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.