How Warner Bros. has sold an unexpected sequel
1999’s The Matrix was, of course, a massive success and a groundbreaking shift in the idea of what science fiction on film could look like and, even more importantly, *be* like. After two subsequent sequels (which are better than conventional wisdom in the early 00s held them to be) the series seemed to be done, with The Wachowski Sisters moving on to other projects.
Now it’s back with The Matrix Resurrections. Lana Wachowski directs, with Keanu Reeves returning as Neo and Carrie-Anne Moss back as Trinity.
The story picks up 20 years after The Matrix Revolutions, with Neo living in what seems to be the real world under the name Thomas Anderson, working a job and occasionally seeing things he thinks are odd or unusual. He also meets Tiffany, the “real world” version of Trinity, someone he can’t help but think he has some kind of connection to. Eventually Thomas meets a new version of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who gives him a red pill that once more opens his mind to the reality that is a new, more aggressive Matrix, with Neo and Trinity again going to war against the machines.
Neil Patrick Harris, Jessica Henwick, Jonathan Groff, Jada Pinkett Smith and others also star as those either fighting against or with the pair.
announcement and casting
The announcement of the fourth movie in August, 2019 came after a year or so of conversation about what plans Warner Bros. might have for the property. Speculation had included prequels or sequels that would go beyond the story of Neo, Trinity and the others and often didn’t include the involvement of the original creators. So when WB let it drop that most, if not all, the excitement was palpable.
The movie was one of many to have its production put on hiatus because of the Covid-19 outbreak, with the release date pushed from its original March, 2020 to April of 2021. It was later moved back to December, 2021.
In mid-2020 Ross and others were interviewed about their reactions to the project happening, what they were most looking forward to about the film and more. Harris and Reeves both commented on the story over the course of the year, as did Moss and others.
One of the first, albeit very brief, looks at the movie came via an HBO Max promo touting the same day theatrical/streaming availability of WB’s 2021 lineup.
Abdul-Mateen II talked about joining the franchise and what it was like to film the movie in an interview that covered a number of projects the actor is involved in.
down the rabbit hole: the marketing campaign begins
This past August marked the first steps toward a formal marketing campaign when Warner Bros. brought footage from the film to exhibitors and other attendees of CinemaCon.
That really kicked off in early September when a video teasing the arrival of the first trailer was released. Also in that video was the https://www.whatisthematrix.com URL where visitors could get a brief look at the first footage from the new film, with different experiences for those selecting red or blue pills.
When the first trailer (41m YouTube views) finally did come out it hinted at a very different continuation of the series than people might have imagined. Neo – now living in The Matrix under the name Thomas and with no memory of what’s come before – is having dreams of things he knows couldn’t have happened but is otherwise living his life. Even meeting Trinity, also suffering amnesia, doesn’t trigger anything in his mind. Things start to change when he goes off his meds (which just happen to be blue pills) and is then offered a red pill by Morpheus. So Neo has to go through the process of discovery all over again, followed by lots of visually impressive fights and other challenges he and the others have to navigate and overcome.
Later that month it was announced the movie’s premiere would take place in San Francisco.
A featurette released in early October had this movie’s cast and crew reminiscing about the first movie in particular and its legacy on their lives specifically and the overall culture more generally.
The first poster came out in late October and, like the teaser videos and other images released earlier, it focuses exclusively on the red and blue pills sitting side by side, waiting for someone to choose one or the other. Intriguingly the copy at the top reads “Now, based on real events.”
In an interview later that month Abdul-Mateen II confirmed he was playing Morpheus, albeit a different version of the character than what we’ve seen before.
United Masters launched a contest where songwriters could submit their original compositions for the chance to win $15,000 and a chance to have that song featured in the movie’s promotional and marketing campaign.
The five primary characters are arranged on the theatrical poster, released in mid-November. Neo and Trinity are dressed in familiar outfits while the other characters each get something that fits with the story as well as their role and personality, all in front of the green code that symbolizes the Matrix.
Some of the biggest moments from the trailer and more are pulled into the first of several TV spots that kicked off that part of the campaign.
Warner Bros. partnered with Niftys.com to create 100,000 NFTs inspired by the movie people could buy with the option later to keep the NFTs as they are or choose to have them transformed, with more such opportunities coming later as well.
Each of the main characters got their own poster as part of a series of one sheets that came out in late November.
One of many profiles of Reeves focused on his zen, chill approach to the acting gig he’s been in for decades as well as this movie in particular.
