Are There Lessons To Learn From the 2020 Super Bowl Movie Spots?

Hollywood used broadcast TV’s biggest nights to sell its biggest films and provide a few surprises.

Ratings were up for this year’s Super Bowl compared to last year, offering professionals in the television industry hope that even in the era of cord-cutting there was still a mass audience that could be had. The numbers are actually a bit surprising given the two teams playing aren’t exactly (to my understanding) national powerhouses. But the game turned out to actually be a *game,* with drama throughout as two relatively evenly-matched competitors slugged it out through four quarters.

Before the game the narrative when it came to commercials for upcoming movies was that it might be a light year, with most every studio that wasn’t Universal or Disney sitting this year out because the ROI simply wasn’t there given the game’s $5+ million price tag for a 30-second spot.

In reality there were quite a few movies advertised to viewers. But the future was on display as well, with streaming services like Quibi, Hulu, Amazon and Disney+ all making their pitch to audiences, though only the latter two actually showed off their shows while the former pair used their commercials as brand-building platforms. Even a good number of spots for consumer goods brands used movie references or frameworks to get people’s attention.

Each of the movie commercials that aired during the game offers an interesting lesson in making an appeal to the modern moviegoer, a species that is increasingly rare as movie ticket sales drop from year to year.

Lesson #1: Use IP To Sell Something New

While the Super Bowl’s audience was growing, movie audiences were once again shunning a non-brand action film with a female lead, resulting in the disappointing results for The Rhythm Section. The Invisible Man, from Universal and Blumhouse, hopes to break that trend by merging the two ideas into something intriguing. While the title is clearly pulled from the classic horror film (and the book that inspired it), the story itself isn’t about the titular man but the woman he stalks once he gains his powers. As the commercial shows, the movie mixes horror jump scares with a woman being terrorized and gaslit until she finds out how to take him down.

Lesson #2: Throw Everything at the Audience

It can be hard to sell a movie inside of 30 seconds, as a feature film is often much more nuanced than such a short running time can accommodate. The difficulty factor increases substantially when the commercial in question is the first look people are being given at an upcoming release.

That’s the case with Minions: The Rise of Gru, the fourth film in the popular franchise. While it can be safe to assume most people know the general idea of what’s coming if you say “new Minions movie,” it’s still necessary to offer something unique so the reminder doesn’t just lead to them pulling out the DVD of the first movie. So Universal/Illumination’s spot has the narrator literally just naming attributes the film will include finally promising the full trailer is coming later in the week for what should be a more complete picture.

Lesson #3: Make It Personal

The Marvel Cinematic Universe keeps going, even after the events of Avengers: Endgame. More importantly, there are some big stars who still have films on their contracts, hence this year’s upcoming Black Widow. While the marketing for the movie to date has offered insights into the story (if not the time period), for the Super Bowl spot Disney/Marvel Studios opted to make the appeal less about the super heroics Natasha Romanov will engage in and more about the family dynamics of the character, something that hasn’t been hinted at in previous films. That creates something slightly different than what’s been seen in the MCU recently.

The spot for Mulan uses the same angle, which says to me this is a Disney approach.

Lesson #4: Tease Tragedy

If you don’t tear up when Goose dies and his wife tells Maverick “He loved flying with you…” in Top Gun I’m not sure we can hang out. It’s an emotional moment that shows how the 1985 film isn’t an action movie by any measure but a drama of friendship, loss, legacy and responsibility. Top Gun: Maverick is hoping that scene still resonates (it does) by promising it serves as the crux of the sequel’s story. Not only is Goose’s son still holding a grudge against Maverick decades later, but it seems there’s another funeral that will play a major role. The marketing may be focusing on Tom Cruise and the rest of the cast doing a lot of their own flying, but the emotions will clearly be at the forefront as well.

Lesson #5: Make It An Ending

Hollywood loves selling endings to its long-running franchises for two reasons: 1) They’re probably only the beginning of a slight pause before the next reboot/remake, and 2) They make for great “OMG you have to see this immediately to be part of this cultural moment” events. While there’s no series that’s gone on longer than James Bond, No Time To Die does seem to be positioned as the endpoint for the Daniel Craig years. The star has talked about how this will likely be his last film, and the Super Bowl spot aired by MGM and Universal promises that a secret Bond is hiding “will be the death” of him while also declaring everything will change when the movie is released.

Lesson #6: Make It a Chase

A Quiet Place was a surprise hit a couple years ago with its unique premise. That it revealed much of the mystery behind what had happened and why the characters were acting like they were seemed problematic when it came to set up a sequel, so like the earlier marketing, the new commercial for A Quiet Place 2 doesn’t try to create a new mystery but instead makes it a chase film with human drama about believing the best of humanity at its core. Everything about the trailer is focused on keeping the characters moving and showing them running to or from one threat or another while also showing audiences they can expect more of the same from the first film.

Lesson #7: Embrace The Setting

Given the first marketing materials were met with such…strong…reactions to the look of the title character, the fact that the new commercial for Sonic The Hedgehog keeps Sonic himself hidden for the first half of its running time is super-interesting. Instead, Paramount opted to lean into the sports setting, with a handful of football players and other athletes praising an unknown person/entity’s speed and agility. It’s kind of snatching at low hanging fruit, but it also is a time-tested tactic to attempt to appear contextual to get the attention of those actually watching for the game.

Lesson #8: Use All of the Above

The commercial for The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run is to the lessons above what A Bridge Too Far is to The Caine/Hackman Theory: Proof that we’re on the right track. It:

  • Uses existing IP
  • Explains everything the movie will offer
  • Makes the story a personal one for the characters
  • Teases some tragedy that’s befallen someone
  • Establishes the chase as a central story component
  • Embraces the setting as the characters acknowledge the timing of the commercial

All that’s missing is a promise this is an ending, otherwise it’s a fitting example of everything shown above.

Author: Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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