How Universal is selling the revival of a decades-old character for modern audiences.
In the last 12 years, since he came roaring back to the top of the movie industry with 2008’s Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. has only starred in seven non-Marvel Cinematic Universe features. His Tony Stark has been so integral to the MCU he’s needed to cameo or be part of a lot of what’s come out since then. That’s meant his schedule has been pretty much booked.
Now that his Avenging days are behind him for good, he’s seeking to expand a bit and is hoping this week’s Dolittle is the vehicle to help him do so. Downey stars as the Doctor of the title, an eccentric character who, as you should know already, has the ability to talk with animals. Pulled out of his reclusive life, Dolittle embarks on a quest with his animal and human friends to find an exotic cure for the ailing Queen Victoria.
(Part of me can’t believe I typed the above without irony.)
Unsurprisingly, the studio has relied heavily on Downey’s presence to sell the movie, but the campaign is one that’s so muddled and often confusing it’s hard to tell what’s happening. Still, tracking reports are estimating an opening weekend of $35-55 million. Reviews, which just started coming out, haven’t been of a nature that betting on the high end would make a lot of sense.
The title character sits surrounded by his animal friends on the first poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts). “He’s just not a people person.” we’re told, but the main selling point is simply Downey and the promise of him engaging in all sorts of hijinks with a bunch of CGI creatures.
Each of those animals is given their own opportunity to shine on a series of posters released a few weeks later.
The Dolby poster uses the same tagline seen before but pulls the camera out a bit to show Dolittle marching in a line with a menagerie of animals. For IMAX the poster shows the whole collection of humans and animals involved in the story, including some of the settings seen. It also makes an interesting design choice, with some of the animals bleeding out from the frame that is within the confines of the one-sheet. That’s a different approach than on other IMAX posters, which fill the frame or which make it clear that what you’re seeing is more than you otherwise would.
Aside from a fairly awful cover of “What a Wonderful World,” the initial message sent in the first trailer (22.5 million views on YouTube) from October is that the movie comes from the same producers behind such effects-heavy fairytale adaptations as Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent. Dolittle and his friends are about to embark on a “perilous journey” and we see footage of them getting into various tight situations, but always seeming to come through them.
The “official” trailer (853,000 views on YouTube) is exactly the same as the initial version but just a bit shorter and with a new ending that reveals the dragon the crew encounters on their journey.
Online and Social
In addition to the trailers and other content, the official website is actually fairly nicely stocked. There’s a pleasant little game and some coloring pages to download, both of which work to make it clear the movie is targeting a younger crowd.
Advertising and Publicity
The movie was part of the studio’s presentation to exhibition executives at CineEurope in mid-July 2018. Things then went quiet until October 2019 when the trailer was released and the new titled – shortened from the original The Voyage Of Doctor Dolittle – was announced.
During the recent holiday season, a couple videos were released with Downey sitting in a “Masterpiece Theater”-esque chair and encouraging people to see the film.
Downey appeared in a promotional video from December that had him running the auditions for his animal costars, all of whom use lines from other films to try and get their parts.
Sia’s song for the movie’s soundtrack, “Original,” was released last week.
A series of videos came out earlier this week that introduced all the animal characters in the story, showing the actor who provides their voice and with a brief overview of who they are provided by Downey.
Online ads used the key art, especially the photo of Dolittle with the animals arranged behind him, along with video snippets. Preroll and other video ad units – including presumably TV commercials – used short versions of the trailer to try and get people’s attention.
The premiere was held last weekend, with the stars and others in attendance.
Promotional partners for the movie included:
- Circle K, though no details could be found on what was involved.
- FAO Schwarz, which promoted the movie with in-store ads and signage during the recent holiday shopping season.
- Amazon, which partnered with the movie to get people to make donations to Toys For Tots through their Alexa devices.
- National Wildlife Foundation, which ran a sweepstakes and otherwise used the idea of the movie and its animal characters to get people to become conservation advocates.
- Frontier Airlines, which ran a sweepstakes awarding the winner a trip for four to the movie’s premiere.
- Nature’s Path, which put movie branding on some of its product packaging and donated money raised to animal conservation programs.
- Procter & Gamble, but once more details aren’t available on this promotion.
Media and Press
There wasn’t a whole lot of press activity for the film, which may be because of the delays and other issues it encountered. But in the weeks before release, Downey appeared on a handful of late night and early morning talk shows and did a couple interviews here and there. Many of them turned to questions about how he feels leaving the MCU, but that’s to be expected.
There are moments where things seem alright. But for the most part, the campaign presents the movie as one to dread, the kind of effects-heavy disaster with big aspirations but a messy, incomprehensible story.
One reason for that dread is that the story isn’t mentioned at all – AT ALL – in the campaign. None of the trailers, posters or ads explain what it is, and even the official synopsis is sparse on details. So audiences are asked to sign up for an unknown quantity based solely on the idea of enjoying Downey and some talking animal hijinks. Considering outside of the MCU Downey doesn’t have a great theatrical track record in the last decade that’s a dicey bet to place.
Picking Up the Spare
I had missed this feature on the extensive and messy reshoot process the film underwent.
Downey finally did a few talk show appearances to promote the film, though his heart didn’t seem to be in it. There was also an interview on why he chose this to be his first major post-Marvel project, though it likely wasn’t intended to be so.
More here on the behind-the-scenes problems and various relationships that lead to the final production.