IMAX announced that, for the first time ever, the original film would be screened in the large format for two nights in early December, part of a move to not only bring audiences back to theaters but also of course set the stage and build anticipation for this new installment.
Short videos continued to come out regularly offering recut versions of what we’d already seen along with tantalizing glimpses of new footage that usually generated more questions than were answered.
A few new photos and comments from Henwick, Wachowski and others were included in an EW cover story focusing on the reunion of Moss and Reeves and how they quickly fell back into the easy connection and chemistry they’d developed over the filming of the first three movies.
your mind makes it real: the marketing campaign continues
Moving into December there was another interview with/profile of Abdul-Mateen II where he talked about putting his own spin on the character of Morpheus.
The “glitch in The Matrix” concept introduced in the first movie is used in an extended TV spot as a way to highlight how things have changed but are still familiar over the years.
The American Red Cross ran a sweepstakes offering the chance to win a private hometown screening of the movie to those who came in to donate blood in advance of the holiday season.
“I remember this,” Neo says in the opening moments of the second trailer (12.8m YouTube views). From there we see what’s new through the lens of what’s come before, whether it’s Neo and Trinity’s relationship, a new look for the Smith agents that safeguard the Matrix or anything else. But we’re also told “Maybe this isn’t the story we think it is,” a line reminiscent of Luke Skywalker intoning “This is not going to go the way you think” in the trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
The IMAX exclusive poster puts Neo and Trinity at the center of The Matrix. There was also an IMAX-specific TV spot that shows Neo reluctant to get back into the fight.
A MovieClips featurette focused on the relationship between Neo and Trinity and how those characters are informed by the chemistry between the actors playing them
Abdul-Mateen II talked more about becoming Morpheus and working on the film when he appeared on “The Tonight Show.”
The first official clip debuted during the “Game Awards” earlier this month. It shows Anderson being led by Bugs through a series of portals until they finally arrive at Morpheus. In a sly twist, and a hint of the movie’s overall tone, he seeks to reassure Anderson by including scenes of his previous life, saying that nostalgia can be soothing and comforting.
That show was also where Unreal Engine debuted a demo of the company’s 3D technology set in the world of the movie and featuring many of its characters, including an introduction by Reeves.
Reeves talked about the movie and more on “The Late Show” as did Groff in his appearance a few days later. Priyanka Chopra Jonas showed up on “Late Night” to talk about keeping the story’s secrets. Harris then appeared on “Kimmel.”
Another featurette was about the place the original movie now holds in our culture and how this installment builds on what’s come before. The action and stuntwork was covered in another featurette.
Nvidia ran a promotional campaign where it had creators design movie-inspired custom PC mods, which fans could win by entering a sweepstakes by Retweeting one of the posts.
Users of Snapchat and other apps could add themselves to the Matrix via an AR app. A movie-inspired effect was also added to Instagram and Facebook that could be used during video calls.
The United Masters contest mentioned above paid off recently with a new spot that featured “Back To Life” by Quantrelle.
The green carpet premiere was held earlier this week in San Francisco, just making it in under the wire given a number of other premieres and events have been canceled because of the current Covid-19 case surge in the U.S. At the premiere Wachowski talked about making the movie without her sister while the rest of the cast was just amazed the movie was made at all.
Another clip was released via IGN, this one showing the moment leading up to the scene in the earlier clip as Thomas is confronted for the first time by Bugs, agreeing to go with her to learn the truth of what’s seemed so unusual about his life.
Moss was interviewed again about how this movie is part of and was influenced by what had come before in her career and what’s come after her first outing as Trinity. She and Reeves then spoke more about the strength of their on-screen relationship and how that informs the story this time around.
The initial reactions that came out after the premiere were mostly positive, calling out the “metatextual” nature of the story and how strong the stars are in returning to their roles. The full reviews published since then have been a bit more mixed, focusing on action sequences and other components that don’t quite live up to the promise of what was featured in the first movie and the two earlier sequels.
But the campaign itself has been *very* strong, mostly because it leans early and often on the personalities of Reeves and Moss. They may not be Bogart and Bacall, but it’s clear they have a deep friendship that helps them play off each other professionally and were both committed to only returning to this franchise if it rang true with what had come before.
It also benefits from more than a little self-awareness, with characters commenting on how expectations may be upended and things may turn out differently than anticipated. That’s a good way to set the stage for a sequel that seems to have a clear message, even if it’s not the message people might assume based on the earlier films.