lightyear – marketing recap

You…are…a…prequel? Sequel? Something different?

Lightyear poster from Disney and Pixar
Lightyear poster from Disney and Pixar

DisneyPixar get extraordinarily meta with this week’s new film Lightyear, coming exclusively to theaters. The movie stars Chris Evans as Buzz Lightyear, who…well, this is where it gets a little tricky.

This Buzz is the real life astronaut who inspired the action figure audiences first met in 195’s Toy Story. The story takes place about 10 years before the events of that film and follows Buzz as he and other astronauts seek to escape the alien planet they’ve been marooned on and find their way back to Earth. That crew includes Uzo Aduba as Alisha Hawthorne and later, after a bit of wibbly-wobbly space-time craziness, Keke Palmer as Alisha’s grandaughter Izzy. Taika Waititi voices Mo Morrison and Dale Soules voices Darby Steel, both fellow recruits working with Buzz. James Brolin voices the real Emperor Zurg.

Put another way, this is the live action movie released within the Toy Story universe that told Buzz’s story, a movie that then was turned into a line of toys etc.

The movie is directed by Angus MacLure, who cowrote the script with Jason Headley. With all that established, let’s take a look at how the campaign was run.

announcements and casting

The movie was one of several announced by Disney during its December 2020 investors presentation, but had been in the works for a few years already after MacLure expressed interest in telling a more definitive story of Buzz’s origins than had been shared in a 2000 direct-to-video movie.

That announcement included news of Evans being cast as the voice of Buzz. Waititi joined a year later, with Brolin, Efren Ramirez and Isiah Whitlock Jr. reported to also be cast in early 2022.

the marketing campaign phase one: to infinity…

Things started off in October, 2021, with the release of a teaser poster that doesn’t show much beyond the familiar space suit of the titular astronaut.

The first teaser trailer (14m YouTube views) was also released at that time. It doesn’t explain a whole lot but does tease a great deal, showing Lightyear taking off on a mission, flying his ship through various locations and ultimately seeing what would become his well-known suit at the very end.

It wasn’t until February that the full trailer (18.8m YouTube views) came out. This one explains how Buzz is taking off on a mission after he and others have spent a long time marooned on a distant planet. From there on we see the kinds of dangers he’ll encounter as he comes across an army of killer robots and other threats, all while accompanied by Socks, his robotic cat companion.

Another poster came out at the same time, this one showing Buzz striding purposefully across a tarmac where we see all manner of ships parked, presumably ready for action.

In March the movie came to the center of a controversy that was rocking Disney at the time, namely the issue of LGBTQ+ representation and related matters. As Pixar employees were planning a walkout over the company’s failure to denounce (and even support) Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, the studio took a small step in the right direction by restoring a same-sex kiss between Hawthorne and her partner that had previously been cut.

The movie was among those touted by Disney during their CinemaCon presentation in April of this year, with attendees getting a look at 30 minutes of footage that included the queer sub-plot that had caused so much controversy.

Another trailer (17.1m YouTube views) came out around that same time. It starts with Buzz testing a rocket launch after he and his team have been marooned on a planet for a year. But when he returns after what feels like a short flight he finds he’s been gone for 62 years. New threats have emerged on the planet and it’s up to him to lead an inexperienced team to defeat the bad guys and finally make it back to Earth.

The poster this time around has Buzz staring out into space.

Disney released a video right after that of Evans, Palmer and Waititi reacting to the trailer.

At the beginning of May a “special look” came out that seemed like another trailer but at the very least added some more context to the story that had been shared to date.

Another new poster added Zurg and some of those helping Buzz, including Sox, to the mix, the base the heroes operate from shown in the foreground. That same team is shown on a second one-sheet from mid-May, this time running into action.

Blue Apron introduced movie-themed meal kits at this point to attract parents of kids who may be interested in the film and want to have a meal inspired by it.

the marketing campaign phase two: go sox

TV spots began running in early June with commercials that focused on the heroic space adventures, the fuzzy cuteness of Sox and more.

Of course the first clip from the film was one showing Buzz unboxing Sox for the first time. Another, this one exclusively given to Fandango, has Buzz and his ad hoc team being briefed on their mission.

All this (and more) was part of a shift in focus by the campaign away from the core story and onto the characters, especially Sox. That was seen in some of the clips and other assets that made sure audiences knew that not only was Sox unbelievably adorable but that there was a diverse and interesting team supporting the title character on his adventures.

The main three stars then were featured unboxing some of the toys people can buy.

