Columbia Pictures bought the $2.5 million production for a cool $3.5 million. Following Paramount's lead with FRIDAY THE 13TH the year before they reportedly put as much money into promoting the film as it cost to make.
The promotional materials sold the odd-ball nature of the murders as the prime reason to see it, screaming from the poster “Six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see” (actually it was more like eight murders and one accidental death). In some instances it doesn't disappoint, with a weight being dropped onto the crotch of a jock, Greg (Richard Rebiere), so that he gives himself an unintended tracheotomy with a bar bell. And, of course, the iconic shish-kebab to the back of the throat that graced the poster (although it wasn't Matt Craven's, but a male model's face that did). Whilst they are not overly gory (arguably because of censorship troubles), they are lipsmackingly sensationalist without becoming mean-spirited. The film is unashamedly gimmicky, flitting from slasher set piece to red herring and visual sleight-of-hand; rarely pausing for breath.
Dunning and Link didn't like the advertising campaign that Columbia Pictures had dreamt up; they thought it should have been more subtle – and worried that it might put off as many people as it attracted. They were concerned – with reason – that only a handful of the murders in the film were truly bizarre, and that the audience might feel cheated. It was written into their agreement with the studio that they would be consulted. They were, but in no uncertain terms they were told that this was a done deal and that the studio knew best. The rest is slasher movie advertising history.
Columbia Pictures really pushed the boat out when they issued their promotional manual for the HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, which was jam packed with ideas for cinemas to promote the film. It promised that, with good promotion, "… watch the lines congeal at the box office. Because the audience is having a bloody good time … there's nothing to be afraid of". It is easy to forget, in these times of soulless, mass market multiplexes that the ballyhoo surrounding a film could be as much fun as seeing the film itself. Although it is not clear how many picture houses really embraced the film's promotion, some of the more colourful ideas were to stage a mini recreation of the film's final scene (sans bodies), but with a butchered birthday cake with crimson candles surrounded by glittering birthday party hats; all to be set upon a fake coffin (or a real one if available!). People celebrating their own birthdays (especially if they were turning 18) were encouraged to bring family and friends with incentives, such as t-shirts and party hats. They also suggested having a member of staff, dressed in funereal black, preventing anyone from entering the auditorium during the final ten minutes. Those in line would then be offered, "… a bite-sized slice of Virginia's birthday cake" (with a view of whetting their appetite for the concession stand).
The promotion manual also had lots of ideas for radio 'dee jays' to promote the film, including a special 'scream in'. Callers would be asked questions such as "How would you react if you went to a birthday party … and you were the only person at the dinner table who was still alive?". Those with the best set of lungs would win free passes. The manual also encouraged the 'dee jays' to attend dressed as funeral attendants and give each girl a white lily and each boy a blood-red carnation ("… as a token of their sombre esteem").
The film was also advertised with trailers both at the cinema and on TV. The omnipresent gravelly male voiceover (so beloved of horror movie trailers of this time) is present. He says: "Someone is having a party for the Top Ten. The senior class snobs. Before they get to celebrate, six of them will die in the most bizarre ways you will ever see. … It is up to you to determine whether you wish to subject yourself to fear! … terror ! … and shock! … Because of the bizarre nature of this birthday party, pray you're not invited." Most trailers culminate with a birthday cake – with eponymous icing – being split asunder with an axe (although an axe does not actually feature in the film itself).
Press pack (click on each to see a larger version)
Press pack photos (click on each one to see a larger version)
Lobby cards (click on each one to see a larger version)
Merchandising and Advertising Manual (click on each one to see a larger version)
Japanese programme (click on each one to see a larger version)