The state of the theatrical feature film release seems rosier than it has in a good long while following two of the strongest weekends of the pandemic era thanks to Godzilla Vs. Kong. The gross domestic box-office for that movie is now $69.5 million, an impressive total, especially given the film is also available on HBO Max. Adding to that success is that downloads of the HBO Max app hit an all-time high in advance of its release.
It’s a validation, at least for the time being, of WarnerMedia’s 2021 strategy of day-and-date distribution to both theaters and streaming. Things will go back to relative normal in 2022, when big releases will head to theaters exclusively for at least 45 days before becoming available to streaming subscribers.
WarnerMedia’s strategy was uber-controversial several months ago but now seems common, so much so that it wasn’t surprising when Disney announced Black Widow would do likewise on Disney+ but via its Premier Access payment tier.
Some studios aren’t feeling quite as sure about things, though. Just recently Paramount announced a handful of release date changes, notably moving Top Gun: Maverick out to November from July. That has been seen as a sign the studio can’t afford to have a Tom Cruise blockbuster be anything but just that. (Though the shifting of Snake Eyes from October back to July then would say the opposite, right?)
The difference in approaches – continuing to play the release date shuffle versus coming up with a streaming/theatrical hybrid model – indicates how good the respective studios are feeling about their streaming positioning.
Reading the tea leaves above, it would seem that:
Paramount doesn’t yet think the newly-rebranded and relaunched Paramount+ is a suitable outlet for new releases. That’s understandable given it doesn’t have the market penetration of some of the other players. Still, the studio announced in February that a number of upcoming films will be available there 45 days after theatrical release, so it’s getting there.
NBCUniversal doesn’t have a dog in this fight. Peacock is an entirely adequate streaming service, but if there’s a strategy it’s unclear what it might be. And it certainly doesn’t seem to be factoring into conversations about new releases or anything else.
Sony knows it hasn’t even anted up. That’s why it just signed a deal that replaced Starz with Netflix as the studio’s first post-theatrical streaming outlet.
Warner and Disney are out in front of this pack, pushing new models and doing what makes the most sense given all the craziness of the last year while also working to build something sustainable for the future. That confidence is borne, to likely a great extent, by the strength of their brand, something the other studios are still struggling with.
A significant – and significantly delayed – milestone was marked last week when Tenet, initially released last September, finally opened in New York City theaters. Unlike when it played in a handful of theaters elsewhere in the country several months ago, this time the opening was not marked by director Christopher Nolan openly decrying Warner Bros. executives, but the larger narrative in the movie industry couldn’t have made him very pleased given his dislike of anything less than 100% theatrical distribution.
See over the last week or so several studio heads and others have weighed in with their own prognostications on the future of movie release patterns given we’re now a year past when most theaters shut down for most of the rest of 2020.
Exclaimed Gianopulos at Viacom’s Paramount+ Day today, “We believe in the power of theatrical releases and we have faith that after things get back to normal, audiences will enthusiastically return to theaters. At the same time, consumers have increasingly embraced streaming as another way to enjoy films,” said Gianopulos, “our strategy accounts for both.”
“I think the consumer is probably more impatient than they’ve ever been before,” said Chapek. “Particularly since now they’ve had the luxury of an entire year of getting titles at home pretty much when they want them. So I’m not sure there’s going back, but we certainly don’t want to do anything like cut the legs off a theatrical exhibition run.”
“If you look at the curve, the degradations on most film titles, they do very little business on post-Day 30 and certainly post-Day 45,” Bakish, who was the morning’s keynote speaker at the (virtual) 2021 Morgan Stanley’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications Conference, continued. “So moving to an in-house streaming window at that part we think works, certainly for us, but also for constituents, including consumers.”
Tenet finally coming to New York theaters happened at about the same time San Francisco announced bars, theaters and other public spaces could reopen, though still at reduced capacity. That’s also good news for the movie industry as it is another major market that, with vaccination rates rising due to increased supply and Covid-19 cases dropping, is allowing businesses to get back to business.
If things continue to improve, it should mean that Disney’s decision to keep Black Widow’s May release date makes sense. And we might even see titles like No Time To Die and others this year. Indeed studios are feeling positive, with Paramount recently announcing a Memorial Day release date for The Quiet Place Part II.
Of course there are still potential monsters lurking around a number of corners.
The CDC reported last week that areas where mask mandates and in-person dining restrictions were lifted wholesale have seen fresh increases in Covid-19 infections.
Over 745,000 Americans signed up for unemployment assistance last week and there are 10 million fewer jobs than there were a year ago. 10% of Americans are estimated to have given up on the job market completely, much more than the official 6.4% unemployment rate.
So not only are there still public health concerns that will impact people’s decisions whether or not to head to a movie theater (assuming one near them is open yet), but there is still the very real situation of tens of millions of people not working and therefore not having disposable income to spend on something as inessential as a movie ticket.
All that is on top of the year of being solidly in the habit of watching new releases via streaming or PVOD.
That’s why it’s likely most, if not all, the studios will adopt some form of hybrid or mix-and-match release strategy for their lineups.
It may not be as ad-hoc as Disney’s approach, where some films are held back entirely while others get full-on Disney+ releases while others are “Premier Access” titles requiring additional payments. Or as one-size-fits-all as WarnerMedia’s day-and-date theatrical/HBO Max releases.
Something fundamental has shifted, though, and it may not be possible to shift it back. While Kilar and others still see a place for theatrical releases, Paramount announcing major title will come to the newly-rebranded Paramount+ just 45 days after they hit theaters shows theaters are no longer the powerhouses they were just a few years ago. Even at the height of DVD sales in the 2000s, studios would never have dared anything less than at least a 90 day window, with 120+ being the tightest it ever really got.
