Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – Flashback Movie Marketing

abbott costello meet frankenstein posterIt’s been a bit over three years since Universal put a stake in the studio’s Dark Universe, an ambitious project announced in the buildup to the release of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. So confident was Universal in the prospects of that movie, which costarred Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, the leader of a shadowy group of supernatural investigators and enforcers, that it cast Javier Bardem and Johnny Deep in addition to Cruise, Crowe and Sofia Boutella.

Universal has tried a few times in the last several years to get a franchise based on its classic monsters up and running. The recent news that director Paul Feig would be taking on an original concept called Dark Army and the recent Invisible Man shows there’s life in the idea, but it may not be the “shared universe” that has long been envisioned.

That’s not quite true, though. 72 years ago Universal Studios had all of their biggest monsters appear together in a single motion picture, showing that in some manner they all existed in the same universe. The landmark movie in question is the cinematic classic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Comedy + Horror

By the time 1948 came around, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had been working together for a dozen years, first in stage shows, then on radio and then on television. In 1941 they made the transition to films, with Universal signing the pair to a deal that resulted in two to four movies released each year until 1950. Meet Frankenstein, then, stands as their 21st feature inside of just seven years.

With the stars playing a pair of railroad baggage clerks – Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Costello) – who are pulled into a situation where Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is trying to stop the delivery of boxes to a museum. When the two damage the crates, they are enlisted to complete the delivery themselves, eventually discovering it was Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) being transported. Talbot is revealed to be a werewolf, and it’s up to Chick and Wilbur to survive while trying to stop the monsters from being loosed on the city.

Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolfman are, of course, all characters that had become standards in Universal’s classic monster lineup reaching back to the 1920s. The studio, then, saw a chance to revive the Abbott and Costello team whose luster was beginning to wear off with a host of characters that were also nearing the end of their shelf lives. On the latter point, the appeal is heightened given Chaney Jr. and Lugosi both reprise their roles.

Selling the Movie

“It’s a grand new idea for fun!” the audience is told on the primary one sheet. Dracula, The Monster and Wolfman are chasing Chick and Wilbur as they all run away from a decrepit and spooky looking house. While everyone’s bodies are shown with the same painted look, their faces are actual photos superimposed on the image, a common tactic at the time. It’s a fun painting that puts the title in the white (actually yellow) space around which the characters are running.

A number of lobby cards were sent out by Universal to show off stills from the movie and increase its appeal among the audience. One set features painted-in colors shows one of the primary monsters each. Notably, it’s only Wilbur (Costello) of the comedic stars that appears on this set, either unaware of the threat looming around him or in the thrall of a monster. There’s also one that has Wilbur attempting to woo Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert). Others rearrange the elements from the poster to emphasize the monsters.

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All of those that contain film stills are framed on the left by a strip showing Chick and Wilbur at the bottom urging the audience to keep quiet, the monsters placed above them as looming dangers.

As is often the case with trailers from this era, this one features lots of corny puns and phrases as on-screen text amidst scenes from the movie. “Jeepers! The creepers are after somebody” and “The laughs are monstrous” are two examples of the wordplay being used here. Abbott and Costello are billed as “the nation’s top comics” as we get the gist of the plot, with them encountering the various monsters and getting into assorted hijinks as they seek to escape the dangers lurking around every corner.

Before their partnership dissolved and their film career ended, Abbott and Costello would go on to “Meet” more monsters like The Invisible Man and others, but this stands as one of the greatest of their output, perhaps the last great one they would release.

The idea of a shared universe isn’t in and of itself problematic and can be pulled off successfully, but you have to have an idea around it that’s more than just “a way to make a bunch of money.” It has to be clever and entertaining, as this movie illustrates.

The Hunt For Red October – Flashback Marketing

How a touchstone Cold War thriller was sold when it was translated to the big screen 30 years ago.

Last night The Elk Grove Theater in exurban Chicagoland hosted a screening of The Hunt For Red October to celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary.

Based on the first novel from Tom Clancy – one praised by no less of a literary authority than President Ronald Reagan when it was published in 1984 – the movie follows CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) as he works to track down a new Soviet missile submarine whose commander Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) he believes wants to defect. Along the way he has to navigate not only the tricky world of international politics but also convince wary naval officers of his conclusions to complete the mission.

While the book came out at the height of U.S./Soviet tensions, the movie was released just as the Cold War was moments away from effectively ending when the Soviet Union collapsed a year and a half later. In that way the story stood on the line between being timely and serving as a historical piece.

