amsterdam – marketing recap

How 20th Century Studios is selling a star-studded period piece

Amsterdam movie poster from 20th Century Studios
Amsterdam movie poster from 20th Century Studios

Writer/director David O. Russell is back with Amsterdam, out this week in theaters. The movie revolves around actual events from 1933 where a group of businessmen and other powerful individuals sought to overthrow the U.S. government and install a fascist regime.

Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington star as Burt Berendsen, Valerie Voze and Harold Woodsman, respectively, a trio that uncovers the plot and seeks to disrupt it but who become the prime suspects in that scheme and have to prove their innocence.

The movie also stars a diverse cast including Chris Rock, Ed Begley Jr., Mike Meyers, Zoe Saldaña, Robert De Niro, Timothy Olyphant, Taylor Swift and others as the people the main characters interact with over the course of the story.

Let’s dive in and see how 20th Century Studios has sold such a unique film to audiences.

announcements and casting

The project was announced in early 2020 as Russell’s next project, though the name of the movie remained unknown at that time. Robbie was the first to join a month or so later along with Michael B. Jordan, who soon dropped out. Bale, Washington and others signed on toward the end of that year.

A title was finally announced in late April of 2022 as part of 20th Century Studios’ presentation at CinemaCon. A first look still of Swift and Bale came out at that time as well.

the marketing campaign

Things started off in June with the release of the first trailer (6.8m YouTube views). After first seeing there’s been a murder we flashback to how Burt, Valerie and Harold first met and became inseparable friends during and after World War I. That friendship is tested as they have to find out who actually killed a U.S. senator, a goal that involves making lots of deals, needing to trust each other like they never have before and plenty of running away from the cops.

The poster that came out at the same time doesn’t offer much of anything in the way of story hints or anything else, just the names of the impressive cast Russell assembled.

“Let the love, murder and conspiracy begin” we’re told on the next poster released at the end of August. This one still has everyone’s name at the top but also features the core trio arranged in the middle around the sunburst symbol we’ve already seen with the New York City skyline at the bottom of the image.

An interview with costar Alessandro Nivola had him talking about Russell’s unique filming style, reuniting with Bale and other aspects of making the movie.

An extended TV spot came out in early September that offers a better look at the coup conspiracy the main characters find themselves in the middle of. Because of that it works a little better than the earlier trailer while still showing off both the dramatic and more humorous elements of the story.

Russell and Bale took part in a Q&A following a very private screening in Los Angeles that was just for select friends and others.

The dynamics of the trio’s friendship are on display in the first TV spot that was also used as an online pre-roll and promo.

A series of character posters pulls out many of the biggest names from the cast and puts them against the same sunburst design background we’ve previously seen. Another one-sheet with just the main cast came out a little bit after that.

Those were followed in mid-September by more TV spots, these featuring a better look at Taylor Swift in the film in an attempt to get her fanbase activated.

A green-carpet premiere was held in New York City at that point with a screening followed by a cast and crew Q&A moderated by Ben Stiller and introduced by Drake, who’s a producer on the film. While there everyone praised Russell and shared how they bonded on set and developed their chemistry. Robbie also appeared on “The Tonight Show” while she was in New York.

Everyone is rearranged slightly within the same general motif on the IMAX-exclusive poster. An IMAX Live Experience featuring the cast and a screening of the movie was scheduled for later in September, about a week out from wide release.

Burt is looking for his eye in a clip given exclusively to Fandango while everyone is trying to figure out what’s going on.

Another premiere event was held, this time in London, with the cast and crew once again coming out to get fans excited.

The new song “Time” by Giveon was featured in another TV commercial at the same time the full song was released digitally and elsewhere.

More clips came out that offered better looks at the characters played by Chris Rock, Mike Meyers and Zoe Saldaña while also offering small additional details about the story.

Along those lines, an interview with Bale had him sharing how hard it was to work with Rock because Rock was so funny during all their scenes. In another interview Bale talked about his first foray into producing and the opportunity to sing with Swift.

A short featurette was released that had the cast and Russell talking about the story and characters along with how much fun they all had on set. Another featurette focused on the production design, costumes and other trades behind making the movie.

overall

Reviews haven’t been especially positive so far and tracking estimates a relatively paltry $10-12 million opening weekend.

But the marketing campaign here conveys a solid sense of fun about the story, one that’s helped by the actors involved constantly talking about the great experiences they had during filming. It looks like an old-fashioned caper movie involving mistaken identities, corrupt politicians and other tropes that on paper add up to a good time with a movie, especially with a cast as charismatic as this one.

