knock at the cabin – marketing recap

How Universal has sold the latest big mystery feature

Knock At The Cabin poster from Universal Pictures
Knock At The Cabin poster from Universal Pictures

After a few years of missteps, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan seemed to be getting his fastball back with the success of Split, Glass and Old, all of which combined to help revitalize his reputation as an engaging and entertaining filmmaker. Now he hopes to continue that streak with the release of Knock At The Cabin, an adaptation of the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay,

Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge star as Eric and Andrew, a couple staying at a remote cabin with their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). What starts out as a nice family vacation takes a turn when four strangers accost them, claiming they have been drawn together by visions of coming disasters heralding the end of the world. The only way to stave off the apocalypse, they claim, is for the family to sacrifice one of their own. Tensions mount as the family refuses, even as reports of natural and other disasters begin to come in. Dave Bautista, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint and Abby Quinn play the four predictors of doom.

With all that in mind and with the fact Shyamalan is known for pulling the rug out from under the audience, let’s take a look at how Universal Pictures has sold the movie.

announcement and casting

While everyone knew the movie was happening in advance of this it finally got an official name in October 2021.

Bautista was cast in December of that year, with the rest of the cast added over the next few months.

the marketing campaign

The campaign got started in late September of last year with the release of the first trailer (23.3m YouTube views). Everything looks nice and peaceful as the family starts their vacation until Bautista’s Leonard approaches Wen and the cabin followed by the three others. After they break into the cabin, Leonard explains the shared mission the four of them are on and what the stakes are should Andrew and Eric fail to do what the visitors deem necessary. That’s as far as this spot goes as it’s meant to introduce the story, not share much beyond the premise.

Wen sits in the grass on the poster released at the same time, reaching out to figures we only see in shadow. The copy reading “Save your family or save humanity. Make the choice.” explains more of the story than the trailer does, though it’s a bit clunky in doing so.

A shorter version of that trailer that skips some of the setup and cuts straight to the home invasion came out at the end of November followed by a second poster that this time shows the four visitors, all carrying some kind of heavy weapon, approaching the cabin.

The second trailer (34m YouTube views) was released on Christmas Day. This time there’s a bit more explanation after Leonard and the others break in as to what the family is being asked to do, something that apparently others have done throughout history to avert previous cataclysms. Their skepticism is met with news reports of tsunamis and other incidents around the world, increasing the stakes as they attempt to find a way out of the situation but also guided by visions of their own.

This time the poster accompanying that trailer is a bit more artistic, with four figures shown standing around a small version of the cabin, their size compared to the building lending them a bit more menace. There’s no copy on this one, just the promise it’s coming to theaters.

In early January Shyamalan made an appearance at CES in Las Vegas. In partnership with Canon, he supervised the creation of an immersive VR experience allowing participants to view an action sequence from the movie from the perspective of four different characters.

The gist of the story was shared in TV spots that began airing shortly after that as tickets went on sale.

Another poster used a similar motif as the previous one-sheet, this time showing a massive hand reaching down for the cabin, its fingers separated by the shape of the four intruders.

Bautista opens a featurette released later in January, explaining the premise as Shyamalan talks about what drew him to the story and how he set out trying to make it and mold the characters.

Most of the additional TV commercials just used variations on the trailers, often using the same footage. But one spot, likely intended for broadcast during a basketball game, has Shyamalan playing chess with NBA star James Harden in a cabin until they’re visited by an unexpected guest of their own.

One more featurette has Bautista explaining how this was the most challenging film role he’s taken on to date before the director sings his praises as an actor.

A profile of Shyamalan focuses on this film but also goes into the ups and downs he’s had over the course of his directing career.

The cast and crew assembled in New York for the red carpet premiere last weekend. While there everyone sang the praises of the director and Bautista while being careful to not spill too many details of the story.

Many of the interviews with Bautista only gave cursory attention to this movie and instead focused on his role in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which are coming to an end in the near future. But Aldridge got a profile of his own where he talked about his own history with coming out and what it’s been like for him since then.

overall

If tracking predictions turn out to be accurate and the movie enjoys an opening weekend box office take of around $20 million it would be pretty good, though the negative reviews could push that lower.

As for the campaign itself, it’s fine and certainly accomplishes the goal of telling the audience there’s a new M. Night Shyamalan movie hitting theaters. But it goes too far in an effort to not spoil whatever story twists there are and winds up not establishing enough of a foundation for anyone – at least in my opinion – to even care about the premise. It’s a trap a lot of superhero movies fall into for the same reason and has me lukewarm on the campaign for this movie as well.

life lessons from: johnny dangerously

If you grew up in the 1980s and had access to the premium movie channels of the era then odds are good you watched Johnny Dangerously at least once or, in my case, several dozen times. Directed by Amy Heckerling, the movie stars Michael Keaton in one of the all-time great comedic roles of Johnny Kelly, a tough kid in early 20th century New York who turns to a life of crime because it’s the only way to pay for the never ending stream of surgeries his poor ailing mother (played by Maureen Stapleton) needs and to help put his kid brother (played as an adult by Griffin Dunne) through school.

With a script that is sometimes straight comedy and sometimes Naked Gun!-level, the movie has a handful of important insights that can help you navigate some of life’s trickier moments.

For when you need to speak up and advocate for yourself and your own best interests in the face of clearly toxic behavior.

You shouldn’t hang me on a hook, Johnny. My father hung me on a hook once. Once!

For when you need to make sure you have clear lines between your work and personal lives because that’s best for everyone, especially yourself.

