Owen Vaccaro plays young Lewis Barnavelt in The House With a Clock In Its Walls. Owen has been orphaned and so has been sent to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in Michigan. Unbeknownst to the kid, though, Uncle Jonathan is a warlock who lives in a big mysterious house with the strange Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett).
It’s not long before Owen becomes mixed up in the magical goings-on of his uncle. Specifically he gets involved in Jonathan’s quest to find a dangerous clock that was left in the house years ago by an evil wizard intent on destroying the world. To do that he’ll have to unlock his own magical proclivities and learn all about the dangers that lurk around every corner of the house.
The first poster is reminiscent of a lot of other movies where a house has presented something imposing or mysterious to the main character/s. The house, lights on in every window and doorway, sits behind a wrought-iron gate looking somewhat imposing and a little spooky, with the kid looking through that gate, his back to the camera. There are Jack-O-Lanterns on either side of the gate to help reinforce the slightly scary setting and establish the time the story takes place during. That there’s something sinister happening is further conveyed by the copy at the top reading “The house knows what makes you tick.”
Terribly smoothed-out photos of the cast are used on the second poster, released in early July, all placed around a magic-looking spiral with all kinds of objects floating on the golden beams and the house itself at the center of the swirl. The same copy is used here, even though the focus has shifted from the house itself to the characters.
“Do you hear the ticking?” a character asks as the trailer opens amidst a chorus of windchimes. Lewis is just entering the house, which has all kinds of strange things happening, some of which he sees and some of which he doesn’t. Mrs. Zimmerman and Jonathan are there to guide him through the house, telling him about its secrets and how to stay safe, but it’s never clear if they’re 100% helpful or still have ulterior – possibly evil – motivations of their own.
The whole thing plays like a darker version of Goosebumps, or a slightly more sinister Jumanji. Lewis may be in danger at any moment but he’s remarkably inactive in the trailer, simply reacting in disbelief to what’s happening around him.
The second trailer released in late June shows off more of the connection between Jonathan and Lewis as the latter arrives at the house and is greeted in a much more friendly manner by the former. It quickly gets to how Jonathan is trying to show Lewis how to harness some of the more magical features of the house, but hasn’t told him quite everything. There are dangers still lurking and growing that must be confronted by the two of them as well as Mrs. Zimmerman.
Online and Social
The front page of the official website features the teaser poster art alongside a clock counting down to release and buttons encouraging visitors to watch the trailer or buy tickets. There are also links in the corner to the movie’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram profiles.
The main draw, though is the “Explore the House” button, which unlocks a video from Black telling you everything is perfectly safe along with footage from the trailers. Once that’s done you can navigate yourself around the house and track down magical clues, using a digital notebook to keep track of what you’ve found.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
The studio started running Tweets like this as promoted posts in early-August. Other online ads used short clips from the trailers as well as key art.
Sprinkles Cupcakes created a “Timeless Magic” cupcake that customers could enjoy if they needed all the sugar.
Universal created a movie-branded “Magical Escape Experience” in Glendale, CA that was free to the public to try and harness some of the popularity of escape rooms.
Based on the posts shared by the movie on Twitter, the studio engaged in a bit of influencer marketing, with a number of family-focused individuals posting how they were so excited for the movie to finally be coming out.
Media and Publicity
The movie was part of the CineEurope presentation from the studio.
In late August Roth finally addressed the fact that he was making a PG-rated kids movie, positioning the decision as artistically risky instead of a desperate reaction in the wake of the complete failure of his Death Wish remake last year.
Blanchett appeared in a couple videos like this that offered the audience a riddle to solve, with clues hidden somewhere in the room behind her. Both she and Black then showed up in a National Book Day video encouraging viewers to pick up a book they’ve been putting off and discover what’s inside.
Blanchett appeared on “Kimmel” in mid-September to talk about working with Black and otherwise promote the film.
Let’s just take one more second and acknowledge this movie – a big, colorful adaptation of a children’s book about magic – is directed by Eli Roth, someone more commonly associated with violent, slightly misogynistic horror. That’s…notable.
Putting that to the side, I’m not sure who the intended audience for the movie actually is. It plays like a Goosebumps/Harry Potter/Lemony Snicket type story, but it never seems to commit to either the comedy or the magic, wanting to have it both ways. And while the trailers are alright, the posters are kind of ridiculous and don’t really pop off the wall, so to speak. It seems like a movie the studio didn’t quite know how to sell.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
Director Eli Roth wasn’t a huge part of the movie’s pre-release publicity, perhaps due to the studio’s desire to not make parents familiar with his previous work wary of bringing their kids to it, but now he’s been interviewed about how he hopes it sends audiences deeper into the horror genre and how this was an unexpected turn for him.
IMAX released an exclusive featurette with Jack Black and others talking about how much more special the movie will be on the big big screen. Black was also interviewed about his recent string of scary movies. Another IMAX featurette asked whether Black was a warlock or not.