How Alfred Hitchcock Marketed Psycho

Oct 22, 2019

Alfred Hitchcock was obsessed with secrecy as he worked on his 1960 classic, Psycho.

He bought the rights to Robert Bloch’s novel that served as the basis for the film, then bought up as many copies of the book as he could to keep readers from learning the ending. He swore cast members like Anthony Perkins to secrecy and refused to tell them the ending right up until it was time to film it. Studio execs and critics didn’t even have a chance to see the film before it was released.

But his most intense anti-spoiler efforts doubled as a powerful marketing strategy during its run in theaters across the country. Moviegoers were forbidden from entering the theater after the film started and the title card was shown.

The twists at the Bates Motel involving Norman Bates and Marion Crane were so unpredictable and the ending was so surprising, the only way to enjoy it was from the very beginning.

Psycho’s Marketing Includes Strict No-Spoiler Policy

Theaters had to create whole new ticketing procedures to handle the policy. Police were on hand at some theaters to enforce the rule and the lobbies played dry one-liners from the Master of Suspense himself encouraging viewers not to spoil the ending. “This of course is to help you enjoy Psycho more. We really have only your enjoyment in mind,” Hitch said over the loudspeaker.

Not every theater owner embraced the policy. It was common at the time for people to come into a movie halfway through and stay for the next showing to catch what they missed. By turning people away once Psycho started, theater operators might be losing money. Paramount even produced videos with testimonials encouraging other theater owners to stick to the policy.

Psycho’s release and new theater rules came with a robust ad campaign encouraging viewers to “keep the story a secret.” The marketing impact was clear – asking people not to talk about Psycho had everyone talking about Psycho.

Pyscho’s Legacy as a Defining Horror Film

Psycho was not the first or the last film to accentuate its offering with a unique theater experience. William Castle’s theater gimmicks defined his B-movie releases. A decade after Psycho’s release, reports of audience members needing sick bags during screenings of The Exorcist brought people to the theaters in droves. Everyone wanted to see if they could stomach the film’s intense sequences.

But Hitchcock’s screening secrecy with Psycho helped propel the film to unparalleled success. It’s heralded as one of, if not the, definitive Hitchcock film.

Thanks to social media anti-spoiler efforts today on productions like The Avengers and Game of Thrones are big business. That started with Hitchcock’s serious yet tongue-in-cheek efforts on Psycho. Hitchcock understood the power of information (or lack thereof) in compelling marketing.

Long story short: There’s real power in withholding information. Building excitement and intrigue around how information is released is an opportunity for smart marketing efforts to shine.

This article also appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short. It was written by Alex Irwin.

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