When the disaster movie The Wave, based on a true story, premiered in Norwegian cinemas in August 2015, a marketing campaign had already raised an unusual sense of awareness around the movie. Norway’s largest online newspaper had just published an in-depth story about the movie, paid for by Nordisk Film Distribution.

The Wave was by far the biggest movie in Norway for some time. The two leading actors in the movie are arguably the country’s most recognised, and their ambition to sell 500,000 tickets had not been achieved by a Norwegian drama film since Kon-Tiki, which earned an Academy Award nomination in 2012.

Behind the movie was a truly interesting, though tragic, story. The 1934 Tafjord disaster killed 40 people when a rockslide created a tsunami in one of Norway’s fjords. The disaster inspired the filmmakers to dramatise: What if this type of disaster happened today?

Knowing that awareness around the true story was relatively low, Nordisk Film’s marketing department thought that getting this story out to the masses would create interest, and trigger bigger ticket sales.

These historic before and after photos depict the actual 1934 Tafjord disaster.
These historic before and after photos depict the actual 1934 Tafjord disaster.

“We knew we had a great and emotionally strong story, but we knew it would be extremely hard to get it told and distributed to the people,” said Catrin Gundersen, marketing director for Nordisk Film.

Verdens Gang (VG) is Norway’s largest newspaper, and VG.no Norway’s largest Web site. Getting the journalists at VG to tell your story is usually a pipe dream for any PR and marketing manager; there are simply no guarantees that editorial resources will be spent telling the stories you want the public to read.

At this time, the commercial department in VG was already addressing whether “branded content” was just another buzzword, or whether it could have massive revenue potential.

“We had been looking at what publishers like The New York Times, Guardian, and BuzzFeed were doing, and we were very eager to test. Nordisk Film and The Wave was the perfect case,” said Jonas Ibsen Brynildsrud, now CEO of VG Partnerstudio.

There were a fair number of challenges ahead for both publisher VG and advertiser Nordisk Film, including the journalistic ethics of such a partnership. It was a long road from great idea to proper execution. The many questions included: How can we leverage the potential in digital storytelling? How many people are interested in reading an article marked as sponsored content?

A good collaboration between VG and Nordisk Film was paramount. To help them plan and execute successfully, the production process was outsourced to Cloud Media Services and Tight, two Oslo-based start-ups specialising in editorial services and tech development respectively.

A critically acclaimed former feature journalist was hired to write the story, and the article page was hard-coded with a sophisticated mix of text, pictures, video, and graphic elements to create a compelling and rich reader experience.

The Wave movie depicts the actual 1934 Tafjord tsunami disaster as if it happened today.
The Wave movie depicts the actual 1934 Tafjord tsunami disaster as if it happened today.

After a summer of intense work from all parties, expectations were high when the article went live on the front page of VG.no on August 12, 2015.

It quickly became apparent that “A Norwegian tsunami” was a blockbuster success. In terms of clicks, reading time, and social engagement, the results far outperformed even the most ambitious projections.

During 36 hours of live exposure on VG.no, more than 300,000 click-throughs were generated — a staggering number in a country with just 5 million inhabitants. This was 10 times the number VG guaranteed to Nordisk Film.

As important as the number of clicks, the reading time spent by users was four times higher than VG’s previous best native advertising case. Also, a high number of social media shares meant more than 10% of the total traffic came from Facebook and social media. 

In the end, Nordisk Film surpassed its goal of selling 500,000 tickets. More than 800,000 people bought a cinema ticket to see the movie. For VG, this was one of several experimental projects that led the company to create its branded content department, VG Partnerstudio.