2020’s Nine Most Intriguing Movie Campaigns

Even a dumpster fire can yield some interesting results.

If compiled, the articles, think-pieces and hot takes written between March and December of 2020 on the present and future of movies and theater-going would fill volumes rivaling the collected works of Marcel Proust, though they would be far easier to summarize.

A year unlike any other certainly proved even more disruptive to aspects of the film industry – production, distribution and exhibition alike – than anything like MoviePass or other threats once held to be dire could have dreamed. No one could have engineered a scenario where over 90 percent of the nation’s movie theaters would close for months at a time, studios would shut down filming on major motion pictures and so on ad infinitum because of a virus outbreak around the globe.

All of that, as well as the pivot by studios and media owners to streaming, upended, delayed or otherwise altered a great many movie marketing efforts. That doesn’t mean 2020 didn’t have plenty of interesting campaigns, though. It just means in some cases what made them “interesting” or otherwise notable was a little different than what would have qualified in prior years.

More than anything else, 2020 was a year of unexpected firsts. WarnerMedia finally launched HBO Max and offered a number of original films before announcing it would be home to its entire 2021 theatrical release slate. Disney rushed Onward over to Disney+ before later using it for titles like Hamilton and Soul that otherwise would have gone to theaters and for Mulan as a test for a new pricing model. Paramount sold off many of its titles to Netflix or Amazon. Apple released a handful of original features while trying to provide Apple TV+ with some momentum. Universal essentially reinvented and reinvigorated PVOD.

So, with all that said, these are some of the most intriguing movie marketing campaigns of a year for which “intriguing” is such an understatement as to almost be irresponsible.


Why It Made The Cut: Many campaigns for period films include some element or another meant to evoke the era the story takes place in. No movie takes that as far as Netflix’s Mank, where the whole campaign was designed to seem as if the film were being released in the late 1930s/early 1940s, just like Citizen Kane. Trailers were cut and narrated in the style of that period, posters were designed to look similar to the kinds of one-sheets seen then and more. It shows something unique can be created if the marketing team goes all-in on a concept.


Why It Made The Cut: The campaigns for many movies that had their release plans changed dramatically saw subsequent alterations made to their marketing campaigns. Few were as innovative as Disney’s shift of Mulan. Not only was the film sent directly to Disney+ (as well as limited theaters), but the introduction of a “Premier Access” PVOD tier to that streaming platform set this one apart from the others. By all accounts this experiment was a success, one that may be replicated with other titles in the future. It also essentially set the stage for what Warner Bros. would wind up doing with HBO Max beginning with Wonder Woman 1984, though Disney remains committed to sending its Marvel Studios titles exclusively to theaters.

Yifei Liu GIF by Walt Disney Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Assistant

Why It Made The Cut: Few films felt as timely as The Assistant, which came out at the same time Hollywood was dealing with not only the continued fallout of Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace due to sexual harassment and assault but also the burgeoning protests by assistants in the industry over lack of adequate pays and other mistreatment. While other campaigns made big, flashy statements to audiences, this one played it so quiet and understated it sometimes fell off the radar, but kept coming back to show how powerful the story and performances were.

Birds of Prey

Why It Made The Cut: Before May of last year, Warner Bros. and DC Films seemed to be actively apologizing for the dark, dystopian tone (not to mention storytelling shortcomings) of earlier films from Zack Snyder and David Ayer. The campaign for Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) was part of that, presenting a new take on the best character to come out of Suicide Squad that freed Harley Quinn from the male gaze and other traps. In contrast to some of those earlier movies, this campaign was funny, bright and full of women taking their power back. It was also one of the last major fully-theatrical campaigns of the year before things got weird.

Harley Quinn Smile GIF by Birds Of Prey - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Invisible Man

Why It Made The Cut: Universal’s unsuccessful effort to launch its Dark Universe film franchise on the back of 2017’s The Mummy is legendary as a case study in corporate hubris. That made the campaign for The Invisible Man so notable as it not only looked like a powerful and compelling story in its own right but also was the first example of the studio’s new approach of making smaller movies driven by creative filmmakers, not the dictates of a shared cinematic universe.

Universal GIF by The Invisible Man - Find & Share on GIPHY

Trolls World Tour/Scoob!

Why It Made The Cut: These two kid-targeted movies were some of the earliest efforts by their respective studios into the burgeoning world of premium video-on-demand, an avenue theater owners had kept off-limits for a decade. Most notably, each represented early adoption of the studio-hosted watch party, encouraging fans to engage in a communal but remote viewing experience anchored by Twitter chats. While Trolls World Tour was a first-mover, Scoob! in particular went all-out for its watch party with downloadable party packs, recipes and other items for those at home to use as part of the event.

Zac Efron Animation GIF by SCOOB! - Find & Share on GIPHY

The New Mutants

Why It Made The Cut: The New Mutants is included here simply because it actually came out after years of delays, rumors of extensive reshoots and other issues. Not only was it finally released – after a campaign that shifted over time from a horror-centric push to one that was more of a conventional super hero message – but it came out theatrically instead of, as many expected, via streaming.

