Fantasy Island – Marketing Recap

How Columbia Pictures and Blumhouse are selling a dark take on a television classic.

fantasy island poster 2Blumhouse has made a name for itself over the last few years as the go-to production house for thrilling low-budget horror that offers something fresh for audiences. That reputation has been diminished somewhat as Jordan Peele has created something new and socially relevant to the genre.

The producer’s latest release is this week’s Fantasy Island, an update of the classic TV series fo the same name. That series focused on a magical island where guests arrived to live out their fantasies, which often provided some kind of insight into their true personalities, sometimes uncomfortably so.

While the new movie retains the same essential premise, it takes it into a much darker direction. Michael Peña plays Mr. Roarke, the island’s host. The guests that arrive include Elena (Maggie Q) and Melanie (Lucy Hale) among others, all of whom think they’ve come for a bit of a romp. It turns out the fantasies they’re offered are not only dark but potentially dangerous to everyone. It’s up to them, then, to navigate the island and save themselves.

The $12-17 million opening weekend estimated by early tracking would appear to be a disappointing number, even measured by Blumhouse’s niche standards. While Columbia’s marketing has tried to leverage the movie’s brand appeal, that hasn’t turned into meaningful interest.

The Posters

fantasy island posterIn early November the first poster (by marketing agency Cold Open) came out offering an ariel look at the island, the shoreline of which upon further inspection forms the shape of a face screaming. The dread is further conveyed by the inclusion of “#NeverComingHome.”

Lurking danger is also the key message on the next poster (by marketing agency BOND), released later in the month. This time that’s conveyed by showing the relatively benign top of the island above the waterline while the bottom completes the form of a screaming skull. “Anything you desire. Everything you fear.”

The Trailers

At first everything seems idyllic and wonderful in the first trailer (8.2 million views on YouTube), released in November. We see Melanie and a group of others arrive on a paradise island, where Mr. Roarke welcomes them and tells them their every desire will come true during their stay. As those fantasies begin to come true, she and the others are surprised at how visceral they are. When things become even more dark they come to the realization there are more sinister motives at play on the island and they may be in danger.

The second trailer (326,000 views on YouTube) from late January opens with Melanie recording a video after having arrived on Fantasy Island. After the same basic setup that the characters have been assembled to live out their fantasies, but it seems there are powers that have twisted those fantasies into something much darker that may be a threat to all those on the island.

Online and Social

For such a potentially rich environment like a creepy, mystery-filled island, the movie’s official website uses none of that in its design or navigation. The standard content is there, but nothing else. It doesn’t even have a good interactive image or anything.

Advertising and Promotions

Videos like this cut down the trailer to its basic elements to introduce the concept along with some of the characters and establish, or try to, a sense of mystery and dread as a way to create intrigue in the audience. Those videos were used on TV as well as social media, on video sites as pre-roll ads and elsewhere.

Online ads – and presumably outdoor billboards – used the key art of the screaming island to build brand recognition.

Media and Press

The stars – particularly Pena, Hale and Maggie Q – made the talk show rounds, but that appears to be about it in terms of press activity.


It feels like there should be a lot more here. For a movie with presumably significant brand recognition – it’s likely a big reason why it was greenlit and moved into production – there’s not much being done to take advantage of that.

While the trailers and posters work well in showing the audience what to expect, including that this isn’t the kind of Fantasy Island their parents watched in reruns, the campaign also doesn’t play with the material at hand at all, which is disappointing. There’s a lot of potential here to deepen audience engagement with the brand through “What’s Your Fantasy” quizzes and interactive features, navigation of the different parts of the island and more.

Picking Up The Spare

Hale appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to hype the film even as it was getting very negative reviews.

An interview with Pena had him talking about filming and what it was like to take on such a well known role. More of the filmmakers involved talked here about turning the TV drama into a horror story.

Bear McCreary’s score for the movie got the spotlight in a featurette from Sony following release.

