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.
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.
The TUMI 19 Degree Aluminum Briefcase is the real star in Sony's upcoming film "Bullet Train".
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.
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.
How Marvel Studios has made its weirdest, most esoteric super hero pitch to date…
There have been a few times when Marvel Studios, with the help of the entertainment press and its love of a good narrative, has made the case that an upcoming release is truly a departure from what’s come before in its long-running Cinematic Universe. This is in part a reaction to complaints that emerged after several years that many of the movies were mostly the same five themes and plot points. Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man have been sold as far-out departures from the established formula, though to what extent they were actually unique is up for debate.
This week’s Eternals has also been presented to the audience as something brand new. In this case it’s not that it’s more of a comedy than previous films but instead that it’s so much more epic, spanning not only the entire galaxy but also thousands of years.
The movie focuses on a team of 10 eternal beings created by The Celestials and sent to Earth 7,000 years ago to protect its native inhabitants from evil creatures called Deviants. So the Eternals stand in the shadows, pledged to not interfere with humanity’s progress except to protect against the Deviants. They are called back to do just that when the Deviants are awakened by the sudden return of half the population, as seen at the end of Avengers: Endgame.
So you can see there’s a lot going on. And the Eternals are not characters that Marvel Comics has prioritized over the years, with fewer than 50 issues of their own title published in total prior to a new series launched earlier this year. Even hardcore fans are likely to be somewhat confused by their various retcons, reintroductions and so on. They’re not on anyone’s lunchbox, all of which has made this one of the harder pitches Marvel Studios has had to make since 2008.
Those Eternals are played by Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Selma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Richard Madden, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Lia McHugh, Barry Keoghan and Don Lee. So it’s an impressive cast that’s been assembled under director Chloé Zhao.
All that being said, let’s take a look at just what that pitch has entailed.
announcement and casting
Rumors and speculation were common between the time Marvel announced the movie as part of its future plans and San Diego Comic-Con 2019, where the full cast and release date were announced. The cast also appeared at Disney’s D23 Fan Expo in August to show off the first looks at themselves in costume, talk about how excited they were and more.
In December of 2019 Feige appeared at Comic Con Experience in Sao Paulo to talk about the movie and share a first look at early footage. Later that month Nanjiani started the thirst by posting a picture of his new, toned body to Instagram.
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.
The release date was changed by Disney, moving out several months, when in September of last year it announced several other delays because of the Covid-19 pandemic and related theater closures.
Marvel launched a new “The Eternals” comic series in January, 2021, one that wasn’t intended to tie into the movie but reintroduce the characters and prime the pump. Around that same time it posted a video offering an overview of the property for those unfamiliar with the characters.
In the wake of D23, Feige made the media rounds to hype the upcoming film and tease that one of the main characters – he didn’t specify which – would be openly gay on screen, a big change for the MCU.
Nanjiani talked about the sci-fi nature of the movie in January, at about the same time he appeared on “Late Night” to discuss the diet and fitness regime he was on to get in shape.
As has been common with movies starring doughy comedians who got jacked for a role, a profile of Nanjiani focused on his workout routine along with what sources of inspiration he pulled from for his character. He kept talking about his fitness routine during interviews for The Lovebirds earlier this year.
Zhao was profiled late last year about this and other projects, with the director talking about how she assembled her cast and crew and Feige weighing in on why she was a good fit for the film. Another profile later on covered similar ground, talking about her shift from small- to big-budget features.
In an interview from late last year Chan spoke about how she was approached to play this role after playing someone different in the first Captain Marvel.
Hayek spoke briefly about her role in the film while promoting Bliss earlier this year.
the marketing campaign phase one: this is a movie that’s happening
The first trailer (26.8m YouTube views), released in late May, begins as the Eternals arrive on Earth in the early days of human civilization. They’re treated as benevolent gods, helping humans progress in their development but mostly staying out of the way. Something is about to bring them out of the shadows, but what that is isn’t made clear. It’s a decent first look at the vibe of the movie, but there isn’t much in the way of actual story.
A similarly vague but kind of powerful tone is struck on the first poster, which shows the group off in the distance as they walk toward the camera, their faces obscured. The only copy aside from the title and names of the actors reads “In the beginning” as we see what looks like a massive ship hovering in the sky above everyone.
Hayek received a Variety cover story in May that had her talking about how unexpected being cast in a lead role in a Marvel movie was and how excited she was at the prospect. She also commented on the diverse cast and how she thought that would help lots of people finally see themselves as heroes on screen.
Hayek talked about keeping the secrets of production when she appeared on “Late Night” during the The Hitman’s Bodyguard’s Wife publicity cycle.
Fiege revealed a few more character details in an interview where he also praised Zhao’s filmmaking approach and style, though his comments about how amazed he was that natural settings could be as glorious as GGI were widely mocked.
The movie got a full EW cover story package in August that included lots of photos, interviews and other comments from the cast and crew and lots more. Everyone praised Zhao’s filmmaking style while also teasing the kind of story audiences could expect later.
the marketing campaign phase two: mcu connections
The next poster pulls the camera in closer than on the first one-sheet so we can see everyone’s faces, but we still have no idea who these characters are.
As the second trailer (33.1m YouTube views)begins we’re given a recap of how half the population was wiped out by Thanos but then brought back, apparently creating enough energy to begin something called “The Emergence,” which will begin in just seven days. After that comes an explanation of how The Eternals arrived on Earth 7,000 years ago to protect people from The Deviants. They haven’t gotten involved in human wars because they were ordered not to unless Deviants were involved, but now they’re being activated to help save the planet. It’s a *lot* of exposition, but still little in the way of character introductions or anything like that.
