In my latest Adweek column I once again recapped what I felt were some of the most memorable and innovative movie marketing campaigns of the past year. The problem with creating the list is that when I originally went through what I’d covered over the course of 2017 there were 23 films that made the cut. Removing any of them felt like I was losing something essential, something representative of what made 2017 such an interesting year for film marketing.
So, in true internet style, I’m 100% cheating. While that list is one I’m more or less happy with, I couldn’t *not* mention once again the others that wound up being removed for one reason or another. There are good reasons – which I debated for quite a while – as to why any of what’s below could have been included on my initial list and these are no less noteworthy, all doing something or achieving something that was pretty unique or at least worth mentioning.
With all that being said, here are the other 13 campaigns of 2017 that I felt were worth noting as part of a year where there’s still plenty of room for Hollywood to grow in terms of diversity and inclusion but which shows at least there’s some new thinking happening that promises hope for the future.
So many campaigns worked so hard to keep big plot details secret, but Marvel Studios decided to throw caution to the wind for Thor: Ragnarok, showing audiences in the very first trailer that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) would wind up engaged in gladiatorial combat with Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). That was just part of a campaign that used bright visuals and plenty of humor to attract audiences to a movie that looked not just completely different from the previous Thor movies but really most any other superhero movie out there. The resulting box-office success, combined with that of Wonder Woman and in contrast to Justice League, shows how hungry audiences seem to be for the comic book film genre to try new approaches.
I have to admit to having only followed M. Night Shyamalan’s work sporadically over the last several years. But there’s little doubt that the campaign for Split created a sense of excitement that hasn’t been attached to the director in quite a while. It used a noteworthy performance by star James McAvoy to sell a real mystery that the audience was encouraged to follow up on by actually seeing the film. More than that, even, it delivered on that promise with a reveal that played right into fans’ wheelhouse, setting the stage for a return to one of Shyamalan’s best-loved premises.
It’s very interesting that we’re hitting the end of the road with a few superhero franchises here. The early stages of the marketing for Avengers: Infinity War have been heavy with the promise that this is the close of a major chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So too, the marketing of Logan made it clear to fans that we were seeing the last of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, something that’s been a big part of the last two decades. The campaign was heavy with imagery and messages of endings, death and legacy as it sold an Old Man Logan story that was as far from uplifting as could be imagined. It was going out on its own terms, it seems, redeeming a solo franchise that got off to a shaky start but then became among the most cinematically interesting series around.
The campaign for Trainspotting 2 wasn’t notable for what it did that was new but what it did that was old. The entire thing was essentially a recreation of the push for the original 20 years ago but with an updated take on the characters and their situations. That didn’t create a huge demand in the audience, it’s true. But where many “legacy sequels” or whatever we’re calling them try to set up the next generation, this one just promised essentially the same movie one more time.
This campaign was just a lot of fun. It obviously wasn’t Armie Hammer’s biggest role of the year, but the marketing of Free Fire sold a violent and funny good time at the theater. As I stated when it came out, the movie was presented as an extended version of a single scene from a Tarantino film, with everyone completely involved in a shootout and little else. With its fast and loose trailers and a bunch of colorful, poppy and bright posters, the whole thing had a good sense of branding that worked to sell the ensemble cast, including Brie Larson and others.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
What’s kind of funny about the marketing of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was that, in keeping with the brand established by the first movie, it was sold as a return to the “fun” side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of course that was before the marketing of Thor 3 really took off and the audience was sold something truly outrageous and unlike most of what had come before. Still, the promise of a return to the outlaws and walking plants that made a memorable impression on audiences the first time around was filled with its own version of humor and psychedelia, making it clear that while there were still plenty of stories to setup it also was just going to be a bit of fun.
This one almost didn’t make the list on a few different occasions but ultimately survived because it worked so damn hard. Seriously, I don’t think any marketing campaign of 2017 put in the effort and legwork as that for The Mummy. As early as the first trailer it was promising it was the launching point for a full cinematic universe of horror creatures, something Universal made explicit was the announcement of the “Dark Universe” banner and a handful of future films even before the Mummy hit theaters. That was an epic case of counting unhatched chickens in the end, with the franchise seemingly dead before it off the ground.
On my Adweek list I included the marketing of Girls Trip but the campaign for Rough Night deserves mentioning as well. Some of the biggest female comedians of the moment turned out to sell a movie that was positioned as being The Hangover but for chicks and it kind of worked. It’s just one of a few movies last year that showed there’s a market for movies about women letting loose in the same way guys do. Unlike movies like Bad Moms, which seem to saddle the characters with guilt over their escapades, the marketing of Rough Night in particular made it clear that no, they’re going to enjoy themselves free of any burdens or expectations.
The first trailer made little to no sense. The posters sold something that looked like a twisted version of “Teletubbies.” No one in the cast would talk about the story. Despite all that, Brigsby Bear’s campaign made quite an impression on a select audience who was wooed by the positive buzz coming out of screenings at Sundance and elsewhere. Everyone who saw it emphatically warned others not to spoil a single detail but eventually the campaign took a more traditional route, though that did little to dispel the air of uniqueness that hovered around the movie.
Blade Runner 2049
The campaigns for most “legacy sequels” offer little that’s new or innovative. They want to sell you what’s essentially a remake of the first movie, just with older characters. Either that or the lives of the characters seemed to have ended after the first story ended and only now restart in the sequel. The marketing of Blade Runner 2049 did none of that. It was clear throughout the campaign that we were getting a wholly new story in a world that had continued to exist and evolve in the 35 years since the first one ended. That was explicitly conveyed in the series of shorts that filled in some of the story gaps and also implicit just in the way the world felt. While the mysteries of the story made up most of the focus of the formal marketing, the publicity focused on the talent, from director Denis Villeneuve to stars Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford.
This isn’t a campaign that knocked anyone’s socks off, including my own. But in selling Wonder, Lionsgate sold something that was otherwise missing from the holiday theatrical season: An inspirational family film. The marketing relied heavily on harkening back to the cover of the book the film is based on and made sure to present it as the story of a loving family getting through hard times together. That message obviously resonated as the movie has quietly grossed over $123 million to date and actually *gained* at the box-office week-over-week in the last week of 2017 as families turned out before everyone went back to work and school, boosted by a round of new TV spots designed to achieve just that result.
Disney/Pixar’s marketing of Coco is worth mentioning because it showed you could sell something that was culturally authentic and have it resonate with the audience of that culture as well as other groups. Much attention was paid, particularly in the publicity efforts, to how much effort the filmmakers put into making sure the story was respectful to the traditions and characters being depicted. That was important not just because representation matters but because it showed you could make a mainstream success that didn’t water down ethnicity to play well to white audiences. We’re in a diverse, multicultural society and that trend is only going to continue, so movies will need to reflect that. Coco was a good step in that direction.
The Shape of Water
I’d heard nothing about The Shape of Water and wasn’t even aware director Guillermo del Toro had a new movie coming out until, out of nowhere, I saw a trailer before a screening of Dunkirk. That surprise trailer made a massive impression on everyone and was buoyed by an artistic poster campaign that received press attention itself. As with other movies, the point was to sell a big mystery but do so by presenting a very human story centered on characters who were, in various ways, outcasts or misfits. The whole thing combined into a unique whole that was captivating on multiple levels.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.