bullet train – marketing recap

How Sony is selling an action comedy

Bullet Train movie poster from Sony Pictures
Bullet Train movie poster from Sony Pictures

David Leitch directs Bullet Train, arriving in theaters courtesy of Sony Pictures. Written by Zak Olkewicz and based on the novel by Kōtarō Isaka, Brad Pitt stars as an American assassin known only as Ladybug. Despite wanting out of the life, Ladybug agrees to one last job snatching a briefcase aboard a bullet train heading from Tokyo to Kyoto. Once aboard the train, though, Ladybug finds a cadre of other international assassins there as well, all with missions that in some way connect to his own.

Sandra Bullock costars as Maria Beetle (also the original name of the source novel), Ladybug’s handler and the voice giving him directions on the train. Zazie Beetz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Zoey King, Brian Tyree Henry and a host of others play the other assassins or other underworld types that cross paths with Ladybug.

With Antoine Fuqua producing and projections for opening weekend in the $30m range, let’s take a look at the marketing campaign Sony has cooked up.

announcements and casting

The film was announced in June 2020 with Leitch attached to direct and Pitt starring. Others like King, Henry and Taylor-Johnson were added over the rest of that year. A release date was finally announced a year later.

Of course that casting led to some entirely justified backlash and criticism of “whitewashing” since the original novel’s characters are Japanese and almost none of the actors in this film are.

Sony gave attendees of CinemaCon in August 2021 the first look at the much-anticipated film but that was it for a while.

the marketing campaign

Sony kicked the campaign off at the end of February with a teaser video that eschews footage from the movie (for the most part) in favor of a promotional video for NSL, the company that runs the train line in the world of the film. It’s filled with beautiful, peaceful images of the Japanese countryside before finally showing a scraped and exhausted Ladybug looking out the windows as the scenery passes by.

The first trailer (20.6m YouTube views) was then released at the beginning of March. A tone is immediately established as we see Ladybug and Lemon (Henry) have a threatening but polite conversation on the quiet car of the train. There are lots of moments like that as we meet the rest of the characters Ladybug will be interacting with and fighting against, get the backstory there are lots of people after the briefcase in question and more.

The teaser poster released at the same time doesn’t show that impressive cast but instead opts for an image of a train steward standing formally alongside a seat that, upon closer inspection, has blood on it, with more found on the floor.

Johnson talked about his role in an interview conducted by fellow actor Andrew Garfield.

Leitch and Bad Bunny both appeared at 2022’s installment of CinemaCon in April to offer updates, show off some footage and promise distributors the movie was coming soon.

Empire offered first looks at some new stills along with comments from Leitch, Pitt, Henry and others in May. Bad Bunny also offered some thoughts on the movie and more in a GQ profile.

At the beginning of June a new poster came out, this one showing Ladybug looking somewhat confused or frustrated as he stands in front of all the adversaries he’s going to have to fight his way through to complete his assignment.

That was followed by the second trailer (6.7m YouTube views). This one offers the same story and vibe, but adds the context that not only does Ladybug have legendary bad luck but that he’s crossed paths with many of the others that have now congregated on the train.

Henry and Johnson appeared in character in a series of short videos aired during the NBA Finals where they ask questions of various NBA stars.

We get a cut down version of the story and characters in the first TV spot that aired at the beginning of June. That spot was also used as pre-roll online.

Taylor-Johnson was on hand during Sony’s presentation at CineEurope in June to introduce footage from the film.

It was then Pitt’s turn for a GQ feature interview where he talked about not only this film but his career to date and some of the other recent projects he’s been involved in as a producer.

Fandango then unveiled a series of character posters, each of which has some sort of symbol or other item relevant to that character in the background.

Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat users could search for movie stickers to add to their content. Twitter emojis were also introduced.

As July began more TV spots rolled out that offered variations on the trailers or which went a little deeper in introducing one of the other characters in the story.