Spies in Disguise – Marketing Recap

You can read my full recap of the marketing for Spies In Disguise at The Hollywood Reporter.

Online and Social

Not much of note on the movie’s official website, which is laid out in the usual Fox site template. I would have expected something more like a “turn yourself into a pigeon” photo upload feature or casual game or something else, but none of that is here.

Media and Press

Holland appeared on “Kimmel” in early December to talk about this movie as well as others. Other than that there doesn’t seem to have been a big press push for the film, maybe because both stars have been out promoting other projects very recently and this was deemed not worth the effort.


I’m honestly not sure who this is meant for or who’s supposed to be enticed by this campaign. It’s a mystery to me.

Picking Up the Spare

Another commercial came out just before Christmas that focused on the “Team Weird” theme that emerged late in the campaign. There were also videos of Smith and Holland experiencing an escape room of sorts and a new clip released as well.

A profile of the movie and its creators focused how it seeks to communicate inventive and non-violent solutions to problems for kids.

Little Women – Marketing Recap

How Sony is selling the latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel.

little women poster 9The story of Little Women is one that’s been told on film a number of times over the decades. Now writer/director Greta Gerwig is bringing her own interpretation of the material to screens with an all-star cast and a modern sensibility that still retains the story’s original setting.

As always, the story revolves around the women of the March family, with matriarch Marmee (Laura Dern) and daughters Beth (Eliza Scanlen), Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson) and Jo (Saoirse Ronan). With the men all gone fighting the Civil War they have to make it on their own and count on each other. All four have their own dreams and desires but come up against the standards of the time, which don’t let a woman claim her independence or make her own way in the world.

In marketing the film, Columbia Pictures/Sony has relied on audience’s familiarity with the source material while also promoting the presence of some of today’s most buzzed-about young actors.

The Posters

Jo is shown running toward the camera on the first poster (by marketing agency Works Adv) from October. The other main characters are relegated to horizontal photo strips off to the side, there to be shown off to the audience but clearly not the focus of the movie. “Own your story” conveys the take-charge attitude audiences will encounter when they see it.

A series of character posters that offer fuller looks at the cast came out shortly after that.

One final poster shows the four March sisters looking anxiously out the window anxiously, emphasizing one more time the weight of the cast on display here.

The Trailers

It’s very much the classic story we’re all familiar with being shown in the first trailer (7.6 million views on YouTube), released in early August. While the characters and plot may be largely known to us, the selling point then becomes the cast that’s been assembled by Gerwig, one that includes some of the most buzzed-about talent working today. Aside from that, the message sent to the audience is that women can do whatever it is they want and should be allowed to do so my men and society as a whole, which still remains an important one.

Online and Social

There’s actually some good stuff on the movie’s official website, including a “March Sisters Quiz” to help you determine which one you’re the most like.

Advertising and Publicity

The movie gained significant awards season momentum following a press/SAG/DGA screening in October.

Laurie asks Jo to dance in the first clip, released in early November. A second clip released a bit later has the two discussing the economic realities of love and marriage in the era. Additional clips had Auntie Marsh talking about Jo’s need to be married and her frustration at the whole of patriarchal society.

An extended TV commercial came out in late November that offered a recap of the story, focusing on Jo’s special place in the family and her unwillingness to accept the fate that awaits her as a woman in that era.

The movie’s premiere was held last week, with Gerwig and the cast all showing up to chat about the production and more.

Little Free Libraries was the only promotional partner for the film, putting movie-branded boxes of books in select cities across the country. Sony donated 2,000 copies of Little Women to be stocked in those and other locations as well.

Most of the cast participated in a “Tiny Kitchen” vignette, watching as a movie-themed tiny kitchen was assembled.

