bright poster 2Director David Ayer reunites with his Suicide Squad star Will Smith in the new Netflix-original movie Bright. In the movie, Smith plays Daryl Ward, a police officer in an alternate world where mythical creatures like elves, orcs and others coexist alongside humans and have since forever. Now, Ward is the first human cop to be paired with an orc, Jakoby (Joel Edgerton).

While they’re still learning how to get along they discover the existence of a magic wand, a powerful magical weapon that can do whatever the wielder wishes. There are various very bad people – and plenty of others – trying to get their hands on the wand but it’s up to Ward and Jakoby to keep it out of dangerous hands and make sure it can’t do any more harm.

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downsizing poster 1Matt Damon stars as Paul Safranek in Downsizing, the latest movie from writer/director Alexander Payne. Set sometime in the future, Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) agree to undergo a procedure called “Downsizing” where they are shrunk down to just a few inches tall. It’s an increasingly popular choice, driven by concerns that full-sized people are using the planet’s resources too fast and that shrinking – and thereby requiring less food and water – is the key to responsible environmentalism.

The decision they make winds up taking a turn when, at the last minute, Audrey backs out. That leaves Paul irreversibly shrunk and on his own to adjust to his new reality. In the tiny town he moves to he meets a number of interesting new people, including Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) and Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). Both of them influence how he adapts to the strange new world he finds himself in.

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the post poster 5The Vietnam War still looms large in the collective American psyche, an instance where the cause being fought for was more muddled than usual. So too, the tendency of powerful figures to use whatever tools available to silence dissent and maintain their secrets is as old as time. Both of those realities came together in 1971 when former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked what came to be known as “The Pentagon Papers” to The New York Times in 1971. While the Times published a number of stories on the documents, which contained a classified analysis of the Vietnam War, it wasn’t until later that year when The Washington Post picked up the story that things really heated up.

The Post, the new movie from director Steven Spielberg tells that part of the story. Meryl Streep plays Katherine “Kay” Graham, publisher of the Post from 1969 to 1979. When she’s informed by editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) that he intends to publish reports based on The Pentagon Papers it sets off a whirlwind of corporate and legal action. The Nixon administration moves to stifle that reporting, just as it did for the Times, citing national security concerns. Graham and Bradlee, then, must weigh the threat of being arrested for treason against their duty to inform the public of the real reason behind the Vietnam War.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I was remiss in failing to include that part of Verizon’s co-marketing included running a fan art contest where the winner was sent to the movie’s premiere. Turns out my old boss Mike Manuel won that contest, with his Star Wars portraits, viewable here, being displayed along the red carpet.

A couple more theater chain-specific posters were released, this time for Odeon, one with Rey and the other with Kylo Ren, that when put together made it clear they were facing off in some manner.

I wrote even more about The Last Jedi’s marketing for Adweek, taking a high level look at some of the themes and repeated ideas and messages that were part of the campaign.

Ricardo Lopez has more along the lines of what I mentioned briefly in my post, that Disney’s ambitious Star Wars release schedule has the potential to blow up and cause audience fatigue at any moment, though it’s not there yet.

The Shape of Water / Call Me By Your Name

Michael Stuhlbarg, who stars in both movies, is having quite a year, with a number of notable roles that show just how solid and talented an actor he is.

Logan Lucky

Director Steven Soderbergh thinks he made a tactical error in relying too much on social media marketing and not enough on paid TV spots to promote the movie. I don’t fully agree with all his comments but can certainly understand how the movie underperforming could lead him and others to this conclusion.

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

star wars last jedi poster 9For the third time in as many years, Disney/Lucasfilm are bringing Star Wars to theaters just in time for the holidays. After successfully reintroducing the franchise with 2015’s The Force Awakens, we took a detour away from the core “Saga” that has been the focus of the movies to date in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Now we’re back to the story of the Jedi and the fight against the powers of darkness in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The story picks up right where The Force Awakens left off, as Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds the self-exiled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who she hopes will help her learn who she is and what her destiny might be. Meanwhile, The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) continues its fight against the ascendant First Order, ruled by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) and Finn (John Boyega) along with Chewbacca and a bunch of porgs keep fighting the good fight while Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) continues to emote across the entire galaxy while trying not to be the Diet Coke of evil.