Baldwin was a quirky actor often cast in offbeat roles in 1990, which is one reason why he’s completely missing from the theatrical poster. Instead it’s only Connery’s face that’s shown, indicating he was the bigger star at the time and the more likely to serve as a box office draw. His face looms above a submarine’s conning tower rising from a bright red field. In fact it’s the color red that serves as the primary visual element on the poster, reinforcing the branding of the movie’s name.

There’s a good amount of blank space, either black or red, on the poster, which creates a stark visual impression. (Disclosure: I had this poster on my bedroom wall for years as it’s a marvel of design work.) That blank space is used by the designers to make sure the audience is aware of the basic plot outline as well as the connection between the movie and the source book. Wedged between “The hunt is on.” and “Join the hunt.” is copy positioning the movie as “electrifying.” Even more importantly, it shares that it comes from the director of Die Hard, which John McTiernan had helmed just two years prior.

So you have a poster that ditches the hammer and sickle iconography of the original book cover but uses color to make sure everyone understands the story is still focused on the Russians. And it offers several strong hooks to bring in an audience that probably read the book and which still loves to see Connery on screen.

Ramius is introduced in the trailer as “The most brilliant commander in the Soviet fleet” with the submarine of the title being shown off after that. Other characters, including Ryan, offer more information on both so that the audience understands the potential threat being presented. That threat is shown to be an uncertain one as the trailer progresses, with some indicating Ramius intends to fire his payload at the United States and others positing he’s gone rogue in an attempt to defect. The score adds to the tension as the movie is presented as a mystery/thriller instead of a straightforward action film.

Paramount made it clear here that there would be lots of heated conversations and people trying to convince other people of the rightness of their position as opposed to an action movie. Still, McTiernan’s name is prominently used here, and the Soviet hammer and sickle reappears in the title treatment despite it being missing from the poster.

How it’s positioned by both the trailer and poster is on-brand for the book, indicating it’s a political drama whose tense situations are heightened as a result of the confined quarters of meeting rooms and submarine interiors. It uses Connery as the major attraction, an understandable choice given Baldwin’s position as a charming character actor at the time.

Most of all it shows that movies like this were, at this point in time, positioned as adult dramas, not special effects extravaganzas aimed at tweens. Even in the marketing it’s clear the movie’s pacing and story are slow and methodical, emphasizing big and bold statements over flash and clutter.

When the movie proved to be a success at the box office by grossing over $200 million, it was natural that Paramount saw it as the launch point for a franchise adapting Clancy’s other best-selling novels. Baldwin declined to reprise his role, though, and so the next two movies – 1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger – saw Harrison Ford stepping into Ryan’s shoes. Those two entries were much more action-oriented, a logical choice given Ford’s reputation as an action hero. And in a Bond-like move, all three movies featured James Earl Jones as Adm. James Greer, Ryan’s mentor and boss.

From there things got much more infrequent as the studio made various attempts to reboot the franchise. The Sum Of All Fears in 2005 starred Ben Affleck as Ryan and adapted the book of the same name while making some interesting story changes. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit starred Chris Pine in 2014 and featured an original story. Both sought to bring a younger, less-experienced Ryan to the screen, offering a fresh start that could spawn a new series of sequels. Neither succeeded on that front, at least in part because they discarded the geekier, more technical elements of what made the Clancy-penned novels so popular.

The studio will try one more time later this year with the release of Without Remorse. Once more based on one of Clancy’s books, this one puts Jack Ryan to the side and instead focuses on CIA operator John Clark, played by Michael B. Jordan. Marketing for that movie has yet to fully spin up, but perhaps by cutting ties with Ryan Paramount will find the key to getting parts of the universe created in the novels that launched the “techno-thriller” in a groove and find the franchise the studio has been searching for.

Murder By Death – Flashback Marketing Recap

Neil Simon’s 1976 mystery satirized the star-studded whodunit.

murder by death posterDuring the publicity cycle for Knives Out, writer/director Rian Johnson frequently cited his love of the kinds of star-studded murder mystery films from the 50s through the 70s that used to air on broadcast television in the 80s. There are various adaptations of the books and plays of Agatha Christie that fall into this category and which were referenced by Johnson along with many others.

