District 9 goes huge

The hype for District 9 is going through the roof.

The marketing campaign for the sci-fi movie, set in South Africa and opening here on August 28, was planned before the movie was even filmed.

The hype has become self-generating, with “tweets” on Twitter hitting third place on the list of “trending topics”, even as the film took $37-million at the American box office on its opening weekend.

Off a budget of about $30-million, that’s good—though small beer compared with the money turned by big-budget blockbusters.

GI Joe, the action flick displaced from the top box-office slot by District 9 on the weekend of August 14, saw a fall of about 60% in revenue. Analysts suggest that District 9, however, will have more “legs”. It was also released in a period traditionally slow for the US box office.

Directed by South African-born Neill Blomkamp and set and filmed in Soweto, District 9 was produced by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.

Blomkamp, whose family moved to Canada when he was young, has previously made commercials and short films, one of which he developed into District 9.

The movie’s premise is that a huge alien space ship, its fuel supplies damaged, came to a halt over Johannesburg two decades ago and is still hovering there.
The aliens, called “prawns” by the locals, are rescued and put in a camp, District 9, in Soweto.

In the US the District 9 campaign included huge billboards with the words “For humans only”—playing off apartheid laws—and a “viral” marketing campaign that included setting up a website for the film’s fictional corporation, MNU.

Cast members also kept Twitter and Facebook supplied with information as the film progressed. Sony, which bought into District 9 and distributes it, is pleased. Its head of distribution, Rory Bruer, told the LA Times of the pre-release hype: “You could feel the ground moving.”

Local distributors Ster-Kinekor are also talking up the film. Helen Kuun told the M&G she felt Oscar nominations were likely for special effects and sound design—even for best picture.

She said the number of nominations for best picture has increased from five to 10 and that Oscar voters have a soft spot for low-budget movies that come out of nowhere and do well. District 9, she said, is this year’s example of “the little film that could”.

Sony laid on a Hollywood-style “junket” for the South African press, lining journos up at a posh hotel to meet the stars and director for 15-minute chats. At advance screenings, critics were asked to give their opinions of the film—apparently because Sony was concerned that its “political” element might put South Africans off.

They can rest assured: the film is largely sci-fi action.

Early screenings were also attended by a police contingent, present to help prevent pirating of the film. That must have worked—for South Africa at least. A pirated version of the film, with Russian subtitles, is already on the net.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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