It also looks like one released as counter-programming to some of the movies coming out on streaming services recently as well as an offering to anyone who’s not excited for whatever the next super hero or wizards movie might be. In fact it may be aimed directly at those who aren’t invested in a high-profile cable series about dragons etc.

prey – marketing recap

How 20th Century Studios sold the prequel to an 80s action classic

(Note: Yes, the movie came out last week and while I didn’t get to it then I didn’t want to let it slip by completely.)

Prey movie poster from 20th Century Studios
Prey movie poster from 20th Century Studios

Just a few years ago 20th Century Fox worked with director Shane Black to develop The Predator, the fourth installment in the Predator franchise (not counting the Alien crossovers). That attempt fizzled at the box office and with critics for various reasons, including Black’s hiring of a friend who was a registered sex offender. While the movie wasn’t terrible, it also didn’t add anything new or particularly interesting to the concepts already explored in earlier films.

Now on Hulu is Prey, a prequel in the franchise continuity that takes things back to the early 1700s. Amber Midthunder stars as Naru, a Comanche warrior who encounters the alien Predator on its first visit to Earth. As she alternately hunts and is hunted by the Predator she has to deal with French traders as well as those within her own tribe, including Wasape (Stormee Kipp), a fellow Comanche who has little regard for Naru or her skills.

The movie is on Hulu now, bypassing theaters entirely. It’s directed by Dan Trachtenberg, who developed the story with screenwriter Patrick Aison. So let’s take a look at how the studio sold it.

announcements and casting

Trachtenberg was attached as director when 20th Century Studios announced the movie in November, 2020, though the project had been in development for a number of years, going back to when the studio was working on The Predator.

Midthunder’s casting was announced in May of last year, with the rest of the cast confirmed in September when filming completed.

The film’s title was confirmed along with the setting of the story in November 2021 on Disney+ Day when a first-look still was also released. That all came with the confirmation the movie was headed straight for Hulu, a corporate decision later reported to have been made in part because if Disney had released it to theaters it would have been contractually obligated to give the movie to HBO Max instead of using it to bolster its own streaming service.

the marketing campaign

The movie’s campaign kicked off in May with the release of a short teaser that smartly begins by introducing the film as coming “From the director 10 Cloverfield Lane.” There are just a few shots of Naru that follow, but one has her being targeted by the Predator’s familiar three laser beams, so we quickly get what it is we’re watching.

The full trailer then followed in early June. We meet Naru as she is trying to prove her skills and value to the rest of her tribe, but a bear hunt turns into an encounter with the camouflaged Predator. No one believes her when she says something is out there, not even her own brother, but soon the alien is wreaking havoc as it hunts everyone and everything down, with Naru sure she has what it takes to kill it.

A poster came out at the same time showing an extreme closeup of Naru, her face streaked with the glowing blood of the Predator. The same other appeals are made to the audience here, though no additional copy is offered to fill in context.

A 30-second spot was released right after the trailer offering a bit more footage of the conflict between Naru and the Predator.

Trachtenberg explained some of what attracted him to the project and what kind of story he wanted to tell in an interview.

Another poster came out in mid-July, this one showing the Predator instead of the prey. The alien hunter is seen from behind as it looks out from a cave into the wilderness. One more poster shows the conflict between them as Naru jumps off a cliff toward an oversized Predator to indicate the odds she’s up against.

Additional TV spots/online promos continued to come out at this point, each one offering mostly the same footage but with bits and pieces of new material scattered in.

There was a significant effort by 20th Century Studios at Comic-Con last month. That effort included handing out an exclusive free poster to attendees coming by the Disney Television booth. And significantly, Collider hosted an advance screening Thursday night during the event, resulting in lots of very positive word of mouth and buzz for the film. A scavenger hunt at SDCC had attendees searching for tokens they could redeem for invitations to an exclusive party.

The scale of the battle between Naru and the Predator is more realistic as they face off on a poster that came out later in July. A pair of posters depicts that battle as a cave painting, with one featuring the film’s title in the Comanche language.

A short featurette released at the beginning of August goes back to the beginning of the series to explore the legacy of the franchise, with Trachtenberg talking about adding something new and interesting to that. More background on the characters and setting is offered in another featurette that came out a week or so later.

The cast and crew came out for the Los Angeles premiere event last week. A few days later they appeared again at a screening/Q&A at BeyondFest.

There were multiple profiles and interviews with Midthunder about what was being seen as her breakout role as well as a great step in better representation in action/genre films. She talked about her familiarity with the previous movies, how she auditioned in Comanche as well as in English and more.

Beavers also talked about the issue of representation and how producer Jhane Myers, herself a Comanche, pushed for accurate depiction of indigenous culture. Myers herself along with Trachentberg spoke about the process of making this movie, what inspired the story and what possibilities there are for additional entries in the series.