Nanjiani was part of a joint interview with Awkwafina about not only making their first MCU appearances but also bringing more Asian representation to the super hero movie genre.
Zhao shared how she presented her vision for the movie to Disney execs in this interview.
TV advertising began in early October with spots that cut down the trailer but feature the same mix of action and humor.
The first cross-promotional campaign from Lexus also started with a commercial for its Lexus IS 500 model that has Kingo driving his car to where the other Eternals are engaged in battle but he’s running late because he can’t find a parking spot. That spot was part of a bigger tie-in push from Lexus that ran across digital and other media.
Additional TV spots expanded on previously seen footage a bit but kept the same basic themes and ideas going.
A very open and honest Nanjiani was interviewed about the movie, sharing how his life has changed since he first showed off his more muscular physique. That change, he said, has led to people treating him differently, sometimes in very aggressive ways since they now want to challenge him after seeing him all buff.
the marketing campaign phase three: the characters finally get their due
Each character got their own poster in a series of color-coded one-sheets released later in October. There were also new exclusive posters for Dolby, IMAX, 4DX and RealD 3D.
The backstory of who the Eternals are and what their mission is gets explained a bit in a featurette that starts to introduce the characters and how they operate as kind of a family unit more than a super hero team.
Hayek and Nanjiani appeared together on “Kimmel” to talk about joining the MCU and tease what fans could expect in the film.
The first clip released in mid-October shows the team fighting one of the Deviants who is attacking a human.
The movie was selected as the closing night feature of the Rome Film Festival in late October.
LotsmoreTVcommercials continued to come out that included mention of the Deviants, how long the Eternals have been on Earth and more.
The world premiere event took place in Los Angeles in mid-October, with the cast and crew along with others who have been, are or will be part of the MCU in attendance. Lexus’ partnership with the film was represented by the unveiling of 10 character- and movie-themed cars on the red carpet.
Ridloff was interviewed about how she felt not only joining the MCU but her status as the franchise’s first deaf hero. Another later interview covered similar territory.
Around this time the studio couldn’t hold back the flood of reports that music star Harry Styles made an appearance in a post-credits sequence and so went ahead and admitted that yes, it was happening, at the premiere.
Another event hosted by Elle was held shortly after the premiere and featured much of the cast and crew save for a few who skipped it because of possible Covid-19 exposure.
A featurette released at this point finally took the time to introduce the characters, with each actor explaining who their character is, what their powers are and what the group relationships and dynamics are. Another featurette focused on Zhao, with Feige talking about how she was the perfect fit for the story the studio wanted to tell and the director sharing what challenged and excited her.
Marvel put out another ”101” video to help explain who the Eternals are and what they’re doing on Earth. Along those same lines a series of videos like this one for Sersi came out that introduced each individual character and how they fit into the group. Another explainer came later specifically for The Deviants.
More seriously there was a featurette with the cast once more introducing their characters and praising not only their costars but also Zhao and the others involved behind the scenes.
There was also coverage of how Henry’s Phastos is the first gay superhero in an MCU-produced show or movie, openly so and married to Ben (Haaz Sleiman). Harrington was interviewed later about moving from “Game Of Thrones” to the world of superheroes.
A new AR app allowed those who downloaded it to see the Eternals and Deviants in their own home or wherever they were.
Another red carpet premiere was held in Rome, a suitable location given its designation as “The Eternal City.” Additional events took place in London and Paris.
Because of the multicultural cast and especially because of Zhao’s involvement Gold House and CAPE got involved to coordinate the One Open campaign to try and turn out relevant audiences and make opening weekend a big event.
The cast appeared in video interviews from Regal Cinemas while Ridloff introduced an AMC promo touting “open captions” available at select locations for hearing-impaired audiences.
Early screenings were scheduled for tonight, the day before the official release.
Another clip focused on Kingo as he’s brought into the new mission by others, who find him performing in a Bollywood musical. That kind of portrayal was hailed by Nanjiani on social media and when he appeared on “The Tonight Show.”
Ridloff talked about the movie on “Good Morning America” a few days after others from the cast did likewise.
Another extended commercial once again spent considerable time revisiting the earlier phases of the MCU, positioning this as the evolution of what’s come before.
Before looking at anything else, there are two things going on.
First, the reviews to date have not been overly kind. At present Rotten Tomatoes has it as just 53%. That’s resulted in a number of secondary stories about how this is the lowest-rated entry in the MCU series. At the same time there’s been widespread review-bombing of the film’s IMDb entry by non-critics upset by an openly gay super hero in their comic book movie.
Second, those reviews don’t seem to be tamping down audience interest given tracking estimates project a $75 million opening weekend. That’s about what Shang Chi brought in when it opened, solidly in the middle of the field since theaters reopened a few months ago.
If that estimate comes to pass it would indicate that audience interest in the MCU is strong enough to overcome what has at times been a…difficult…campaign. There’s been so much that’s been unclear, overwhelming and even confusing. So many characters with so dense a backstory and that’s not surprising. And, as stated previously, these aren’t heroes that have a lot of existing foundational awareness in the general audience.
That’s why the most effective part of the push has been the effort to tie this movie into the events of the last phase of the MCU. By reminding people of how much they loved Iron Man and Thor and everyone and saying this is what happens next they made this something akin to essential viewing instead of something wholly new and unfamiliar.