With so much Star Wars hype and promotion over the last three years, the franchise lately has never seemed far out of reach. To sell The Last Jedi effectively and forcefully, Disney has worked hard to make sure the campaign sells a compelling and unique product to the audience.

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If you’re anything like me you’ve been inundated by year-end lists over the last few weeks. Various sites have published what one writer or another feels are the best posters or trailers for the movies that have come out this year. As with anything else, these lists are subjective and open to interpretation and debate.

At the risk of sounding a bit high-minded and snooty, I continue to have minimal interest in creating such a list. I understand the desire to do so, both in order to recap the year that’s passed and as an editorial feature. Before 2017 shuts down entirely I will likely write something like my Adweek post that collected what I felt were the most memorable campaigns of 2016. But calling out individual assets like posters seems off to me for a number of reasons.

Art is Subjective

Even the most horrifically designed posters are a form of artwork and so need to be judged accordingly. That’s true. It’s also true that beautiful art is in the eye of the beholder. An image that draws me in completely and gets me hooked might make you turn your nose up in disgust. That’s good. We can debate that. And best of lists should be debated, but I’m not going to label my taste as being indicative of the “best” of anything.

It’s Commerce As Well As Art

It’s often forgotten that while the film (to varying degrees) may be an artistic statement, the campaign to sell it has more in common with the marketing of consumer electronics or household goods than it does with the art world. Yes, poster design and trailer editing should ideally adhere to art theory and principles but they’re also rooted in audience consumption preferences and habits. If it manages to walk in both worlds, great. And there certainly was a time when they were far more creative than many are now, but the point is to sell something, not create a statement piece.

You Can’t View Tactics in a Vacuum

That’s great that X Movie had what you felt was one of the best posters of the year. But how did that fit into the rest of the campaign? Did it present a message that was consistent with the trailer that came out at the same time or did it seem like it was attached to a completely different movie? How did that key art translate into online or outdoor ads? Could you quickly derive the value proposition of the movie from the copy or images used? It may stand alone as powerful and interesting, but if it was off-brand then it may have worked against the overall goals of the campaign.

Looking back at these points, I’m reminded of why I started writing about movie marketing in the first place, because everyone was saying “Oh what a cool trailer/poster/etc” without viewing the big picture or coming at it from the perspective of how well it actually sells the movie to the audience. That’s not a problem that’s unique to the entertainment press but is common even in the marketing trades, where industry awards will go to campaigns that hit some artistic high but didn’t actually move the needle on any corporate goal or which were out of left field when put in the context of the rest of the company’s advertising.

Again, I have no problem with anyone weighing in with their top 10 lists on whatever they like. It’s just not an exercise I care to engage in because doing so misses vast swaths of the point of why these materials are created and released and what they’re meant to achieve.

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

There have been few endings to superhero movies that have left me as anxious and eager to see more than the final moments of X-2: X-Men United. Throughout the movie Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) had been hinting at feeling as if she were on the verge of losing control of her powers, like there was something terrible lurking just around the corner. The end of the film sees her then finally cutting loose with all the potential she has always had as she manages to hold back a massive wave of water while at the same time lifting the X-Men’s jet to safety. As she does so flames begin to roil around her. Finally, after everything else, the camera pans over the newly-formed lake and we see a bird-like creature of fire under the water.

x2 phoenix

It was the perfect setup for the Phoenix Saga, one of the most famous and well-received comics storylines of all time. Written by Chris Claremont, it has Jean Grey briefly becoming Phoenix, an incredibly powerful psychic that in actuality is the manifestation of a cosmic force. Drama and betrayal follow, culminating in Grey’s death, the first of many times she would die in the comics.

The story had already been loosely adapted in the 90s “X-Men” animated show, but seeing the incarnation of the Phoenix Force in a theatrical feature was next level, the capstone on one of the best superhero movies up to that point and a continued excellent feature, regardless of what’s come out about director Bryan Singer in subsequent years.