Dane DiLiegro was interviewed about what it took to play the Predator itself, including having to convey thought and emotion through a rubber suit.

Following the film’s release Hulu/20th Century Studios touted its status as the biggest debut of any TV series or movie on the platform, based on activity in the first three days of availability.

overall

One of the aspects of the film that didn’t get a ton of play in the campaign but was buzzed about by others leading up to release is that a Comanche-language dub was offered on Hulu simultaneously with the English-language version. That was a compromise, it seems, from the original plan to film it in *only* Comanche and is still a massive achievement.

But the campaign itself is quite good. It nods to what’s come before without relying on that legacy too heavily as many sequels/prequels/reboots/sidequels do in their marketing. And because the focus remains on Midthunder and her performance as Naru it’s presented as a good entry point for audiences of all kinds whatever their familiarity with the other movies might be.

deep water – marketing recap

How 20th Century Studios has sold what’s described as a “sexual psychological thriller”

Deep Water movie poster
Deep Water movie poster

Adrian Lyne, who previously brought us movies like Flashdance, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal and many more, directs Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas in this week’s Deep Water from 20th Century Studios. Affleck and de Armas play Vic and Melinda Van Allen, a married couple whose relationship is nearing its end. Before they call it quits, though, they begin playing twisted mind games with each other that wind up pulling in the people around them, some of whom begin dying.

The movie is, as many have recently, skipping theaters entirely and debuting this Friday on Hulu, which has become a popular tactic for Disney with their non-franchise adult-skewing titles.

With Tracy Letts, Kristen Connelly, Lil Rel Howery and others also appearing, let’s take a look at how it’s been sold.

announcement and casting

In development by Lyne since 2013, Affleck and de Armas were cast in mid-2019, moving production into gear. At that point Disney acquired the project as a 20th Century Studios release following the merger with Fox and others, including Howery and Letts, joined the cast.

The movie was originally scheduled for November 2020, but various Covid-related delays kept it out of theaters. It was then slated for January 2022 but last December Disney pushed it a bit farther out to the current release date. In between all that it was announced the movie would go direct to Hulu in the U.S. and to Amazon Prime for overseas audiences.

the marketing campaign

With all the delays and the general state of uncertainty that still to a large extent pervades the movie industry, it’s not wholly surprising the campaign didn’t really kick off until just a month prior to release in mid-February.

That’s when the first teaser (2.7m YouTube views) trailer came out. What looks at first like a pleasant picnic with Vic and Melinda quickly turns weird as they discuss why they’re still together until each admits there’s something wrong with them, setting the stage for what’s to come.

Both it and the first poster, released at the same time, use the tagline “The love story is never the whole story” to hint at the twists and turns the audience can expect. The one-sheet shows the couple through what looks like a steamy glass shower door to make sure and communicate there’s a sexual or at least intimate nature to what is happening.

A commercial that came out two weeks later shows Vic approaching a window while attending a party, only to see Melinda and another man outside.This adds on to what was seen in the teaser to make it clear the two are playing games with/torturing each other, possibly in an effort to spice up their marriage.

In the full trailer (2.2m YouTube views), released in the first week of March, we start off with the same picnic scene. But from there we see Melinda engaging in some overt flirting – and frequently much more than that – all in full view of Vic and his friends. It only gets more intense from there as at least one person dies, someone’s car goes off a cliff and so on as the games they are playing, all because Melinda doesn’t want to lead a boring life and Vic has no power in the situation, escalate.

The couple stare out a window seemingly happy, or at least content, on the next poster.

Some of the scenes of Melinda driving Vic crazy are used in additional commercials like this that were released over the course of the next week.

The first clip offers a look at a scene of Melinda using a grilled cheese sandwich to embarrass Vic in front of another man, but Vic knows the games she’s playing and calls her out on it.

More short commercials/ads came out, some of which focus specifically on one of the other men Melinda runs around with. There were also a couple cool graphics designed to look like text messages of Vic asking Melinda where she is and Melinda flirting with one of her other suitors.

overall

The 47% rating the movie has on Rotten Tomatoes offers a potential reason why the movie was shunted over to Hulu exclusively without even testing the theatrical waters, so to speak, but it also may represent that most unfair of yardsticks being used by critics. Namely, it’s being graded lower because it’s not as engaging or mind-blowing as Lyne’s earlier work, some of which transformed the movie industry as we know it and certainly pushed a number of 1980s/90s boundaries.

