the gray man – marketing recap

How Netflix has sold an action-thriller with an A-list cast

The Gray Man movie poster from Netflix
The Gray Man movie poster from Netflix

The Gray Man arrives on Netflix this week with the hopes the movie will kick off a franchise based on the novels of the same name by Mark Greaney. The talent behind the film certainly helps make that case.

Ryan Gosling plays a CIA mercenary known only as Sierra Six. When Six discovers a handful of secrets the agency wanted to remain hidden he goes on the run, hunted by fellow CIA operative Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) along with others. But Six has the help of a handful of people, including sympathetic agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) and others. Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page, Alfre Woodard and others also star.

Adding to that, the movie is directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, the brothers behind the last two Avengers movies as well as the previous Netflix original Extraction.

announcements and casting

Other studios have been working on a version of the film for over a decade, but the Russos became involved in 2015 as screenwriters.

It wasn’t until July, 2020, though that Netflix announced the movie was going into production with the Russos now directing and Evans and Gosling attached to star. de Armas joined in December of that year, with others cast in early 2021.

Henwick talked briefly about the project while promoting other things in 2021.

Netflix shared a handful of stills in late April to give people their first real look at the film.

Footage from the film was included in Netflix’s 2022 feature film preview.

the marketing campaign

In early May Empire featured Gosling and Evans on the cover of its Summer Preview issue. Both, as well as the Russos, were interviewed in the issue about what attracted them to the project, what their character’s motivations within the story are, the process of filming and more. That issue also revealed Netflix already had two related projects – a sequel and a Lloyd Hanson-focused prequel – being written in anticipation of the first movie proving a success.

A series of characters posters came out in mid-May featuring the main cast, each with some foreign skyline behind them. The orange and blue color scheme creates a sense of dark mystery, as if they’re hiding from the light.

The first trailer (14.8m YouTube views) came out later in May. it starts by helpfully establishing that Sierra Six is “The Gray Man,” an unofficial operative for off-the-books missions. Why he goes rogue is unclear, but Hansen is soon on his trail, an assignment he considers to be a lot of fun given Six’s reputation in the clandestine world. There’s lots of gunfights, a few car chases, and Six referring to Hansen’s “trash stache”, so it’s filled with both action and humor.

Netflix quickly released a video of the Russos talking about that trailer and breaking down how it was assembled and how it is designed to get the audience’s interest.

The company also began offering “Lloyd’s Trash Stache,” a fake mustache inspired by Evans’ look, in its online store.

Six fights his way through a hallway of bad guys before being confronted by Lloyd in the first clip.

The Russos then participated in an interview about the movie for Netflix’s Geeked Week in mid-June.

Another set of character posters showed off the rest of the impressive cast.

The theatrical poster features, surprisingly, only Sierra Six, who is seen kind of blowing away as the outline of his form becomes less defined from left to right. It’s not bad, but not showing either of the other two lead characters is an interesting choice, even if Six is the title character.

The movie’s premiere event was held in mid-July, just ahead of release, with most of the filmmakers and cast in attendance. While there Gosling and the Russos made it clear the “trash stache” line is an accurate representation of their thoughts while the directors shared their love of working with Evans and more.

An interview with the Russos had them talking about the long process of getting this movie made, what it was like to work with Netflix again and some of their thoughts on Marvel’s future along with some other projects they’ve been involved in.

A behind-the-scenes featurette came out a week before the movie’s release that had everyone talking about their characters, the story and the epic nature of the action that audiences will experience. That was followed by a video of the Russos showing off their production offices, but that was less about this film than it was a walk down memory lane of their various Avengers and Captain America movies.

Tag Heuer partnered with Netflix on a campaign for the company’s Carrera watch, which Gosling apparently wears in the film. That campaign included banner ads featuring Gosling.

Tag Heuer / The Gray Man banner ad
Tag Heuer / The Gray Man banner ad

Those in San Diego this week for Comic-Con can take part in The Gray Man Training Program, an experiential set-up recreating the tram sequence from the film, asking participants to try and get through the obstacle course in one piece. The Netflix booth on Friday will also be promoting the film.

overall

There are two points of primary focus in the campaign Netflix put together:

  • The “trash stache.” It is admittedly a great line and, after causing waves when it was part of the first trailer, was fully embraced by everyone. It came up in numerous interviews, featurettes and more. When a product is created for something as random as this you know it’s achieved a certain level of popularity.
  • The Russos themselves. This is another example of how directors in many instances are used as brand proxies when the movies themselves aren’t part of a franchise or based on wildly popular existing IP. Half the elements of the campaign above are just the directing brothers, whether it’s their experience working with Marvel Studios, their love of Chris Evans or something else the audience is expected to relate to.

While there’s lots of fun action and humor featured in the marketing, there’s also no consistent brand identity that’s been established, which may be even more noticeable if/when additional films are being sold to the public.

