Inside Fox’s Nearly Yearlong Campaign to Make Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens a Smash

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Scream queen! Photo: FOX

If you’re walking the streets of New York Monday and happen to come across someone dressed like a frat boy who also has a knife sticking out of his back, do not be alarmed: Fox is just trying to remind you that Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens is headed to the network this fall. The messaging might seem a bit premature, given the comedy-horror hybrid won’t officially debut until September, when it will air Tuesdays at 9 p.m. But Fox’s effort for Scream Queens has actually been under way since all the way back in February. That’s an almost unheard of lead time for a broadcast show, and yet it might soon become more common: In a world where network television is rapidly losing its grip as the default entertainment of choice for consumers, broadcasters are finding they need to launch marketing campaigns for select projects earlier than ever. 

Fox’s unique handling of Scream Queens actually began before the first official marketing of the show. Rather than go through the usual development process — ordering a script, then a pilot, then episodes — Fox went straight to series on the idea last October, allowing Murphy to begin immediately wooing eventual stars such as Emma Roberts, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nick Jonas, and Ariana Grande. The early start also meant Fox’s marketing department could begin plotting a detailed promotional playbook for the show before a single frame of film was shot. “It’s a rarity to have a series order with these auspices and … where we can trust the creator’s vision without seeing footage,” says Joe Earley, chief operating officer at Fox Television Group. Once Murphy found his key cast members — many of whom “are very active on social media,” Earley notes — Fox decided it didn’t make sense to wait until the show’s first episode was finished filming to begin unspooling ads. “You say, ‘We [know we] are going to create an undeniable event for this show. Let’s start now,” the exec explains. “Let’s create our fan ambassadors. Let’s get out there so people can start to anticipate the next thing they’re going to get that’s related to the show.”

Long-lead campaigns like the one for Scream Queens borrow a page from the movie business, where promotions for major tentpoles often begin well in a year in advance of opening day and often include numerous teases along the way. Earley acknowledges that similarity, but he’s quick to caution against concluding that TV promotion is going the way of movie marketing. For one thing, most movies wrap production months before they open, giving studios lots of footage to use in advertising. By contrast, even a show with a straight-to-series order such as Scream Queens will still likely be filming episodes when it premieres. What’s more, studios can focus on one or two big titles at a time. Broadcast networks, by contrast, are forever juggling the promotion of multiple shows at the same time.

Earley says a “road map” for how to launch Scream Queens was in place by December. One of the first decisions was that pink would be the unofficial color for marketing the series. “The show is a combination of blood and bubblegum,” he says. “And we wanted to make sure we kept that tone.” (The dedication to consistency is real: During a phone interview, Earley reveals that even the paper clips attached to a hard copy of the promotional road map are Scream Queens pink.) Once graphical elements were in place, Fox then decided to take advantage of a fluke in the calendar: 2015 boasted a Friday the 13th in consecutive months, February and March. “We wanted to make sure we had something for every Friday the 13th in 2015,” Earley says.

Because there’d be no filmed footage from the show until March or April, Fox opted to shell out the money necessary to film special teasers that would give a sense of the show’s vibe. The first, just 12 seconds long, featured a college-age girl blowing a giant bubble — which is then popped by a knife — and the reveal of the show’s logo.

Murphy tweeted it out on February 13, and the clip quickly went viral — despite the fact that none of the show’s big-name stars were in it. A slightly longer clip, this time featuring Roberts, came out March 13 and was an even bigger hit. 

That same month, Fox moved those videos to TV, with on-air promos for the show airing first in the massively watched Empire season finale and the series finale of Murphy’s Glee. Overall, Fox has aired promos for Scream Queens during its shows at least a half-dozen times, including last Friday during a rerun of, appropriately enough, Kevin Williamson’s comedy-horror classic Scream.

Meanwhile, Fox began opening up other fronts in the battle to woo viewers to the show. As with Glee and American Horror Story, Murphy and his cast members have used their online power to create noise for Scream Queens. The producer and the show’s actors have sent out regular tweets and Instagrams from the set, trying to get potential viewers invested in the production months in advance. Every bit of guest casting (Ariana Grande! Niecy Nash!) has been treated as a mini-event on social media. Last month, there was the unveiling of the show’s first three official posters, plus a multi-page write-up in Entertainment Weekly featuring the first images from the set. And in addition to Monday’s wandering frat boys (and sorority sisters), Fox also marketed the show to a super-specific audience Friday, delivering “killer” cupcakes, Scream Queen–branded lattes, and Bosch Tassimo coffeemakers to various ad agencies around Manhattan.

Until now, about the only thing missing from Fox’s extensive promotion of Scream Queens has been any actual footage from the show. That’s been by design. “We wanted to have the first part of the campaign give people a flavor for the tone of the show, but not burn anyone out on the thing yet,” Earley says. That is expected to change soon. Fox just let advertisers and the media see a trailer for Murphy’s series during the network’s upfront presentation. And while that trailer might not immediately be released to audiences, it’s probably only a matter of days or weeks before footage from the show begins popping up. Earley says Fox has been orchestrating a “pulse” campaign for Scream Queens, generating numerous flashpoints around the show to spike buzz. (You can bet July’s Comic-Con will offer some new reveal, as the San Diego convention has become a marketing mecca for any film or TV show with even the slightest bit of genre appeal.)

As early and often as Fox has promoted Scream Queens, the network isn’t alone in getting out the word for shows well in advance of their premieres. NBC, for example, actually outdid Fox in terms of long-lead marketing by announcing this fall’s Heroes Reborn revival all the way back in February … 2014 (during the Olympics). The network then used its broadcast of the Super Bowl this February to air another teaser for the sci-fi series, along with a promo for Neil Patrick Harris’s new variety show. And while Scream Queens appears to be the earliest Fox has starting hyping a show, the network’s history of jumping the gun on marketing goes all the way back to Fringe, when it used its May 2008 upfront to start viral promotion for the show (cows were involved). The next year, in 2009, the network aired the pilot for Glee in May, months before the show’s official fall launch. And last year, a trailer for Gotham was posted online a full week before the network previewed the series to advertisers.

With networks doing more short-order series (like Fox’s revival of The X-Files), there are more projects to hype than ever. “If you’re targeting viewers with multiple [shows], you have to be careful the campaigns don’t cannibalize each other,” Earley says. “They can’t all be Scream Queens.” Still, even if every show can’t be given a nearly nine-month buildup, the days of buying some billboards and magazine ads a few months before a series launch are very much over.

“In today’s environment, where it’s so difficult to get the attention of consumers, you have to break through,” Earley says.