Deadpool's secret weapon: A viral social media campaign

Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool
Source: Fox Movies
Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool

Just one year ago, the average moviegoer might not have recognized the foul-mouthed mercenary named Deadpool behind this month's latest superhero movie.

Yet after a deft marketing campaign by 20th Century Fox and leading man Ryan Reynolds, the movie has become one of the biggest of the year. "Deadpool" bowed to a massive $135 million opening this weekend, shattering records and outperforming many of the super hero cohorts that preceded it.

"This may be the first movie of 2016 that kind of elevates everything, and gets that box office momentum charged," comScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian told CNBC.

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Deadpool has gone from zero to hero in no small part due to a steady stream of social media tidbits that have kept the character's fan base chomping at the bit. The decidedly not family friendly Marvel Comics anti-hero, also known as "The Merc[enary] with a Mouth" is about to be introduced to a wider audience.

The character, whose real name is Wade Wilson, first appeared 25 years ago as a disfigured, gun-toting bad guy in the pages of Marvel's "New Mutants." In subsequent solo series, Deadpool has morphed into a sardonic anti-hero known for breaking the fourth wall.

First Marvel movie with an 'R' rating

In the weeks before it was released, the Internet conversation swirling around "Deadpool" was 98 percent positive, according to comScore's PreAct. It's also very large: The chatter trails only "Avengers: Age of Ultron" for a Marvel adaptation since PreAct began measuring the health of marketing campaigns in 2013.

That exposure is especially important for a film that not only features a relatively unknown character, but will be the first X-Men movie with an R-rating — and a hard R at that — according to Dergarabedian.

From the very beginning, Fox has harnessed the power of viral marketing to keep Deadpool top of mind in the social media sphere.The first on-camera appearance by Reynolds as Deadpool came during an April Fool's interview on the entertainment show "Extra." The spot ended with Deadpool knocking out host Mario Lopez after he insisted the movie couldn't succeed with an R-rating.

That clip has gotten nearly 2 million views.

More recently, Fox ran a "12 Days of Deadpool" campaign leading up to a Christmas Day trailer release. And two weeks ago, the character cropped up in a salty public service announcement to raise awareness for testicular cancer prevention in partnership with the British nonprofit Ballboys.

The videos are drawing highly unusual levels of engagement. The ratio of people who click "thumbs up" on movie trailers and clips usually clocks in at .02 to .06, according to social media-focused online magazine MoviePilot, and a reading of 0.6 to 0.7 is considered better. By comparison, the ratio for "Deadpool" is a whopping 1.04.

"I haven't seen any movie like that that has such a big positive buzz on YouTube at this scale," MoviePilot CEO Tobi Bauckhage told CNBC.

About two weeks before its release, "Deadpool" was regularly drumming up 10,000 to 20,000 tweets, running just behind "Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens," according to BoxOffice.com.

This past Friday, following early "Deadpool" screenings, that volume spiked to more than 90,000, surpassing "The Force Awakens."

In the run-up to its release, analysts at BoxOffice.com projected the movie would earn more than $70 million in its first four days in North American theaters. With its $135 million haul, "Deadpool" beat the opening weekends for Disney's "Ant-Man" and Sony's "The Amazing Spider-Man." The company augments traditional pre-release tracking by factoring in social media buzz and other factors.

"Social media is obviously very important in this day and age for any movie," BoxOffice.com senior analyst Shawn Robbins said. "Fox has actually been really championing it for quite a while and they've taken it to the next level with 'Deadpool.' "

Many of the posts have come from Reynolds himself, who has been linked to the project for more than a decade and doubled as a producer. The actor, who calls himself a lifelong Deadpool fan, is widely seen by fans as having been instrumental to getting "Deadpool" into theaters after years of delays.

"The fact that he's been so confident about it since day one, and they've taken a lot of years to really make it work, I think that's helped to accentuate the excitement among fans," Robbins said.

'Very much about the backstory'

Since he joined Instagram last May, Reynolds has mostly dedicated his feed to "Deadpool" and its viral campaign. While there's plenty of official marketing material, it's also punctuated with shots of the actor's own "Deadpool" collectibles and images of Reynolds with diehard fans — including kids from the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

For Reynolds to be so hands-on is a big deal, comScore's Dergarabedian said. "Fans — particularly comic book fans — are very much about the back story, the pedigree and the authenticity of those involved."

The prolific posting has had a multiplier effect. MoviePilot has published nearly 1,000 articles on "Deadpool" in the last six months, 70 percent of which were written by its network of fan contributors.

The slow trickle of "Deadpool" media has provided plenty of inspiration for fans, MoviePilot's Bauckhage said. "If you get that right and you start early enough, then they will do a lot of the work for you."

Indeed, while Deadpool is no household name, the character has a fiercely loyal following among comic book readers. At last fall's New York Comic Con, dozens of fans in Deadpool cosplay could be seen gathering for group photos. Last year, the character ranked in the top 10 for comic book sales on eBay, out of a shortlist of 40 popular characters selected by market research firm Terapeak.

As with any fan-favorite comic book property, the pressure to do Deadpool justice will be high.

Locked out of China

Fox will be looking to rebound from a stab last fall at rebooting "The Fantastic Four," which became its first bona fide flop based on a Marvel property.

"Deadpool" also offers a fresh start for Reynolds, who starred in Warner Bros. Pictures' 2011 "Green Lantern" adaptation. That movie underperformed and failed to launch a franchise based on the DC Comics property. To be sure, Reynolds and Fox poked fun of this baggage in the first "Deadpool" trailer, when Reynolds character exclaims: "Please don't make the super suit green, or animated," referring to Green Lantern's notorious CGI getup.

None of that may matter because the footage released for "Deadpool" thus far has delivered a taste of what comics fans have been clamoring for for years: an R-rated mainstream superhero flick.

"I think after 30 seconds of the trailer for 'Deadpool,' all that is erased," Dergarabedian said.

One casualty of the R-rating could be a China release. The film is opening in more than four dozen countries, but it has reportedly been locked out of the Middle Kingdom, which has been the second-biggest market for many superhero movies in recent years.

The Hollywood Reporter recently cited sources who said China's media regulator declined to give "Deadpool" a release date due to the wealth of violence, nudity and crude language.

No official decision has been made on whether "Deadpool" will screen in China yet, Fox communications chief Chris Petrikin told CNBC.