These movies were great outlets for some great actors, and assembling a group of them worked to get the public’s attention to a movie that might seem a little stodgy or old-fashioned to the youth of the day but which held great appeal to older audiences. My generation, of which Johnson is a part, saw these later on because our parents wanted to watch them on TV and many of us grew to love their twists and turns. Not only that, but they frequently exposed us to a number of actors who, as youths, we weren’t already familiar with.

In 1976 writer Neil Simon teamed with director Robert Moore to offer the genre a gentle tweak of the nose with the movie Murder By Death.

The name itself is the first clue those involved are not playing by the book but know the rules nonetheless, since cause and effect are transposed. But it still sounds kind of right, the kind of “mistake” that takes a minute to comprehend and understand, rewarding those who are paying attention. In other words it’s exactly the kind of gag Simon was already well known for.

Murder By Death uses one of the most familiar setups of mystery stories, the assembly of a group of characters at a spooky house none are familiar with on a dark and stormy night. In this case, many of the world’s most famous detectives are brought together by the eccentric Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), who claims by the end of the night he will have proven himself to be better than them all. Those he’s brought together are all slightly skewed versions of familiar characters.

  • Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), a play on Sam Spade, the hard-boiled detective of Dashiell Hammett’s stories.
  • Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), a play on Charlie Chan by Earl Derr Biggers.
  • Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), a play on Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles.
  • Milo Perrier (James Coco), a play on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Piorot.
  • Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), a play on Christie’s Miss Marples.

Each is accompanied by an associate that is similarly an analogue for the source character’s sidekick or assistant. As the names make clear, the parody here is done with a light touch. “Spade” becomes “Diamond,” Marples” becomes “Marbles” and so on. This isn’t biting deconstruction of the genre, just having a few laughs while making the audience feel they know who all these characters are.

murder by death pic 2

Columbia Pictures’ marketing for the film, released in late June of ‘76, was geared toward audiences that would appreciate the ways in which Simon gently laughed at the genre and its tropes.

The poster features the artwork of Charles Addams, creator of The Addams Family. In his clearly identifiable style the characters are shown standing outside the wall of a spooky looking estate. For audiences of the time the analogues should be largely recognizable, especially given the context created by the tagline, which warns “By the time the world’s greatest detectives figure out whodunit…you could die laughing.”

All that makes it clear this is a comedy audiences should expect, one with a little sense of style and showmanship since using a drawing like that instead of a collection of headshots conveys a bit of attitude. Again, though, there’s nothing dangerous about the comedy that’s being sold here. The copy is pretty toothless and while the artwork is much more interesting than a bunch of photos would be, it’s still not overly dark, even with the half-naked person lying on the ground with a dozen knives sticking out of his back.

(Side note: When Columbia released the movie on VHS the cover featured Addams’ key art but for some reason it was jettisoned for the later DVD, which used just the kind of lazy headshot photos the poster is keen to avoid. SHOUT! Factory smartly brought back Addams’ work for its recent Blu-ray of the film.)

Simon’s sense of humor is on display immediately in the trailer. While it starts fairly traditionally, the narrator quickly establishes the meta jokes by calling Twain “a short sinister man who looks just like Truman Capote” before introducing all the tweaked variations on literature’s greatest detectives, who here all exist in the same shared universe. Some of the movie’s great jokes, including how the detectives are fairly dismissive of Twain – as well as their companions – as they go through the events of the night. Those events are hinted at and shown to varying degrees in a way that presents them as roughly 23 percent more ridiculous than they’d be if they appeared in a more straight-faced take on the material.

That the movie doesn’t exactly deconstruct the detective genre is clear. It’s adhering to the same tropes and contrivances that are used in other stories and films even as it asks the audience to laugh at them. That works, though, because of the wit in Simon’s script and the self-aware performances of the impressive cast. It would seem attractive to those who knew the subject of the light satire as well as fans of Simon’s previous work.

Murder By Death would go on to gross $32 million at the box office. That tally, as noted by Bill Higgins who also revisited the film due to its similarity to Knives Out, would amount to $150 million in 2019, which would put it in the top 15 films of the year to date and the second highest-grossing original film, behind only Jordan Peele’s Us. In fact that’s only slightly below where it wound up in 1976, coming in at #13 for the year.

It’s not a movie that gets talked about a lot these days, but know that when you watch something like Knives Out or Kenneth Branagh’s Murder On the Orient Express adaptation, uniting a group of well-known actors to be part of a murder mystery is a genre so established it’s already been satirized by one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.