While the movie was being released theatrically, Disney+ got a documentary on the history of the character and how he was developed for the first Toy Story movies. There was also a featurette with MacLure, Evans and others talking about the origins of the story, including looks at the voice recording and introductions to the rest of Buzz’s team.

An exclusive poster from RealD 3D shows Buzz taking on Zurg.

Evans appeared on “Kimmel” to talk about the film and what it was like to add his own take to a well-known character, something he also spoke about a few days earlier at the movie’s premiere. He also weighed in on the same-sex kiss conversation while attending the Annecy Film Festival where the premiere was happening.

The next featurette shows the cast praising Evans’ performance as Buzz, something that was well-timed since this was about when various parties started calling out Disney for not casting Tim Allen in the film, the presumption being that his more conservative politics were no longer welcome at Woke Disney. Another offers a better introduction to the supporting characters by the actors who voice them.

overall

There are two stories being sold here:

First is the story of the movie itself, which given no other information is communicated to the audience as the story of the real Buzz Lightyear and how he gained a reputation as a legendary Space Ranger beloved by the masses.

Second is the backstory/context that’s been explained by MacLure and others to make sure nerds understand where this story fits in with the adventures of Toy Buzz after Andy unwraps him as a birthday present.

That second one isn’t found in the campaign proper but has been covered extensively in various interviews with the director and others, but it seems to be completely unnecessary to understand and enjoy the film itself, so only go as deep into those waters as you feel comfortable.

What’s on display here is good enough and will likely be more attractive to those with young kids who are looking for something to do with those kids now that summer vacation is fully underway. The mixed reviews that have given the movie an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes probably won’t dissuade them, especially if they themselves have fond memories of seeing Toy Story in theaters, contributing to what’s expected to be an opening weekend box-office take of $100 million, give or take.

Knives Out – Marketing Recap

A good old-fashioned whodunit with an all-star cast comes to theaters hoping for success.

knives out poster13The $25 million tracking estimates for the opening weekend of Knives Out may not seem massive. Such a box office total would signal failure for most movies. While that number indicates audiences might be recovering from seeing Frozen 2 last weekend and saving their movie-going dollars for Star Wars next month, it might still be enough to not only win the weekend but show there’s life in the concept of a non-franchise movie featuring a sprawling ensemble of popular actors.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, the movie stars Christopher Plummer, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Laketh Stanfeild, Daniel Craig and quite a few others. Craig and Stanfeild play investigators summoned to the mansion of Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) after his mysterious death, which just so happened to occur at his birthday party for which the entire family had gathered. All under suspicion and each with their own motives as well as alibis, the sometimes ungrateful children must remain in the home while the killer among them is rooted out.

As Johnson has made clear in numerous interviews, it’s a throwback to the kind of murder mystery films from the 50s and 60s that became staples of broacast television reruns in the 70s and 80s. And while the predictions may indicate some weakness in terms of audience appetite, the 95 percent “Fresh” rating it sports on Rotten Tomatoes shows critics have roundly embraced its entertaining eccentricity.

The Posters

knives out posterA magnifying glass with a knife for a handle sits atop the title treatment on the first poster (by marketing agency LA, as are the rest of the posters), released in July. The cast list is presented below along with the copy “Everyone has a motive. No one has a clue.” All those elements, along with the “whodunnit” at the top along with the typeface used combine to sell a classic mystery movie, one where everyone will be suspected at some point and is working against the others as the police try to solve the crime.

“Nothing brings a family together like murder” we’re told on the series of character posters released in September. Each one presents the character in question in a different part of the house where the action takes place and presents them with a description of their role in the family or the investigation, very much in the vein of an Agatha Christie story.

The entire cast is assembled on the theatrical poster from October, with the Harlan’s children and others arranged behind him. This time the tagline betrays a much more playful attitude, reading “Hell, any of them could have done it.” It’s a great way to upend audience expectations and communicate the fact that this is a fun time at the theater, not a scary horror film of any sort.

The Trailers

The first trailer (12.4 million views on YouTube) was released in early July and establishes the premise right away, that Thrombey family patriarch Harlan was killed following a party celebrating his 85th birthday. The detectives sent to the estate to investigate understandably suspect an attendee is responsible and so ask everyone to stay put until they find who did it. From there it’s all about the mystery as we see the Thrombey’s aren’t exactly a tight, loving family and each could have their own reasons for not only killing the old man but wanting those around them to go down for the murder.

Everyone’s “waiting for the big reveal” in the second trailer (6.5 million views on YouTube), released in September. This one is even more loose and fun than the first, focusing on the infighting of the family members as Blanc and the other investigators seek to uncover who killed Harlan and why. The whole cast gets a turn to shine as the movie is presented as a breezy and entertaining whodunit with a house full of suspects and motives.

