ALL CROPS: Ryan Reynolds dressed as Deadpool

After years in development, Deadpool — starring Ryan Reynolds as the title character — premiered this past February and became a box office success story: The Marvel film grossed $363.1 million, more than any other X-Men movie, and is the sixth highest-grossing title this year. Soon after its debut, EW spoke with the studio’s head of domestic marketing to find out how Deadpool‘s viral marketing campaign helped make it such a smash. As part of our year-end coverage, revisit that story below.

Deadpool wasn’t supposed to work.

The superhero movie, starring Ryan Reynolds as a niche Marvel character known primarily to comic book readers and those unfortunate enough to have seen X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was developed and then blocked by 20th Century Fox for years until test footage the studio commissioned “leaked” online, and the fan demand grew too loud to ignore. The production got the greenlight on a relatively tight budget ($58 million) and a mid-February release date, both of which pointed to modest expectations on return.

Now, the industry is reeling from the massive surprise success of Deadpool, which took $132 million domestic in its opening weekend, roughly doubling what Fox’s pre-release tracking — traditionally geared toward lowering expectations — and became the biggest opening for a R-rated film.

And since success breeds imitators — or at least hungry execs looks for a way to imitate — the Deadpool domination has the industry speculating about the ingredients of Wade Wilson’s secret sauce, something the character would obviously enjoy. Was it the R-rating? Had the superhero audience grown tired of neutered PG-13 fare that could never go the extra gory mile? Did the Deadpool returns act as an extension of Marvel Studios’ win with Guardians of the Galaxy and its irreverent sense of humor?

Or was it that Reynolds, director Tim Miller, and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick made a movie that stayed true to the character, therefore appealing to his pre-established fans, and from there, Fox’s marketing department bombarded the general public with advertising, selling the film on its merits?

We’d guess it was probably that last one. And Marc Weinstock, the head of domestic marketing at Fox, would agree with that assessment.

Speaking with Entertainment Weekly in the days after the first weekend receipts came in for Deadpool, Weinstock explained the first order of business when it came to selling the movie was assuaging fan concerns.

“They had two big fears,” he said. “One was the costume, and two was the R-rating. If they didn’t get the costume right, they knew that this was trouble, and if it wasn’t R-rated, they would say, ‘This isn’t Deadpool. This is some abomination.'”

The solution was two-fold. This image…

And then this video…

The two promos sent a specific message in a way that matched the tone of the film, and both benefited from the participation of Reynolds, who, according to Weinstock, was invaluable to the marketing strategy.

“Ryan was a huge partner in this,” Weinstock said. “We came up with a bunch of crazy ideas, and he was like, ‘Great! I’ll do it.’ He put on the suit five or six times for full day of shoots on special content.”

Deadpool was gaining traction as an viral and primarily online entity thanks to the stunts, but with an audience who came pre-sold. The fans who watched Deadpool kill Mario Lopez and announce an R-rating were always going to see it. The same could be said for some of the more in-joke marketing campaign, which included an all-emoji billboard and banner ads that sold the film as a typical rom-com.

“It traveled digitally so quick and so far that people who had never heard of Deadpool were confused, like ‘What is this thing?’ So they had a code they wanted to crack,” Weinstock said of the billboards. “When they figured it out, they had to tell someone.”

Though these examples were certainly the loudest, they represented a small fraction of Fox’s marketing output. The rest was geared at potential audience members who didn’t know what the hell “skull emoji,” “poo emoji,” and L meant when read together. This included buying out all of the ad space for three hours of content across five Viacom networks. People watching those channels would see no commercials, aside from a constant stream of messages telling them to go see Deadpool (in theaters Thursday).

“Because it was made for $58 million, we knew it wasn’t like, ‘How are we going to get every single person all at once, all audiences. Because we’re R-rated, we can’t get teenagers, so how do we get a bunch of adults?'” Weinstock said. “It wasn’t really a fear, but a challenge, because we knew that we’d get an audience to see this, and we really wanted to blow it out.”

So maybe there is a lesson here. With an original film, support from the creative talent, and a butt-load of marketing, any movie can be a big hit. Or, as Weinstock puts it, “Originality always wins. Audaciousness always wins. When you show something to the audience that they’ve never seen before, they get excited.”

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