Some theater chains are still trying to exercise some power, though, with Cinemark’s decision to not play Raya and the Last Dragon because of it’s Disney+ availability playing a large role in that movie’s lackluster box-office.
How the theatrical box-office continues to improve after losing essentially an entire 12 month period remains to be seen given how many states are still enacting stricter guidelines and we’re nowhere near “herd immunity” vaccination levels. Adding to the uncertainty is how studios have taken to just not reporting box-office results, afraid those numbers will be taken out of the context of a global pandemic.
That means it could be even longer before we see dollar amounts reflecting wide release patterns. And when those numbers are available, they may not look like what we would expect to see a few years ago because, quite frankly, the results don’t include the number of people who opted to stream it at home now or 45 days in the future.
How Disney is selling its latest animated feature with an all-star cast.
Raya and the Last Dragon is, like many of Disney’s animated films, about a character defying the odds to embrace and fulfill her destiny. In this case, the people of Kumandra have long ago splintered into various tribes and lost most of what they once shared. When an ancient threat emerges, it’s up to Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a skilled warrior, to seek out the dragons that helped defend them centuries ago. When she finds the only remaining dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), she has to bring the young dragon back, facing different threats along the way.
Originally scheduled for release last November, this week the movie hits both theaters and Disney+ under the same “Premier Access” tier Disney previously used for Mulan. It arrives with an impressive 96% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has received a campaign that’s emphasized the action and adventure in the story.
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 2020.
The first real poster for the film (by marketing agency Legion Creative Group) came out in October of last year and shows Raya, her face partially obscured by her hat but holding a substantial sword. A motion version of that poster came out a short while later.
Raya is seen more fully on the second poster, also from October. The camera here pulls back to show her standing defiantly in a tropic setting, the cloudy outline of a dragon visible in the background.
The next poster (by marketing agency Ten30 Studios) came out in December. Here Raya and Sisu are seen running side by side, seemingly into battle or toward some other form of danger or adventure. Both have a fun, excited look on their face that communicates their lack of fear toward whatever they’re facing.
In February what seems to be the theatrical poster came out, showing Raya at the center of all the action, with the supporting characters and some of the story’s locations placed around her. The design is wonderful, using elements that seem to be pulled from traditional Asian artwork to display everything the audience may need to know about the movie.
Additional posters continued to come out after that, including one that simplifies the design to show Raya, Sisu and others ready for a fight, one that shows them enjoying a feast together and one that shows the kind of food the characters enjoy, part of a late-campaign push focusing on food and snacks.
The first trailer (14.1m views on YoutTube) was finally released in mid-October. In an extended sequence we see how Raya is a sort of spy/defender, sworn to defend an important artifact. The splintering of the tribes of the world has thrown the world into chaos, prompting her to embark on a mission that could once again unite them and restore peace. The story here seems secondary, though, to simply showing how powerful Raya is.
In late January the next trailer (12m views on YouTube) came out, starting out with Raya meeting – and ultimately recruiting – a “con baby.” After that she’s on a quest to find the last dragon in order to restore peace among her home’s divided people. She’s successful in the first part but has to then contend with others who are on the same mission for their own purposes, encountering danger and adventure along the way. It presents a much more comprehensive overview of the story along with all the action and humor the movie has to offer.
Online and Social
Visitors to the movie’s official website will find the basic marketing information like trailers and a synopsis along with a downloadable movie-themed activity packet as well as links to buy tickets or find out more about Disney+ Premier Access. There were also stand-alone social media profiles for the film.
Advertising and Promotions
The movie was announced by Disney at the 2019 D23 Fan Expo, when the cast was brought out to share the story and show off the first early footage as a way to get fans excited.
A first look still from the film was released in August 2020 at the same time as the news Tran was joining the cast.
Check out the first look of Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, in Raya and the Last Dragon, from directors Don Hall & Carlos López Estrada, writers Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim, producers Osnat Shurer and Peter Del Vecho, and co-directors Paul Briggs & John Ripa. In Theaters 3/12/21. pic.twitter.com/G2ZvW6TcWZ
In December Disney announced the movie would not go to theaters but would instead debut on Disney+ with the same Premier Access paid tier previously used for Mulan.
After the second trailer came out Disney released a video showing Tran and Awkwafina reacting to it.
A Super Bowl spot aired in early February that takes a slightly more serious take on the story than was seen in the recent full trailer, but still looks very entertaining, with plenty of humor and adventure for fans. Additionalspots came out later that took the same action/humor tone.
Disney Parks shared an exclusive clip of Raya and Sisu enlisting some help in their journey home.
In late February Disney released a featurette focused on the casting of the voice roles. There was also a lyric video for “Lead The Way” by Jhené Aiko.
A condensed version of Tran’s video diaries from the studio and other production locations was shared along with a brief tutorial on how to draw Tuk Tuk, one of Raya’s adorable sidekicks.
Promotional partners for the movie included:
Fitness company Obe, which offered movie-inspired workout classes as well as a discussion of some of the film’s more athletic action sequences.
Omson, which created special Southeast Asian sampler packages of prepared spices, offered in movie-branded packaging.
Raddish Kids, which created movie-inspired recipes for its meal delivery service.
Sanzo, which offered a 20% off coupon for those wanting to try its Asian-inspired flavored drinks.
McDonald’s, which put movie toys in its Happy Meal packages.
Kellogg’s, but details on their promotion were unavailable.
