avatar: the way of water – marketing recap

How Disney/Fox has sold a return to land of the clear blue (people) waters

Avatar: The Way of Water movie poster from Disney/20th Century Studios
Avatar: The Way of Water movie poster from Disney/20th Century Studios

It wasn’t long after the 2009 release of Avatar before director James Cameron started talking about the myriad stories he had in mind for the sequels he was planning to make. Over the 13 subsequent years the number of sequels being developed varied from two to five or more, and the target release dates for those movies has slipped from the original 2014 to, roughly, now.

Avatar: The Way of Water arrives in theaters with more than a decade’s worth of anticipation, both from the audience and the movie industry, on its shoulders.

Picking up a decade after the first film, the story once again follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a human who now lives completely in the body of a Na’vi, the natives of the planet Pandora. He has married Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and together they have two children of their own along with Spider, a human boy born on Pandora who has taken on the customs of the Na’vi, and Kiri, a Na’vi avatar with the mind of human Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver).

Once again the story focuses on the attempted human exploitation of Pandora for its mineral resources. Another team of humans has crossed the stars, including Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who has been resurrected into a Na’vi clone avatar. As they attempt to stop the invasion, Jake and Neytiri are forced to leave their own tribe and take refuge among one that lives in and around Pandora’s oceans, opening up a whole new part of the planet barely shown in the first movie.

Just as with the original, this one has been supported with a massive marketing campaign, so let’s get on with it.

prelude : 2017 & 2018

After years and years and dozens of false starts, announcements that production was about to commence followed by news that Cameron was delaying it for some reason, in September 2017 we got what amounts to a “proof of life” photo in the first official still of the new movie’s young cast.

In an interview that was otherwise about Titanic’s 20th anniversary, Cameron made it clear that the second and third Avatar movies would be a complete story but that if they were successful more installments could come. Other than that, few details were revealed as to the story. He did though confirm that Winslet had joined the cast.

Sony ran a substantial paid social media campaign in mid-2018 touting Cameron’s use of its new Alpha cameras on the film.

Producer Jon Landau offered a bit of an update on production during Fox’s CinemaCon 2018 presentation, basically assuring exhibition executives that the movie really for sure was totally happening. Landau and Cameron later took the same message to CineEurope.

prelude (continued): 2019 & 2020

While he was out promoting Alita: Battle Angel, Cameron confirmed that some of the titles floated for the various sequels were – or at least had been – accurate. It wasn’t much but it kept the conversation around the movie alive while production dragged on.

At the end of November 2019 the official Twitter account marked the end of principal photography by showing off one of the production’s massive sets.

That the sequels were still on track was confirmed by Cameron in late December 2019. Concept art showing some of the film’s locations was released a month later. Production was delayed for a short while because of the Covid-19 pandemic but was scheduled to resume in late May.

In late 2019 Cameron told his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger that filming on this installment was “100%” complete while production of the third was nearly done.

Mercedes Benz announced a partnership with the movie in early January 2020, just before it unveiled the VISION AVTR concept car at CES. The car featured no steering wheel but reportedly used intuitive navigation along with being carbon neutral and more.

In October 2020 Dark Horse announced a new comics mini-series set just after the events of the first film, the first continuation of that story as the sequels were still in production.

almost there: 2021 & 2022

In April 2021 Cameron appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the sequels he was filming and express his hope that movie theaters survive long enough for them to show his new movies.

A batch of new stills was given to Empire in October of that year, with Landau offering brief tidbits on the story and characters. Cameron talked more later about the difficulties – largely of his own making – involved in production and how he and the cast adapted to those challenges. Landau was back in a later interview to praise Cameron’s approach to filming and set up what might be coming in additional sequels.

In an interview that was ostensibly about her movie The Adam Project, Saldana spoke about the emotional nature of the footage she’d seen from this film while also commenting on the challenges of filming such a technical project. Later on Worthington also talked about the long waiting period for the second installment and what it was like to come back to this world.