As for the campaign, it sells the kind of slightly erotic thriller that was pioneered in that era but which now is a harder sell when everything has to have an expanded cinematic universe of IP. But it looks like it might be worth a couple hours for someone who doesn’t mind Affleck and is looking for something a bit darker than Cheaper By The Dozen, the other streaming original a Disney division is releasing this week. I can’t say there’s a ton of great or super-intriguing tactics on display here, though the text message posters are pretty cool, but what’s sold here appears to be a solid double that’s worth seeing.

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.

overall

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.

west side story – marketing recap

How 20th Century Studios is selling a new adaptation of a classic musical

West Side Story movie poster
West Side Story movie poster

Years ago there was a rash of movies that updated Shakespeare plays, Jane Austen novels and other literature classics for modern times, changing the dialogue and settings as appropriate.

West Side Story, out this week in theaters, is the latest film adaptation of a classic of this subgenre, deftly updating Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet for the 1950s, with the original movie released in 1961.

This new version comes from director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner but still features the same greatArthur Laurents book, Leonard Bernstein music and Stephen Sondheim lyrics.

Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort star as María and Tony, respectively, star-crossed lovers from different backgrounds, she part of the Puerto Rican community and he a part of the white community. Their love is tested by the racial tensions in the New York City neighborhood as exemplified by the rivalry between the Sharks (the Puerto Ricans) and Jets (the whites) street gangs.

announcement and casting

There had been news about the movie, particularly around casting, for a while leading up to Spielberg’s first real comments in October 2018 about how this version would adhere to the stage musical.

Casting news and various small updates followed over the next several months, starting with Elgort. Throughout early 2019 more additions were made, including Zegler, David Alvarez, Ariana DeBose and others. Notably, Rita Moreno joined not only as a member of the cast but also as a producer on the film, helping to guide the story’s development.

marketing phase one: not tonight, tonight

Disney used the social media app Weibo to release a special poster designed in the style of Chinese tapestries to celebrate Lunar New Year in 2019.

A first look photo showing the Jets and Sharks released in mid-June of 2019, with a photo of DeBose as Anita released a month later.

The first real look at the movie came in an April 2020 feature with a batch of new photos along with comments from Spielberg about why he chose this project, what it was like working with the cast and lots more.

A profile of DeBose in October of last year mentioned this as one of two breakout roles for her in the last year or so.

In September, 2020 Disney announced it was pushing the release date back an entire year because of Covid-19 related delays and theater closures.

marketing phase two: something’s coming

A brand identity that would last throughout the campaign was established on the first poster, released in April. It doesn’t show much outside of the title treatment, displayed here as white bricks seen through a black background.

The first trailer (3.1m YouTube views), which debuted during the April broadcast of this year’s Academy Awards, makes the case for the movie based on it being visually gorgeous. It focuses on the cinematography and staging of the story and less on the story itself, seemingly assuming some level of familiarity on the part of the audience. It’s relatively short and doesn’t feature any dialogue and just a few lyrics, but the impact is certainly felt.

A “Special Look” came out in late July that functions like a short trailer or extended TV spot. Little dialogue is featured along with the music, but it definitely reinforces the fact the movie will look incredible.

It was mid-September before the full trailer (6.6m YouTube views) was released, debuting on “Good Morning America.”. It offers the basic outlines of the story we all (hopefully) know, that Maria meets and falls in love with Tony despite them coming from different cultural environments. That causes tension in her family and others as those opposing forces get ready for a clash. Notably, it specifically calls out the racial hatred that powers one side, which is angry over how “other” people keep taking over their territory. That’s an important message to highlight in this day and age.

That was followed by another poster, this one using the same title treatment but pulling the camera out to show the rest of the building wall and, importantly, the shadows of Tony and Maria who are standing on a neighboring building.

The movie received an important endorsement when Sondheim appeared on “The Late Show” and praised the work of Spielberg and Kushner.

A TV spot came out shortly after the trailer debuted that cut down the story to its broad strokes, still featuring those bright visuals as well as “Tonight.” Another focuses more on Maria and her attempts to fit in in America and make a life for herself.

Ziegler was interviewed about how surreal it was to work with Spielberg on the film.

A bit of behind-the-scenes footage is seen in another “Sneak Peak” released at the end of October. Two more posters – one showing Maria and Tony dancing the other with Bernardo and Anita dancing – came out at the same time.

Tony has a choice to make in a TV spot from early November that highlights not the romance of the story but the dangerous choices everyone is about to make and the danger those choices will create. Another spot brings the focus back to Tony and Maria and their doomed love.

The theatrical poster indicates how the Tony/Maria romance is the central selling point of the film, specifically their singing “Tonight.” It shows the pair on the fire escape where they sing their love to one another, making sure the audience knows this will be the centerpiece of the movie.

