Spectacle – that one key sequence that has the audience holding their breath and white-knuckling the arm rest – has been a feature of the Mission: Impossible movies since the franchise’s inception in 1996. That first movie, directed by Brian De Palma, featured Ethan Hunt (played by Tom Cruise) being lowered into a heavily-monitored room where he can’t make a sound, touch the floor or come in contact with any surface save the terminal he’s trying to access. Suspended by wires and attached to a harness, Hunt spins and pivots to keep his balance before the rest of his team can pull him back up.
That set the stage for future movies, all of which have included that one moment, each one attempting to up the ante from the previous film.
For as much as the franchise has become defined by these standout scenes, it’s notable that the marketing has not always used them as key selling points for the audience. That value proposition only came into usage after 2006, splitting the franchise’s marketing messages into two distinct periods.
Mission: Impossible 1-3: The Spy Movies
At first the franchise was being sold as one belonging squarely in the Spy Movie genre.
For the 1996 original Mission: Impossible, the trailer featured plenty of action, yes, but it’s almost all in service of the mission that forms the core of the movie’s story. We get who the team is and that Hunt is the best of the best, as well as that he’s been betrayed by someone inside the organization. Likewise the poster here is downright stoic, looking more like the cover to a John le Carre novel than a modern action movie. Similarly, an interview with director Brian de Palma talks more about the “chess-like” sequences of the movie more than the difficulty of the stunts, selling it as an intricate spy story.
Director John Woo talked about reestablishing Hunt as a character in the buildup for Mission: Impossible II, someone with a more fully-fleshed out persona and background, though because it’s Woo there was of course a good amount of discussion about the stunt sequences. Even in the trailer the focus is more on the action in general than one or two key set pieces, something represented on the poster that shows Hunt running while surrounded by flames.
In the trailer for Mission: Impossible III there’s a real effort being made to make the story personal for Ethan Hunt, explaining that he’s out to protect someone he loves in addition to bringing the bad guy to justice. The theatrical poster shows Hunt in the middle of the action, but not in any sort of outsized or grand way, just as though he’s infiltrating a building or something smaller.
Mission Impossible 4-6: The Set Piece Movies
It may seem crazy now, but Mission: Impossible III opened soft. At the time, expectations held it would gross over $50 million but came in with an opening weekend of only $48 million, something attributed in part to the public’s backlash against Cruise in the wake of the time he jumped on Oprah’s couch and attempted to explain therapy to Matt Lauer.
At the time Paramount’s marketing head Rob Moore declared instead of viewing it as a disappointment it was better to compare the movie favorably to 2005’s Batman Begins because both movies, he said, “resurrected a dormant franchise.” That’s an interesting way to position the third entry in a continuing series, likening it to a full character reboot that sought to undo the damage done by a previous film.
Which is to say, the stage was set for Ghost Protocol to *actually* revive the franchise in a new and interesting way five years later. In the trailer for that fourth film you see at the very end that the studio has begun to identify the big set piece as a key hook for the audience, offering an extended look at the scene of Hunt dangling outside a Dubai hotel. That sequence, of course, received a featurette of its own to take audiences deeper into it and show the danger Cruise was putting himself in. And it was used as the key image on the IMAX poster.
The same formula is used in the trailer for Rogue Nation, which ends with the sequence of Hunt hanging off the outside of a transport plane. That shot, as Scott Mendelson pointed out at the time, wasn’t even integral to the story but part of the opening Bond-esque establishing sequence, meaning a significant chunk of the marketing, including the IMAX poster, was devoted to something largely unrelated to the majority of the movie. There were featurettes from Paramount devoted to the car park sequence and a key motorcycle chase as well as an interview with Cruise where he talks about the stunts and story.
In the four years between 2006’s Mission: Impossible III and 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol the movie industry changed dramatically. Those changes are reflected in the different approaches taken by Paramount.
First, two years after M:I III, the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched and took over everyone’s thinking. Suddenly it wasn’t enough to put out a series of sequels in a series, studios needed to become brand managers, shepherding IP in a new and different way. That at least in part explains the change from numeric numbering to the adoption of subtitles in the naming of each movie. Future movies could no longer be generic, they needed to be unique and convey that to the audience.
Second, Tom Cruise fully became the Tom Cruise we now think of, for both good and Ill. MI: II in 2000 unofficially kicked off a new phase of his career, one where he mostly stuck with action films and only occasionally popped up in dramas or random comedic cameos. As a box office tracking analyst said in 2015, “His star power and the movie are inextricably linked in a way that very few stars and their movies can boast. In a world where concept normally trumps star power, Cruise literally is the concept.”
Third, IMAX became much more of a mainstream theatrical brand. 2008 marked the introduction of IMAX Digital, which made exhibition much more cost effective than the film-based process had been. That innovation led to the massive expansion of IMAX screens from a few hundred to the current 1,300+. So the incentive was to not only see these large-scale action sequences that put Tom Cruise in danger, but to see them on the biggest digital screen available, something reflected in the format-exclusive one-sheets for the later films.
Fourth, marketing costs continued to rise dramatically, powered mostly by increased TV advertising rates. The advertising and marketing budget for the 1996 original was reported to be over $24 million, though Paramount disputed that number. In 2015, Paramount was said to have spent roughly $12 million just on Rogue Nation’s TV campaign.
While much has changed, one thing that’s remained the same is that the marketing has consistently sold the mission Hunt and his team are engaged in executing, even more so than the villains. That offers an interesting point of contrast between this series and the Bond films, where the bad guy is often positioned as the embodiment of the mission. It’s not that they’re missing from the campaigns, it’s just that they’re often secondary in importance.
So the Mission: Impossible franchise offers an illustration into how the mindset of Hollywood not only makes movies but sells them to the audience has evolved from the Pre-MCU era to the new one, where intellectual property – especially IP that will play well both domestically and overseas – rules the industry.