The movie was among those touted by Disney during their CinemaCon presentation in April, with attendees getting a look at footage with producer Landau on stage to talk about Cameron’s plans for this and future installments. It was also announced the first trailer was going to debut in front of the Doctor Strange sequel about to come out.

the marketing campaign: teasers and LEGO sets

After all that the campaign proper finally kicked off when the first trailer (26m YouTube views) hit the internet in early May. There’s little to no story that’s revealed here, it’s mostly a collection of beauty shots of the film’s colorful world and characters, though you can skim some hints from what’s shown. There’s obviously a new level of cooperation between the Na’vi and humans on Pandora, and we see lots of the kids in Sully’s family.

The teaser poster released at the same time shows an extreme closeup of one of those characters.

In late June the movie was the subject of a feature cover story in Empire that included a batch of exclusive images, including the first look at the character played by Winslet, and comments from Cameron defending the film’s reported three-hour running time.

Landau and producer Josh Izzo made an appearance at LEGO Con in June to unveil the first Avatar-based LEGO set.

the marketing campaign: the first movie returns

In late-August Disney announced the first movie was returning to theaters in September to set the stage for the sequel. Trailers, posters and TV spots were all created to support that rerelease. There was even a featurette with Cameron and the cast talking about the movie’s cultural impact.

That release added an impressive $58 million to the movie’s total, an amount seen as a positive indicator there was audience demand for the upcoming sequel. That was aided in part by the fact the film was pulled from the Disney+ streaming service in advance of this engagement but then returned a few weeks ahead of the sequel hitting theaters.

Cameron appeared via camera while Weaver, Saldaña, Worthington and Lang were on stage at Disney’s D23 event, also in September. They all talked about the experience of making the movie and showed off footage to those in attendance as they worked to sell it as a massive blockbuster theater owners could count on to prop up the fall box office.

A wide-ranging profile of Cameron included him touting the theatrical experience that the first movie delivered and the second movie promises, specifically pointing to how young audiences are craving that sort of immersive communal viewing. He also recounted the battles he had with Fox over the making of the first film and how he was kind of glad it wound up being over a decade before the second movie was made and released.

Cameron hosts a featurette from mid-September that focuses on the impact the first movie had on the cast and others

Weaver talked about this movie when she appeared on “The Late Show” during her press rounds for The Good House back in September. She was also the subject of an NYT profile that covered not just this film but also The Good House and Call Jane, all of which were coming out over the span of a few months.

There were a couple features like this that openly questioned whether too much time had passed since the first movie and whether its cultural impact was strong enough to buoy a sequel. Along similar lines were the “was anyone really pining for an Avatar sequel” stories that puts this movie in the context of other franchises, where the concept of a “sequel” is somewhat antiquated, as well as asking whether or not there was a groundswell of fan demand for more stories from Pandora.

the marketing campaign: now we’re getting serious

After spending much of October promoting LEGO sets, high-end statues and more, the second trailer (43.6m YouTube views) was finally released in early November. It spends half its running time just showing off the visuals of the movie and making it clear there’s even more spectacle this time around. Only after all that do we get – for the first time in the campaign – to the conflict that is driving the story. But even that is brushed past quickly in favor of more talk about “the way of water” and lots of shots of massive creatures moving through the oceans.

The poster released at the same time shows Sully and Neytiri looking at their children as someone flies a winged animal over the surface of the water.

Footage from the film was shown at a massive event at Niagara Falls, which itself was illuminated in celebration of the trailer’s release.

Total Film published a cover story on the film that included another batch of stills.

Disney launched an initiative called Keep Our Oceans Amazing where the company promised to donate $5 to The Nature Conservancy for ocean preservation and clean-up for every piece of artwork submitted by fans showing off their own underwater creature creation.

Another profile of Cameron had him talking about how the characters have grown and evolved since the first story and how this one is even more personal for him given his work on ocean conservation.

