble that of the inaugural film: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
The return to the gut-busting terror that made the original Alien so enthralling was as much a creative choice by Scott as a marketing maneuver. ‘There was a very, very clear direction on what this film was going to be and what it was going to answer,” Alison Temple, managing partner of the agency 3AM, which worked with the studio, production, and various brand partners on the marketing campaign for Alien: Covenant, tells Quartz. “Ridley talks about hearing the people and they wanted the elements that they love so much from the original.”
That has been the biggest message from the marketing—this is a true Alien film and it will have scary aliens in it.
3AM, a joint venture between Scott’s RSA Films production company and the entertainment-marketing agency Wild Card, started building the marketing plan for Alien:Covenant early on in the filmmaking process. Scott and the studio, 20th Century Fox, knew they needed to reignite the core fanbase if there was going to be any hope of supporting at least two further films. Thus, the movie was pitched to audiences as a summer scare that could appease die-hard fans—who love sci-fi, horror, and action—and horror-film buffs alike.
Three to four months before production began in 2016, the agency was already in talks with Scott and 20th Century Fox’s head of theatrical creative advertising Arnaldo D’Alfonso. Usually, marketing doesn’t get involved until after shooting starts, with the exception of mega-budget movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which had one of the largest marketing vehicles ever.
But with Alien: Covenant, the marketing team saw the early scripts and concept art, was clued into the narrative, and kept abreast of how the characters and sets evolved. They also learned the story points and background that didn’t make it into the film, which were used to tease the picture ahead of its release.
“The more information we have, the more we can build the world, the more we can tell these stories” Temple said. “Even though we’re not telling the viewer everything that’s going to happen on the screen, we’re setting it up.”
Scott and 3AM also came up with the idea for a series of original shorts that served as prologues to Alien: Covenant. One, The Last Supper, nods back to the iconic dinner scene in the original expedition, while introducing the new members of the Covenant mission. As far as this film is concerned, the more ties to the original, the better.
And another answers a question fans had pondered since Michael Fassbender’s character reappeared in the first trailer for the new movie: How did the severed head of David get his body back?
The footage, produced specifically for the marketing campaign, meant the studio could release a steady stream of content starting at least six months before the movie was released without constantly treading over the same ground. It also fed into the strategy of appealing to the fans first by connecting the dots between the new movie and its predecessors—something Fox didn’t do as much of when marketing Prometheus. That title appeared to be an Alien film from its marketing, but the ties were shrouded in mystery.
It helps when you have a director like Scott who has an intimate understanding of how marketing works. Not all filmmakers can focus on selling a film while they’re still making it. Scott has directed classic commercials like Apple’s iconic 1984 Super Bowl ad. And he produces ads through his company RSA Films.
“He’s Ridley Scott, so he had a great vision… and he’s so in tune with advertising just from the nature of his career,” said Temple. “It’s such an incredible opportunity to be with the filmmaker during this period so we can see how this all unravels.”
As of May 16, Fox had spent an estimated $24 million on national TV ads in the US, according to data from ad-tracking firm iSpot.tv. That’s only part of the picture. There’s also a robust digital campaign with at least four short films, numerous trailers, videos with partners like Audi, AMD, and the adult-animated comedy Rick and Morty, billboards and other out-of-home activations, and a rather disgusting virtual-reality experience that places viewers inside the alien Neomorph’s body as it crawls its way out of the womb.
Scott’s latest return to the Alien franchise brought in $42 million when it opened in 34 markets last weekend, and it’s expected to rake in more than $4o million at the US box-office when it debuts this weekend.