There’s also the unfortunate coincidence (?) of Gosling’s press tour for this movie being overshadowed by the recently released pictures of him as Ken in the upcoming Barbie movie. Those pics are so over-the-top and meme-worthy they became a frequent topic of interviews with Gosling at the expense of The Gray Man.

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.

no time to die – marketing recap

How MGM and Universal have sold the capstone of the latest James Bond era.

No Time To Die poster

It’s impossible to even begin discussing the marketing for No Time To Die, the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, without putting in the context of two realities.

First, that this is clearly being sold as the last time Daniel Craig would star as the British super-spy. When he took over the role in 2006’s Casino Royale it was clear the franchise was headed in a new direction, one whose more realistic tone was seen as a direct response to movies like The Bourne Identity that featured more graphic violence and a flawed, human hero. Craig has hinted at leaving before, but this fifth outing seems to really be his last.

Second, that the movie’s release has been greatly impacted by events in the real world. Fears over the spread of novel coronavirus lead the studio in February 2020 to cancel the movie’s planned premiere in China. Things escalated after that when the planned release in April of last year was shifted to November by MGM, the studio citing an abundance of concern over audiences being exposed to what was then known as Covid-19 in theaters. That came after a Bond fansite launched a petition encouraging MGM and Eon to make that change.

Doing so meant the studio and producers stood to lose around $30 million in sunk costs, but the movie bombing because people were avoiding public spaces like movie theaters had the potential to be much worse financially in addition to being a public health nightmare.

With all that as context, we now come to the moment at hand. Here’s the official synopsis for No Time To Die:

In No Time To Die, Bond has left active service and is enjoying a tranquil life in Jamaica. His peace is short-lived when his old friend Felix Leiter from the CIA turns up asking for help. The mission to rescue a kidnapped scientist turns out to be far more treacherous than expected, leading Bond onto the trail of a mysterious villain armed with dangerous new technology.

What’s promised, though, is an end to the story begun 15 years and four films ago. That’s relatively unusual for the Bond franchise, to have a single storyline run through multiple installments, and it’s made the marketing of the movie that much more emotional and interesting. Let’s dig in.

announcements and casting

A lot of news came in one fell swoop as it was announced MGM and Annapurna would team up for distribution, having wrestled the rights away from Sony, that Danny Boyle would direct, that Craig would return for another go and that it was already scheduled for release. Boyle’s involvement wouldn’t last much longer as it was announced in mid-August he had departed the film due to the frequently-cited “creative differences.”

That set off plenty of speculation about who might be considered as a replacement, a decision the studio wanted to make quickly to keep things on track. Eventually Fukunaga was picked to sit in the chair, a decision that most everyone approved of given his talents shown in previous films.

There was a bit of coverage of the movie when it was revealed Craig had specifically requested Phoebe Waller-Bridge do a pass on the script to punch things up and bring an original take to the story and tone. A few weeks later in late April the cast and some of the locations were announced via livestream, though the title remained secret.

After months of being known publicly as simply “Bond 25” the official title was announced in mid-August 2019. In October the movie’s Instagram account marked the end of principle photography.

not the time to die: marketing phase one

It was all the way back in October 2019 – two solid years before the eventual release – that the marketing of the latest James Bond film began, back when the world was pure and you could go to the theater relatively certain you wouldn’t contract a deadly virus.

That’s when the first teaser poster was released, though it, like the character posters that followed in December, have all been subsequently updated to replace the “April 2020” date that was quickly obsolete.

Costars Lynch and de Armes were jointly profiled as part of THR’s “Next Gen Talent” feature, with the pair talking about the complicated process of joining the world of Bond and what it meant to be part of the team trying to modernize the character for new times and new audiences. A bit later Waller-Bridge was interviewed about how she came on to provide some help with the script and what she encountered when she joined. She offered more clarification on what she positioned as her limited role later on.

Just as has been the case with the previous two movies, Craig proclaimed this would be his very last outing as Bond while on the publicity circuit for last year’s Knives Out. Given how often he’s said this in the past, it remains to be seen if he’s serious this time or just negotiating through the press.

Late June brought a behind-the-scenes look at the movie’s filming in the Caribbean.

The first official still from the film was released in early December at the same time as the initial trailer. That release was also accompanied by the entire cast appearing on “Good Morning America” to celebrate the moment.

Also in December came the first teaser trailer (21.4m YouTube views). As it opens we see Bond is living peacefully in Jamaica, but is brought back into the fold to face an increasingly dangerous world. Nomi, a new 00 operative, isn’t thrilled about retrieving the relic from seclusion but the two pair up regardless, eventually reuniting with Moneypenny and Q as well. After encountering Madeleine, Bond interrogates Blofeld, eventually leading to a face off with Safin. Along the way there are just the sort of shots of well-choreographed action and adventure that are synonymous with the franchise.