Media and Press

While also talking about other projects, Ronan spoke on what it was like to reunite with her Lady Bird director. Pugh commented on the movie and its story while she was in Sundance earlier this year promoting other projects. Reports circulated in April that this was the second choice Sony had in mind if Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, the new movie from Quentin Tarantino, wasn’t ready for screening at Cannes.

Vanity Fair offered a first look at the pairing of Ronan and Chalamet in mid-June. Interviews with Pugh while she was promoting Midsomer earlier this year often included comments about transitioning from that production to this one and what a welcome relief the change was.

An interview with Gerwig from about the same time the trailer was released has her sharing her thoughts on assembling the powerful cast and making the most of their talents.

A brief Chalamet profile came out that touched only on very high-level topics and only briefly mentioned this movie. That came at about the same time as an EW cover story featuring both Chalamet and Ronan where they talked about working together again and the natural chemistry they enjoy on screen as well as an interview with Pugh where she shared her approach to her character and attachment to the material.

The October screening included a Q&A with Gerwig and the cast where they talked about the story and how they got into character.

What drew her to offer yet another take on the familiar story and how she assembled the impressive cast were covered by Gerwig in another interview where she talked about the research she did in preparation for production. The ways in which she and the cast updated that material were the topic of a joint profile with her and Pugh.

While the focus was on other things, costar Tracy Letts briefly commented on his enthusiasm for working with Gerwig again after getting to know her while filming Lady Bird.

Chalamet spoke about the movie when he appeared on “Late Night” several weeks ago.

A profile of Ronan had her acknowledging the likely importance of this role in her career while also emphasizing how committed she was to getting that role while Gerwig talked about how she approached Jo and working with the actor.

In a nice touch, the movie was endorsed by Gillian Armstrong, who directed the much-loved 1994 version.

How cast and crew assembled to make the very old novel interesting and relevant to the modern times was the subject of an extended feature profile that encompassed comments from many of those involved.

Gerwig’s influence on the story and her ability to manage the cast were all commented on by those involved at the film’s premiere a few weeks ago.

Members of the cast made a major foray into the late night talk show arena beginning a couple weeks ago. “The Tonight Show” hosted Chalamet, “The Late Show” featured Ronan and Pugh.

The stars of the film expressed their collective dismay at Gerwig’s being overlooked for a Golden Globes director nomination.

The movie’s release allowed for a new conversation about the source book and its rightful place in the American literary canon and the reasons it might not be currently occupying that position.

Gerwig spoke about how long she’s had the ending of the movie in mind and what it took for her to get it made.


Selling an all-female drama set in during the Civil War should be a hard task, but by selling it as a piece of modern filmmaking with whipsmart dialogue uttered by some of the most critically-praised actors in recent years is a solid way around that problem.

A movie like this should be benefitting from all sorts of awards season buzz, but as many people have noted it’s oddly not. The reasons why are unknown (though plenty of speculation has been bandied about) but whatever they are it means a crucial part of the hype cycle is missing, which could impact its chances for success at the box office as well.

Despite that, what’s sold here is all manner of enticing. Throughout the campaign Gerwig has promised anything but a staid period drama. Instead what audiences are offered is a vital, fresh, energetic take on the material that reflects both the past and the present.

Picking Up the Spare

A new behind the scenes featurette has been released along with another that focused on Gerwig’s direction.

Gerwig started making a few late night appearances along with participating in a number of additional interviews on the inspirations for the story, her work building the world of the film, her long personal journey with the story. She also appeared on “Kimmel” to talk about the movie and her early awards season snubs.

Also getting some attention was the film’s costume and production designers.

Another profile of Pugh here that talked about this movie and her career as a whole. She also appeared on late night to promote the movie and talk about the various Oscar snubs.

The movie has increased interest in and attendance at the Alcott family home in Massachusetts.