Most all of that potential was squandered in X-Men: The Last Stand, directed by the equally sleazy Brett Ratner and featuring versions of the characters that were all but unrecognizable from what we’d seen in the first two movies. Cyclops is killed off-screen, Wolverine suffers from Hugh Jackman turning in one of the all-time great “I don’t even care” performances, Xavier is killed by a psychic tornado and poor Jean Grey. Instead of being an all-powerful force she just kind of stands around in a red duster for much of the movie.

Instead of doing…well…anything of interest with the Phoenix concept and character, she’s turned into the world’s most powerful observer. The movie is instead a loose adaptation of the “Cured” storyline from Joss Whedon’s first arc writing Astonishing X-Men, though done without one-tenth of the nuance, character and art. Even in the final battle, Jean just stands on the sidelines, looking at everything that’s happening without doing much of anything until she asks Wolverine to kill her in a moment of lucidity.

There’s so much more that could have been done. Not that the movie needed to follow Claremont’s story exactly, but it might have at least used it as an outline. Jean could have had some sort of arc that didn’t make her seem like a woman who just lost her mind. Her resurrection could have been at least somewhat explored before it was dismissed and relegated to the status of a subplot.

Hopefully the upcoming X-Men: Dark Phoenix will at least somewhat address what was missed the first time around. With Sophie Turner playing a younger version of Jean Grey in the recent X-Men prequels, Fox is taking a second bite at the apple and hoping to do something – anything – more interesting this time around.

As it stands now, there’s still a ton of unrealized potential in the character, something that’s surprising given the status the Phoenix Saga still has in the comics world. Not only is it beloved by fans to this day but the events of the story have continued to reverberate through the X-Men books ever since.

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

Detroit

Part of John Boyega’s appearance during the Star Wars publicity cycle also touched on this movie’s rerelease into theaters for an awards season push.

Lady Bird / Get Out

Directors Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele, both of whom broke out as significant behind-the-camera talents this year, were the subjects of a Vanity Fair photo shoot/cover story talking about their career journeys to date and what might be next.

Lady Bird

Saoirse Ronan talked more about working with Gerwig and what drew her to the story here.

The actor also hosted last week’s episode of “Saturday Night Live” where Gerwig dropped by for one of the digital shorts.

Good Time

I didn’t write about the movie’s campaign, but Krstina Monllos at Adweek has a story on how A24 is promoting its home video release with a pizza box campaign in New York City.

Wind River

Director Taylor Sheridan was so outraged by the news about Harvey Weinstein that he called to extract the rights to the movie and have them revert to the Tunica-Biloxi tribe, which has taken over awards season promotions. Proceeds from the film are also being sent to an organization that tracks abuse of Native American women, something that’s drastically uncounted currently.

Coco

The movie has continued receiving plenty of TV advertising, including spots like this that encouraged families to see it in IMAX.

The Frozen short that was shown before the movie was much-derided by just about everyone, so when it was announced it was being removed it seemed to be in reaction to that criticism. Disney soon claimed, though, that a limited run was always the plan.

LBJ

More from director Rob Reiner here about why he wanted to tell Johnson’s story and how he made the movie happen.

Alien: Covenant

Director Ridley Scott spoke briefly about the future of the franchise, assuring fans there would be more movies coming but that they take a different approach.

Wonder Woman

Not that surprising, really, but Wonder Woman is the most-Tweeted about film of 2017.

I, Tonya

Makeup artist Deborah La Mia Denaver talked about how she turned star Margot Robbie into the much different looking Tonya Harding. And director Craig Gillespie spoke about how a career shooting commercials – including one starring Nancy Kerrigan – prepared him for the movie.

Darkest Hour

Costar Lily Collins has done some media to promote the film now that it’s in theaters as well as talk about other upcoming projects.

Wonderstruck

Production designer Mark Friedberg talks here about creating the miniatures and dioramas that were used in the film to bridge the story’s two time periods.

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

The Book of Henry did not have a positive box-office reception. The movie has a paltry 21% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and while that score isn’t a perfect measure it’s representative of the savaging it received upon release. This isn’t a case of a movie being “for the fans, not the critics” either, as audiences essentially ignored it. The mix of disappointing box office and critical snubbing, along with a few stories of poor on-set behavior, is at least part of the reason director Colin Trevorrow was eventually let go from Star Wars: Episode IX.