Media and Press
The filmmakers, including director Don Hall, revealed Tran’s casting in the lead role and discussed the importance of this being the first Disney animated film to be inspired by Southeast Asian legends and culture.
Tran appeared on “Good Morning, America” in October to debut the trailer and talk about the film.
Tran spoke during a group interview about the unjustified pressure she’s being made to feel about playing the first Southeast Asian Disney Princess.
Closer to release Tran appeared on “Kimmel” to talk about being a crazy Disney fan and now being in a (non-Star Wars) Disney movie. Awkwafina then appeared on “The Tonight Show.”
There were a few more interviews like this with Tran where she shared her excitement at being part of such a monumental production. She also got a cover story in THR about how this film marks a big moment for her, coming after the toxic backlash she received as a result of her Star Wars role.
Producer Osnat Shurer and others were quoted in a story about how the filmmakers found inspiration in the art and culture of Southeast Asia and how that’s represented in the movie.
In addition to the campaign’s commitment to communicating the Southeast Asian influence felt by the filmmakers, which is admirable, the main thing that comes through here is the redemption of Tran. Her treatment in the wake of The Last Jedi in particular was horrendous, and she’s made no bones about how difficult that period was for her to live through. So to see her standing tall here and taking part in a project that allowed her to pull from her own heritage and background is admirable and inspiring in and of itself.
Aside from that, Disney is making a concerted effort here to sell the movie as a funny, adventure-filled good time for audiences. There’s nothing too dark here, as even the threats faced by the protagonists don’t seem overwhelming or scary, a likely attempt to position the movie as a safe choice for younger viewers at home.
What will be interesting to see is how the movie fares as part of the Disney+ Premier Access experiment. Mulan was more or less a known quantity given it was a remake of a previously popular film. But this is an original property, so how willing people are to shell out the additional fee to watch it remains to be seen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A few thoughts while pondering whether James Corden’s denial a “butthole cut” of Cats exists is proof it totally exists.
Just like the rest of 2020, the last week has contained eight months worth of news. And that’s just in the entertainment world and doesn’t even take into account the attempted coup taking place or the fact that an entire political party has pulled away the mask to show off its anti-democratic nature.
Warner Bros. Uses HBO Max To Plan For The Future
Yes, the news that Warner Bros. plans to release its entire 2021 movie slate to both theaters (at least any that are open) and HBO Max is a huge deal.
No, this is not WB offering up theaters as a sacrifice. I don’t think Jason Kilar or anyone else actively wants to destroy the theatrical exhibition industry, but they *do* want to maintain their own business and for the foreseeable future going direct-to-consumer is the best way to do that.
To that point, a survey from Deloitte reports most people aren’t going to feel comfortable going to a theater until at least the middle of next year. That means the theater industry isn’t likely to move upward significantly until the second half – or later – of 2021, a window that roughly lines up with when enough of the U.S. population has received the pending Covid-19 vaccines to impact communal spread.
Despite that, WB’s announcement seems to have unlocked the rare achievement of honking off almost everyone within the movie industry.
Theater chains were angered because they thought the Wonder Woman 1984 shift to HBO Max was a one-off. Their stock prices dropped just as you would expect them to and AMC Theaters has once again said it will have to secure an influx of cash to survive past early 2021. Independent cinemas weren’t thrilled either.
Directors Denis Villeneuve and Patty Jenkins, who helmed Dune and WW84 respectively, have blasted the move, with Villeneuve specially calling out how it betrays a lack of respect for the art of cinema and instead is about the debt management of a telecom behemoth.
There’s also, of course, director Christopher Nolan, who said it showed WB panicking and “dismantling” a great studio. Whether or not he’s self-aware to realize the theatrical release of Tenet he insisted upon despite the pandemic helped lead to this change remains up in the air.
In fact the Director’s Guild of America is pretty upset as well.
Legendary, the production company behind Godzilla vs. Kong and more, which reportedly had less than an hour’s notice before the announcement was made and is upset because it had Netflix on the line for GvK but still wanted a theatrical release.
Disney Announces [checks notes] Literally Everything
On the heels of Warner Bros. grabbing a hammer and walking over to the “Break glass in case of once-in-a-generation-pandemic” box where it kept HBO Max, Disney took its Investors Day presentation to announce scores of projects and changes. Those announcements were, depending on who you talk to, either A) the greatest things ever, of B) soulless exploitation of beloved characters with no respect for the individuals who created them decades prior.
Those announcements included lots of Star Wars series and films and lots of Marvel series and films along with plenty of Disney, Pixar and other projects. Of note:
The timing of Jenkins being announced as the director of an upcoming Star Wars movie is coincidental to that of the WW84 HBO Max news. The former has likely been in the works for a long time while the latter just broke a week ago, so I’m not reading too much into that.
20th Century Studios and Searchlight Pictures, the remnants of 20th Century Fox, are becoming producers of content for Hulu, which is kind of a sad fate for a once major movie studio.
Disney is doing what WB didn’t and clearly laying out tiers for feature film distribution. Tier One (Theatrical): MCU, including Black Widow, and Star Wars; Tier Two (Windowed): Raya and the Last Dragon etc will get the same Disney+ Premier Access Mulan did; Tier Three (Disney+): Live action remakes like Pinochio and others or legacy sequels like Sister Act 3.
What all of this means to my eye is that the battle lines for the second phase of the Streaming Wars have just been laid out.
Companies like Netflix and even Amazon Video have long felt that the key to expanding on existing success was the development or acquisition of some major blockbuster movie franchises all their own. Netflix might have something brewing if the Russo Bros. can build on the success of Extraction, which they said they have plans to. Recent hits like The Old Guard and Enola Holmes could also easily be turned into ongoing series if the creators are on board. And Amazon might be hoping it can do something with Without Remorse, which it acquired from Paramount.
