How Universal Pictures is selling the period drama with a very personal story.
1917, the new film from director Sam Mendes, who cowrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is one of a handful of recent projects to revisit what at the time was being called The Great War or The War To End All Wars, only later understood to be simply World War I. It joins the high profile They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary produced by Peter Jackson meant to remind audiences of the terror and cost of the war.
This time the story is fiction but the reality, as conceived by Mendes and Wilson-Caims, is still very real. In the spotlight are two young soldiers in the British Army, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). The two are given a very important mission: They must get themselves across enemy territory in order to deliver a message that 1,600 soldiers, including Blake’s brother, are heading into a trap.
It’s just the kind of historic drama that makes sense for a holiday, awards-season release. Universal’s campaign has focused on Mendes’ technical achievements with the film, which sports a 92 percent “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes and is tracking for an opening weekend of around $20 million.
The movie’s title is presented on the first poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) as four enormous numbers, each transparent and showing a sunset in the background. At the bottom of the last two numbers you see the damaged barbed wire that marks the battlefield of the story.
That same image and format is shown on the second poster, but with a few key additions: 1) Blake and Schofield are seen running away from the camera, 2) A note that this comes “From the director of Skyfall, and 3) The tagline “Time is the enemy,” something that highlights the stakes for the young soldiers being shown.
Those two are shown more closely on the IMAX poster, this time crawling across a field that’s being strafed by an enemy plane, dirt being thrown up and still-hot bullets falling all around them.
We’re deep in the trenches of WWI as the first trailer (14 million views on YouTube) opens, with two soldiers investigating what turns out to be an enemy bunk. Blake and Leslie are summoned and given a mission: Find another battalion and stop a planned attack that is doomed to fail and result in 1,600 men being killed. They’re on their own and racing against the clock as they attempt to bring their message to those who need it and save the lives of all those men.
The second trailer (19 million views on YouTube) was released in early October. It tells the same basic story as the first, but offers much more footage of the journey Blake and Leslie take in their journey to find the battalion Blake’s brother is part of and warn them they’re about to walk into a German trap. We see the kind of horrific conditions that made up the WWI battlefront and what the two soldiers need to do to survive on their own in that man made hell.
The final trailer (900,000 views on YouTube), which came out just last week, hits a lot of the same beats as the other spots, emphasizing the dramatic nature of the journey the two soldiers embark on. Some new footage is shown here to make that even more clear, including more showing some of the other people they encounter on their mission. It also includes callouts for the multiple awards the movie and its filmmakers have already been nominated for, which is the real point of the trailer.
Online and Social
Most of the marketing materials and other content can be found on the movie’s official website, which uses some of the previously-seen key art.
Advertising and Promotions
A behind the scenes featurette was released in late September that has Mendes explaining the story and why he shot the film as he did, with others joining in to share how the movie takes you into the lives of the characters and their journey.
Preview screenings held in early December immediately resulted in the movie being included in most award season conversations, especially regarding Mendes and his direction.
An extended featurette from December had Mendes talking about what it was that lead him to write this movie and begin developing it as well as his experiences during production and more.
While it’s not listed on the movie’s official site, the 1917 One Shot Challenge was a promotion run by the studio encouraging aspiring filmmakers to create their own short film that tells a story in a single take. That’s a nice way to get some buzz in a critical audience in a way that’s contextual to the movie.
The first clip released came exclusively via Fandango MovieClips and shows some of the hellish situations Blake and Leslie have to get through to complete their mission, along with how incredible Mendes’ direction and camera work are.
Short videos like this were used as TV spots and pre-roll ads. Promoted posts on social media and online ads used those videos along with the key art to drive traffic to the website where people could buy tickets.
Media and Press
Much of the focus of the press, especially following the release of the second trailer in October, was on the single shot Mendes planned that plays a central role in the film. The director talked about that in interviews like this. Later on it came back up in additional interviews with cinematographer Roger Deakins and star Dean Charles Chapman among others.
Cowriter Krysty Wilson-Cains joined Mendes for a joint interview where they talked about crafting the narrative of the film and the difficulty they had doing so.
At the film’s premiere Mendes spoke about the very personal inspiration for the story.
In the last couple weeks the movie has benefitted from a number of awards nominations, particularly for either the film as a whole or Mendes’ direction, largely because of the innovate style it’s presented in.
It’s unlikely that the general public is going to swayed to see the movie by all the praise heaped on Mendes for his technical achievements. That kind of focus on the technical aspects of the filmmaking doesn’t often work to make a huge difference in crowds who are just looking to be pleasantly entertained in theaters.
Making that message the central component of the movie’s campaign is then meant to appeal to those who identify as cinephiles and who have followed Mendes’ career more closely over the years. It’s also meant to influence the awards season voters, a strategy that seems to be working.
For everyone else, what’s presented here is a Very Good war drama, something that usually resonates at the end of the calendar year to some extent. A branding focus was found early on and subsequently reinforced, creating a strong identity that is instantly familiar no matter where it’s encountered.