The story in the film follows Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), a precocious and incredibly intelligent 12 year old boy who takes care of his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and single mother Susan (Naomi Watts). Susan never seems to have her life together and relies on Henry to pay the bills and manage the finances while she plays video games. One day Henry realizes the girl next door Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is likely being abused by her stepfather, who has avoided previous accusations by virtue of his position as the chief of police. Through a series of incidents I won’t get into because they spoil the story, Susan must take on the role of savior for Christina, enacting a plan devised by Henry that will lead to Christina’s freedom.

One of the primary points of criticism for the movie was that it was unexpectedly dark. It’s true. The characters act in ways that are much different than they would in other films that have more commercial appeal. It’s a difficult film and, admittedly, there are more than a few plot inconsistencies that should leave viewers scratching their chins.

I’m convinced, though, that much of the reaction came as a result of the movie’s tone and story being vastly different from what was presented in its marketing campaign.

The trailer does indeed lay out much of the story’s outline for the audience to understand, starting with the home situation of Susan, Henry and Peter and continuing through Susan’s execution of the plan left for her by Henry to help Christina. Left unexplained is why Henry is missing from the latter half of the story, a twist that likely caught many a critic and brave viewer by surprise.

But the rest of the campaign, especially the posters, presented a much different film. Those posters make the movie seem as if it’s along the lines of Flight of the Navigator or E.T., a story of adventurous and inventive kids getting in slightly over their heads and having an adventure. The image of Henry wearing his homemade goggles became a common element in the campaign, meant to convey that sense of childhood exploration as well as his intelligence.

That’s not what the movie delivers, though, and the disconnect between the tone of the marketing and the actual movie threw more than a few people off, leading to poor reviews and even worse word of mouth.

The Book of Henry isn’t a perfect movie by any stretch. But it’s also not as bad as the reviews made it out to be. We can have a discussion about Trevorrow’s talents as a filmmaker and whether he should be making blockbusters and high-profile character dramas this early in his career. But if you give the movie here a chance and view it free of the somewhat misleading pitch that was made in last year’s marketing, you may not regret it. I won’t say it’s enjoyable from beginning to end and, again, won’t pretend like there aren’t issues that should have been addressed. It’s not the complete trainwreck it was often made out to be, though.

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

shape of water poster 3Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is back in theaters with another of his fantasy-driven stories. Set in the Cold War of the early 1960s, The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who gets a job as a cleaning lady at a top-secret government facility alongside Zelda (Octavia Spencer). They’re sworn to secrecy because of what’s housed there, including a strange and potentially dangerous amphibian humanoid (Doug Jones) that’s kept in a tank.

Overseeing the facility is Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) along with Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Elisa violates multiple protocols when she begins interacting with the creature, eventually falling in love with him. She creates a plan to rescue it from captivity with the help of Zelda and Giles (Richard Jenkins). That effort is complicated by not only Strickland’s manic desire for secrecy and bully-like nature but by the political intrigue that results in many agencies and parties being interested in the creature.

The Posters

the shape of water posterThe first poster uses artwork released around the time of the trailer but now formatted for a one-sheet. It shows Alice and The Asset locked in a passionate embrace, a variation on the kind of pose you’d see on the cover of an airport bookstore romance novel. Kelp and water flow around them. It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful image that’s accompanied by the movie’s festival credentials. Thankfully the amount of text that gets in the way of the design is minimal.

There’s still no copy or plot points on the second poster, but who needs it when you have an image of a woman being embraced by some sort of strange mer-creature while they both float underwater. As with everything else it’s striking and unique and gets the point of the movie across as opposed to trying to fully explain the story to the audience.

The Trailers

The first trailer seemed to come out of nowhere and set us into the world of Eliza, a mute woman who works in a creepy, secretive government installation where they seem to house monsters. She’s supposed to just clean and nothing else and we hear about how dangerous and special the creature they’re studying is. But she forms a connection with it through their shared inability to speak. The head of the facility is less than sympathetic, just wanting to dissect the monster, but she wants to help it escape. That causes all sorts of problems, of course.

Why aren’t I watching this right now.