The final trailer (13m YouTube views) debuted later in November, just as tickets were going on sale, during an ESPN broadcast of “Monday Night Football.” It starts off with Sully explaining to the chief of the ocean-dwelling clan he’s just trying to keep his family safe, but what it is he’s keeping them safe from is never explained and once again only shown briefly. More time is devoted to how the Na’vi teenagers have to adjust to the water clan’s ways and learn to ride the ocean creatures they rely on.

A series of posters gave all the main characters their own spotlight. There were also exclusive one-sheets released for Dolby and IMAX that continue the focus on the colorful imagery without much of the story explained or on display. IMAX also shared an exclusive featurette on the making of the movie. A little bit later there were additional posters for RealD3D, 4DX and ScreenX.

Once again the release of a trailer was accompanied by a massive event, this time an “Avatar Day” display of footage in New York City’s Times Square. Later on the center of Venice would be lit up with a massive “A” to celebrate the movie’s upcoming release.

Along with the beginning of paid advertising – including TV spots, online banner ads and more – late November brought the beginning of the non-Cameron part of the publicity campaign. The younger members of the cast appeared on the “Disney Holiday Celebration” special while Saldana appeared on “GMA” and other shows, including the online “Hot Ones” taste test/interview series. Closer to release Weaver appeared on “Kimmel

Avatar: The Way of Water online ad

The in-person events started when the cast assembled at Brazil Comic-Con at the beginning of December. They then turned out for the world premiere in London. Later stops on the world press tour included Seoul, South Korea and Tokyo before ending with the blue carpet event in Los Angeles, which Cameron had to skip after he was diagnosed with Covid-19 but where the rest of the cast talked about shooting the movie, especially the technically difficult underwater shoots and more.

It was announced shortly after that the original song “Nothing is Lost” from The Weeknd would appear on the soundtrack.

Two more character posters came out focusing on a couple of the younger characters.

Saldana and Worthington asked each other softball questions in an official video. Worthington was the subject of a feature profile that delved into the personal and professional struggles he’s faced and largely overcome in the 13 years since the first movie should have catapulted him to the stratosphere.

overall

First off, the $150-175 million opening weekend predicted by tracking estimates is alright, but let’s keep in mind Black Panther: Wakanda Forever just opened to about $180 million in its first weekend, so it wouldn’t be earth-shattering, especially given Cameron’s comments about how it kind of needs to be a top-five all-time total just to make its production budget back.

This while media companies of all kinds are laying off staff, pulling content from streaming services to save money on residuals, canceling other expensive productions and so on. I mean…good for Cameron et al but also, the question of whether or not the first movie has any sort of cultural traction remains a valid one.

While the marketing campaign here is certainly massive and seems to have done its job in generating awareness and interest, there’s little here that answers the question above in an affirmative manner. That stems primarily from how the marketing keeps insisting on not showing the audience what the story of the movie is. It’s *all* about the sweeping camera shots and the beautiful shots of the alien planet but there’s nearly nothing here, not even in the press and publicity interviews, about the conflict that threatens Pandora. That has to be a choice (not one I necessarily agree with) based on how the pretty pictures are going to do more to sell LEGO sets than scenes of bombs and missles raining down on a peaceful people.

The Winners and Losers in the Last 10 Years of Movie Marketing at San Diego Comic-Con (Part 1)

Later this week the entertainment press and countless fans will descend upon the San Diego Convention Center for this year’s installment of San Diego Comic-Con. The convention, which runs four days, is massive, taking up the entirety of the center with other stunts spilling out into the surrounding area.

This is the 48th year of the geek gathering and it’s long been a favorite target for movie studios looking to sell their upcoming movies to an audience with the potential to turn into a rabid fanbase. It’s not just science-fiction and fantasy movies that have been pitched here, though. Spy stories like Salt, comedies like Superbad and others have also been brought here in an attempt to get people talking and hopefully create a few movie ticket buyers.

Still, genre movies are the bread and butter of the event as they line up clearly with the interests of attendees who are more than happy to drop $250 on that ¼ scale resin bust of Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters. So we’re going to look back over the last 10 years at just a small snapshot of the movies that have had a significant presence at SDCC to see how they’ve fared. Here’s 2007 through 2011.