The final trailer (388,000 views on YouTube), released in October, is short but to the point. Specifically, it sells the movie not on the story but on the positive reviews that have come out so far, positioning it as a rip-roaring good time and the most entertaining film of the year with a top-notch cast.

Online and Social

In contrast to many recent efforts, the movie’s official website features good information that heightens anticipation of the film. In addition to the usual marketing content, the front page of the site lets you click on the faces of the main characters, allowing you to see the poster they’re featured on along with a bit more background and some photos to download. It’s not much, but it’s something and a nice element to include given the cast. In acknowledgement of the film coming out around Thanksgiving there are also place cards with each character and their defining trait that can be printed out for your holiday table, including one with Johnson labeled “The murder mystery master.” Last month there were pumpkin design stencils available as well.

Advertising and Publicity

While there had been plenty of press coverage around casting and other production updates, the first real promotion came when Lionsgate brought Johnson and members of the cast to CinemaCon in March to get the ball rolling. An extended scene was shown two months later at CineEurope.

In July it was named among the films screening at the Toronto Film Festival as part of the “Special Presentations” lineup, a screening that brought almost universal praise for the story, direction and performances. Later it was named the London Film Festival’s Gala movie and had a Fantastic Fest screening announced in August. In October it screened at the Chicago International Film Festival, with appearances by Johnson and Shannon.

The Get Your Cut contest was announced in September, encouraging fans to hunt for clues and hidden messages scattered throughout the posters and trailers in an effort to win $250,000, positioned here as part of Harlan’s fortune he put aside for fans. A later message from Harlan’s personal attorney (played by Frank Oz) and a recording from Harlan himself continued promoting the contest.

TV advertising started in mid-October with a deluge of spots – a dozen at first with more coming after that – highlighting different aspects of the family, their motivations, the search for Harlan’s killer and more. While they take slightly different approaches, the commercials reinforce the impression from the trailers that this is a fun star-studded whodunit.

AMC Theaters offered an exclusive interview with Johnson where he talked about the story and working with the impressive cast.

In early November Lionsgate released a series of videos inviting you to “Meet the Thrombeys.” Each one was created to be a promotional video of sorts for that family member’s business. So Joni is selling Flam – which also has a website -, her lifestyle brand, Walt is selling Blood Like Wine Publishing – which also got its own website – and announcing his promotion to CEO and Linda is selling her real estate business, which also has a site. Each one is filled with “slashing” puns to reinforce the nature of the movie.

The first clip, released in early November, shows Ransom arriving at the family mansion and blowing off the investigators already on the scene. A second clip shows the assembled family being asked to stick around while the investigators find the guilty party while a third has Linda confronting Blanc.

knives out online adOnline ads used some combination of the key theatrical art and images from the character posters along with video clips in various units.

The positive reviews the movie had received were used in a final TV commercial that pegged it as a fun experience for audiences.

Johnson extended a “personal invitation…to murder” to the audience in a video designed to play like an old-fashioned movie trailer, the kind that has directors like Alfred Hitchcock. In fact you can see just the kind of thing being referenced in the trailer for Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s another way Johnson is paying homage to the films that inspired him.

Outdoor billboards (by marketing agency Art Machine) used the same art of the assembled family seen in the theatrical one-sheet and outdoor ads. Notably, an alternate version of the billboard design showed the family from the back, each clutching a knife in their hands as if they’re ready to use it on each other at a moment’s notice.

knives out billboardknives out billboard2

Media and Press

An interview with Johnson during the Toronto screening allowed him to talk about his love of the murder mystery genre, what it was like working with such a big-name cast and transitioning from the massive spectacle of Star Wars to the smaller scale of this film. The cast offered their comments on how the movie provided some good alternative to family dinners during its Thanksgiving release window.

In a couple interviews from Toronto, Johnson even started speculating there could be more movies if this one does well. He also spoke with Curtis about how the movie’s story is intentional commentary on issues of wealth and privilege.

The cast shared one of their favorite moments from the few scenes they were all in together. A brief interview with just Evans had him talking about his inspiration, wardrobe and more.

Talk show appearances included Evans and Shannon on “The Tonight Show,” Johnson on “Kimmel,” Craig on “The Late Show,” Curtin on “Today” and more.

de Armes was part of THR’s “Next Gen Talent” feature in November, with the actress talking about her reluctance to join the film as well as how the script is what won her over.