More commercials – some of which would be repurposed as social ads or video prerolls – continued to be released. Another behind-the-scenes featurette was built around Spielberg toasting the first day of filming but focused on the work that went into preparing the music, sets, choreography and other aspects of production before the camera actually rolled.

Character posters were released showing individual looks at Maria, Tony, Bernardo, Anita and Valentina (the character played by Moreno).

An extended spot debuted during the American Music Awards broadcast. Spielberg talks about how making West Side Story has long been a dream of his, as well as how unfortunately the story of racial divisions is still timely, in another featurette.

The movie’s red carpet premiere was held in New York City at the end of November, with the cast and crew all in attendance.

While on the red carpet Kushner shared how he turned to a Puerto Rican friend to make sure his Spanish language dialogue was accurate to that community at that time, with more and more people weighing in to the point it became a regular group discussion. Spielberg and members of the cast also reflected on Sondheim’s contributions and legacy since he had passed away just days before the event.

Reactions from that premiere screening praised the movie as a whole and especially the performance of Zegler in her film debut and DeBose. Spielberg’s first outing helming a musical was also called out as a highlight.

Unsurprisingly given it’s been featured in almost every asset to date, the first clip is an extended look at “Tonight.”

Dolby and IMAX exclusive posters feature slightly different arrangements but both take a more artistic approach to one-sheet design, using painted images of the characters and locations to create a retro feel appropriate to the era the story is set in.

Moreno talked about returning to the story 60 years later when she appeared on “The Tonight Show.” Zegler promoted the film on “GMA” and “Live with Kelly and Ryan” among other media stops.

Brian James D’arcy, who plays Officer Krupke, was interviewed about this movie specifically as well as his thoughts on remakes. Kushner later spoke about how intimidating the project was when he agreed to take it on.

AMC Theaters shared exclusive video interviews with the cast.

A few videos were released that had Spielberg offering his thoughts on Zegler, who he calls the high bar no one else cleared during the audition process, and DeBose, whose charisma and talent he praises. Another focused on Moreno, from how it was Kushner’s husband who had the idea to cast her in a role originally created for a man to how she shared stories of the original production during filming to the part she played in conveying a real Puerto Rican experience to everyone on set.

Alvarez was profiled for how his career includes a break while he served in the U.S. military.

Another premiere event was held just recently, this one in Los Angeles.

The movie got a final push when the AFI named it one of the 10 best movies of 2021.

overall

It’s interesting, if not a bit maddening, that this movie is being held up as an indicator of whether or not non-franchise blockbusters have any future at the theatrical box office. That issue has been very much up in the air this year, with the answer too frequently being “No, not really.” But asking it overlooks the fact that, as an adaptation of a perennially popular musical that was already made into one a cinema classic, it doesn’t really fall into the “original idea” bucket even if it’s not a comic book or YA novella adaptation.

The movie certainly comes with the endorsement of critics, as represented by its 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But tracking estimates an opening domestic weekend of $12-17m, which would be just slightly above the $11m opening of In The Heights last June, a result that was roundly considered disappointing. Yes, the winter yardstick for success is different than that used in summer, but still…

Putting all that aside, 20th Century Studios has mounted a very good campaign that:

  • Has a strong brand identity throughout the effort, as exemplified by that white brick title treatment
  • Knows the audience is there to see the two leads sing “Tonight” to each other and so uses that footage every single chance available
  • Highlights, especially in its back half, the role GOAT Rita Moreno played in guiding this film through production and the respect paid to her by everyone from Kushner to Zegler and all in between
  • Communicates consistently that this isn’t a period piece locked in amber for 60+ years but one that is both respectful of tradition and updated a bit to make it timely and relevant to modern audiences

Finally, it manages to look and feel like something that is both a big screen musical and all that entails while also looking like a Spielberg film, no doubt thanks to the cinematography of the director’s long-time collaborator Janusz Kamiński.

It’s also coincidental that this is the second of two Sondheim-related projects to come out in just a few weeks, the first being Tick…Tick…Boom!, which featured the late writer (as portrayed by Bradley Whitford) mentoring a new generation of musical theater creators. So that celebrates the future he was instrumental in shepherding while this celebrates one small part of his legacy.

the last duel – marketing recap

How 20th Century Studios has sold a movie of honor and sexual politics

The Last Duel poster

The Last Duel, out this week from 20th Century Studios, is based on the true story of exactly what you would think based on the title.

Set in 14th century France, Matt Damon plays Jean de Carrouges. When his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) accuses de Carrouges’ friend and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of raping her, de Carrouges challenges him to a duel which would become the last one in France to be legally sanctioned.