Around here you’re Johnny Kelly, a law-abiding night club owner, not the notorious gangster Johnny Dangerously.

For when you want your LinkedIn bio to really stand out and catch the attention of anyone looking to fill a job opening.

I enjoy collecting protection money, putting whores to work, loan-sharking. I enjoy planting bombs in people’s cars. These are a few of my favorite things.

For when that office Secret Santa gift is just mind-boggling but you want to put on a thankful front because it’s less awkward.

Bless the saints, it’s an ashtray! I’ve been thinking of taking up smoking. This clinches it!

For when you want to say something nice even when another person is being just a tad ungrateful for everything you’ve already done for them.

Hey Pope, why don’t you go build yourself a new gym at the Vatican.

For when you’re mildly inconvenienced in the slightest manner but are just in a mood where you can’t let it pass uncommented upon.

You lousy cork-soakers. You have violated my farging rights. Dis somanumbatching country was founded so that the liberties of common patriotic citizens like me could not be taken away by a bunch of fargin iceholes… like yourselves.

random thoughts on: glass onion: a knives out mystery

The first Knives Out movie from writer/director Rian Johnson was such a breath of fresh air back in 2019 it became an immediate sensation for a variety of reasons, including its incredibly meme-able dialogue and settings and the A+ sweater game from costume designer Jenny Eagan.

It was so good it was hard to imagine what a sequel might look or feel like. Thankfully Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, released late last year on Netflix, lived up to the reputation of the first movie and, now that I’ve watched it a couple times to fully appreciate how good it is, I have a handful of random thoughts.

Here we go…

Eagan’s commitment to putting Daniel Craig in an ascot should be awarded in and of itself and I’m only surprised it hasn’t led to a clear and unmistakable uptick in their adoption as a men’s fashion item.

Confused Janelle Monae GIF by NETFLIX - Find & Share on GIPHY

It makes so much sense that Kate Hudson’s performance caught everyone’s attention as she’s terrific as a societally-oblivious pseudo-celebrity, but what really makes it incredible is that all of her reactions to what’s happening around her are so stagey. It’s as if her character has absolutely zero experience in anything not involving mugging for the camera.

Janelle Monae Glass Onion GIF by NETFLIX - Find & Share on GIPHY

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Kathryn Hahn’s gubernatorial candidate, who has such genuine reactions to everything, from Duke shooting his gun by the pool to her husband trying to be his own man to the revelation at the end that those reactions nearly become a character of their own.

Janelle Monae Glass Onion GIF by NETFLIX - Find & Share on GIPHY

I know the movie – and The Menu – caught some flack for not going far enough in exploring its “the rich are terrible people” theme but come on. If Edward Norton’s Miles Bron had actually faced some kind of on-screen legal repercussions for his irresponsible actions it would have been written off as frothy wish-fulfillment. As it is he’s set up to be exposed as a massive fraud, which is much more realistic without dipping into fantasy.

Besides, Benoit Blanc spends the last 20 minutes of the movie just repeatedly calling him dumb, which is cathartic enough for the audience.

And Blanc immediately dismisses Birdy when she tries to spin Bron’s actions as “so dumb it’s just brilliant” by clarifying “No, it’s just dumb!” Now if only our technology and political press would be similarly truthful instead of continually succumbing to the myth of the genius.

Excuse Me What GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

At least Derol made it out of all that with his chill intact.

If there is an element of the story that isn’t explored enough for my personal liking it’s that Bron’s success is nearly entirely dependent on being a white dude who takes all the credit for a Black woman’s ideas and work and that feels like the most relevant theme especially given [gestures broadly at so many many things].

And, on that note, I very much dug Janelle Monáe’s performance as twin sisters, beginning when she’s introduced smashing the puzzle box and right through to her vengefully breaking all of Bron’s glass sculptures.

Janelle Monae Glass Onion GIF by NETFLIX - Find & Share on GIPHY

Someone give me a Leslie Odom Jr. / Kathryn Hahn buddy comedy STAT or I *will* riot.

Janelle Monae Glass Onion GIF by NETFLIX - Find & Share on GIPHY

Back to a point above, we all believed Norton’s performance as the not-at-all brilliant “genius” because we kind of suspect Norton’s not quite as bright as we’ve been led to believe over the years, right? Not that he’s not a smart guy, but…you get it.

Janelle Monae Glass Onion GIF by NETFLIX - Find & Share on GIPHY

A brief ranking of current big name wrestlers-turned actors:

1. John Cena

2. Dave Bautista

….

25. Dwayne Johnson

Excited Janelle Monae GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

This whole brief sequence with characters looking in the middle distance as shadows pass over them hit me right where I live, evoking all those classic murder mystery noir films I was first exposed to watching “Family Classics” on WGN-TV on Sunday afternoons in the 80s.

Janelle Monae Glass Onion GIF by NETFLIX - Find & Share on GIPHY

Let’s take a moment and recognize how his brief appearance as Efficient Man ranks in the top five of Ethan Hawke’s performances.

It’s been such a long time since I watched a movie where the whole cast looked like they were having a good time. Too often the casts of the big super hero and similar movies look visibly miserable going through the paces and acting against tennis balls held on sticks in place of characters to be added later, it was genuinely relaxing to see an ensemble that appeared to be enjoying themselves and the project they were working on.

Janelle Monae Glass Onion GIF by NETFLIX - Find & Share on GIPHY

Sorry, I’m laughing again at Johnson blowing up his own movie by having Blanc solve the contrived murder mystery five minutes in to Bron explaining how the weekend is supposed to work.