An interview with Johnson had him talking about how this film was just as important to him as his franchise work and how it fits into his overall filmography.

At the movie’s premiere Johnson and the cast talked about their love of murder mysteries and how such stories can be reflections of the current political climate. An interview with the director had him talking about how hard he worked to get the movie made in the time available, how some fortunate coincidences allowed him to assemble the cast he wanted and more. Another had him sharing his mystery genre influences.

EW hosted an early Thanksgiving dinner with Rian and the cast talking about the movie and having a generally good time.

Curtis and costar Katherine Langford appeared on stage to present an award at the recent American Music Awards ceremony.

There were two feature profiles of Ana de Armas, spotlighting her as a breakout star in this movie who is poised for even more fame in the coming months with other projects coming out.

Overall

I’m hooked. As if I wasn’t a big enough Rian Johnson fan after his previous films – including what’s objectively the best Star Wars movie in the series – the way he conveys the fun he had in crafting this movie from beginning to end is infectious. That’s helped, in my own case, by recognizing exactly the type of movies he was inspired by and wanted to recreate here. They’re just the kind that were shown on “Family Classics” on WGN-TV in Chicago in the 80s on Sunday afternoons, the kind your parents would turn on after church while everyone is relaxing.

Everything about the campaign is just fun, showing you don’t need to make every mystery story into some deep, dark examination of the twisted nature of the human soul. Instead, as early reviews have indicated, it’s a lighthearted examination of the twisted nature of the human soul, including elements of class privilege both real and imagined.

Without a recognizable brand for the film’s marketing to latch on to, Johnson has become that brand hook, putting himself front and center throughout the campaign to act as the public face of the movie. That’s summed up nicely in the throwback trailer released last week but it’s seen in all the interviews he’s done and in the way the cast has praised his directorial style and work ethic on set.

The Red Sea Diving Resort – Marketing Recap

red sea diving resort posterChris Evans stars as in this week’s new Netflix-exclusive release The Red Sea Diving Resort. Evan plays Ari Levinson, a Mossad agent who along with his team is sent on a mission to rescue Ethiopian Jews who have fled that country only to become refugees in Sudan.

Because their mission is one the local government is not in favor of, the team has to operate under the cover of being visitors to a local resort, using that as a front to move refugees on their way to Israel. Aiding them is Kabede Bimro (Michael Kenneth Williams) a local leader sympathetic to the mission of Levinson and his team who helps them evade the danger that seems to be lurking around every corner.

The Posters

Evans and Williams are the biggest element of the poster, their faces shown in the middle of what seems to be a heated and possibly dangerous conversation. The whole design, including the smaller photos of some of the supporting players at the bottom, is tinged in dark reds and browns to make sure the audience understands it’s set in Africa. Various copy elements explain this is a true story and offer some details as to what that story entails.

The Trailers

A team has been assembled for a dangerous mission in, the trailer eventually shows us, late-70s Ethiopia. That mission, organized by the Mossad, is to smuggle Jewish families out of the Sudan as it’s in the midst of chaos resulting in countless lives lost. Moved to action by the stories and people they encounter, the team expands the mission to save other refugees despite the threat they all face from warlords and military leaders unhappy with foreigners becoming involved in their business.

Online and Social

Nothing here, as is normal for Netflix.

Advertising and Publicity

Netflix purchased the rights to the movie in February of this year, picking them up from Fox Searchlight, who had originally purchased the rights in 2015 but then held the film back since production was completed in 2017.

The movie screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival just this past weekend.

Media and Press

Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much going on here either. A few stories explored the real events that inspired the movie, but most of the mainstream U.S. press and entertainment sites just made lame “Captain Israel” jokes about Evans and his beard.

Overall

There’s nothing really wrong here, it’s just that there’s also nothing about the campaign that makes it seem like a must-watch. That includes offering little in the way of additional information or background about a historical incident that likely isn’t well known among good chunks of the audience.

Selling it as an action thriller instead of a history lesson may have seemed like the safe choice but it also means the issues behind the events depicted don’t seem to be explored in any great depth. Not every feature needs to be a documentary, but it’s possible to moderate between action and education. The campaign doesn’t make it seem like that line was walked successfully.

Picking Up the Spare

Director Gideon Raff was interviewed about working with the talented cast and bringing this historical story to life.

Netflix released a featurette focused on the real events portrayed in the movie.

Avengers: Endgame – Marketing Recap

You can read the rest of my recap of the marketing campaign for Avengers: Endgame at The Hollywood Reporter. My coverage of the PSA effort for Stand Up To Cancer also ran on Adweek.