Murder By Death – Flashback Marketing Recap

Neil Simon’s 1976 mystery satirized the star-studded whodunit.

murder by death posterDuring the publicity cycle for Knives Out, writer/director Rian Johnson frequently cited his love of the kinds of star-studded murder mystery films from the 50s through the 70s that used to air on broadcast television in the 80s. There are various adaptations of the books and plays of Agatha Christie that fall into this category and which were referenced by Johnson along with many others.

These movies were great outlets for some great actors, and assembling a group of them worked to get the public’s attention to a movie that might seem a little stodgy or old-fashioned to the youth of the day but which held great appeal to older audiences. My generation, of which Johnson is a part, saw these later on because our parents wanted to watch them on TV and many of us grew to love their twists and turns. Not only that, but they frequently exposed us to a number of actors who, as youths, we weren’t already familiar with.

In 1976 writer Neil Simon teamed with director Robert Moore to offer the genre a gentle tweak of the nose with the movie Murder By Death.

The name itself is the first clue those involved are not playing by the book but know the rules nonetheless, since cause and effect are transposed. But it still sounds kind of right, the kind of “mistake” that takes a minute to comprehend and understand, rewarding those who are paying attention. In other words it’s exactly the kind of gag Simon was already well known for.

Murder By Death uses one of the most familiar setups of mystery stories, the assembly of a group of characters at a spooky house none are familiar with on a dark and stormy night. In this case, many of the world’s most famous detectives are brought together by the eccentric Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), who claims by the end of the night he will have proven himself to be better than them all. Those he’s brought together are all slightly skewed versions of familiar characters.

  • Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), a play on Sam Spade, the hard-boiled detective of Dashiell Hammett’s stories.
  • Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), a play on Charlie Chan by Earl Derr Biggers.
  • Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), a play on Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles.
  • Milo Perrier (James Coco), a play on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Piorot.
  • Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), a play on Christie’s Miss Marples.

Each is accompanied by an associate that is similarly an analogue for the source character’s sidekick or assistant. As the names make clear, the parody here is done with a light touch. “Spade” becomes “Diamond,” Marples” becomes “Marbles” and so on. This isn’t biting deconstruction of the genre, just having a few laughs while making the audience feel they know who all these characters are.

murder by death pic 2

Columbia Pictures’ marketing for the film, released in late June of ‘76, was geared toward audiences that would appreciate the ways in which Simon gently laughed at the genre and its tropes.

The poster features the artwork of Charles Addams, creator of The Addams Family. In his clearly identifiable style the characters are shown standing outside the wall of a spooky looking estate. For audiences of the time the analogues should be largely recognizable, especially given the context created by the tagline, which warns “By the time the world’s greatest detectives figure out whodunit…you could die laughing.”

All that makes it clear this is a comedy audiences should expect, one with a little sense of style and showmanship since using a drawing like that instead of a collection of headshots conveys a bit of attitude. Again, though, there’s nothing dangerous about the comedy that’s being sold here. The copy is pretty toothless and while the artwork is much more interesting than a bunch of photos would be, it’s still not overly dark, even with the half-naked person lying on the ground with a dozen knives sticking out of his back.

(Side note: When Columbia released the movie on VHS the cover featured Addams’ key art but for some reason it was jettisoned for the later DVD, which used just the kind of lazy headshot photos the poster is keen to avoid. SHOUT! Factory smartly brought back Addams’ work for its recent Blu-ray of the film.)

Simon’s sense of humor is on display immediately in the trailer. While it starts fairly traditionally, the narrator quickly establishes the meta jokes by calling Twain “a short sinister man who looks just like Truman Capote” before introducing all the tweaked variations on literature’s greatest detectives, who here all exist in the same shared universe. Some of the movie’s great jokes, including how the detectives are fairly dismissive of Twain – as well as their companions – as they go through the events of the night. Those events are hinted at and shown to varying degrees in a way that presents them as roughly 23 percent more ridiculous than they’d be if they appeared in a more straight-faced take on the material.