Bullitt – Flashback Marketing

Yesterday at the Detroit Auto Show, Ford Motor Company made news in both the auto and film press when it announced the 2019 Mustang Bullitt, a new take on the 1968 Mustang Fastback that plays as much of a starring role in the movie Bullitt as Steven McQueen. Here’s the description of the car, via USA Today:

The special model, due out this summer, will be available only in Shadow Black or Dark Highland Green. It has a 5-liter V-8 engine that packs at least 475 horsepower and tops out at 163 miles per hour – an 8 mph increase over the latest Mustang GT.

mustang bullitt 2018

I want to go to there. I was raised a Chevy Guy, but the Mustang is the one Ford make deemed acceptable to cross religious affiliation lines for.

The news – including the fact that the release of the new model is timed for the 50th anniversary of the film – is enough of an excuse to spend some time looking back at Bullitt’s marketing, especially with an eye on how big a role the car played in that campaign.

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National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – Flashback Marketing

Merry Christmas! Shitter was full!

christmas vacation posterNational Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation arrived six years after the original Vacation and four years after the sequel European Vacation. The first movie, like Animal House in 1978, was the cinematic extension of the edgy, irreverent comedy brand begun in the magazine that provided a stark contrast to old-time comedic standards. These were powered by drugs and sex and the sense of freedom prevailing in youth culture coming out of the 60s and 70s, when the Baby Boom came of age.

In Christmas Vacation we once more follow Clark (Chevy Chase) and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) Griswold, the parents of Russ and Audrey, played in this movie by Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis. This time the family is staying close to home instead of traveling elsewhere. But with extended family coming to stay as well as the tensions common to the holiday season, as well as Clark’s tendency to build up expectations while also bumbling through things, it doesn’t mean the chances of hijinks are diminished at all. As with the first Vacation, it was based on a John Hughes short story that first appeared in National Lampoon.

Continue reading “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – Flashback Marketing”

Planes, Trains and Automobiles – Flashback Marketing

planes trains automobiles posterIt’s hard to believe 30 years have gone by but that’s exactly the case with Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Originally released in 1987, the Steve Martin/John Candy comedy is rightly held up as a modern classic and so is where we’re turning our attention today not only because today is its actual anniversary but because of its relevance to the recently passed Thanksgiving holiday.

Martin plays Neal Page, a successful marketing executive on a trip to New York to get client approval for a new campaign. It’s two days before Thanksgiving and he just wants to get home to Chicago. He keeps encountering a traveling salesman named Dell Griffith (Candy), a mildly obnoxious but very friendly guy with few personal boundaries. Through a series of weather-related delays, they wind up seeking alternate transportation home but keep having the worst luck whether it’s with rental cars, trains or other modes of transportation.

Considering how big the two stars were in 1987 it’s no surprise that they are practically the sole focus of the theatrical poster. Page is clearly uncomfortable as Griffith sits with his arm around him, a worried and slightly terrified look on his face. Griffith, on the other hand, seems to be having the time of his life, sitting there smiling while wearing a heavy parka and bright red mittens. While Page has only his briefcase on his lap, Griffith is carrying along a massive trunk with stickers all over it from his travels.

The audience then was clearly sold a comedy of mismatched personalities, the uptight Page suffering the overly gregarious Griffith’s antics. That matches up with the cinematic personas of the two stars. Candy often played outsized personalities, the kind of person who wore his heart on his sleeve. For Martin, this was coming at the end of one phase of his career where he was overly comedic and the beginning of the next where he took on more dramatic roles, or at least approached comedy from a drier, more dramatic perspective. So the public perception of both actors is emphasized in the position of the characters.

Meanwhile, the story is shared with the copy explaining “What he really wanted was to spend Thanksgiving with his family. What he got was three days with the turkey.” That makes it clear to the audience that it’s Martin’s character we’re following and his point of view the story is taking.

The trailer makes that same point, explaining that Page is just having the worst luck in his simple attempt to get home for the holiday. The two don’t get off to a great start and things often get uncomfortable through their travels. What’s surprising is that there isn’t much of an arc that’s shared here, just a series of gags involving the unlikely pairing of the two very different personalities. There’s also a shocking amount of footage here that didn’t make it into the final film.