Dinner Table Glass Onion GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

Everyone else yelled “A SCHOONER IS A SAILBOAT” (even if it was just in their heads) when Lionel was working the stereogram on the puzzle box, right? Right?

Janelle Monae Glass Onion GIF by NETFLIX - Find & Share on GIPHY

In a movie filled with committed performances from talented actors Madelyn Cline’s performance as Dallas is near the top of the rankings and I will absolutely die on this hill. It’s so good and shows not only her talent as an actor but Johnson’s ability to make the audience invest in and care about characters that are clearly secondary but still important.

Janelle Monae Glass Onion GIF by NETFLIX - Find & Share on GIPHY

Same goes for Jessica Henwick’s put-upon assistant Peg. If you don’t feel her disappointment and frustration when Birdy reveals she has a secret phone and her resignation when she says “…Did you think a sweatshop is where they make sweatpants?” I’m not sure movies are really your thing.

Oh, along with the Odom Jr. / Hahn buddy comedy I want a direct spinoff where Dallas and Peg team up and create the next big socially-conscious lifestyle goods brand and have all kinds of wacky adventures while doing so.

a man called otto – marketing recap

How Sony is selling a grumpy old Hanks

A Man Called Otto movie poster from Sony Pictures
A Man Called Otto movie poster from Sony Pictures

A Man Called Otto is the English-language feature adaptation of the Swedish novel A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Tom Hanks stars as Otto, the neighborhood curmudgeon who rails against neighbors who don’t follow the rules while still grieving the passing of his wife Sonya. His routines are thrown for a loop when a new family moves in next door and he finds himself increasingly entangled in their lives as he helps them navigate various problems, teaches them new ways of doing things and begins to open his heart a bit.

Mariana Treviño, Fredrik Backman, Rachel Keller, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Cameron Britton and Mike Birbiglia star alongside Hanks while Marc Forster directs the film, which gets a wide theatrical release after first hitting select screens in an awards-qualifying run at the end of December.

Let’s take a look at the marketing.

announcement and casting

Hanks’ Playtone announced it was producing the film in September 2017, with the actor also attached to star. Nothing happened for a while as it seemed to linger in pre-production until Forster was announced as director in January 2022.

Sony acquired the project a month later and soon set a mid-December release date. Britton, Birbiglia and others joined the cast shortly after that.

In October Sony pushed the release date to January but still maintained the limited December schedule for awards consideration.

the marketing campaign

We quickly see what Otto’s attitude toward people is in the trailer (10m YouTube views), released in late October. He picks arguments with or verbally jousts with his neighbors for no real reason other than to express his general displeasure. When a family moves into the home next door he starts helping them do things like maneuver a trailer, learn to drive and so on, including babysitting the two young girls. All that, as well as the appearance of a stray cat he can’t get rid of, begins to melt his gruff exterior and expose the caring person within.

Otto sneers at the audience on the poster released at the same time, the condo complex where much of the story takes place in the background and the cat he grudgingly adopts in the front to make it clear there’s some feline entertainment here as well. If all that doesn’t convey the film’s attitude, it’s reinforced by the copy at the top reading “Fall in love with the grumpiest man in America.”

A cutdown of the trailer came out in early November for use as online pre-roll and other ads.

Rotten Tomatoes shared the second trailer in early December. It’s only about half as long as the first trailer and offers a few different looks at the movie, but mostly through alternate versions of scenes already shown.

Rita Wilson shared “Til You’re Home”, her original song with Sebastián Yatra, for the film’s soundtrack, shortly after that.

The cast and crew assembled for a screening of the film that included a Q&A. Another screening was held in Mexico City a few days later.

Rotten Tomatoes then got the first clip from the film, an extended look at the moment Otto meets his new neighbors and makes a first impression.

Additional premieres took place in the U.K., Sweden, Madrid and elsewhere throughout December.

A full TV spot came out just as the movie was entering limited release.

About the same time there was a profile of Treviño that covered her career to date, including her experience working with Hanks and more.

overall

It’s a pleasant little campaign, but feels less like an awards season release than the kind of mid-range studio title that used to come out in April or May and easily make its budget back with the help of adult audiences looking for enjoyable dramas with big stars.

My one concern with the marketing is that it focuses too much on Otto’s unfriendly behavior and not enough on the redemption arc the character undergoes in the original novel. That’s not to say it needs to be all sweetness and light, but aren’t we all dealing with real world versions of this guy enough every day?

glass onion: a knives out mystery – marketing recap

How Netflix has sold the return of everyone’s favorite dashing gentleman detective

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery movie poster from Netflix
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery movie poster from Netflix

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery arrives on Netflix this week, a sequel to 2019’s Knives Out. Once again written and directed by Rian Johnson, the only connection to the first movie is the return of private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Blanc is crashing an invitation-only gathering of friends organized by billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) at his private island estate. Those friends have been assembled for an extended murder mystery party, the twist being they need to solve Bron’s own murder, though he’s not actually dead.

Playing the various friends, whom Bron terms his “fellow disruptors”, are such talented individuals as Kathryn Hahn, Janelle Monáe, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Madelyn Cline, Kate Hudson and Jessica Henwick.

So with such a high powered cast and a writer/director known for creating intricate yet easily-followed storylines that actually earn emotional moments and payoff their setups, let’s take a look at how it’s been sold.

announcements and casting

As the original neared the threshold of bringing in over $300 million worldwide, speculation Johnson was working on a sequel became more frequent. That speculation was confirmed by the writer/director when he was interviewed on the red carpet of the 2020 Academy Awards, where he was nominated for, but didn’t eventually win, Best Original Screenplay.