Warner Bros. could do that with their own properties on HBO Max, but how it handled the recent news means they’re now working from a deficit in terms of goodwill among agents, directors and others.
Right now Disney is the only player actually executing on that strategy, counting on the impressive portfolio of brands and properties it manages to keep people coming back to Disney+ for spinoffs, sequels, prequels and other expansions.
If I were a betting man, I’d say that a year from now we’re having a very different conversation. Platforms have realigned, studios have altered their strategies and at least one studio has been purchased by a tech company, probably either Apple or Alibaba.
Whatever happens, this last week has been a very, very interesting two months.
All the world is waiting for you, in the comfort of their own home.
Wonder Woman 1984, which is the last studio blockbuster standing on the theatrical release calendar, retains that status but now comes with a significant caveat: It will also be available day-and-date, December 25th, on Warner Bros.’ HBO Max streaming service.
That news came just a couple days ago, and not a moment too soon. Earlier this month there were reports Warner Bros. was considering a significantly tightened window of just two weeks between the movie coming to theaters and then to streaming. Indeed, as time ticked by that 12/25 release date seemed increasingly in doubt, given campaigns for major movies like this generally begin in earnest six weeks or so out.
In a significant shift in tone since the beginning of pandemic-related changes in studio release plans, when theater owners and NATO put out statements sounding like Luigi and Dino visiting the Army base, the CEO of AMC Theaters commented by saying it’s all good, and that this is the best solution for everyone. At the same time, Universal Pictures has signed deals with both Cinemark and Cineplex theater chains allowing the studio to shorten the theater-to-home video timeline to just over two weeks.
That change in rhetoric is welcome, especially since Warner Bros., like many other studios over the last eight months, is making not only the best choice but really the only choice when it comes to the movies it’s holding on to.
First, it’s a sign the studio is reading the broader societal landscape as it exists at the moment. The Covid-19 pandemic is, at the moment, essentially out of control in the U.S. and while a vaccine may indeed be on the way, the soonest it will be widely available enough to have a measurable impact on the population is likely the summer or fall of 2021.
Along the same lines, it’s a hedge against the last month of 2020 being even worse in terms of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. While the CDC, as well as many governors and mayors across the country, has (finally) formally stated people should not travel or gather for Thanksgiving there are going to be plenty who ignore such recommendations and warnings. If/when that happens, cases – including deaths – will be spiking (again) just a couple weeks before Christmas Day. That may well lead to another round of stay-at-home orders and business closures even more restrictive than those put in place in recent days.
Third, it’s an acknowledgement by all parties – WB and exhibitors – that there’s no further financial relief for theaters or any other party coming from the federal government. Not only are Republican officials not taking any steps to meet with House Leader Nancy Pelosi, but Treasury Secretary and Man Who Constantly Looks Like He’s Waiting to Get Back To Kicking Orphans Steven Mnuchin recently announced he is ending several stimulus programs, the impacts of which will likely be felt well into the Biden Administration.
Outside of all that, it does seem that this may finally be the crack that brings the entire dam down. As Peter Kafka said, the pandemic has provided the impetus for the movie industry to fully come into the present and make some substantive changes. The kinds of deals exhibitors are making were first floated a decade ago but roundly rejected at the time. Meanwhile, studios have spent that time building up their own brands and distribution infrastructures, all of which is being brought to bear right now. Those deals, then, are the best chance exhibitors have for survival.
This has been such a wild week in the distribution and exhibition industries that, as big as the Wonder Woman 1984 news is, it’s not by any means the only big beats in this space. Paramount announced it had finally officially soldComing 2 America to Amazon, which scheduled it for early next year, and there’s rumors Disney could shuffle some of its upcoming live-action remakes of Cruella, Peter Pan and others to Disney+ as it seeks to clear the shelves while playing catch-up when theaters are fully reopened.
It’s great that Warner Bros. will continue to support theaters with the WW84 release, but making it available via streaming is also an acknowledgement of the current realities. There really wasn’t any other option available, at least not one that was feasible long-term.
Here’s how Jason Lynch opens his Adweek article on where CBS is in its attempts to sell commercial time during next year’s Super Bowl:
As the NFL regular season nears its halfway point, the clock is ticking for marketers to decide whether they want to be a part of Super Bowl LV, which is scheduled to air Feb. 7 on CBS.
The clock is indeed ticking. Surely some movie studios are considering whether or not to participate and air spots for their upcoming films during the broadcast. But with the Hollywood release calendar constantly in flux – including Disney’s recent removal of Free Guy and Death on the Nile from this December – and coronavirus cases hitting new highs every day, it’s nearly impossible to even guess what movies might make the cut. Heck, it’s even legitimate to ask if the game itself will happen as scheduled.
Of course that won’t stop me from engaging in a little largely unfounded speculation, broken down by studio below.
Disney et al
The King’s Man: This one has been moved around quite a bit by the studio so far, originally scheduled for November, 2019 but is now planned for February 15, 2021. If, at the end of January, that date is still locked then Disney may hope to get a bit of last-minute awareness and attention with a commercial during the game.
Raya and the Last Dragon: The game being a month out from Raya’s current release date means a spot would be hitting right as the marketing campaign was ramping up in earnest.
Black Widow: Of all of Disney’s releases in the first half of 2021 this one seems the most likely, assuming that the current 5/7/21 date holds. The game would provide a big platform for Marvel Studios to essentially relaunch the MCU, which has now been on hold since the middle of 2019.