The point here is just to come out and watch two very talented and popular comedians riff off each other in a pleasant holiday comedy. Some of the personal drama that results from the clash of the two is shown here but it’s mostly just about the laughs. Also missing is the more heartwarming aspect of the story, something that surely would have been a focus if the movie were coming out today.

For 1987 it did its job. But it’s interesting to think about how not only would the whole story arc, including the emotional finale, would have at least been hinted at in a more modern campaign but how tone would have been so different as a whole. The conflict between the two would have been intact but it would have been much more overt as a result of the difference in social mores. Much of the comedy in the film is derived from Page’s continued insistence on being a nice guy, even if his patience does run out from time to time. And Griffith is rarely presented as a truly awful person, just one who doesn’t put on a lot of pretense. A remake would take very different approaches to both characters.

As it stands, the campaign sold the film well 30 years ago and the movie holds up as a go-to holiday classic, thanks largely to the talents of Candy and Martin. That’s why it was exactly those talents that were emphasized in 1987 in selling the movie to the audience.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula – Flashback Marketing

bram stoker dracula posterLast week when I wrote about the directorial career of Kenneth Branagh I mentioned that 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the second movie from Sony to take a fresh approach to classic monster stories that were more in line with the original books on which they were based. The first, of course, was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a movie that celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this week and which, because of that, will be the focus of today’s trip down marketing memory lane.

The movie is an interesting insight into what was popular at theaters in the early 1990s. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it was an artistically-minded popcorn gothic romance featuring a mix of “serious” actors and those with more mainstream appeal. The former category is represented by Gary Oldman, who stars as the titular Count Dracula, as well as Anthony Hopkins as Prof. Van Helsing. The latter includes cineplex favorites like Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker and Winona Ryder as his fiancee, Mina.

Unlike the classic Bela Lugosi Dracula of 1931, the story here adheres much more closely to Bram Stoker’s original, hence the appending of his name to the movie’s title. Jonathan is summoned from London to a far-off Eastern European village to help arrange the affairs of the mysterious Dracula. Once there he falls into the Count’s various machinations, eventually escaping and returning home profoundly changed for the experience. Dracula meanwhile has become obsessed with Mina, believing her to be the reincarnated spirit of his long-dead lover. When he comes to London he tries to bring Mina under his spell, but only after turning her best friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) into a vampire. Harker joins with Van Helsing and the three suitors who had vied for Lucy’s affections (played by Cary Elwes, Richard E. Grant and Billy Campbell) to hunt Dracula down and end his centuries-long reign of terror.

The theatrical poster (which I once owned, because come on) immediately sets the tone for the film. It shows a relief of a demon head flanked by two fork-tongued hounds that is built onto the side of a dingy grey wall. That dark tone is reinforced by the title treatment that appears to have been written in dripping blood and the copy “Love never dies.”

All of those elements combine to create a unique brand identity for the movie meant to set is apart from previous incarnations. There are outsized emotions and visuals that the audience is promised with this image, which eschews showing the formidable cast in favor of making an impression by selling the tone.

All of that tone and vibe are on display almost as soon as the trailer opens. We hear about how we’re going to follow the history of Dracula and “the woman he loved,” Mina. The interplay between the two of them dominates the early footage, showing them move around each other in various ways, him all brooding mystery and her all swooning romance about how irresistible he seems. Van Helsing talks about the history of Dracula but the point is the power he wields over Mina, who is at first reluctant but then a willing supplicant.

Along with that there are various shots of people falling victim to Dracula’s power, the fight for Lucy’s soul and more. But the focus never leaves the Dracula/Mina dynamic for very long. Oldman’s scenery-chewing performance is certainly on display, as well it should be, but the point is to tell this as sort of a Harlequin Romance set against the backdrop of a monster story.

What’s surprising about watching this again is how sensual and steamy it is. That’s certainly representative of the film as a whole, as Coppola clearly loved shooting the massive sets as well as Ryder, Frost and the other women as they turned from proper young ladies into creatures lusting after fleshly pleasures. So the trailer and poster combined to sell the movie fairly accurately, promising the audience that they could expect soaring, overly-dramatic romance alongside a gothic horror story.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

The Philadelphia Story – Flashback Marketing

The charm of Hepburn, Stewart and Grant are used alongside MGM’s reputation to sell this 1940 classic.

Focusing on charming, well-liked actors and adding the studio’s reputation as a hit maker helps sell this classic comedy. 

