death on the nile – marketing recap

How 20th Century Studios is selling another travelogue/murder mystery

death on the nile movie poster
death on the nile movie poster

Death on the Nile, out this week from 20th Century Studios after over two years’ of delays, is of course the sequel to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express. Once again Kenneth Branagh directs an all-star cast while himself starring as Agatha Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot.

This time around Poirot is part of a group cruising down the River Nile when a murder upsets the otherwise pleasant vacation he and the others are enjoying. As usual, everyone is a suspect for their own reasons and it’s up to Poirot to weed through the lies, motives and intrigues to find out who the killer truly is before they can escape into the Egyptian backdrop.

Just as with the first movie, Branagh has an all-star cast to work with. This time around Gal Gadot, Annette Bening, Armie Hammer, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright and others are on board to power the intrigue and mystery and, as we’ll see, cause a few headaches for the Disney publicity and marketing teams.

announcement and casting

There were reports that Branagh and the studio were interested in a sequel even before the first movie was released, a natural given there being a number of Christie’s novels that could be pulled from.

Things seemed to be confirmed in October 2019 when the movie was officially announced and the cast revealed.

Branagh and some of the cast members spoke about the movie from time to time while promoting other projects, well before the publicity cycle for this film had begun.

An interview with Faza had him talking about color-blind casting, including with this film.

the marketing campaign…maybe

Poirot narrates the first trailer (2.6m YouTube views), released in August of 2020, as we see the basic outline of what the story entails. That includes infidelity, revenge and other sinister motives from a wide scope of characters he must interrogate in order to determine who among them was responsible for a grizzly murder aboard a ferry. It has the same sort of flashy style, helped by the star-studded cast, as the trailer for the earlier movie and once more features a slowed-down version of a slick pop song, in this case Depeche Mode’s “Policy of Truth.”

A steam ship motors down the Nile on the first poster, released at the same time. Conveying the look and feel of the movie is secondary to showing off that cast list, which is displayed above the image of the ship.

The first official still came via People and shows Gadot and Hammer as the couple who are hosting the outing as part of their honeymoon, only to have it interrupted by murder. More photos along with comments from Branagh came in Empire.

The cast contributed messages to a video celebrating Christie’s 130th birthday a month later.

An interview with Faza had him talking about color-blind casting, including with this film.

The cast appeared in a video in November to talk about the fabulous mustache sported by Branagh and promote a Movember charitable campaign.

In late September 2020 Disney moved the film’s release, originally set for October of that year, by two months to December. A month later it was taken off the 2020 release calendar completely with no new date announced until mid-December, when it was slated for February, 2021.

a slight hiccup

As the movie languished in the background while Disney looked for a good pandemic-appropriate release date, things got more complicated when Hammer was accused of a mix of sexual abuse and having a kind of cannibalistic sexual fetish. To say that likely caused problems for the studio and its marketing team would be an understatement, especially coming after Gadot’s appearance in a misguided “Imagine” video in March 2020 and reports Wright and Brand were ardent anti-vaccine advocates who frequently trafficked in health misinformation. In fact, Brand’s official YouTube channel has become a steady stream of him railing against mask mandates, vaccines and more.

It has to be noted that this comes after the publicity and marketing for Murder on the Orient Express was marred by press coverage of the abusive behavior of star Johnny Depp toward his ex-wife Amber Heard and more. So this is the second time one of these star-studded mysteries has encountered problems.

Allowing these stories and others like them to die down in the minds of the press and the public resulted in further delays, effectively taking all of 2021 off the board. It also meant when the movie was finally rescheduled theaters were essentially completely reopen and the box office back in business. At the same time, it’s become clear over the last several months that the public has a very specific – almost singular – idea of what kinds of movies it’s now willing to head to theaters to see.

the marketing campaign…again

In December of last year the second trailer (15.5m YouTube views) – notable for its distinct lack of Hammer – was released. Poirot has been invited aboard a steamboat that hosts a wedding party, but when a guest is murdered it’s up to him to navigate an array of intrigue and motives among the others aboard to find the killer before anyone else winds up dead.

The whole cast is assembled on the accompanying poster, though, the pyramids seen in the background to make it clear it’s *that* Nile the title is referring to.

Poirot is introduced to the happy couple in the first extended TV spot, released in mid-January. After some perfunctory setup we get right down to the detective interrogating the suspects to find the killer among all the lies.

This phase of the campaign continued with a handful of character posters that show off select members of the cast and continue the bright, glowing aesthetic established by the first couple one-sheets. Short character-intro videos followed a bit later.

Another shorter spot came out shortly after that, with lots more following over the next few weeks.

Branagh introduces the sensual, mysterious story of the movie in a featurette released in early February. Many of the cast members also appear to talk about their characters and the twists and turns the film takes.

MovieClips got the first official clip at the same time that has Poirot’s confidant Bouc giving him the lay of the social land, including who has grudges against whom and so on.

Regal Cinemas’ exclusive poster features the same visual style seen before, just with the cast rearranged slightly in front of the pyramids. Cinemark and IMAX posters take the same approach.

The characters are once again introduced in another extended TV commercial that labels them all as suspects in the murder that took place.

Another clip shows Linnet welcoming all her guests aboard the ship and promising them a good time.

The costumes and how they represent aspects of the respective characters was the focus of a later featurette. Then another one finally makes use of the fact that both Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders are in the movie together as they host a featurette about the cocktails of the era that appear in the film.

Branagh and others appeared at the British Museum’s Egyptian exhibit to celebrate the movie’s release.

Finally, another round of character posters – including two for French & Saunders – came out to finish things off.


You really can’t evaluate this campaign without considering how so many of the stars – the primary selling point of the movie – have become persona non grata over the last year or so. That likely explains why there hasn’t been a major press push from any of the talent involved save for Branagh.

It’s a problem a number of movies have had recently on their way to theaters. West Side Story and others couldn’t put certain members of the cast out there because any responsible journalist would have to mention sexual abuse allegations, toxic behavior on set and other problems, none of which fit into the promotional narrative. But here’s it’s infected nearly the entire lineup save for Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

That all may be beside the point. Or it’s influenced everything. One way or the other, it’s been a lackluster campaign for a movie that has a middling 62% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a projected opening weekend box office of just $11-14 million, about half what the first movie did. There are a lot of factors behind that number, but a marketing push that has been more eyebrow-raising than interest-building is a big part of it.


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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