In March 2021, news came that Netflix had outbid Lionsgate and others for not just this film but an additional sequel as well. Or, as Johnson put it,

Additional details came out later saying Johnson, Craig and producer Ram Bergman would make $100 million each from the deal.

In mid-May of 2021 a slew of casting announcements came, each more exciting than the last. Bautista, Norton, Monae, Hahn and others coming aboard all got people eager for the movie to finally arrive. Bautista was interviewed about being cast and his anticipation over working with Johnson. Odom Jr. and Hudson joined the cast a bit later.

Production began in late June, marked with a photo from Johnson.

Henwick talked briefly about the project while promoting other things in 2021.

Footage from the film was included in Netflix’s 2022 feature film preview.

In June 2022 Johnson and Netflix released a video announcing the movie’s official title as well as showing off the impressive cast list.

Later that month news came the movie’s world premiere was scheduled for the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It was then slated to close the BFI Film Festival in London.

Netflix *finally* set a release date in late August while also announcing the movie would receive a limited theatrical release in advance of streaming at the end of December.

Empire Magazine talked with Johnson and the cast about what the audience could expect in this new installment in an issue that featured a couple exclusive images as cover photos. There were also more new stills in the story.

the marketing campaign

The first teaser trailer (13.1m YouTube views) was released in early September. Understandably it doesn’t offer much of the story but does promise some kind of murder mystery Benoit Blanc has to solve with an impressive cast all of whom seem to be having a lot of fun wearing outrageous outfits and lounging around magnificent pools.

A poster showing Blanc standing authoritatively above one of those pools came out at the same time.

Also released in early September was a puzzle website where, by solving the puzzles, you could unlock clues and other material about the movie.

The cast and Johnson assembled for the TIFF premiere, which included a Q&A and interviews where Johnson warned against sharing spoilers and teased his enthusiasm for making more Knives Out mysteries with Craig.

Later in September Johnson introduced the first clip while also offering a bit more of an explanation as to what the movie’s story is.

In early October the details of the theatrical release were revealed. Specifically, that the movie would play in theaters for ONE WEEK ONLY, VASILY around Thanksgiving. To the surprise of many industry watchers, all the major exhibitor chains – including those that had steadfastly refused to play any of Netflix’s major titles – agreed to the limited engagement, obviously smelling money.

Tickets for that engagement went on sale accompanied by a TV spot.

Later in October it was named the opening selection of the Miami Film Festival.

At BFI the cast and crew were back together for another screening that only added more positive reviews and buzz to the movie’s publicity

At the end of the month another poster came out that has the entire cast arranged along the side of the pool we saw in the first one-sheet.

The full official trailer (12.2m YouTube views) was released at the beginning of November. After showing all the characters arriving on his island, Miles explains they’ve been invited there to participate in a game where they have to solve his murder. Blanc is the wildcard in the group and when things turn from playful to actually dangerous he gets very serious about finding out who’s responsible. There’s lots of great footage of the various characters acting in outrageous ways both toward each other and the situation in general and, once again, this just looks like a lot of fun.

Netflix then put out a video of the cast reacting to the trailer.

An EW feature story had Johnson sharing how he developed the story and what he wanted to accomplish with a sequel along with comments from Craig about his character and accent and from others in the cast about the experience of shooting the movie, how quickly they signed on to the project and more.

Composer Nathan Johnson (Rian’s cousin) debuted parts of his score for the movie at a Netflix event focused on music. A week or so later snippets of that score were released for public consumption.

The L.A. premiere red carpet was held in mid-November, timed to be just before the movie hit theaters. At the premiere everyone talked more about how much fun they had while filming, the outfits they all sport and lots more.

That was followed by the announcement of the Glass Onion Experience. Set up in L.A. and running through December, people could attend and as a group try and solve a series of mysteries, like an escape room.

A set of character posters once more used the pool setting to show off the beautiful location and cast.

Just before the movie came to theaters another clip of Miles explaining the weekend to his guests – and Blanc being slightly confused as to the point of this all – came out.

a brief digression about the theatrical release…

The success of the theatrical engagement resulted in no small amount of hand-wringing among entertainment insiders and commentators. Had Netflix left tens of millions of dollars on the table by limiting release to just one week? Was it a mistake to have it play in theaters so far in advance of it debuting on streaming?

Those questions are interesting in an academic sense but also tended to overlook the fact that many of the answers went counter to Netflix’s business model.

Asking if Netflix should have kept Glass Onion in theaters longer, or if it should put more of its movies in theaters to begin with, is akin to asking if McDonald’s should sell more frozen hamburgers in grocery stores. Sure, the numbers will likely go up, but the goal of most all advertising by McDonald’s is to get people to visit its restaurants. So the end result is a weakened business.

There’s also the fact that all the prognostications about how this movie could have cleared $100mm at the box office is supported by almost nothing. None of the movies on the list of 2022’s top 10 opening weekends are this weird. They’re all very safe franchise entries, not the next chapter in a loosely-connected anthology series of high-concept murder mysteries.

back to the campaign…

The cast appeared in a video where they guessed what some Southern phrases actually meant in a nod to Craig’s accent. Later on Hudson and Hahn had some fun guessing which of three “facts” about their costars was the lie.

Online ads that began running in early December directed visitors to a site with information about screenings and events along with other press and promotional material.

At Brazil Comic-Con a behind the scenes featurette debuted showing some of the movie being filmed along with comments from the cast and director.

Another set of character posters put each one behind one of the letters in the movie’s title.