Angry X-Men GIF by 20th Century Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY


Why It Made The Cut: With so many movies coming out on PVOD or streaming, Tenet’s theatrical release is a bright shining example of a powerful stakeholder intentionally not reading the room. The film’s massively disappointing box-office performance shows there was no audience in September willing to brave theater-going in sufficient numbers, a lesson so well-learned by Warner Bros. it’s cited as being a major reason for the studio’s decision to send #WW84 and eventually all its 2021 releases to HBO Max. It would rather anger directors, agents, production partners and others than go through that again, and with good reason.

Coming Robert Pattinson GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Happiest Season

Why It Made The Cut: Few films of late have tried so hard – and to a great extent so successfully – to redefine an entire genre as The Happiest Season. Its holiday-centric campaign was perfectly in keeping with the movie’s story, and the emphasis on providing a new take on the Christmas movie category was felt throughout the marketing by Hulu.

Christmas GIF by HULU - Find & Share on GIPHY


Just for this GIF.

In An Age of Franchises, Birds of Prey Dared To Be Different

There’s a lesson studios can learn from the comics companies they depend on for IP.

The title of the movie – Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – is intentionally ridiculous. It’s overly long, it mixes an obscure adjective with a haughty noun, and it is otherwise wholly absurd. Star Margot Robbie in particular spent a good portion of the movie’s press tour explaining what it meant and why it was relevant to her character.

It also seems it didn’t do much to engender awareness and interest in the general audience.

In theory it was safe to assume that people would make the connection between the new movie and 2016’s Suicide Squad, which marked the first appearance of Robbie as Harley Quinn. The marketing campaign run by Warner Bros. worked to reinforce that, especially visually as it featured a similar aesthetic on the posters and other collateral. But the proof is in the pudding, and while early tracking estimated an opening weekend of over $50 it only came in with $33 million, a low for the modern superhero film era.

Response since then has been interesting to watch. Some have claimed it signals a lack of audience interest in female-led super hero movies, which doesn’t bode well for the upcoming Black Widow. Some have blamed the marketing, but WB’s campaign was, in my opinion, the strongest it’s put together for a comic book movie since Wonder Woman.

A “lackluster” marketing campaign was one of the potential reasons for the lower-than-expected opening floated by Jeremy Fuster at The Wrap, but it’s hard to use “lackluster” to describe any campaign that included the stars, comics creators, soundtrack artists and others taking over a portion of L.A. for a bright and flashy “Harleywood” event a week before the movie opened. Others offered by Fuster include:

  1. Overshadowed by Oscar buzz. Plausible, but given the Oscars scored an all-time low broadcast rating it seems unlikely this was a significant problem.
  2. The R rating. Maybe, but that didn’t hurt Deadpool, Logan or Joker. Sure, it may have kept some of the younger people who were more inclined to see it away if so why didn’t it have the same effect on those other films?
  3. dc collectibles harley quinnHarley Quinn isn’t *actually* that popular. This one is ridiculous on its face. Spend two hours walking around the actual show floor of San Diego Comic-Con and you’ll see Harley is overrepresented among cosplayers. DC Comics, in the time I was working with the company, couldn’t publish enough Harley comics to keep up with demand. Her popularity was so intense she was among the first non-Justice League characters we launched a Facebook page for. She’s been added to every line DC Collectibles produces and has her own animated series on DC Universe.

A more likely reason for the movie’s lower-than-forecast performance at the box office, but one not considered in that piece and others, might be that the audience is losing interest in the super hero genre. Sure, the last couple Avengers movies have broken records, but haven’t had very long shelf lives. And while it’s true that BoP has the lowest opening of any DCEU movie, that’s been the case of every release since Suicide Squad. According to The Numbers:

  • Suicide Squad: $133 million
  • Wonder Woman: $103 million (-22%)
  • Justice League: $93 million (-19%)
  • Aquaman: $67 million (-28%)
  • Shazam: $53 million (-21%)
  • Birds of Prey: $33 million (-37%)

And then of course there’s the matter of the title.

In the days following the movie’s opening, reports circulated WB was changing the title to read “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.” That turned out not to be the case but was instead simply a new listing offered by the studio to theater chains who were having problems with the long, overly-wordy original.

It can hardly be said that Harley’s presence in the movie wasn’t apparent by (checks notes) looking at literally anything in the marketing campaign. That being said, the more SEO-friendly title being used by theaters is more in line with a tradition long employed by both DC and Marvel when it comes to spin off books of various characters.

superman lois laneIn 2014 DC published the one-shot Superman: Lois Lane. While Lois is a popular enough character on her own, the reason for putting Superman’s name up front is simple: By doing so, comics retailers will stock the book alongside the rest of the Superman titles. Plus, anyone searching for “superman” on DC’s site or another such as Comixology will find that book among the results. Awareness is increased and, hopefully, sales follow along.

That’s hardly the first or only example of the tactic being used. Back in 1989 Marvel changed West Coast Avengers to Avengers West Coast for a similar reason, to try and bring more readers to the book. And DC using using “Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey” as the title of a new comic from the all-star team of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti.