Cruella: Disney has only stumbled once or twice with its live action remakes/adaptations in recent years, and it’s probably hoping the charm of Emma Stone in the title role makes this one a success. Those titles seem to appeal to all age groups and a Super Bowl spot would reach a broad range of demographics.
Tomb Raider 2: The first movie wasn’t a massive blockbuster, but Paramount is in desperate need of a franchise so it was good enough to warrant a sequel. Some of the first advertising for the original happened in the 2018 NFL playoffs, so the studio might hope to tap into the audience one more time.
A Quiet Place 2: Similarly, the 2018 Super Bowl was the launching pad for TV advertising for the original movie, spots that instantly generated massive amounts of buzz for what everyone agreed looked like an intriguing concept and story.
Tom and Jerry: Even if movie theaters are still closed, it’s at least a somewhat safe bet WB keeps this on its 3/5/21 date, meaning Super Bowl spots could run that promote a Scoob!-like PVOD release.
Godzilla vs King Kong: This movie has been sporadically promoted since it was announced in late 2015, with several delays happening even before the pandemic. Assuming it’s actually happening, a commercial here would come three months before release, which isn’t unheard of for bigger titles.
In The Heights: Advertising a musical in the highest profile sporting event of the year might seem odd, but WB might hope that audiences are as enamored by musicals – especially those with a connection with Lin-Manuel Miranda – to give it a shot.
Morbius: This is just a reminder that Morbius is a movie that’s actually happening, so unless Sony decides to dump it somewhere it will likely want to promote it.
No Time To Die: This is the rare instance where the constant pushing of release dates may actually be advantageous, providing an opportunity to put commercials for it in front of a sizable audience.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife: As above, moving this to June means Sony could give this release a big platform. Such a platform might help it reach an audience that needs to be convinced to come back to the Ghostbusters franchise after the disappointing results of 2016’s Paul Feig-directed installment.
F9: If the movie is still coming out in June, it will get a Super Bowl spot. End of story. It’s not even a question.
Without Remorse: The streaming companies have for years been talking about how they want and need an blockbuster action franchise of their own but so far that’s eluded them. After grabbing this from Paramount, Amazon could want to make a huge deal about a high-profile release with a big-name star debuting on Prime Video with a commercial during the game.
Still…That’s a Lot of Money
CBS is charging $5.5 million for a 30-second spot, according to Lynch. While the studios might not have to pay that full amount, advertising during the Super Bowl would still be a big and expensive bet to make.
To make that bet worth it, the theatrical picture would have to not only be more secure it would almost have to be a mortal lock. And considering they would be making that bet at least a month or so out from release it becomes even more uncertain. Even if a vaccine is available by February, its distribution won’t be anywhere near universal, meaning there could still be closures and other restrictions in place.
A more complete picture of what studios are placing that bet and what movies they’re choosing to advertise will hopefully be more clear in the coming months.
In the first few weeks of Hollywood’s grand experiment of circumstance, where studios take movies previously bound for theaters and release them on other platforms, there was the realization that the reporting of box-office results was going to be put on pause. Studios have, for many and various reasons, never really shared VOD numbers. And the streaming services have similarly never been forthright and transparent with their viewership information.
Because releasing that data had never been a regular feature prior to the pandemic, it wasn’t surprising it wasn’t shared in the initial months. But now it’s been several months, long enough for things to have shifted from “highly unusual” to “still not ideal but hardly the exception to the rule” and those results are still not consistently forthcoming.
Which is not to say that some numbers haven’t trickled out here and there.
As reported by Pamela McClintock at The Hollywood Reporter, Universal made a big deal of reporting numbers from its initial experiment with releasing Trolls World Tour via PVOD. Recently Netflix released another of its occasional snapshots of what’s become popular there, including recent features like Enola Holmes, Project Power and more. But because those numbers aren’t subject to any sort of third-party verification and can’t be compared to anything else, it’s nearly impossible to determine what exactly they mean.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the viewership data from Netflix – and Amazon Studios, which recently claimed massive numbers for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – are the rough equivalent of those that would come from Comscore and other sources for theatrical box office results. The question then becomes this:
If the movies are so popular, why is something like The Old Guard such a small part of the cultural conversation?
After all, if tens of millions of people have actually watched Enola Holmes, then where are the tens of thousands of GIFs being shared on Twitter? Where are the bushel loads of think-pieces? Where, in short, is the buzz that should accompany a success of that magnitude?
The answer, it seems, is in how drastically the marketing for these movies differs from those that traditionally would receive theatrical release.
First let’s look at some numbers.
According to Netflix’s statement, Enola Holmes was watched by 76 million households in its first four weeks. While we don’t know exactly what “watched” means (it could mean 10 minutes, it could mean 90 seconds, it could be the whole film), we can view it in the context of Pew’s research stating the average U.S. household consists of 2.58 people.
From there let’s be conservative and say half of those 76 million households watched the entire movie. That’s 38 million households.
Now, in order to try to create an equivalency between that and the kind of reporting we would get from a theatrical release, we take that 38 million and multiply it by 2.58 to get a little over 98 million. That 98 million, then, is the approximate number of movie tickets that would have to have been sold for the movie to perform that well if it were released in theaters.
To put that in context, Avengers: Endgame sold 94.2 million tickets in 2019, making it the highest grossing film of that year. Enola Holmes, then, would have outperformed every other movie of last year, including Frozen II, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and others.
A very different marketing pitch
Some have dismissed Netflix’s numbers – and with good reason because of the lack of transparency – because of just that kind of apples-to-apples comparison, as well as because there aren’t the same tectonic cultural shifts that accompany those major theatrical releases.