Talk show appearances by the cast included

And more, I’m sure.

At a moment when there were lots of profiles of Monae and attention paid to her performance Netflix released a featurette focusing on her role in the film and how much her collaborators enjoyed working with her. Another featurette focused on the production design of the film.

A bit later there were also a handful of profiles like this of Cline and others for Henwick.

What started out seeming to be a gag turned out to be real when Outback Steakhouse debuted the Bloomin’ Glass Onion, a special version of their signature dish, and supported it with an extended TV spot that kind of has to be seen to be believed.

The movie also got some promotional support from the video game Among Us, which introduced a Benoit Blanc character skin. And ice cream brand Van Leeuwen created a movie-inspired flavor. White Claw did likewise but for their style of drink while Zillow created a listing for Miles’ island house.

overall

Regardless of my feelings about the campaign (I love it, btw) it should be pointed out that the official Knives Out Twitter account remains undefeated.

There also seemed to be some A+ trolling of Twitter Owner, who the character of Miles Bron is based in part on, with photos from the film that seemed to be expert subtweets of current news.

So it’s a win all around. There is no quirkier or more entertaining campaign I’ve seen this year.

avatar: the way of water – marketing recap

How Disney/Fox has sold a return to land of the clear blue (people) waters

Avatar: The Way of Water movie poster from Disney/20th Century Studios
Avatar: The Way of Water movie poster from Disney/20th Century Studios

It wasn’t long after the 2009 release of Avatar before director James Cameron started talking about the myriad stories he had in mind for the sequels he was planning to make. Over the 13 subsequent years the number of sequels being developed varied from two to five or more, and the target release dates for those movies has slipped from the original 2014 to, roughly, now.

Avatar: The Way of Water arrives in theaters with more than a decade’s worth of anticipation, both from the audience and the movie industry, on its shoulders.

Picking up a decade after the first film, the story once again follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a human who now lives completely in the body of a Na’vi, the natives of the planet Pandora. He has married Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and together they have two children of their own along with Spider, a human boy born on Pandora who has taken on the customs of the Na’vi, and Kiri, a Na’vi avatar with the mind of human Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver).

Once again the story focuses on the attempted human exploitation of Pandora for its mineral resources. Another team of humans has crossed the stars, including Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who has been resurrected into a Na’vi clone avatar. As they attempt to stop the invasion, Jake and Neytiri are forced to leave their own tribe and take refuge among one that lives in and around Pandora’s oceans, opening up a whole new part of the planet barely shown in the first movie.

Just as with the original, this one has been supported with a massive marketing campaign, so let’s get on with it.

prelude : 2017 & 2018

After years and years and dozens of false starts, announcements that production was about to commence followed by news that Cameron was delaying it for some reason, in September 2017 we got what amounts to a “proof of life” photo in the first official still of the new movie’s young cast.

In an interview that was otherwise about Titanic’s 20th anniversary, Cameron made it clear that the second and third Avatar movies would be a complete story but that if they were successful more installments could come. Other than that, few details were revealed as to the story. He did though confirm that Winslet had joined the cast.

Sony ran a substantial paid social media campaign in mid-2018 touting Cameron’s use of its new Alpha cameras on the film.

Producer Jon Landau offered a bit of an update on production during Fox’s CinemaCon 2018 presentation, basically assuring exhibition executives that the movie really for sure was totally happening. Landau and Cameron later took the same message to CineEurope.

prelude (continued): 2019 & 2020

While he was out promoting Alita: Battle Angel, Cameron confirmed that some of the titles floated for the various sequels were – or at least had been – accurate. It wasn’t much but it kept the conversation around the movie alive while production dragged on.

At the end of November 2019 the official Twitter account marked the end of principal photography by showing off one of the production’s massive sets.

That the sequels were still on track was confirmed by Cameron in late December 2019. Concept art showing some of the film’s locations was released a month later. Production was delayed for a short while because of the Covid-19 pandemic but was scheduled to resume in late May.

In late 2019 Cameron told his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger that filming on this installment was “100%” complete while production of the third was nearly done.

Mercedes Benz announced a partnership with the movie in early January 2020, just before it unveiled the VISION AVTR concept car at CES. The car featured no steering wheel but reportedly used intuitive navigation along with being carbon neutral and more.

In October 2020 Dark Horse announced a new comics mini-series set just after the events of the first film, the first continuation of that story as the sequels were still in production.

almost there: 2021 & 2022

In April 2021 Cameron appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the sequels he was filming and express his hope that movie theaters survive long enough for them to show his new movies.

A batch of new stills was given to Empire in October of that year, with Landau offering brief tidbits on the story and characters. Cameron talked more later about the difficulties – largely of his own making – involved in production and how he and the cast adapted to those challenges. Landau was back in a later interview to praise Cameron’s approach to filming and set up what might be coming in additional sequels.

In an interview that was ostensibly about her movie The Adam Project, Saldana spoke about the emotional nature of the footage she’d seen from this film while also commenting on the challenges of filming such a technical project. Later on Worthington also talked about the long waiting period for the second installment and what it was like to come back to this world.

The movie was among those touted by Disney during their CinemaCon presentation in April, with attendees getting a look at footage with producer Landau on stage to talk about Cameron’s plans for this and future installments. It was also announced the first trailer was going to debut in front of the Doctor Strange sequel about to come out.

the marketing campaign: teasers and LEGO sets

After all that the campaign proper finally kicked off when the first trailer (26m YouTube views) hit the internet in early May. There’s little to no story that’s revealed here, it’s mostly a collection of beauty shots of the film’s colorful world and characters, though you can skim some hints from what’s shown. There’s obviously a new level of cooperation between the Na’vi and humans on Pandora, and we see lots of the kids in Sully’s family.