If studios like WB and Disney want to follow the lead of the comics publishers they own as important resources for IP on which to base media franchises, they would be wise to employ similar tactics. Disney seems to understand this, making sure to stick the character names in front of every movie title it releases.

Warner Bros. on the other hand has a spottier track record. Its much-anticipated Superman relaunch in 2013 was given a title that didn’t have the character’s name in it, which was actually appropriate since the movie didn’t have a recognizable version of Superman either.

But BoP didn’t seem to be like that. The original title might have been a bit cumbersome, but that was part of its beauty. It seemed to wear its poor SEO proudly, using it as part of an effort to create a unique brand identity for the film and its characters. Making sure the audience understood this was a team picture that also featured Harley Quinn striking out on her own was a central message of that name as well as much of the accompanying marketing.

In short, if you’re using the title to create a strong brand identity – as BoP did – embrace it. Otherwise, stick to what decades of comics publishers already know.

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – Marketing Recap

You can read my full recap of the marketing campaign for Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) at The Hollywood Reporter.

Online and Social

The key art from the theatrical poster is used on the splash page of the movie’s official website, which otherwise features mostly just the standard marketing content.

Media and Press

While there had been plenty of chatter from Robbie in particular ahead of this, the first major beat for the movie came when the cast of characters was revealed. That news was largely well-received, particularly in that it included Montoya, an openly-gay character. It was followed a bit later by the news Black Mask would be the villain of the story.

Winstead spoke about the training she was about to undergo to get in shape for the role shortly after news of her casting was announced, which landed as she was promoting All About Nina last year. A bit later Robbie revealed the movie’s full title, which was quite cumbersome but also pretty great, on Instagram. While promoting Mary Queen of Scots, Robbie spoke to how that title was meant to lighten up what otherwise might be more serious material.

Screenwriter Christina Hodson offered occasional updates as she was being interviewed while Bumblebee was in theaters.

Late January saw Robbie release first looks of Harley’s new look for the movie both as a photo and a video.

During the promotion for a new Netflix show, Winstead offered more thoughts on the tone of the film and its story. A profile of Robbie had her saying this movie’s version of Harley Quinn would be a bit toned down, with the male gaze removed from the director’s chair.

Her approach to playing Huntress and more was covered by Winstead while she was promoting Gemini Man.

In December Yan commented on the unexpected array of films she pulled inspiration from for this movie.

During the press cycle for Bombshell, Robbie was also interviewed about how she fell in love with the role of Harley Quinn while shooting the first Suicide Squad and how she wanted this movie to show a different side of the character.

That topic was central to a Variety cover story featuring the actor where she spoke about how she wanted Harley to evolve from that movie, especially with the addition of an all-female crew around her. She also spoke in her role as a producer on the film and how she teamed up with Yan and more.

An interview with Yan and Hodson had them talking about how they wanted to subvert many of the usual comic book tropes and take advantage of having a group of all-female anti-hero protagonists, all of whom had issues and messier personalities than might be commonly found in such movies. Yan also discussed how she got involved in the project to begin with and how she turned to director Patty Jenkins for advice on how to steer such a massive ship.

At the #Harleywood premiere late last month, the stars talked about how excited they were for people to see the movie, why the over-the-top violence was appropriate for the story and how the two main bad guys probably have some romantic feelings for each other. Recording artist Saweetioe was there too and talked about getting involved in the movie’s soundtrack.

The cast, often as a group, appeared on shows like “Good Morning America,” “The View” and others in the days before the movie hit theaters. McGregor also appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night.” Robbie also stopped by “The Tonight Show,” as did Winstead.

They also were featured on a Glamour cover story, while Smollett-Bell was interviewed on her own about what it was like to bring Black Canary to the big screen. Other interviews included Yah, Hodson and the cast talking about Harley’s journey and how they wanted to make the character work on her own. Winstead commented on the fun of having a mostly-female cast and crew as well and more.

Players of Fortnight could unlock an exclusive Harley Quinn skin.

More details on the new Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey comic from Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti here.

The movie’s costume designer was interviewed on pulling from various sources of inspiration from cartoons to movies in creating Harley’s costumes. How the story depicts violence against women and what the bad guy’s motivations are were part of this discussion with the cast.

What future there might be for a Harley/Poison Ivy partnership movie – one of the projects in development at one point – was speculated on by Yan. Winstead also commented on how she never questioned the idea that a comic action movie would have wide audience appeal.


Picking Up The Spare

Hodson spoke about the movie in general but that viral moment featuring a hair tie in a new interview.

Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti talk about their new “Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey” comic.

The curating of the movie’s soundtrack to match the movie’s theme of women seizing their moment is covered here.

AMC shared an exclusive conversation with some of the stars while IMAX had Yan encouraging audiences to check the movie out on the big big screen.

How that advance screening for DC Universe members went down was shared by DC.

Another interview with Yan had her commenting on how she wanted to make Harley more authentic and not as male-gaze-driven. She also went in-depth on a key action sequence from the film.

What training she did for the role of Cass Cain was the subject of an interview with Basco.

A new video promo for the movie’s star-studded soundtrack was released.