News also came that the movie was scheduled for August’s Locarno Film Festival.

King was then interviewed about the training she did for this and other recent films as well as the experience of working with Pitt.

The international press and publicity tour then kicked off in France, where Pitt and others were in attendance. Additional stops included Berlin, London and elsewhere. During this tour Sony made extensive use of YouTube’s #Shorts format to show off clips of the cast dancing around and having a good time. Pitt’s fashion choices would become the subject of not just one but two feature stories.

Henry and Johnson are back in a video announcing tickets going on sale in mid-July. They also showed up on an IMAX video explaining how watching a movie on your phone is a sub-par experience compared to theaters.

The IMAX-exclusive poster uses the style of Japanese paintings to show Ladybug looking out over the scenery as the train rushes through the title treatment. AMC Theaters’ poster shows him standing at the end of a train car with a handful of bad dudes waiting for him. The poster from ScreenX shifts to a landscape perspective to show Ladybug running down the top of the train with Momonga in pursuit.

Because NFTs are still a thing there were some of those as well. Nifty’s introduced a collection of them while an exclusive NFT of Momonga was offered to those purchasing advance tickets of large-format screenings.

Back in the world of real things, Tumi promoted its rugged aluminum briefcase that is the MacGuffin of the movie.

Manga artist Hiro Mashima offered his own takes on the character posters previously released.

The first (and at this point only) clip released shows a slightly extended take on the quiet car fight between Lemon and Ladybug.

overall

There’s a lot of fun stuff here, helped out by an entertaining and talented cast with Pitt out in front. My tolerance for Pitt varies from one film to the next, but here he’s at his most enjoyable with what looks like a loose performance matching the tone and vibe of the story. It helps that he has talented comic talents like Henry, King and others to play off, of course.

Of note is how often the campaign invokes Leitch as “The director of Deadpool 2” in an effort to amp up his credentials when it comes to action comedy. Not only that, but it’s an attempt to tie this movie into something the audience has already seen and largely enjoyed, bringing it closer to being a somewhat known quantity and therefore not as big a risk of entertainment dollars.

Ad Astra – Marketing Recap

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

Online and Social

There’s nothing wrong with the website for the film, it just never does anything to expand beyond the site template used by Fox for many of its films and doesn’t feature much material of interest unless you want to watch the trailers again.

Media and Press

Gray addressed some of the scheduling issues in late February when he said sequences were still being finished, but admitted it might not be done in time for a planned debut at Cannes 2019. That seemed to be confirmed in early May when the movie was shifted to a vague “later,” presumed at the time to be a fall release date that would be better positioned for a potential awards run.

After it was finally given an official release date and the marketing had begun, Gray offered more thoughts on the history of delays and other impediments to the movie being seen by the public. That included Fox being subsumed by Disney, which added its own set of unique complications. While in Venice Pitt talked about how he felt the story was one of the requirements of masculinity and the burdens thereof.

Empire released an exclusive trailer just before the Venice Film Festival began. That one focused much more tightly on Roy’s worldview, using that to underscore the connection between the search for his father and his own search for answers about the universe.

A profile of Pitt touched on how this is one of two high-profile roles for the actor this year, the other being in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and allowed Gary to talk about how Pitt’s laid-back attitude was perfect for the character he plays. He received a similar profile in GQ.

The Washington Post hosted a conversation with Gray, Pitt and NASA employees about how the filmmakers worked to make the space sequences as realistic as possible.

Further interviews with Pitt allowed him to talk about the movie and its story while Gray was interviewed about how he wanted to strip away some of the mythical trappings of the astronaut identity in the story.

Overall

Picking Up the Spare

Seems the promotional placement for Lockheed Martin was more significant than was even hinted at in the campaign.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – Marketing Recap

You can read my full recap of the marketing campaign for Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood at The Hollywood Reporter.

Online and Social

Aside from one element (mentioned in my THR recap), the website for the movie is the standard now used these days where the focus is more on selling tickets while offering just basic marketing content like trailers and stills.