The teaser poster released at the same time shows an extreme closeup of one of those characters.

In late June the movie was the subject of a feature cover story in Empire that included a batch of exclusive images, including the first look at the character played by Winslet, and comments from Cameron defending the film’s reported three-hour running time.

Landau and producer Josh Izzo made an appearance at LEGO Con in June to unveil the first Avatar-based LEGO set.

the marketing campaign: the first movie returns

In late-August Disney announced the first movie was returning to theaters in September to set the stage for the sequel. Trailers, posters and TV spots were all created to support that rerelease. There was even a featurette with Cameron and the cast talking about the movie’s cultural impact.

That release added an impressive $58 million to the movie’s total, an amount seen as a positive indicator there was audience demand for the upcoming sequel. That was aided in part by the fact the film was pulled from the Disney+ streaming service in advance of this engagement but then returned a few weeks ahead of the sequel hitting theaters.

Cameron appeared via camera while Weaver, Saldaña, Worthington and Lang were on stage at Disney’s D23 event, also in September. They all talked about the experience of making the movie and showed off footage to those in attendance as they worked to sell it as a massive blockbuster theater owners could count on to prop up the fall box office.

A wide-ranging profile of Cameron included him touting the theatrical experience that the first movie delivered and the second movie promises, specifically pointing to how young audiences are craving that sort of immersive communal viewing. He also recounted the battles he had with Fox over the making of the first film and how he was kind of glad it wound up being over a decade before the second movie was made and released.

Cameron hosts a featurette from mid-September that focuses on the impact the first movie had on the cast and others

Weaver talked about this movie when she appeared on “The Late Show” during her press rounds for The Good House back in September. She was also the subject of an NYT profile that covered not just this film but also The Good House and Call Jane, all of which were coming out over the span of a few months.

There were a couple features like this that openly questioned whether too much time had passed since the first movie and whether its cultural impact was strong enough to buoy a sequel. Along similar lines were the “was anyone really pining for an Avatar sequel” stories that puts this movie in the context of other franchises, where the concept of a “sequel” is somewhat antiquated, as well as asking whether or not there was a groundswell of fan demand for more stories from Pandora.

the marketing campaign: now we’re getting serious

After spending much of October promoting LEGO sets, high-end statues and more, the second trailer (43.6m YouTube views) was finally released in early November. It spends half its running time just showing off the visuals of the movie and making it clear there’s even more spectacle this time around. Only after all that do we get – for the first time in the campaign – to the conflict that is driving the story. But even that is brushed past quickly in favor of more talk about “the way of water” and lots of shots of massive creatures moving through the oceans.

The poster released at the same time shows Sully and Neytiri looking at their children as someone flies a winged animal over the surface of the water.

Footage from the film was shown at a massive event at Niagara Falls, which itself was illuminated in celebration of the trailer’s release.

Total Film published a cover story on the film that included another batch of stills.

Disney launched an initiative called Keep Our Oceans Amazing where the company promised to donate $5 to The Nature Conservancy for ocean preservation and clean-up for every piece of artwork submitted by fans showing off their own underwater creature creation.

Another profile of Cameron had him talking about how the characters have grown and evolved since the first story and how this one is even more personal for him given his work on ocean conservation.

The final trailer (13m YouTube views) debuted later in November, just as tickets were going on sale, during an ESPN broadcast of “Monday Night Football.” It starts off with Sully explaining to the chief of the ocean-dwelling clan he’s just trying to keep his family safe, but what it is he’s keeping them safe from is never explained and once again only shown briefly. More time is devoted to how the Na’vi teenagers have to adjust to the water clan’s ways and learn to ride the ocean creatures they rely on.

A series of posters gave all the main characters their own spotlight. There were also exclusive one-sheets released for Dolby and IMAX that continue the focus on the colorful imagery without much of the story explained or on display. IMAX also shared an exclusive featurette on the making of the movie. A little bit later there were additional posters for RealD3D, 4DX and ScreenX.

Once again the release of a trailer was accompanied by a massive event, this time an “Avatar Day” display of footage in New York City’s Times Square. Later on the center of Venice would be lit up with a massive “A” to celebrate the movie’s upcoming release.

Along with the beginning of paid advertising – including TV spots, online banner ads and more – late November brought the beginning of the non-Cameron part of the publicity campaign. The younger members of the cast appeared on the “Disney Holiday Celebration” special while Saldana appeared on “GMA” and other shows, including the online “Hot Ones” taste test/interview series. Closer to release Weaver appeared on “Kimmel

Avatar: The Way of Water online ad

The in-person events started when the cast assembled at Brazil Comic-Con at the beginning of December. They then turned out for the world premiere in London. Later stops on the world press tour included Seoul, South Korea and Tokyo before ending with the blue carpet event in Los Angeles, which Cameron had to skip after he was diagnosed with Covid-19 but where the rest of the cast talked about shooting the movie, especially the technically difficult underwater shoots and more.

It was announced shortly after that the original song “Nothing is Lost” from The Weeknd would appear on the soundtrack.

Two more character posters came out focusing on a couple of the younger characters.