Online and Social

For such a big movie, Marvel’s official website isn’t very informative, perhaps by design. You’ll find both trailers and some basic background on the film, including links to on-site blog posts offering readers a refresher on what’s come before, as well as a list of the promotional partners who helped draft off the movie’s buzz.

Media and Publicity

Of course the movie couldn’t help but come up as the cast was out promoting other projects, as Smulders, Jackson and others were all compelled to comment on it in some manner.

Ruffalo appeared on “The Tonight Show” to help debut the second trailer and answer (or not) questions about the movie. Duke also mentioned the movie while promoting Us last month.

A substantial profile on Evans had the actor talking about not only the future of Captain America and his part in the MCU but also the political stances he’s taken, with him saying staying silent wasn’t an option even if it meant alienating some portion of the audience and potentially costing him work.

The movie’s substantial length became the focus of many conversations in the last month prior to release following the revelation that it was clocking in around three hours, a full 30 minutes longer than Infinity War. The Russos rationalized the expanded time by pointing out the movie wrapped up the story that had been told over 20+ movies and featured dozens and dozens of characters.

A different subset of cast members appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” each night the week of April 8-12, bringing clips and more. That started with Downey, Johannson, Hemsworth and Rudd followed by Renner and Cheadle. Around the same time they showed up on “Good Morning America.”

In the final few weeks of the press cycle, two themes emerged in terms of what the cast and crew were telling interviewers and talk show hosts:

  1. “Let us explain…” That’s what the Russo brothers did to clarify why Captain Marvel is wearing more makeup in this movie than she did in her solo outing (a ridiculous topic).
  2. “We don’t know nothing…” That’s what Hemsworth, Cheadle and others did when asked what they knew about the movie’s story, which isn’t surprising given they’re all just small parts in a very big machine.
  3. “[X] has returned…” That’s what was behind interviews and profiles of Tessa Thompson, who confirmed that she couldn’t confirm anything, and Rudd/Renner, who spoke of how they are finally able to rejoin their comrades.

An EW cover story reunited the original team for a retrospective interview and offered up other photos and details, but not too much.

At the end of the campaign there were profiles of Feige as well as his two long-time aides. The screenwriters were interviewed on how they worked to bring together so many different storylines and characters into something coherent as well as how they reintroduced some of the previously missing heroes. Feige and Downey Jr. reminisced on the beginnings of the MCU, when the idea of a shared cinematic universe was still a “best case scenario” and the bets were much more unsure.

Rudd was announced as the host of an upcoming episode of “Saturday Night Live.”

One final TV spot released the day the movie hit theaters played up the overwhelmingly positive reviews it was getting. A video had a bunch of the stars reminding the audience not to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it yet.

Adding to the movie’s profile was the news from Fandango it now held the record for the most advance tickets sold.

Larson came on “The Tonight Show” and revealed she shot her first appearance with the rest of the Avengers – which appears at the end of her own movie – on a green screen with no one else around and no idea what her one line meant. Rudd also appeared to have some fun with Fallon.

The media agency Kantar estimated that all in, Disney spent close to $14 million on the marketing and advertising campaign, with TV buys making up a little over half of that and a good chunk of the advertising coming the day tickets went on sale a couple weeks ago.

avengers-endgame-kantor-chart

Another profile of Winston Duke mentioned this movie as well as his appearance in Us.

More details revealed here on the partnership with Fortnite.

Overall

avengers endgame gif

Picking Up the Spare

Wayne Friedman at MediaPost points out how the majority of the movie’s campaign – and ad spending – came in the final month leading up to release. Jeff Beer at Fast Company also has his own recap of some of the movie’s cross-promotional campaign. There was also a look at how altered shots in the trailers kept some of the movie’s secrets hidden. 

Google added a fun little tool for those who searched for “Thanos.” 

Additional TV spots promised a “once in a generation event” and played up all the records the movie was breaking. 

Another short promotional video shows how every movie has lead to this one while also reminding audiences not to spoil the ending for anyone. Some of the cast reminisced about their favorite memories as part of the MCU. 

Brolin appeared on “Kimmel,” as did Sebastian Stan. 

IMAX continued promoting the filmmakers use of its large-format cameras with another video. 

Trolls continued to hound Larson, criticizing her junket appearances to the point where costar Don Cheadle felt the need to smack them down. 

The writers and directors of the movie kept talking about various aspects of the story and characters. 

Once the spoiler lid lifted more details about the story started to official come out, including a profile on the effects of Professor Hulk, who was also featured in a clip. 

Gillan was the subject of two profiles focusing on her role in the movie.