Directed by Ridley Scott, the movie was co-written by Damon and Ben Affleck – who also costars – along with Nicole Holofcener, brought in by the pair specifically to strengthen the female perspective of the story.

announcement and casting

The announcement that the movie was coming and that it would feature an on-screen reunion of Affleck and Damon hit in late July of 2019, though the film had been in development for a few years prior to that. Comer and Driver joined the cast later that year.

the marketing campaign

The first trailer (6m YouTube views) came out in late July, opening with what seems to be Marguerite being questioned after the fact about events we see depicted, indicating there’s been some kind of fall out from what takes place. Those events involve charges that have been leveled against Jacques Le Gris – namely that he raped and assaulted Marguerite – and the challenge to a duel that’s proposed by Jean de Carrouges. But while that duel extends into what appears to be all out war, it’s Marguerite that is about to pay the price if she’s found guilty of making a false accusation.

At the same time the first poster was released, nicely conveying the story by showing two swords pointed in opposite directions, Marguerite’s face shown in the blade of one to indicate she’s somehow the reason this duel is happening.

Comer talked about the movie, including her experience on a Ridley Scott production, in an interview from mid-August. She covered similar grounds in another interview a short while later.

Affleck and Damon talked about reuniting as a writing team and bringing in Holofcener to help them tell a uniquely female-centric story in the best way possible.

The first TV spot came out in early September, cutting down the story to its basic beats and managing to be a lot more clear than the trailer, losing some of the vague mystery and getting straight to the drama.

Damon, Affleck and Comer were joined by Holofcener and Scott at the Venice Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere.

While at Venice – which also served as the first big public appearance of Affleck and Jennifer Lopez as a couple again – Affleck was interviewed about how the story reminds audiences that women haven’t been treated as full human beings for centuries.

Positive reviews, especially for Comer’s performance, came out of that premiere and kept buzz for the movie building.

Another feature story covered Holofcener’s recruitment into the writing team and what it means for how the story is told.

Additional TV spots/online promos came out after that, most of which focused on the drama over the accusations that’s been made by Marguerite and what results from that. Others focused more on how the movie is based on a true story, showing the gritty nature of the events.

A featurette released in late September goes behind the scenes to show Scott directing and talking about his process.

Comer appeared at the UK premiere of the movie.

Marguerite stands at the front of the next poster, released at the end of September. The rest of the characters are arrayed behind her but it’s clear she’s at the center of the story. Again the two sword motif is used here, with copy explaining that not only is this a true story but that the woman in the middle of it will drastically upset the status quo.

More TV spots were released over time that played up how powerful the film and its performances are. The audio for some of the shorter commercials was repurposed for ads on Spotify and elsewhere.

The first clip shows Marguerite confronting her husband about whether it’s her honor or his reputation he’s fighting for as he goes forward with his duel.

Fandango was given the first few minutes of the movie showing preparations for the duel, the king of France looking on.

The cast and crew turned out for the movie’s premiere in New York City last week, with the studio releasing a video of highlights from that event. From that premiere came several interviews with Comer, Affleck, Holofcener, Damon, Scott and others.

Another featurette focuses on how Damon and Driver in particular were suited up for the duel and how those outfits restricted their movements.

overall

Things are summed up nicely in one of the last TV commercials released in the campaign. That spot includes pull quotes from some of the positive reviews the movie has accumulated, all of which have given it an 87% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Ridley Scott GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

It’s that word of mouth that has really powered the campaign in the last two weeks. Positive buzz for Scott’s direction, Comer’s performance in particular and the better-than-expected script have all built on a strong start that sold the movie as a powerful experience that must be seen in theaters. That’s slightly different than some other recent releases, which focus on the *size* of the action, not the intensity of the story.

Despite that, tracking projections estimate a paltry $10 million opening weekend. That is *absolutely* an indicator of how established brands and franchises are better-suited for the new normal of theatrical distribution than other stories, especially since the reviews are better or at least similar in aggregate.

free guy – marketing recap

how Fox Disney has sold an action-comedy about life inside a video game

Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer star in this week’s Free Guy, directed by Shawn Levy. Reynolds plays Guy, an NPC (non-playable character, i.e. background cannon fodder) in an open-world video game created by Antwan (Taika Waititi). When two of Antwan’s developers insert new code into the game, Guy becomes self-aware, realizing he lives in a video game. Millie (Comer), one of those developers, uses her avatar to explore the game and help Guy save the game before Antwan, who doesn’t care for the updates or the attention Guy’s self-directed actions has attracted.