Allowances have to be made, though, for the substantial differences in how these movies are consumed. That list includes:
The ease of streaming something versus actually going to a theater
The lack of incremental cost for streaming each title
The lack of additional cost for each individual watching the movie
Here’s where we get into the differences in the marketing campaigns for a major theatrical release like Avengers: Endgame compared to a major Netflix release like Project Power.
Marvel Studios had to convince you that one weekend – opening weekend – was the optimal time to see the movie, lest you miss out on a major cultural moment and have the experience ruined by loose-lipped strangers online or in person. To do that it sold the film as the biggest of events, one that had to be experienced in theaters, with lots of movie stars and familiar characters. It had to be worth $10-20 per person, not including concessions, dinner, gas and time spent traveling to and from the theater.
Netflix, in contrast, just had to convince you the movie looked interesting enough to turn on when you were able. It didn’t even have to be in one sitting, and you didn’t even have to be solely paying attention to it. You just had to be sufficiently motivated by the trailer or any of the number of in-app promos it placed for the film.
That’s a much lower hurdle to clear, one that makes me inclined to more or less believe the viewing numbers it releases, especially after doing the math outlined above.
While I’ve never been a huge fan of box-office horse races (like anything else, numbers can be made to mean whatever you want them to), it would be great if Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ and other streamers started putting out verified, legitimate numbers. Likewise, studios could benefit from providing 1-to-1 reporting on VOD. But it seems like we’re going in the other direction, with studios becoming less transparent in their results, not more.
In the meantime, we would all do well to keep what numbers are available in the context of the platforms they come from and adjust accordingly.
Political ads will prop up a market with few movies coming to theaters.
Last week a report was released predicting the U.S. advertising market, in free fall since much of the economy shut down in March and April, should wind up relatively stable for 2020, buoyed in large part by heavy spending from various political campaigns. While still down from its 2019 level, the report forecasts that decline only being around two percent.
That’s not too bad but assumes that more local and state economies will continue to reopen from their pandemic-related closures and that another Covid-19 wave – potentially in conjunction with flu season – won’t cause further restrictions. The report doesn’t go into detail, but it’s safe to assume 60+ percent of that will go to the duopoly of Facebook and Google, with Amazon getting a share of that as well while media companies continue to fall by the wayside.
Among the businesses reopening as states and cities loosen their guidelines for operation are, of course, movie theaters, who have been counting on such easing along with a slate of high-profile releases from Hollywood to bring people back. For months theater owners and other interested parties have been counting down the days until Tenet, Mulan and other titles finally came out.
But Mulan was shifted to Disney+, where it reportedly was viewed by 29 percent of U.S. subscribers to that service during its first weekend. Given the “Premier Access” fee of $30 attached to the movie, that comes out to roughly $260 million. And Tenet’s domestic performance has been very weak, though it’s done pretty well overseas. And it needs to be noted that many of these numbers are estimates given studios are under no obligation to share VOD revenue and WB is holding back official box office reporting.
Since then, Wonder Woman 1984 has moved from October to December and there’s rumors Black Widow may also be delayed while Soul could follow Hamilton! and other recent movies to go straight to Disney+. Theatrical releases are, in the last few months of the year, a risky bet to make, one that studios aren’t willing to make on expensive productions that require the economics of theaters to turn a profit.
Given that’s the majority of what studios are producing these days, that means theaters are now in the position of being open for business but unsure of what movies are going to be available to put on screens for the next several months. It seems like every media outlet has now run a variation on the “The TenetExperimentFailed and The Fate of Fall is Unknown” story in the last week.
There have also been additional comments from others like the CEO of IMAX, who dismisses the PVOD “experiment” Hollywood has engaged in as “failed.”
While the economics of all this are still largely up in the air and open for interpretation, the repeated delays for some movies like WW84 and others that studios seem insistent on bringing to theaters at some point are causing massive audience confusion. That’s in large part because the advertising and marketing keeps shifting and changing, in some cases multiple times. In the case of WW84, branded products from promotional partner companies have hit store shelves with dates that quickly turned out to be inaccurate. Ads have been placed – including some on DC comics – with revised released dates that also were incorrect even before people retrieved them from their pull list boxes.
So audiences don’t have any idea when the movies they might be interested in are coming out because release dates keep changing. Such changes used to be relatively uncommon and only happened for major titles, often months in advance. Now they’re happening with almost every title save for those always intended for streaming and sometimes are announced just weeks before a target date.
Setting an accurate release date and sticking with it requires studios to select one of two options. They can either:
Set a streaming/PVOD release, deciding that getting some revenue from subscriptions/downloads is better than holding the film back and earning nothing, even if that revenue is less than what it was anticipating from a theatrical release
Maintaining a theatrical release date and counting on a combination of 1) health realities being such that theaters and other businesses are still fully open, 2) audience willingness to venture out to mass gatherings, and 3) the movie being attractive enough to a critical mass of people.
Neither, of course, is ideal and is definitely not a sure thing. While Covid-19 cases in the U.S. are falling (despite inaction and misinformation from the Federal government), there’s no guarantee that trend will continue as the weather in much of the country turns colder. Cases have begun rising in many states, which may lead governors and health officials to impose additional restrictions. That could lead to a chain reaction where such orders lead to theaters having to close or further restrict attendance levels, which in turn leads studios to rethink theatrical release dates for major movies, which means fewer options for the theaters that still open.