With that April 2020 release date still kinda sorta realistic, more marketing efforts continued to pop up.

TV advertising began in early February of that year with a Super Bowl commercial that promises secrets will be unveiled that will “be the death of” Bond. In fact the spot sets the expectation that major changes will result from what happens, teasing that this might indeed by the last outing for this incarnation of 007. A commercial that aired during the NBA Finals is more basic, selling it as a big-screen action flick with a familiar character.

Total Film shared a first look at the villain played by Rami Malek, with the actor adding a few comments while continuing to keep the actual identity of the character he played a secret. Malek would later present at the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony.

Costar Latasha Lynch received a profile where she was quizzed on 007 history and talked about the character she plays. Ana de Armas also got her own Vanity Fair profile a short while later.

Pop superstar Billie Ellish was announced as the performer of this movie’s title number in January, just before she swept the major categories at this year’s Grammy Awards. At the same time it was revealed Hans Zimmer was composing the film’s score. The audio of the title track was released in mid-February, earning a fair amount of praise. Ellish performed that song at the Brit Awards just a short while later and talked about writing the song when she appeared on “Good Morning America.”

In January a THR feature focused on longtime Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, including their thoughts on the future of the character. A little while later EW ran a cover story on the movie that offered a handful of interviews with the cast who teased what audiences could expect and addressing some of the issues – Boyle’s exiting the project, Craig’s occasional reluctance to continue and more – that have been part of the narrative to date.

Additional TV spots continued to come out throughout February of 2020, all showing off the action audiences could expect from the film. There was also an exclusive IMAX poster of Bond on a motorcycle, an image pulled from the trailers and commercials that had already come out.

Another poster shows a very grimy and dirty Bond alongside Madeline Swann (played by Léa Seydoux) looking out of a bullet-riddled car window.

A short featurette narrated by Fukunaga had the director talking about where Bond as a character is when the story opens and how this movie will deliver on audience expectations for this final chapter of Craig’s Bond.

still not quite the time to die: marketing phase two

At this point everyone pumped the brakes as it became clear the Covid-19 pandemic was going to be serious and disruptive. That’s when, in early March 2020, the announcement came the movie was being delayed from April to November of that year.

Not everything came to a stop though. Craig still hosted “Saturday Night Live” in March as planned, still promoting the movie while addressing the delay in his monologue as well as in subsequent sketches. It also needs to be noted that his hosting turn resulted in one of the most viral Twitter accounts/trends in recent years, something the actor only recently became aware of.

There was a big interview with Ellish where she talked about writing her song, how she got involved with the producers and more. Similar ground was covered in a later interview.

Craig then was profiled in both the UK and US editions of GQ.

Unlike some others, Fukunaga said in July he was not using the extra time afforded by the delay in release to continue fiddling with the film.

An official James Bond podcast was launched in late September featuring interviews with the cast and crew.

A second trailer (18m YouTube views) – teased the day before release – came out in early September and continues making the case for this being an essential endpoint for this era of the Bond franchise. Bond is up against a very personal foe, one that has drawn him back into the game, and has to work with Nomi to stop a massive threat. There are lots of dramatic moments and music along with the requisite running, jumping and shooting that are hallmarks of the series.

A new official poster, this one simply showing Bond armed, well dressed and ready for any kind of action, was released as well. Another shows Bond in more tactical gear lurking through a dark hallway.

Shortly after that there was a new featurette released with Malik and Fukunaga introducing us to Safin and explaining what some of his motivations are.

The official video for the song was released in early October. A month later in November Ellish’s song was nominated for a Grammy, despite the film the song is attached to being pushed to the next year, eventually winning the Song Written for Visual Media award.

A blow was dealt to the fall 2020 box-office picture when, at the beginning of October, Sony announced the movie was being booted to April, 2021. The news wasn’t wholly surprising, of course, as Covid-19 continued to sweep across the U.S. in particular. What *was* surprising was a report emerging in late October that MGM had openly explored selling the movie to Apple, Netflix and other streaming companies, hoping to get somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 million. That price tag was apparently too high, with the talks fizzling out without a deal being made. Additional details came later on how much of a financial drain those delays were becoming to the studio and its partners.

GIF by James Bond 007 - Find & Share on GIPHY

An additional delay was announced at that point, moving the release date from November 2020 to April 2021 because the pandemic situation – particularly the availability of movie theaters in major markets – had not improved sufficiently, as we all now know.

Craig appeared on “The Tonight Show” in early October of last year, shortly after the latest delay was announced, to discuss the movie and rationalize the change in release dates. Ellish also showed up to both discuss and perform her title song.

Of course the studio and producers marked the passing of Sean Connery, the original on-screen Bond, in November. Comments from Craig as well as the other actors who have portrayed the character came in as well.