If you were to set out to design the perfect farcical romantic comedy in a lab you’d be hard-pressed to create something more spot-on than the 1940 George Cukor-directed classic The Philadelphia Story, coming to Blu-ray this week courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Katherine Hepburn stars as Tracy Lord, a Philadelphia socialite who’s both romantic and fiercely independent. She recently married – and quickly divorced C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Now she’s getting ready to marry George (John Howard), a ceremony Spy magazine has sent Macauley Connor (James Stewart) to cover with the help of Haven, who also has worked for the magazine. Tracy’s sudden position with three eligible, charming and attractive men – her ex, her fiancee and an amiable nice guy – causes a series of comedic problems and situations for the whole group.

Three-quarters of that group, the most bankable at the box-office, are represented on the theatrical poster, which is done in the idealized but realistic art style of the time. Both Grant and Stewart are placed on either side of Hepburn, clearly both smitten with her. All three of their names appear at the top of the one-sheet above the title. Within the frame of the picture is copy explaining to the audience that the movie is based on “Broadway’s howling year-run comedy hit of the snooty society beauty who slipped and fell – in love!”

That’s quite the sales pitch, notable for a number of reasons including the use of the word “snooty.” Apparent also is the gender stereotype of the period in that a well-off, educated and intelligent woman is described with that adjective, as well as that she’s positioned solely in relation to her romantic entanglements. Finally, as with many other such posters, it provides a glimpse into a time when Broadway productions were held as both high-art and yet were also meant to be accessible to the mainstream audience.

Broadway is used as a selling point and theme in the theatrical trailer, with the opening images showing theater marquees and once more presenting this as an adaptation of the stage sensation. All three of the leads along with Ruth Hussey, who plays a photographer accompanying Stewart, are introduced before we get into the story. That story shows the contentious relationship between C.K. and Tracy, as well as the tenuous romance between her and George. The three men have a face-off when Mike brings Tracy home drunk and we see her being dressed down by her father for being less than the ideal, loving, endlessly-understanding woman. It ends with the promise that yes, it’s another star-studded good time from MGM.

As is often the case in trailers from this era, it’s heavy on studio branding and light on story. Fully half the trailer is devoted to polishing MGM’s own credentials or simply showing the faces of the four actors showcased, with the remaining time allowing the audience to see the characters and the dynamics between them. That’s a shame since it’s hard to imagine a more talented cast of actors than Hepburn, Stewart, and Grant, all of whom handled fast-paced dialogue with ease and excelled at mixing verbal sparring with physical humor.

Did The Philadelphia Story get its due when it was sold to audiences in 1940? It’s hard to argue with an approach that leverages the popularity of the three lead actors like it does while it also ties it to the already-successful material. With the benefit of 77 years of hindsight and perspective, you can see how it greatly undersells the charm and wit of those leads, though it’s likely audiences at the time didn’t need reminders as all three were fixtures on the screen. Still, that seems like an oversight now, though it didn’t hurt the movie’s box-office or long-term reputation at all.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Cool Hand Luke – 50th Anniversary Flashback Marketing

Celebrating its 50th anniversary today is the 1967 Paul Newman classic Cool Hand Luke. Set in the early 1950s, Newman plays Luke Jackson, a low-level criminal who’s as cocky as they come, even after he’s arrested and sent to prison, sentenced to work in a forced labor camp. The overseers there, including Captain (Strother Martin) and his lieutenants, do everything they can to break Luke’s spirit but he continues to defy them. Through repeated demonstrations of spirit and attempts at escape he earns the respect of his fellow prisoners but the disdain of the guards and others managing the camp.

“The man…and the motion picture that simply do not conform.” is the copy that graces the top of the theatrical poster, setting up Luke as a rebel, something that surely resonated with certain audiences in 1967. Newman’s name appears just above an image of his face radiating out waves that could be indicative of the extreme heat he’s forced to work in or just the searing nature of his personality. Or both. Luke’s imprisonment is communicated through small drawings of him in leg irons, a group of men following dogs tracking someone’s scent and a man looking down at someone unseen with a rifle in his hand.

It’s easy to see how the poster plays into the persona of Newman as both the traditional leading man and the restless rebel, something cemented in previous roles. He won’t be twisted by the system but stays true to who he is. Warner Bros. wants that persona to be applied to the movie itself as well, which is why the copy at the top is framed as it is.