On top of the coronavirus, the western part of the U.S. is basically one massive wildfire, disrupting life there and causing many to evacuate or make substantive changes to how or when they venture outside due to unhealthy air quality. On the other side of the country, the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard keeps getting hammered by a string of hurricanes that similarly upend normal life and cause property damage or loss.
So who, then, is able to go to the movies either because of time or financial reasons?
If people don’t know when a movie is going to come out, how they’ll be able to afford tickets or how safe it will be to go to theaters, it’s unclear what exactly the core value proposition of a traditional movie marketing campaign is, exactly.
Those who question studios’ commitment to theatrical release models would do well to consider those points. Streaming’s lower price point makes the per-view cost almost zero, and even pricey PVOD titles eliminate the health and time points from the decision matrix. That makes running a marketing campaign a lot easier because, quite simply, there are fewer variables to balance and fewer potential potholes to avoid in running that campaign.
How Disney is selling its delayed live-action adaptation of an animated favorite.
Like many movies of late, Disney’s Mulan should have come out much earlier this year were it not for the Covid-19-related theater closures. Now the movie, the latest in the studio’s series of live-action remakes of its animated catalog and the first one to receive a PG-13 rating, is finally coming not to theaters but to Disney+, albeit with a twist.
The story of the film is similar to that of the 1998 movie as well as the Chinese ballad it’s based on. Yifei Liu stars as Mulan, a young woman living with her family in a small village. When the emperor issues a decree that all households must send a son to join the army in order to defend against an invading force. With no brothers, Mulan disguises herself as a man so that her aging father doesn’t have to sign up himself. That begins an epic adventure for Mulan, one that requires her to be more than she ever believed she could be.
Back in March, when its release was originally scheduled, tracking estimated an $85 million plus opening weekend. Now, many months later, it’s about to debut on Disney+, but not as part of the normal streaming subscription plan. Instead a new “Premier Access” tier has been introduced that requires an additional $30 payment. That roughly mirrors the PVOD model established by other studios during the pandemic, but with the addition that subscribers are essentially purchasing early access, which they retain as long as they don’t cancel their Disney+ account. Those subscribers who choose not to will get access to the movie at no additional charge in December.
First reactions to the film, directed by Niki Caro, have been very positive, especially for the performances from Liu as well as costars Donnie Yen and others. Those reviews have earned it an 81 percent “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, so let’s look at how the film has been marketed, including the big shift a month or so ago.
Mulan holds her sword up in front of her face on the first teaser poster from July. While the main photo shows her in her civilian clothes, the image that appears in the reflection of the sword is that of her in full battle armor, showing the warrior that lies within her waiting to be set free.
On the second poster (by marketing agency Art Machine) released in December, Mulan is put in an action pose, leaping through the battle raging around her while looking confident and deadly.
A series of character posters (by marketing agency Ignition) came out in late January, all of which feature Mulan reflected in the sword or other weapon, continuing the theme of reflection and forming your identity based on who you could become.
As it did for many other upcoming releases, Disney put out a poster tied to the Chinese New Year and designed in the style of a Chinese tapestry.
The RealD 3D poster also takes an artistic approach, showing Mulan in the middle of her training with foggy Chinese hilltops in the background. The same shot of Mulan in the middle of a battle seen elsewhere is used on the IMAX poster. The “Reflection” idea comes back on the Dolby Cinemas poster, which has Mulan in full battle regalia on top while she’s in her standard village garb in the reflection of the lake she’s standing alongside. She stands triumphantly on the battlefield on the ScreenX poster and is guiding her horse into battle on the one-sheet for 4DX showings. All those came out earlier this year when it was still believed the movie would come to theaters.
In August a new poster came out specifically for Disney+ showing Mulan walking up what look like temple or fortress stairs, the shadow of a massive dragon also visible next to. Another has a thin, paper-like dragon form coming out from the background as Mulan holds her sword. Just earlier this week one more poster was released that shows Mulan riding her horse into battle, an image that mimics one of the posters used for the 1998 version’s theatrical release. That batch of posters included reworkings of some of the earlier one-sheets but with new dates and the Disney+ messaging instead of “in theaters.”
The teaser trailer (29.2 million views on YouTube) released in July has Mulan being told a husband has been arranged for her, a situation she seems resigned to but not happy with. We’re then shown images of her practicing moves more martial than marital. She puts those skills to use on the battlefield as she fights with an army and on her own to defend against invaders threatening her country.
Mulan’s job is to bring honor to her family she’s told by her father as the second trailer (18.3 million views on YouTube), released in early December, opens. When an invading army threatens her homeland, Mulan steps up to take her father’s place in the battle to fend them off. Hiding her identity means holding back her true potential, though, and only when she unleashes that can she fight the way she was meant to.
The final trailer (4 million views on YouTube), released in early February, mostly sticks to what’s been seen before, but adds some details on the struggle Mulan’s family faces as she goes to war and more.
Online and Social
Disney’s website for the film (likely a holdover from when it was intended for theaters as it hasn’t created sites for other Disney+ releases) has the standard marketing materials along with family activities like movie-themed snack recipes and a PDF activity packet to download.
Advertising and Publicity
Liu landed in some controversy in August of 2019 when, in the midst of months-long pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong she made comments in support of the region’s police force, the same group that had been cracking down on those protesters. That lead to the grassroots “#BoycottMulan” campaign among Hong Kong residents and others.
Things only got worse, with Disney finding itself in an untenable position – support democracy or the massive Chinese market the studio depends on – as the problems around the protests grew. The controversy lead Liu to skip a planned appearance at the D23 event in August.