In an interview from last November, Lynch talked about the attacks she’s been subjected to since taking on the role, primarily from those who don’t feel a woman – much less a woman of color – should play any sort of leading part in the Bond franchise.

ad break: the promotional partners

Promotional partners for the movie include:

  • Heineken, a returning Bond sponsor, which released an extended commercial in January that playfully shows Craig having difficulty navigating his own life as people constantly mistake him for his super spy alter ego. A later commercial pokes fun at the frequent delays of the movie while also playing up the quality of its beer in a spot titled “Worth the Wait.”
  • Nokia, which released a long-form commercial featuring Nomi using the company’s devices to engage in surveillance and gather evidence on a mission.
  • Land Rover, which launched a campaign for its Defender SUV, selling it with the same kind of attributes – unflappable, able to adjust to any situation etc – as are normally associated with Bond himself.

Shoot Out Nomi GIF by James Bond 007 - Find & Share on GIPHY

One big problem with these product placements is that many of them, while cutting edge and new at the time the film was made and meant to be released, are less shiny and may even be outdated a year later. The money those companies paid, then, becomes a much poorer investment, even if the reasons why are largely outside of most individual’s control.

finally time to die: marketing phase three (for real this time)

What would eventually turn out to be the final release date change came in January, when the movie was moved to October, 2021.

In March Ellish found herself in a wholly unprecedented situation, winning a Grammy for her “No Time To Die” theme song to a movie that hadn’t come out yet.

In the wake of the news that Amazon was buying MGM in May, Broccoli issued a statement assuring audiences (but actually exhibitors) that the movie would not go to streaming as so many other delayed blockbusters had but would receive a theatrical release around the world.

Another interview with Lynch had her talking about the role she plays as a black woman on screen, especially in big titles like Bond and others.

Things really started to ramp up in August, beginning with the release of the final trailer (13.5m YouTube views). It starts off with scenes and dialogue from Casino Royale, counting off and showing some of the people he’s encountered, missions he’s been on and more since then. Despite the talk of the world being different and enemies being “in the ether” as opposed to across the room from you, the latter is exactly what we get, with Bond facing off against Safin for the fate of the world.

In September came the announcement of “Being James Bond,” a retrospective documentary on Craig’s time with the character and franchise.

TV advertising also restarted last month with spots like this that featured the banter, the action and the overall vibe of the movie and franchise as a whole.

The new agents played by Lynch and de Armes are introduced in a featurette. There was also a new IMAX featurette that had Fukunaga talking about shooting for the big screen.

Tickets went on sale in mid-September, the occasion marked by a new TV spot.

Additional profiles of and interviews with Craig continued to come out, many of them pulling out newsworthy comments and other elements from the “Being James Bond” documentary on Apple TV+ or from the podcast episodes. The actor talked about his time with the character, what it will be like to watch whoever succeeds him in the role and lots more, including the fact that, despite the multiple times he’s almost walked away, he’ll ultimately miss it.

Additional interviews with Lynch had her talking more about how she wanted to make her character unique and real.

There was also a profile of Fukunaga that, among other things, made it clear that the entire fate of the global box office and theatrical industry is on his shoulders. A similar profile of the director covered why he signed on to the project to begin with and how he’s handled the long delays.

All that really culminated in late September when the official premiere was held at London’s Royal Albert Hall with the cast, crew and lots of other celebrities (and royalty) in attendance.

Malek talked about the movie when he appeared on “Kimmel” just days ago.

overall: was it indeed worth the wait?

This movie should have been in theaters 18 months ago. That’s somewhat astounding, no less so because there was virtually no conversation about it being diverted to other platforms to get it out sooner, even with pressure coming from brand partners.

As it is, it arrives with a projected $60-70 million opening weekend and a solid 84% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes representing the largely positive reviews the movie has racked up so far.

It also comes after a marketing campaign that has been the very definition of stop-and-start.

After at least three attempts to get the ball rolling and build momentum toward release, what’s surprising is that the campaign has been remarkably consistent throughout. From the first elements in late 2019 through pre-roll ads that have run today, they keep hitting the idea that Craig’s Bond is about to hit the end of the road he began when he became a 00 in one of the best opening sequences of the entire franchise.

It remains to be seen whether that will be enough to get audiences interested enough to head to the theaters. The improved performances of Shang Chi and Venom 2 in the last few weeks are good indicators, but as the THR story above mentions, the Bond series has always skewed a bit older and that could make a bit of difference.

Also acting as an X factor is whether whatever interest there was two years ago has remained in audiences after multiple delays, not to mention [gestures broadly at everything else that’s happened since March, 2020, including 700,000 dead Americans]. It may be that some people have been waiting so long they figure it’s not worth it to go to the theater and they’ll just hold out for on-demand or other home video.