The superb promotional campaign for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me

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The first Austin Powers movie was a modest success, the second a flat-out box office sensation – and one genius trailer was a key turning point.

As much as the entire Austin Powers trilogy is regarded as a huge box office success, the original movie – Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery – actually wasn’t. The 1997 comedy, directed by Jay Roach, and written by and starring Mike Myers, was a hit, certainly. But quite a modest one: against its $16m budget, the film would gross $53m in the US, and another $13.8m elsewhere (if anything, it was a small flop in the UK).

The sequel, that followed two years later, did five times as much business. And credit where credit’s due: that was in part down to the most inspired marketing campaign of that particular summer. A campaign for a comedy sequel that arguably nobody has been able to match since.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me was always going to be a little more ambitious a production. Budgeted at twice the price of the original, the movie was scheduled for a summer 1999 release, slap bang in the middle of blockbuster season (in an era where blockbuster season was primarily restricted to the summer and Christmas). New Line Cinema was going to have to be savvy about how it approached its marketing campaign, not least because in the US, all the attention was on the biggest bet of the season: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Most studios were keeping their films well clear of Star Wars. New Line went the other way.

The Phantom Menace, then the first Star Wars film for over 15 years, was always going to be a big deal, and infamously, queues started for it weeks in advance. People went to see other films just so they could see the Star Wars trailer on the big screen, and then they walked out again.

Even though Austin Powers 2 was going to follow the movie into US cinemas by nearly a month, the expectation was that Star Wars would stay in multiplexes for the bulk of the summer and duly clean up. Which is what it did, Jar Jar and all.

The ingenious approach, then: to not go against Star Wars, but to embrace it. And here was the apex of that approach: one of the most successful movie trailers of the past few decades.

The trailer – a viral sensation when there wasn’t such a thing really as a viral sensation, was the idea of Mike Myers. As director Jay Roach would tell The Independent two decades later, that promo was the moment that “really blew the sequel open” and “the moment we thought, ‘we’re onto something here’”.

The trailer was a sensation. Even LucasFilm, then in the midst of getting its own film together, was said to be flattered by the trailer. Why wouldn’t it be? It was getting a dab of extra promotion in the midst of the expensive marketing campaign for another film.

With the world wide web in its infancy, it’s hard to describe just how well this played in cinemas for those who weren’t there. I saw it three or four times at my local, and each time there was a ripple of excitement for a Phantom Menace preview, and loud laughter when the reveal came. This was pre-YouTube. There were still things such as surprises when it came to movie trailers in a cinema.

What it also tapped into was the fact that whilst it wasn’t a huge cinema success, the original Austin Powers movie had become a far more sizeable hit on home video. In fact, it was said to have been the video performance that ultimately convinced New Line to go for the sequel.

In the US, the VHS release unusually came with extras at the end too, in the form of deleted scenes. Word of mouth began to spread. Furthermore, at the point in 1998 when the sequel was being proposed, it helped enormously that comedies were gold at the box office. There’s Something About Mary had cleaned up, and The Wedding Singer had been a surprise success, both in 1998. Crucially too, comedies were much cheaper to make than big action blockbusters. Greenlight the right one, and you’ve got not just a hit, but a profitable one.

New Line thus rolled the dice.

“The video was essentially a long commercial for the sequel” New Line’s then-president Michael De Luca said. “It was a huge factor in making the [original] film into a phenomenon.”

New Line’s aggressive, clever marketing approach for the sequel paid further dividends too.

Madonna was persuaded to jump aboard to record the title song from the film, Beautiful Stranger. The soundtrack became a best seller, and Mike Myers appeared in the video to the song (with the music video directed by Brett Ratner). Furthermore, the heavy spend on promotion saw the face of Austin and his nemesis Doctor Evil plastered on magazines and billboards. New Line parent Warner Bros at the time had a chain of retail stores too, that were stocked with novelty Austin Powers items.

Brands lined up to align themselves with the character and the movie, playing along with what they perceived to be its cheeky, risqué but pretty harmless tone. Sure, there were some complaints. But that was all fuel for this particular fire.

After all, even the title of the film was a publicity magnet. The use of the word ‘shag’ in the name of a major motion picture was of little bother in the US, where it wasn’t deemed particularly offensive, and likewise in the UK, in spite of the movie coming with a family-friendly 12 certificate (although 12A wasn’t a thing in the UK at this point).

Still, around the world it caused conversations to be had, with controversies bubbling, and some countries did indeed censor it. Not all of the translations quite worked out in terms of softening the title, though. I had to double check this, but the film was indeed in Norway called Austin Powers – Spionen Som Spermet Meg, and Google Translate tells me that changes the title to Austin Powers – The Spy Who Spermed Me. I’ve not seen that one.

The overall result, though, was a sensation. A modestly successful original, two years later, laid the path for the film that opened to the third biggest opening weekend of all time at the US box office. It took in $54m in the US, more than the original film had made for the duration of its entire run. It would go on to gross $310m across the planet in the end, with a further sequel – Goldmember – doing similar business a few years later.

Rumours persist of a possible Austin Powers 4 at some point in the future, and in spite of Mike Myers’ stepping back from most of his acting work, that may yet still happen. It’ll do well, though, to capture the lightning in the bottle it conjured up in 1999. The only huge hit of the last 25 years whose genius strategy was to promote the movie it was actively up against…

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