2007 – The Winner

iron man pic

Today the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the model every studio is trying replicate. The Mummy tried to establish a “shared universe” with its marketing, as did King Arthur and many other movies over the last few years. But in 2007 we were introduced to Robert Downey Jr. in advance of the first Iron Man movie, which went on to box office success and set the stage for the next 10 years (and more) of movies featuring Marvel’s cast of characters.

2007 – The Disappointment

Speed Racer should have been a hit. It was the first movie from the Wachowskis following their massive Matrix trilogy and, as an adaptation of a beloved cartoon, was pretty well positioned to do well with this crowd. While the initial buzz was pretty good, though, it never connected with a mass audience. The movie still has ardent fans and is occasionally rediscovered and given new appreciation, but it’s not a household name.

2008 – The Winner

twilight pic

Many people like me were skeptical the Twilight franchise could become a box office hit. Surely the success of the books was a fluke, right? Nope. The cast and crew of the first movie stopped by SDCC in 2008, a few months before the movie opened, and went on to become a hit. An important reminder here that it’s not just “fanboys” here, or at any other geek gathering, but a diverse audience that wants lots of stories, not just super-violent superheroes.

2008 – The Disappointment

Does The Watchmen count here if it ultimately made over $100m domestically? How about Keanu Reeves’ overly-heavy and boring The Day The Earth Stood Still remake? Or The Spirit, which confused and turned off audiences with its odd visual style? Honestly, these are just a few of the movies that tried to enlist the San Diego crowd but failed to launch. Rough year.

2009 – The Winner

avatar pic

Clearly, Avatar is the big boy in this crowd. Director James Cameron came out and showed off the movie’s incredible visuals, which connected on every level with those in attendance. Not just that, but those who got a first look went back home and turned everyone else they knew onto the movie, turning it into one of the biggest box-office success of all time.

2009 – The Disappointment

Disney pulled out all the stops to sell TRON: Legacy, a sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic, including real-life deployments of Flynn’s Arcade at various events and an appearance at Comic-Con. It’s odd to call this a disappointment because it scored over $170m in ticket sales, but the overall reception to the movie was very mixed. The lack of a follow-up in the last eight years shows it wasn’t enough for someone to keep things going.

2010 – The Winner

the-avengers-2012

The first solo outings for both Captain America or Thor weren’t even out when Marvel went about as big as any studio had gone before or has gone since, bringing out the entire cast of The Avengers, which wouldn’t come out for two more years. Director Joss Whedon appeared on stage as well, as the audience was really introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the first time.

2010 – The Disappointment

Again, which one to pick? Scott Pilgrim Vs The World should have been the biggest movie of the decade based on buzz out of both SDCC and SXSW but didn’t catch on with audiences. Geek God Harrison Ford made his first San Diego appearance to promote Cowboys & Aliens but it wasn’t enough to get people talking about – or watching – that genre mashup. Seth Rogen didn’t make a convincing comic hero in The Green Hornet. And then there’s Green Lantern, which didn’t do badly but has become such a punchline it was used as a throwaway joke in Deadpool.

2011 – The Winner

amazing spider-man pic

The Amazing Spider-Man, with Andrew Garfield rebooting the Spider-Man franchise, is probably the biggest box-office success to come out of SDCC this year. It loses points for being rebooted just four years later, though, and I have to mention Attack the Block, a movie about aliens attacking a block of London flats and being repelled by the residents there. It didn’t light up the box-office but has an impeccable reputation among critics and introduced us to John Boyega, who the rest of the world discovered four years later when he starred in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

2011 – The Disappointment

Colin Farrell took over for Arnold Schwarzenegger in the remake of 1990’s Total Recall. Despite the brand recognition and the big names involved, including director Len Wiseman, the spark failed to ignite. The Adventures of Tin-Tin, which combined the geek muscle of Steven Spielberg, Edgar Wright, and Peter Jackson but which couldn’t sell its animated look to audiences, would also qualify here.