The movie, which has a solid 86% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, was one of the last developed by 20th Century Fox before it was acquired by Disney a couple years ago. It finally hits theaters this week after a number of delays and a marketing campaign that has acknowledged those delays with winking humor.

announcement and casting

The movie had been in various stages of development at Fox for a few years, with Levy and Reynolds signing on in 2018/19, finally moving things forward. Comer joined in 2019, leading to production getting fully underway.

comic-con and the first marketing attempts

As the movie had its official coming out with a well-received panel at New York Comic-Con in October, Fox released a “Meet the Cast” video that had everyone talking about how excited they were to work with the others. It included Reynolds and Waititi claiming they have never worked together before, while Comer and Keery try to correct the record, a nice bit of fun that’s in line with the public personas of both actors.

Unfinished footage from the film was also shown off to NYCC attendees, while a sizzle reel of the panel and press activities from the convention was released shortly after it ended.

Guy takes on a traditional super hero pose on the first poster (by marketing agency LA), standing with his shirt opened to show what’s underneath, which in this case is just another shirt and tie. It’s meant to communicate his ordinary nature, that he’s not a hero and doesn’t have hidden abilities and thanks to Reynolds’ expression that comes off as genuine.

Reynolds and others traveled to Brazil in December to appear at CCXP, where they showed off the trailer and other footage while working to get the audience there excited for the film.

December 2019’s first trailer (14.4m views on YouTube) starts off very dramatically, identifying the film as coming from the same studio that brought audiences Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King (twice) before showing someone skydiving into an epic action sequence. It’s then that we meet Guy, a normal guy who takes all the violence and chaos around him in stride until he starts wondering if there’s more to life than constantly being held up at the bank where he works and being shot at all the time. Putting on a pair of glasses shows him the reality of the world around him and leads him to the realization he’s in a video game, but has the freedom to be the hero his world needs.

There’s more going on the second poster, released in December, as we see Guy strolling blindly down a city street that’s filled with the chaos of bombs being dropped, cars exploding and more. It conveys nicely the idea that he’s a character incapable of recognizing, much less impacting the events happening around him.

Another entry in the self-deprecating part of the campaign came in January with a video of Reynolds and Comer talking about the craft of acting, with Reynolds increasingly frustrated by how Comer is consistently referred to in the context of the awards she’s won.

Disney used the social media app Weibo to release a special poster designed in the style of Chinese tapestries to celebrate Lunar New Year.

delays, delays and more delays

Originally scheduled for summer of 2020, it was among the titles Disney delayed in a big announcement last April as the severity of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. and elsewhere was becoming clear.

When that announcement was made, Reynolds and others took it upon themselves to release an unfinished, watermarked clip of Guy in his apartment watching the news, all of which is horrible. The clip was meant to be both relatable given reality at the moment and to just keep the movie in everyone’s mind and includes the new date followed by a 🤞, which is a nice touch.

While there was a Total Film feature story on the film that included comments from Levy, Comer and Reynolds and a steady stream of new photos and other minor updates, things were quiet until October of last year.

That’s when the second trailer (2.6 million views on YouTube) came out, teased ahead of time in a video with the cast covering their bases by throwing out a number of potential release dates. It differs from the first trailer in a couple areas. First, it frames Guy’s epiphany that he and everyone he knows is living in a video game as a result of his crush on Milly. Second, it shows the chaos a free-range Guy has within the game and how it affects the real world, especially on the company that makes the game.

That second trailer gained more headlines for racking up over 55 million views in the first 24 hours following its release.

Another poster, this one showing Guy standing on a rooftop above the chaos of the city, came out at the same time.

At that point Disney was aiming for a mid-December release date, hopeful the pandemic would be receding into the background by then. The studio’s optimism was short-lived, though, and in November the movie was taken off the 2020 release calendar, with no new date announced until a month later.

ok for real this time

Fast forward to March 2021, when another video came out with Reynolds announcing a new (and eventually final) release date, though still in a way that played into the ridiculousness that had come before.

In May Disney CEO Bob Chapek confirmed the movie would receive an exclusive 45-day theatrical run instead of going to streaming simultaneously or shortly after that theatrical run.

There’s a bit more of the non-video game world that is impacting Guy’s existence in the next trailer (4.8m views on YouTube, released in early June. Other than that it hits many of the same beats as previous spots.

The whole cast shows up in a very typical action ensemble design on the poster released at that time. Differentiating it from something like an MCU entry is the upbeat and naive look on Guy’s face as he stands over everyone in the hero spot.

An interview with Comer in June had her talking about entering the world of action movies, working with Reynolds and more.

Lil Rey Howery, who plays Guy’s best friend in the game world, appeared at Essence Fest to promote the movie.