A red-band trailer (due to language) was up next. It starts off after Elisa has already taken The Asset from the facility it’s confined to. Strickland is determined to get it back, repeatedly questioning her, Zelda and others. It intercuts between his search for who stole it and her attempts to do so, all while repeating how important it is and how everyone is after it.

What’s on display most here are the performances of Hawkins and Shannon, both of whom are powerhouses in their own way, either silently or loudly. Not only that, but del Toro’s amazing visual style is clear as day here, both in the design of The Asset and the world all these characters live in. He makes a 1950s living room appear just as dark and mysterious as the secret lab where The Asset is housed. It’s incredible.

The next trailer, a red-band version, starts out with Elisa receiving her orders from Strickland to steer clear of the creature being held at the facility, a warning that’s reinforced when Strickland is injured. Eventually she forms a bond with the creature and helps him escape, both because of his treatment by Strickland and a plot by the Russians to kill it. Elisa’s plan is exposed and she – and it – are hunted down by all interested parties to finally secure what has been deemed a threat to all involved.

Online and Social

The final red-band trailer opens the official website, so take a few minutes and watch that again. After that’s done the splash page features the key art of Elisa and the Amphibian Man embracing underwater. A rotating series of positive quotes from early reviews are displayed below the title along with the film’s festival credentials as well as its Rotten Tomatoes “Fresh” certification. In the bottom left are the links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles.

Moving to the content menu at the top, “Cast” kicks things off with a photo and quote from the actor or about him or her from del Toro along with it. Same with “Filmmakers.”

“Story” has a brief synopsis of the plot. All three trailers can be found and viewed in the “Videos” section. Finally, “Fan Art” displays some fan creations based on the character in the film.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

A massive series of TV spots like this one were released just a week before release, each one featuring a slightly different collection of footage and scenes. It’s possible there’s some connective material here but they all offered a basic overview of the story and characters while selling the movie as a tight thriller.

If there were online or social ads I’m not aware of them. It’s possible some, along with outdoor signage were run in the initial select markets the movie has hit. The only online effort I’ve encountered is the placement of the trailer as a pre-roll ad on YouTube.

Media and Publicity

The movie was announced as one of those that would screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. It also was slated for the Venice Film Festival, where it racked up impressively positive buzz and where talked about the look and feel and story of his unusual movie. Already great word-of-mouth was only enhanced when the movie won the Golden Lion at Venice. During TIFF, del Toro talked about different aspects of the story and characters, including how he saw Hawkins’ caretaker as a sort of Disney Princess.

There was a fascinating feature on the design of those first bits of promotional poster artwork that went behind the scenes on the creative process of artist James Jean.

Spencer talked about how she was finally able to play someone for whom race wasn’t the defining characteristic as well as the responsibility of handling so much of the dialogue alongside Hawkins’ silent performance. There was also a lengthy profile of Doug Jones, a frequent collaborator of del Toro who plays the role of the Amphibian Man that drives the story. That profile emphasized how many movies and TV shows he’s been in and how infrequently we’ve ever seen his face since, as in this movie, he’s usually hidden behind masks and makeup, something he’s specialized in because of his unique ability to offer emotional performances even when hidden. Another similar profile hit many of the same beats.

Shannon also got involved, with a profile of the actor that included talk of how he got involved in the movie and how he approached creating the character. He also talked about filming the movie in appearance in the media including “Late Night.”

Overall

It’s not surprising to see the marketing for a movie from del Toro rely this strongly on a combination of secrecy, fantasy, mystery, story and visual style. That’s been his stock and trade for years now, with each film using all those elements to varying degrees. His movies are, as much as anyone else working in Hollywood, a representation of his imagination. Strong word of mouth that’s focused on the performances of Hawkins and Spencer propelled it from early screenings and seem to have primed the pump for the movie to finally hit wide release.

The campaign started off with a bang, the out-of-nowhere release of that first trailer, and kept up a solid pace over the intervening months. It’s been remarkably consistent, showing off the artistry of the visuals, the emotions of the story and the depth of the characters at most every turn. The lack of press push involving Hawkins is somewhat surprising, but there’s likely a reason behind that decision. Still, as the central focus of the story I would have expected her to play a bigger role in the publicity. It’s a small gripe in relation to a wonderful overall effort.

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