How Universal has sold the latest big mystery feature
After a few years of missteps, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan seemed to be getting his fastball back with the success of Split, Glass and Old, all of which combined to help revitalize his reputation as an engaging and entertaining filmmaker. Now he hopes to continue that streak with the release of Knock At The Cabin, an adaptation of the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay,
Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge star as Eric and Andrew, a couple staying at a remote cabin with their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). What starts out as a nice family vacation takes a turn when four strangers accost them, claiming they have been drawn together by visions of coming disasters heralding the end of the world. The only way to stave off the apocalypse, they claim, is for the family to sacrifice one of their own. Tensions mount as the family refuses, even as reports of natural and other disasters begin to come in. Dave Bautista, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint and Abby Quinn play the four predictors of doom.
With all that in mind and with the fact Shyamalan is known for pulling the rug out from under the audience, let’s take a look at how Universal Pictures has sold the movie.
announcement and casting
While everyone knew the movie was happening in advance of this it finally got an official name in October 2021.
Bautista was cast in December of that year, with the rest of the cast added over the next few months.
the marketing campaign
The campaign got started in late September of last year with the release of the first trailer (23.3m YouTube views). Everything looks nice and peaceful as the family starts their vacation until Bautista’s Leonard approaches Wen and the cabin followed by the three others. After they break into the cabin, Leonard explains the shared mission the four of them are on and what the stakes are should Andrew and Eric fail to do what the visitors deem necessary. That’s as far as this spot goes as it’s meant to introduce the story, not share much beyond the premise.
Wen sits in the grass on the poster released at the same time, reaching out to figures we only see in shadow. The copy reading “Save your family or save humanity. Make the choice.” explains more of the story than the trailer does, though it’s a bit clunky in doing so.
A shorter version of that trailer that skips some of the setup and cuts straight to the home invasion came out at the end of November followed by a second poster that this time shows the four visitors, all carrying some kind of heavy weapon, approaching the cabin.
The second trailer (34m YouTube views) was released on Christmas Day. This time there’s a bit more explanation after Leonard and the others break in as to what the family is being asked to do, something that apparently others have done throughout history to avert previous cataclysms. Their skepticism is met with news reports of tsunamis and other incidents around the world, increasing the stakes as they attempt to find a way out of the situation but also guided by visions of their own.
This time the poster accompanying that trailer is a bit more artistic, with four figures shown standing around a small version of the cabin, their size compared to the building lending them a bit more menace. There’s no copy on this one, just the promise it’s coming to theaters.
In early January Shyamalan made an appearance at CES in Las Vegas. In partnership with Canon, he supervised the creation of an immersive VR experience allowing participants to view an action sequence from the movie from the perspective of four different characters.
The gist of the story was shared in TV spots that began airing shortly after that as tickets went on sale.
Another poster used a similar motif as the previous one-sheet, this time showing a massive hand reaching down for the cabin, its fingers separated by the shape of the four intruders.
Bautista opens a featurette released later in January, explaining the premise as Shyamalan talks about what drew him to the story and how he set out trying to make it and mold the characters.
Most of the additional TV commercials just used variations on the trailers, often using the same footage. But one spot, likely intended for broadcast during a basketball game, has Shyamalan playing chess with NBA star James Harden in a cabin until they’re visited by an unexpected guest of their own.
One more featurette has Bautista explaining how this was the most challenging film role he’s taken on to date before the director sings his praises as an actor.
A profile of Shyamalan focuses on this film but also goes into the ups and downs he’s had over the course of his directing career.
The cast and crew assembled in New York for the red carpet premiere last weekend. While there everyone sang the praises of the director and Bautista while being careful to not spill too many details of the story.
Many of the interviews with Bautista only gave cursory attention to this movie and instead focused on his role in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which are coming to an end in the near future. But Aldridge got a profile of his own where he talked about his own history with coming out and what it’s been like for him since then.
If tracking predictions turn out to be accurate and the movie enjoys an opening weekend box office take of around $20 million it would be pretty good, though the negative reviews could push that lower.
As for the campaign itself, it’s fine and certainly accomplishes the goal of telling the audience there’s a new M. Night Shyamalan movie hitting theaters. But it goes too far in an effort to not spoil whatever story twists there are and winds up not establishing enough of a foundation for anyone – at least in my opinion – to even care about the premise. It’s a trap a lot of superhero movies fall into for the same reason and has me lukewarm on the campaign for this movie as well.