News came in late June that the movie would screen at the Locarno International Film Festival in August.

In mid-July Reynolds released a video that has Deadpool and Korg from the MCU reacting to the latest trailer. The mashup makes sense given Disney and Fox are now a single entity and that the movie stars both Reynolds and Waititi, who plays Korg.

Traditional 30-second spots began airing in mid-July that recapped the story and its visuals. Longer commercials obviously had more room to breathe but stuck to the same basic message.

Later spots expanded on what had come before while also pulling primarily from footage the audience has already seen. Of note, it was being positioned as the movie event of the summer, which may be a bit hyperbolic but what else are you going to do…

The first clip shows Guy and Millie pulling off a big fight in a nightclub. That clip really shows off the interplay between the two leads as well as the basic level of humor audiences can expect. Another has Guy being confronted by the police for breaking many of the game’s rules.

All the main characters got posters of their own (by marketing agency BLT Communications).

Guy and Millie have a meet cute over a Mariah Carey song in another clip. How important that song is to the movie and its story (it’s featured in nearly all the trailers and TV spots) was shared by Reynolds in an interview at the movie’s premiere.

Just how much Waititi riffed while on set was covered in a short featurette that had Levy, Comer and others praising his performance.

the comer and reynolds show

While it had been part of the campaign since the very beginning, the last few weeks featured a focus on Comer and Reynolds’ chemistry with a series of videos that had them playing off each other, often at Reynolds’ expense.

First, the two appeared in a promo video debating whether or not this qualified as a “date movie” especially in light of the social distancing of the last year and a half.

They then squared off in a test of their Canadian knowledge, the joke being that Comer is British.

These were fun largely because this is Reynolds’ brand in particular. For the last several years he’s consistently broken the fourth wall in his movie campaigns, so this makes a lot of sense and delivers what audiences have come to expect when he has a new movie coming out.

Individual videos had Comer and then Reynolds introducing their respective characters and having some fun with international translations of the movie’s title.

wrapping up the campaign

In early August Reynolds shared a video that had him showing off the massively bulked up physique he achieved in just a week, one that means he can no longer fit into the Deadpool suit but which allows him to appear as Dude in the movie.

A TV spot released just after that video came out showed off Dude and how he’s used by the game’s designers to try and reign in Guy.

Dolby and IMAX posters offered slightly different takes on what had come before, but they both still communicate how Guy is the lone calm in the center of endless chaos.

The movie’s premiere was held in Los Angeles last week, with Reynolds, Comer, Levy and others in attendance. At that premiere the cast and crew spoke about the unique approach they took to construct the world of the movie and more.

Comer made an appearance at the London premiere event as well.

Levy was the subject of a much-shared profile that dove into how he’s one of the most successful and hard-working comedy directors in Hollywood but has at the same time flown largely under the radar in terms of outsized press and attention. Many of the cast and crew praise Levy and his work ethic in that piece.

Overall

There have been so many campaigns over the last few months that have tried to be the end-all-be-all in jumpstarting theatrical moviegoing. Some have been more effective than others depending on where in the latest sub-cycle of the Covid-19 pandemic we are and what the audience’s appetite for breaking out of their new view-from-home norm might be.

The Free Guy campaign doesn’t make that kind of statement as explicit as the push for, say F9, but it’s still there lurking beneath the surface.

What may set this apart from what’s come before is that most of those earlier releases have been either thrillers or franchise action films while this one is clearly a comedy. That’s a different kind of communicable experience than just watching super heroes beat up bad guys or cars be pulled around by giant magnets. The campaign has played into that with its frequent tweaking of Reynolds’ and the focus on Waititi’s improv antics.

While the $15-18 million that’s predicted for the film’s opening weekend box-office may not be all that impressive compared to some other recent movies, it may actually represent a much more accurate look at how people are feeling about theaters since this one isn’t available for streaming simultaneously.

The Call of the Wild – Marketing Recap

You can read my full recap of the marketing campaign for The Call of The Wild at The Hollywood Reporter.

Online and Social

There’s not much, just the very basic material, on the studio’s official website for the film. A Facebook page seems to be the only social profile created, though the movie was well-promoted on the brand Twitter and other accounts.

Media and Press

A week or so before the movie hit theaters Ford engaged in a bit of a media tour that included stops at “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “CBS Sunday Morning” and more.

Ford and others involved spoke about offering another adaptation of London’s novel on the premiere red carpet. An interview with the score’s composer allowed him to explain the challenges of using music to fill in for what otherwise would have been the dog’s dialogue.

Overall

Picking Up The Spare

Another clip showing Buck meeting the rest of his new sledding team.