How Universal is selling a sequel to a horror classic with a contemporary twist
Candyman, believe it or not, is a direct sequel to the 1992 movie of the same name, taking the now standard approach of ignoring or at least discounting the two previous sequels. The movie stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy, an artist who moves into Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighborhood with his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris). That neighborhood, now gentrified from its public housing roots, still has memories of the Candyman, a mysterious supernatural entity that could be summoned by those who say his name five times in a mirror. When Anthony begins exploring the long-dormant spirit in his artwork he not only unleashes the killer but also begins to chip away at his own sanity.
announcement and casting
While a fourth installment in the franchise had been rumored and in various stages of development since the early 2000s, it wasn’t until 2018 that things finally started to move forward. It was at that point that Jordan Peele came on as producer and Nia DaCosta as director. Both developments were positively received, especially in the wake of Peele’s breakout hit Get Out.
A year later Abdul-Mateen was cast, though initial reports had him playing the title role. Those were dispelled when it emerged that Tony Todd would reprise that role from the original, with Parris joining as well.
marketing kicks off, or at least tries to
The beginning of the formal marketing campaign was unfortunately timed for early 2020. In late February Universal offered those who included “candyman” five times in a Tweet an alert when the trailer was released a few days later.
As that first trailer (14.5m views on YouTube) opens, McCoy is moving into the Chicago neighborhood formerly known as Cabrini Green. He becomes obsessed with the local legend of The Candyman and begins depicting him in his art. All this while people in the area begin dying after invoking his name, something McCoy eventually begins to suspect he’s somehow tied to. It’s a suitably creepy trailer that plays up both Peele’s role as producer and DaCosta’s as director, giving the film a nice pedigree for audiences to latch on to.
The teaser poster, released around that same time, shows a honey-covered hook, a bee still clinging to the glazed metal. Audiences are encouraged to “Dare to say his name” on what is otherwise a white background that is still fairly ominous.
It wasn’t too long after that in April that the first release delay was announced as the movie was shifted from its original June date to September.
How black filmmakers were working to tell stories involving racial themes and from their own point of view within the horror/thriller genres was the subject of a substantial profile in August of last year that included DaCosta. She touched on the real life inspirations of some of the story elements and more as well.
In mid-June TV spots started coming out that continued teasing how the movie is about the legacy of Candyman and the role he plays in the community.
DaCosta appeared at the American Black Film Festival to show clips to the virtual attendees.
In September of last year, when the movie should have been hitting theaters, Universal bumped it again, just a bit to October. It was then taken off the calendar completely before the eventual move to August 2021 was announced, a date that actually stuck.
When the delay to 2021 was announced, DaCosta explained why seeing it in theaters was an important part of the intended experience as opposed to seeing it at home through VOD.
DaCosta made Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch list in early 2021.
An interview with costar Domingo Colman allowed him to talk about how DaCosta was approaching the story and the brutalization inherent in it respectfully, not how it’s often depicted by other filmmakers.
for real this time
The restart of the campaign came in June when a special Juneteenth message from DaCosta was announced. That video, which has her talking about the duality of the holiday and how the same kinds of themes are captured in the movie, was well-done and because of the commonalities between the holiday and the film, seems less opportunistic than some other attempts.
That was followed by the second trailer (27m views on YouTube) in June. McCoy is having the history of Candyman told to him, latching on to that story and the legends surrounding it. That makes it very creepy, even if it sacrifices a bit of the context around the characters and their story.
The poster released at that time shows what is presumed to be Candyman himself from the back, his hook visible as he raises his arm. This time the message to the audience is trimmed down to, simply, “Say it”, assuming we all know what that means.
The director was interviewed about how she has moved from small independent films to this being the first of two major studio releases she’s helming.
TV and social advertising picked back up in the wake of the trailer with videos that continued using the shadow puppet motif to help explain the legend of the spirit that haunts Cabrini Green.
Anthony is trying to convince a reluctant Brianna to summon Candyman in the first clip, released in mid-August.
A profile of Abdul-Mateen identified him as one of the biggest rising stars of the moment thanks to high-profile roles in this movie and a number of others.
Peele and DaCosta talk about their fascination with urban legends – including this one – and their desire to tell a horror story from a Black perspective in a short featurette. Another focused on the real life artists who created the works that, in the movie, come from Abdul-Mateen’s character.
Those same artists are part of a #TellEveryone social impact initiative, details of which can be found on the movie’s website. That initiative included a focus on Black artists, the history and importance of Black horror stories (a subject that got its own featurette) and more. Downloadable lesson-planning materials are offered on that page along with information on where to dive deeper and support related programs.
Anyone brave enough to take the challenge to say Candyman’s name five times online unlocked an exclusive, creepy filter that added swarming bees to their selfies.
Abdul-Mateen and Parris were part of an exclusive video interview from AMC Theaters.
An exclusive Fandango clip expands on a scene glimpsed in the trailer, of a bunch of teenage girls making the mistake of summoning the killing spirit.
One last TV spot includes not just footage from the film but also comments from the cast and crew, who name aspects of the story and the urban legend behind it to demonstrate its power.
Parris discussed the film when she appeared on “Late Night.”
One of the issues the campaign has frequently worked to overcome is that, because of Peele’s involvement, he sometimes overshadows DaCosta. But the featurettes and other elements make sure to include her as often as they do him to make sure she gets as much attention as she deserves as the film’s director.
Other than that, Universal and the filmmakers have taken pains to make sure that this is positioned as more than just another sequel to a classic horror film. Instead it’s touted as a cultural event, part of a long legacy of urban legend building as well as a reflection (if you’ll pardon the term) of society and the trauma it inflicts on Black citizens.
Despite that, your reaction to the marketing will likely be dependent on your taste for horror films in general. Some will work past their aversion because the campaign promises a deeper story while others will pass because it’s just not their genre of choice.