TV advertising began in early January with a commercial that recaps the story in condensed form, showing Mulan stepping in to fight in her father’s place and bring honor to her family. Another extended spot came out a bit later that takes a similar approach, only with more footage. It was also among the movies with a commercial airing during the Super Bowl broadcast, but it didn’t offer much in the way of new footage or story elements.
Costar Utkarsh Ambudkar was among those presenting at the recent Oscars ceremony.
An additional wave of TV commercials began in late February with spots that highlighted the secret training Mulan is doing, her power as a warrior and defender of her people, how her gracefulness is part of who she is and more.
How the stunts were choreographed and filmed was covered in a featurette released at the end of February that showed the training Liu underwent to take on the title role and how it all goes into telling the story. A second featurette focused more on the story and how it and the characters represent important elements of Chinese culture.
The movie’s Los Angeles premiere went off as planned, but many of those involved addressed the reality of releasing a movie amid the expanding Covid-19 outbreak, something that first led to the news Disney was scaling back the European premiere.
It wasn’t long after that, though, that the film was delayed, first indefinitely than to July and then to mid-August. In July Disney pulled it from the theatrical release calendar entirely before announcing the new Disney+ plan in August. The decision was understandable given the unpredictable nature of the world around us, but it was still met with disapproval from exhibitors, who felt it was a disrespectful sign of things to come, taking away one of the key titles they were counting on to bring people back to theaters.
It was a few weeks after that a new phase of the publicity campaign began, starting with a spot that focused less on the “honor” elements shown off before and more on the action, including a specific call out that the movie would be available exclusively to “Disney+ subscribers with Premier Access,” the first time that had been specifically noted. Additional spots clarified that even further, saying the movie would be available to “Disney+ subscribers who unlock Premier Access.”
A short featurette from mid-August had Caro talking about the incredible cast she assembled and the physical workout they all got and how massive the scale of the story is. Another featurette included Caro talking about the continued relevance of the story and the effort put into casting just the right actress for the title role, with Liu adding her connection with the character as well.
Online ads using the key art of Mulan holding her sword began appearing in mid- to late-August, including the “Premier Access” language and linking to a Disney+ signup page. Similar promotions were run within Disney+ itself, encouraging current subscribers. Those promos added the caveat that Premier Access gave them early access to the film, before it was available to all subscribers, indicating a windowing strategy for the movie within the service itself.
The #GoldOpen organization/movement that has worked to rally support for films with Asian leads announced in late August it was putting its weight behind this movie, including hosting virtual viewing parties and providing discussion and other resources people could reference and use.
Additional featurettes focused on the stunt work, especially as it relates to the invading army of the general played by Jason Scott Lee, another conversation with Caro on bringing the story to life and her respect for the culture depicted, the look of the costumes each character wears,
A handful of athletes of all kinds appear in this video sharing how they embody Mulan’s attributes of being loyal, brave and true to excel in their sports and overcome adversity.
Beginning earlier this week Disney has released a number of promotional videos encouraging people to purchase/stream the movie. Some like this featured Aguilera’s “Reflection” prominently while showing the journey Mulan embarks on.
The first clip shows Mulan using her incredible skills to take on the warriors of the invading army while the second clip shows the training camp Mulan is part of and the kind of drills they engage in.
Media and Press
An extended feature on the production of the movie covered everything from Liu’s social media misstep to this being Disney’s most expensive live action remake to date to how the Covid-19 outbreak in China has impacted release strategies.
Aguilera appeared on “Kimmel” in March to perform her song from the soundtrack. Just recently she performed “Reflection” on Good Morning, America.
The press campaign took a breather along with everything else until a few weeks ago, when it ramped back up leading to release. That included interviews with the movie’s producer and cinematographer as well as Caro and others discussing the various delays and uncertainty along with the unusual distribution plan put in place. Brief biographies of the main cast were offered here for audiences who may not be familiar with many of them.
A number of news outlets have published comparisons between this movie and the 1998 animated version, especially about the absence of Mushu, the dragon sidekick from the first film.
This is, as stated here, a big experiment, one we may not know the full results of because Disney and other studios aren’t consistent in how they report VOD numbers or when they do so.
There’s been some understandable criticism that Disney is giving the movie short shrift with this experiment, not allowing a movie directed by a woman and featuring a predominantly Chinese cast – both things that are largely missing in the domestic theatrical market – the biggest platform available. Some of that is justified, but the reality is that this *is* the biggest platform available at the moment. At least it was when this plan was announced, a time when theaters might reopen and to what extent was still largely unknown.
Whatever those conversations and realities might be, it still comes down (at least here) to how effective the marketing campaign has been at selling the movie.
From that perspective, it’s a strong effort from Disney, one that remains laser-focused on a handful of themes, reinforcing them time and again across platforms to create a clear and recognizable brand identity for the movie. Those themes are largely pulled from the “loyal, brave, true” character attributes ascribed to Mulan herself as well as “reflection,” which is seen throughout the campaign.
The single misstep made involves the messaging around the Disney+ release. As stated before, it was surprising when new spots and ads weren’t immediately available when the new plans were announced in order to benefit from the coverage of those changed plans. And the messaging itself has evolved, with details coming out over the last month. That they were missing for some time, though, means there was a period of confusion or uncertainty around what Disney had in store.
Picking Up The Spare
Lots more coverage of the #BoycottMulan movement, which has gained steam amid the increased attention of release. There was even mention of it on the U.S. Senate floor. That criticism may have contributed to a media blackout in China that could harm the movie’s prospects there. The controversy was rounded up here.
The cast and filmmakers were interviewed about getting ready for such a massive production.
Dolby released a new featurette with Caro and others offering behind the scenes looks at the making of the film.