We see the circumstances of Luke’s arrest as the trailer opens, with the repeated appearance of “Violation” not only showing that he’s stealing parking meters but signaling that he’s just a bad dude. Cut to him in prison, being lectured by Captain that he’s going to get used to being in irons. Luke’s defiant spirit is the dominant theme of the rest of the trailer as he mocks Captain, tries to escape and otherwise does what he can to stay sane and refuse to back down no matter the circumstances.

There’s not a whole of story on display in the trailer. Instead it’s all about attitude, specifically Luke’s unbreakable attitude and rebellious perspective on all things. As the poster states, he won’t conform and won’t behave as expected because it’s just not in his nature. He’s going to continue pushing the buttons of authority and doing as he likes, regardless of the consequences.

You can see how the campaign as a whole leaned into a counter-culture message that surely was timely and impactful among moviegoers in the last 1960s. Luke is an outsider who won’t conform, a message and feeling that was pervasive in the culture at that time. While the story is set 10+ years earlier, the appeal made to the audience was very much of the moment.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Drinking Buddies – Flashback Marketing

If you’ve got a taste for a domestic cold one today, don’t be surprised. Today is National American Beer Day. For all the grief given to Hallmark and other companies for their made-up holidays designed to sell chocolates and cards, there doesn’t appear to be any official provenance for this celebration. It’s noted and covered by various press, but it seems to have appeared from nowhere, like Orin on “Parks and Recreation.”

Good enough for me.

To join in the celebration, we’re going to jump not very far back to a movie I would have covered if it hadn’t landed in the years when I put movie marketing coverage to the side.

2013’s Drinking Buddies marked a turning point for writer/director Joe Swanberg. After years of working with almost no budgets and a cast made up largely of unknowns and friends, this time he had some pretty substantial names along for the ride. The story is focused on Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde), coworkers at a Chicago craft brewery. The two are best friends who hang out all the time and have the sort of easy, flowing relationship that seems like it should be romantic but isn’t. Luke is dating Jill (Anna Kendrick) and Kate is seeing Chris (Ron Livingston). Eventually, the friendship between Kate and Luke causes tensions in the other relationships, leading to lots of conversations and lots of additional drinking.

The movie’s theatrical poster uses that cast as its primary selling point. All four are seated on the floor, their backs up against what’s clearly the wall of a bar or drinking establishment of some sort, all with a glass of something in hand. Above them, their names and the title and credits are shown in a style like it’s all been written in chalk. The alcoholic nature of the story is conveyed not only by the beverages shown but by the copy declaring the movie is “A comedy about knowing when to say when.” Of course that’s not just about the drinking but about the nature of the relationship the story follows.

Oddly missing is Swanberg’s name, aside from its small inclusion in the overall credits. While the cinematic genre he is – or at least was – synonymous with is sometimes derided, his name still carries a fair amount of weight with fans of independent film. Using it would have been an appeal to that group.

Obviously Magnolia Pictures, which picked the movie up after some early screenings, felt it was better to not turn off any mainstream audiences who might not know him or only associate him with weird indie stuff without professional lighting. So he’s excised here, with the appeal to the general audience being made that it’s a pleasant story featuring a bunch of very likable actors obviously having a good time.

We immediately see what Luke and Kate do as the trailer opens. He’s part of the brewery crew and she’s more in the event planning and management part of the business, helping to coordinate receptions hosted there. They eventually introduce their significant others to their coworkers, which is a bit awkward but leads to the foursome heading off to a cabin for a weekend. That’s obviously presented as a turning point because Luke and Jill wind up having more serious conversations about their relationships and Chris breaks up with Kate.

It’s a pretty cut and dried romantic comedy being sold to the audience here. There’s some cool stuff around the edges, but that’s the gist. It’s about friendships and love and heartbreak and the general kind of “finding yourself” moments that everyone at this stage in life goes through. All the actors are charming and funny and breezy.

All that’s pretty accurate to the movie being sold. If anything, Wilde’s significant comedic sensibilities are underplayed in the campaign. Johnson and Kendrick are more of the focus since they were probably the hottest names at the moment, her coming off Pitch Perfect and him on TV’s zeitgeist-heavy “New Girl.”

More than that, it’s a fair representation of the relationships between the characters and the story as a whole. Most of the key beats are shown here as well as the evolving nature of how everyone interacts with each other. While the campaign didn’t result in a massive mainstream success for Swanberg, there were apparently some creative connections made as he would work with Johnson and Kendrick again on future films.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.