Media and Press

Robbie shared a first look at herself as Tate in early August, a few weeks after the first promotional still featuring Pitt and DiCaprio was released, a still that unsurprisingly was later shown to be slightly edited.

Tarantino originally cast Burt Reynolds in an undisclosed role, but when the star passed away last year Bruce Dern was brought in to take up the mantle. The movie was also the last feature role for Luke Perry, something costar Olyphant spoke about.

A batch of first-look photos was released in late January with another set coming a couple months later.

How the production team recreated old Los Angeles was the subject of a feature profile. Around the same time, Tarantino revealed more information on some of the characters in the movie and what their motivations and backgrounds were and are. The movie’s producers offered similar information on the characters, noting this wasn’t really a movie about Charles Manson. They and others spoke about how important the role was for the late Luke Perry. Later on another feature was run that talked again about the production’s work to recreate the Hollywood of the past.

The interviews with the cast and crew while at Cannes included a profile of Tarantino, Pitt and DiCaprio as well as a panel conversation with the director and cast where they addressed questions about the film’s depiction of women (and Tarantino’s attitudes toward female characters as a whole), the amount of screen time allotted to Robbie and more. On that latter point, Tarantino seemed to turn a bit testy, rejecting the idea out of hand. He also hinted there could be a longer cut of the movie he might edit before it hits theaters.

That conversation may have been at least partly behind Robbie being the subject of a Vogue cover story in June that touched on this movie and more aspects of her career.

A bit later Tarantino was interviewed on the Pure Cinema podcast and talked about the inspiration for this movie and what it is he wanted to do with the story. He also admitted to not contacting director Roman Polanski about Tate, to whom he was married at the time the movie’s story is set, justifying his decision by saying he did the research and didn’t need anyone’s permission. He also said Robbie was his first and only choice to pay Tate while “everyone” wanted to play Cliff, the role that eventually went to Pitt, and reminisced on working with Perry in his final filmed role.

The cast and director stopped by “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on their way to the premiere Monday night to engage in some hijinks and promote the film to that audience.

Toward the end of the press cycle a narrative emerged that DiCaprio appearing in this movie is apt given he’s a throwback to a different kind of movie star. While I question the premise, it was helpful for Sony to have this come around as it made his involvement more special and notable, helping to raise its cache among entertainment journalists and those who follow them.

Details emerged just before release about the role filmed by James Marsden but cut from the final film.

Qualley talked about the movie when she appeared on “The Tonight Show” earlier this week.

Overall

Picking Up the Spare

An L.A. billboard for the movie was defiled by someone looking to make a point about some high profile sex offenders. That strong position is understandable given they say they were abused themselves. 

Kurt Russell was interviewed about how he not only appeared on-screen but also helped Tarantino keep the period feel of the story real. And Tarantino admitted to being a little nervous directing Pacino. Qualley spoke about the experience of shooting with Tarantino and the rest of the cast. 

There were quite a few additional stories like this that covered the production design work in recreating the Hollywood of decades past. And that’s not even mentioning the dozens of features that have explored the reality of the actual actors portrayed in the movie. And there’s been plenty of coverage of Sony’s efforts to woo Tarantino who was without his usual patron. 

No surprise, but New Beverly Cinema in L.A. – owned by Tarantino – featured a whole experience related to the movie that includes props, costumes and more. 

Qualley has become a big part of the post-release press campaign with feature interview like this.

IMAX released another promotional video encouraging audiences to see it in that format.

Butters, one of the cast’s younger members, was profiled about her experiences working on a set with so many major stars.

A new featurette was released focusing on the movie’s costume designs. Additional featurettes focused on Pitt, Tarantino’s love of Hollywood and more. Extended clips of DiCaprio dancing and the first several minutes of the film came out around the same time. There were later spotlights on DiCaprio discussing his character and the movie’s production design.