Saldana and Worthington asked each other softball questions in an official video. Worthington was the subject of a feature profile that delved into the personal and professional struggles he’s faced and largely overcome in the 13 years since the first movie should have catapulted him to the stratosphere.

overall

First off, the $150-175 million opening weekend predicted by tracking estimates is alright, but let’s keep in mind Black Panther: Wakanda Forever just opened to about $180 million in its first weekend, so it wouldn’t be earth-shattering, especially given Cameron’s comments about how it kind of needs to be a top-five all-time total just to make its production budget back.

This while media companies of all kinds are laying off staff, pulling content from streaming services to save money on residuals, canceling other expensive productions and so on. I mean…good for Cameron et al but also, the question of whether or not the first movie has any sort of cultural traction remains a valid one.

While the marketing campaign here is certainly massive and seems to have done its job in generating awareness and interest, there’s little here that answers the question above in an affirmative manner. That stems primarily from how the marketing keeps insisting on not showing the audience what the story of the movie is. It’s *all* about the sweeping camera shots and the beautiful shots of the alien planet but there’s nearly nothing here, not even in the press and publicity interviews, about the conflict that threatens Pandora. That has to be a choice (not one I necessarily agree with) based on how the pretty pictures are going to do more to sell LEGO sets than scenes of bombs and missles raining down on a peaceful people.

life lessons from: a muppet christmas carol

Rizzo et al have some important things to teach us…

As we get deeper into the holiday season with each passing day the urge to watch various Christmas and other holiday films grows stronger. Whether it’s an acknowledged classic like A Christmas Story, something more recent like Love Hard or whatever else helps get you in the spirit these movies often contain some important moral lessons for the audience to latch onto and grow as a result of. That might be something as simple as “moving back to your hometown at the first sign of professional setback is the best way to find unexpected romance” or a bit more complex.

One seasonal favorite that has a fair amount of life lessons is A Muppet Christmas Carol, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Directed by Brian Henson, it was the first movie released after the death of creator and performer Jim Henson. Michael Caine stars as Ebenezer Scrooge and is narrated/hosted by Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself with Rizzo the Rat as his foil, the pair providing many of the movie’s greatest moments and most important life lessons all of us can use.

There are two things in this life I hate: heights, and jumping from them.

For when someone asks you to make a prediction based on like one example and that’s not even completely applicable and why am I the one who has to go out on this limb?

The Muppet Christmas Carol GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

It’s good to be heckling again.

For when you finally get in the car after what seemed like an eight hour visit with family that you realize was only about 90 minutes and you have to talk through your feelings because you have a lot of them.

https://giphy.com/explore/the-muppet-christmas-carol

And I am here for the food.

For the beginning of the above-mentioned family visit.

Merry Christmas GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Even the vegetables don’t like him!

For when you’re reviewing your Christmas card list and come across that one person you know who I’m talking about it’s not that he’s a bad person necessarily but certainly isn’t someone who want to establish any sort of emotional precedent with.

The Muppet Christmas Carol GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Light the lamp, not the rat, light the lamp, not the rat!

For literally any situation where something goes even slightly sideways or wrong it doesn’t matter you can use this all year at any time and everyone will get it.

the fabelmans – marketing recap

How Universal Pictures has sold a nostalgic look back

The Fabelmans movie poster from Universal Pictures
The Fabelmans movie poster from Universal Pictures

Steven Spielberg directs – after cowriting with Tony Kushner – this week’s The Fabelmans, in wide theatrical release now after a few weeks playing in New York and Los Angeles. A semi-autobiographical look at the director’s own childhood, the movie stars Gabriel LaBelle as teenage Sammy Fabelman, the Spielberg proxy who uses his love of making movies as a way to process and deal with the tension in the marriage of his parents, played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano. As the two influence Sammy in different ways he also comes into his own as he realizes what he can do with a movie camera.

Also playing roles in Sammy’s life are members of his extended family, especially uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen) and great-uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch).

With so much talent up and down the roster, including longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams once again providing the music, it’s time to look at how it’s been sold to the general public.

announcements and casting

The movie was announced in early 2021, though Spielberg and Kushner had been working on the project throughout the previous two years.

Williams and then Rogen were included in the cast at that time. Dano joined a couple months after that followed by LaBelle. Others in the supporting cast, including Hirsch, were added over the next few months leading up to the beginning of filming in mid-2021.

Dano talked about the imposing nature of playing a real-life person and working with Spielberg in an interview earlier this year as part of The Batman’s publicity cycle. Similarly while she was promoting Showing Up Williams admitted to having her mind blown when the director said he wanted to work with her.

the marketing campaign

In a move that makes some sense given the talent and subject matter the first marketing beats of the film’s campaign involved announcements the world premiere would take place at September’s Toronto Film Festival and then that it would be the closing feature of November’s AFI Fest.

Things really got going in September, just before TIFF, with the release of the first poster. It immediately establishes the premise of the film by showing a young boy walking down a row of soundstages as filmstrip images of the boy’s family and life are projected on the building in front of him. It hits a warm, nostalgic tone that lets the audience know what they’re in for.

The first trailer (3m YouTube views) came out as well. As soon as young Sammy is given a film camera by his mother he begins making his own movies. From there on out it’s a mix of being told to follow his artistic heart and being told to stop fooling around and get serious about his life, all filtered through Sammy’s experience with his parents, including his mother’s frustrated dreams.

At TIFF the stars joined Spielberg and Kushner to share their thoughts on making the movie and more. They all turned out for the premiere as well. Spielberg also talked more about how the pandemic and his parents getting older made him realize if he was ever going to make this film, which he’d been considering for 20 years, it was going to have to be soon. The movie went on to win the People’s Choice Award at TIFF as well as accumulate plenty of positive reviews from those in attendance.