That the movie doesn’t exactly deconstruct the detective genre is clear. It’s adhering to the same tropes and contrivances that are used in other stories and films even as it asks the audience to laugh at them. That works, though, because of the wit in Simon’s script and the self-aware performances of the impressive cast. It would seem attractive to those who knew the subject of the light satire as well as fans of Simon’s previous work.

Murder By Death would go on to gross $32 million at the box office. That tally, as noted by Bill Higgins who also revisited the film due to its similarity to Knives Out, would amount to $150 million in 2019, which would put it in the top 15 films of the year to date and the second highest-grossing original film, behind only Jordan Peele’s Us. In fact that’s only slightly below where it wound up in 1976, coming in at #13 for the year.

It’s not a movie that gets talked about a lot these days, but know that when you watch something like Knives Out or Kenneth Branagh’s Murder On the Orient Express adaptation, uniting a group of well-known actors to be part of a murder mystery is a genre so established it’s already been satirized by one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. – Marketing Recap

roman j israel posterDenzel Washington stars as the title character in this week’s new release Roman J. Israel, Esq. Coming from writer/director Dan Gilroy, the movie follows Israel beginning with his time as a idealistic young lawyer doing what he needs to do to succeed while those above him win all the glory.

A series of events sees him recruited by a prestigious law firm by the former student (Colin Farrell) of Israel’s professional mentor. That decision ultimately puts Israel in a position where he has to make choices that may conflict with the ideals he’s long clung to and could threaten his entire professional standing and career.

The Posters

The movie’s one and only poster shows Washington as Israel from the back, his hair taking up a good amount of the image’s real estate. That, combined with the glasses, old-school Walkman headphones and purple suit coat are meant to visually communicate who the character is and what sort of unconventional and unique personality will be on display. “All rise” we’re told at the bottom.

The Trailers

Israel is a go-for-broke lawyer as the first trailer opens, using every means at his disposal to get his clients. When he’s laid off from his firm he has a bit of an identity crisis. An unethical and illegal decision he makes during a case comes back to haunt him years later after he’s risen once more to the top of the field and various people and groups are tightening around him to find out the truth and bring him down.

Gotta love Washington in these kinds of roles. He’s fast and smart and goes all in on every aspect of the character, both good and bad. There are quite a few subplots hinted at in the trailer but you get a general idea and see what the big beats are going to be.

Online and Social

After the trailer plays on the official website the splash page features the same image seen on the key art. There are links in the upper right corner to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles.

That one trailer is the only thing in the “Video” section that starts the content menu at the top of the page. After that is “About,” which has a decent synopsis of the story. “Cast & Crew” just has lists of names and finally the “Gallery” has a handful of production stills.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

TV spots like this one presented the story as a portrait of a man who cuts his own path and makes a lot of enemies along the way. He’s brash and mildly offensive and unconventional in his approach, cutting through the bull and making a name for himself.

Media and Publicity

A few first-look stills were released around the same time it was announced the movie would premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. It picked up pretty good word-of-mouth while there and it was eventually given a release date by Columbia Pictures.

Aside from the release of marketing materials and few Q&As featuring Washington and Gilroy there doesn’t seem to have been a big press push here.


I know I’ve said this a lot lately, but this is the kind of movie that would have been a summer tentpole for any studio 30 years ago, so it’s a bit odd to see it almost flying under the radar here. Washington is one of his generation’s finest actors, always delivering solid and often extraordinary performances. Those skills are certainly on display in the campaign, particularly in the TV spots where the focus is a bit tighter, but there isn’t nearly the kind of general appreciation that should accompany any new film he’s in.

Instead it’s a decent but subdued campaign for a movie that has almost no chance at the box-office this weekend. It’s going up against a powerhouse in Justice League and so will be swamped by that as well as anyone who’s not still catching up on Thor or another recent release. It’s this kind of reality that has many movies of this type – a serious drama meant for adults and featuring an all-time great actor – headed to streaming services.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.