Cinemagoers seated early for “Five Nights at Freddy’s” are treated to a new kind of movie advertisement: one that tells viewers not to look at the screen.
The trailer, a theaters-only promo for Lionsgate and Blumhouse’s upcoming horror film “Imaginary,” begins with a child’s voice asking, “Hi, wanna play a game with me? Close your eyes and use your imagination.” As footsteps, door creaks and the unsettling chirr of children’s toys whirl across the theater’s 7.1 surround sound system, the “Imaginary” team is betting that what viewers conjure up in their minds will be just as scary as what the film could show.
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While the trailer is mostly a black screen, a few visuals flash across the screen as the young narrator invites viewers to open their eyes. Among them: a missing child poster, some demonic figures and what appears to be a door-filled funhouse.
But there’s also a practical reason for why the first look at “Imaginary” is so devoid of actual footage from the film. The same week Blumhouse debuted its fall horror hit “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” the prodco asked Lionsgate if it could whip up a preview spot for “Imaginary.” The Lionsgate team pitched the idea of an audio-centric teaser and, within 24 hours, it was ready to be shipped.
“Our distribution team moved heaven and Earth to put [the trailer] on screens in the same week,” Keri Moore, Lionsgate’s co-president of worldwide theatrical marketing, tells Variety. She adds: “Sometimes, constraint becomes the mother of invention.”
Time wasn’t the only restriction. According to Moore, Lionsgate had already been cooking up a trailer, with visual effects due to be delivered on Nov 1. With “Freddy’s” opening a few days before, on Oct. 27, the team behind “Imaginary” thought: “What could we do with the shots that we have, knowing what we can deliver? How do we create an experience for audiences that introduces the concept of that playful imaginary friend … and bring in the idea of, ‘This is real and this is scary.'”
While little has been revealed about “Imaginary,” directed by Jeff Wadlow, the movie adds a sinister layer to an age-old aspect of childhood.
“Something you see across cultures is that children have a unique access to the spirit world,” Moore says, teasing the premise of the film. “What if their imaginary friends are something from the spirit world? What if these imaginary friends were real, and what if when you left one of them, that made them upset?”
The demands of the trailer nicely complement the themes of “Imaginary.” Also, as a marketing ploy, it was quite effective in driving interest toward the movie. During “FNAF’s” opening weekend, the phrase “Imaginary movie” spiked to “maximum search interest” on Google, per the search engine’s trend data.
“Deploying an audio-only cue for an original horror film is very intriguing. The genre has a natural mystery about it when executed well, and the Blumhouse name automatically gets attention,” says Boxoffice Pro’s chief analyst Shawn Robbins, who saw the teaser in theaters. “It’s a great word-of-mouth starter piece, screening in front of a film that packed auditoriums with audiences who may be in ‘Imaginary’s’ wheelhouse.”
Says Jason Blum, “Fans are truly enjoying everything about the ‘Imaginary’ trailer and that’s what’s most important to Blumhouse, capturing the imagination of our audience.”
But the first glimpse of “Imaginary” is limited to those who go to the movie theater.
“We never considered putting it online,” says Moore. “This was always an in-theater piece, and we’ll come back with an online piece that is more structured and designed to reach an audience wherever they’re consuming content, whether it’s on their phone or on their laptop or in a theater. You want to create opportunities to reward theatricality and moviegoers, and to surprise and delight, and this was was a nice chance to do that.”
Yet, those who stayed at home and caught “Five Nights at Freddy’s” on Peacock can rest assured: A fuller look at “Imaginary” will be released soon, as Moore hints that a more traditional trailer setting the stakes of the film will arrive in the next month or so.
Until then, you’ll have to use your imagination.
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