The ITV/PBS fan favorite drama about the landed class in turn of the 20th century Great Britain returns with a bigger story.
Three years after its six season run on TV ended Downton Abbey is back, but this time the drama is taking place on the big screen. Nearly all the cast has returned, including Maggie Smith as Violet Crowley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, in yet another story focusing on both the wealthy family that lives in the majestic estate and the staff that attends to their needs.
The story of the movie is bigger than the interpersonal drama often seen on the show. This time the Crowley family must prepare for the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary, a grand affair that necessitates the return of Carson (James Carter), their longtime butler who has since retired. With troubled marriages, pregnancies, squabbles over inheritances and more adding to the already high tensions around a Royal visit, the drama is sure to be high.
Focus Features has run the marketing equivalent of a warm blanket on a chilly fall day, focusing on exactly the story elements audiences are sure to be looking for as their favorite characters return to their lives. Tracking estimates predict an opening weekend of about $12 million, which would be a decent showing. And the 81% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes indicates they will get most of what they’re expecting when they head to the theater.
(Note: it’s a bit hard to differentiate between the U.S. and U.K. campaigns for the film, so I’ve aired on the side of including material unless it’s specifically designated for overseas markets)
“We’ve been expecting you” the first poster (by marketing agency BOND) declares. A smartly dressed butler is shown, his gloved hands inspecting the silverware being placed on a table so finely polished it shows a reflection of the Abbey itself. A second poster similarly shows him polishing a crystal glass. Two more shift the focus from the servants to the nobility, showing Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Hexham (Laura Carmichael) in their finest gowns.
More of the characters are assembled in the house’s expansive hall on the next poster to show off how many are back for the movie.
Those characters are broken out into pairs in a series of posters that put each group into a portion of the house they’re associated with. So Carter and Elise (Phyllis Logan) are shown in the pantry while others are placed in other rooms befitting their status and vocation.
On the next poster the nobility are presented at the top while the servants are at the bottom, befitting their perceived status in the house and society.
Another poster came out that eschewed the cast for a golden image of the Abbey itself, presented as a “cordial” invitation to come see “the motion picture event” in theaters.
Two more posters came out in September on International Dog Day that focuses on Teo, the family dog. On one, Teo is shown sitting on a formal chair in the same manner as the other character posters. On the other, she’s seen jogging alongside Carson, welcoming him as he returns to the house following his retirement.
The teaser trailer from mid-December didn’t offer much, just a sweeping crane shot of the estate grounds and the promise that the whole cast was going to be back for everyone to enjoy.
That same opulence and grandeur are on display in the first official trailer, showing that the story is back on familiar territory even if things have changed a bit since the series ended. After establishing the return of most of the characters it’s revealed the King and Queen are coming to Downton, an event that has everyone preparing and which necessitates the return of Carson to the staff. After that it’s a series of shots showing the relationships between different characters and how they’ve grown or changed over time.
Online and Social
Focus Features’ official website has some good information but never really rises above the standard template used by the studio to offer unique material or take visitors deeper into the story.
Advertising and Publicity
The first full trailer was shown to exhibitors and others in attendance at CinemaCon in April, sparking lots of positive buzz and conversations as it revealed more of the story’s details. Footage was later shown at CineEurope a couple months later.
The movie was among those announced by AMC Theaters as part of the first curated under its Artisan Films program to highlight smaller films.
A short featurette was released in August that had the cast and crew talking about how excited they were to be returning to characters and settings the audience loves.
Just before release, NBC – a corporate sibling of Focus Features – was scheduled to air “Return to Downton Abbey: A Grand Event,” a special that amounted to an hour-long featurette designed to suck fans back into the world of the movie.
Focus launched a web series on YouTube called “Reel Destinations,” with the first episode – sponsored by Visit Britain – visiting the locations of this movie and offering some of the history found at those spots.
A brief clip was released in early September that showed Lady Crawley still had all her wits about her.
Online ads featured photos of the assembled cast to sell audiences on the return of their favorite characters.
Promotional partners for the movie included,
- Airbnb, which listed the castle used as the fictional Abbey for one night only, the caveat being that those staying must prove themselves to be passionate fans of the series.
- The Art of Shaving, which introduced a movie-themed collection of products featuring the same formal invitation style seen on one of the poster.
- Books-a-Million, which ran a sweepstakes awarding movie tickets and books about the film.
- Cost Plus World Market, which offered a curated collection of high-end goods all featuring the movie’s branding.
- Fairmont, which offered Afternoon Tea at locations around the country. Select locations also offered additional movie-themed catering, drink selections and more. The Boston location hosted a display of costumes from the film.
- Visit Britain, which created a whole to the film’s locations and settings for people to explore.
- Magnolia Bakery, which created a new Earl Grey Cupcake to celebrate the movie’s release.
- The Republic of Tea, which offered a series of special edition teas inspired by the movie’s characters and featuring them on the labels.
- Saks Fifth Avenue, although that partnership was also unclear.
- Viking, which offered a sweepstakes awarding a tip to visit the castle where the movie was filmed.
- Chase, which ran a sweepstakes awarding tickets to the movie’s New York City premiere.
- Walker’s, which ran a sweepstakes awarding a trip to London that included a tour of the film’s shooting locations.
The Biltmore in Asheville, N.C. hosted Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, featuring props and costumes from the film as well.
The studio put out a helpful recap of the major events of the series.
AMC Theaters shared an exclusive interview with some of the actors from the film. It also hosted a fan event early screening last week for people to see the film ahead of release and start spreading the word.
Media and Press
In late November members of the cast appeared on “The Today Show” to offer a behind the scenes look at production. A month later EW’s 2019 preview issue had more first look stills and comments from the cast and crew, including why Lily James’ character isn’t included.
A feature profile included comments from much of the cast as to why they felt it was important to come back as well as why the filmmakers were reluctant at first to jump in and potentially disrupt any storylines from the show. The producers were also interviewed about the likelihood of a sequel should this one prove successful.
A cover story in Town & Country focused the massive undertaking that was reassembling the cast and how the filmmakers worked to make everything special. There was also significant focus on the style of the movie, including features like this and this.
The cast and crew made various other stops around the media world in the last few weeks to talk about the movie.
Without the Downton Abbey branding attached, this campaign would have faced significant pressures in the market. This kind of quiet, reserved adult drama has been going nowhere at the box office in the last few years, drowned out by the bigger, noiser campaigns for sci-fi sequels, adaptations and other high-profile releases.
With that branding, though, the chances for success increase significantly. The show still enjoys a deeply-invested fanbase, many of whom will likely turn out for the film in the coming weeks. Never mind that the campaign barely mentions anything involving a story or stakes or character arcs, it’s simply the return of loved characters that will entice many to venture out.
Picking Up the Spare
Michelle Dockery appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie.
Allen Leech was interviewed about his career and how he was happy the movie would allow for a fix to the unsatisfactory ending he thought he got on the show.
“Saturday Night Live” put out a fake trailer for the movie that poked fun at how low the stakes and drama in the story are that turns into something else entirely.
The movie’s gowns and costumes were once more brought to the forefront in a profile of the designer who created them.