Also on the festival front, the movie was slated as the opening feature of MOMA’s The Contenders series.

There were, of course, a number of feature profiles of Spielberg that examined how it’s the culmination of the family-centric themes he’s explored throughout his career but the first to do so in such a personal and explicit way.

Hirsch was interviewed about how Spielberg prepared him to play a character based on the director’s uncle, which included precious little actual direction but lots of encouragement to make choices and do what he felt was right for the character.

At the AFI Fest screening Rogen, Williams and others talked about how emotional filming was for everyone involved as well as the occasionally surreal experience of working with Spielberg on such a personal project.

In a clip released to Fandango in early November Sammy’s mom is giving him a camera to film his trains with so he can watch them crash over and over.

The cast and crew assembled again for a conversation about the movie at The Academy.

A short video shows Spielberg engaging in his traditional toast before filming the last shot of the movie and praising the cast and crew for their hard work while behind-the-scenes footage rolls of everyone making the movie.

Rogen appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie while Williams appeared on “The Late Show” and “Kimmel” and Dano stopped by “The Late Show” as well. The whole cast as well as Spielberg then appeared on “Today”.

LaBelle was profiled in a piece where he talked about the pressures of playing a young Spielberg in front of the old Spielberg and more. Another feature on Dano again emphasized how he’s beginning to loosen up in his career and have some fun with the roles he chooses.

A featurette that came out last week opens with Spielberg talking about how he’s always drawn from real life experiences for his movies and that this one is just an extension of that while the cast praises the director and his approach.

overall

A few non-sequential thoughts on what’s been recapped above:

  • Spielberg is always at his best when he’s making movies he wants to make as opposed to making movies he should be making and this seems to fall firmly in the former category.

The Fabelmans GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Fabelmans GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Fabelmans GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Fabelmans GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

A Christmas Story Christmas – marketing recap

How Warner Bros. has sold the sequel to a bonafide classic

A Christmas Story Christmas movie poster from Warner Bros. Pictures
A Christmas Story Christmas movie poster from Warner Bros. Pictures

There’s little use in recounting how 1983’s A Christmas Story became a seasonal classic through the power of home video and basic cable as everyone likely knows the story. While there were two attempts at sequels – 1994’s It Runs In The Family (also called My Summer Story) and 2012’s straight-to-video A Christmas Story 2, the adventures of Ralphie and his friends and family have never continued in a way truly worthy of how beloved the original is.

Seeking to rectify that is A Christmas Story Christmas, debuting on HBO Max this week. Set in the mid-1970s, Peter Billingsley returns for the first time as a now-grown Ralphie, now with a wife (played by Erinn Hayes) and kids of his own. He brings the family back to his childhood home in Hammond, IN where Ralphie finds that creating a magical childhood Christmas for his kids is a lot harder than he realized all those years ago.

In addition to Billingsly much of the original cast also returns, including the actors who played Ralphie’s younger brother Randy and his friends Schwartz and Flick as well as their schoolyard nemesis Scott Farkus. Julie Hagerty takes on the role of Ralphie’s mother as Melinda Dillon retired years ago. Clay Kaytis directed the movie and cowrote the screenplay with Nick Schenk.

announcement and casting

Warner Bros. and Legendary announced the movie in January 2022, with Billingsly set to reprise his role and Kaytis directing. Others from the original cast joined the sequel a short while later.

Hayes and the actors playing Ralphie and Sandy’s children were added later on.

the marketing campaign

The first teaser trailer wasn’t released until mid-October. It’s not much, but shows new footage of the Parker’s home with audio from the original film to communicate that it’s something new but also something very much rooted in what’s come before.

Ralphie stands in the foreground with his childhood home in the background on the one poster that was also released in mid-October. Everything about the design is meant to evoke memories of the first movie, but especially the home video covers as opposed to the 1983 one-sheet. In case the image wasn’t clear, copy on the poster reads “Ralphie comes home.”

A batch of first-look photos was shared at the same time along with comments from Billingsly about where Ralphie is in this story and what he wants to accomplish.

As the full trailer (837k views on YouTube), which came out at the beginning of November, opens, Ralphie is reminiscing about the passage of time as he shares a drink with some old friends. At the behest of his mother, he tries to create magical Christmas experiences for his own kids but finds that it’s a lot more difficult on the adult end of that equation. There are plenty of references to moments from the original movie along with some updates and it looks just charming.

Last weekend the cast and crew were in attendance at an outdoor screening of the movie. That was followed by a featurette with Billingsley explaining how the characters have been updated in a way that still honors the original, getting all the kids back together and more. He also took part in a fun little video where he answers Christmas related questions.

An interview with Billingsley had him explaining in a bit more detail how he and his producing partner decided the time was right to revisit the story and characters, how Dillon gave him her blessing to cast someone else as Ralphie’s mom and lots more.

overall

Your mileage will likely vary based on how you feel about the original movie (if you don’t love it with all your cold cynical heart you’re the world’s greatest monster though) and how you feel about legacy sequels (it’s completely reasonable to have different opinions, so ydy) but I find a lot to like here. Mostly that’s because it seems to be focused on Ralphie’s struggles to meet everyone’s expectations and live up to the sepia-toned memories he and others have of “the good old days”. Both of those are very relatable.

The most surprising part of the campaign is actually the release itself. It seems like this would be a natural fit for theaters, especially since there aren’t a ton of (or any?) other holiday films playing on the big screen this season. But perhaps, despite WB’s new “theaters first” doctrine it was felt that since the original didn’t really take off until home viewing it was more natural for this one to be a home experience.