2020’s Nine Most Intriguing Movie Campaigns

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.

Mank

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.

Mulan

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.

Yifei Liu GIF by Walt Disney Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Assistant

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.

Birds of Prey

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.

Harley Quinn Smile GIF by Birds Of Prey - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Invisible Man

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.

Universal GIF by The Invisible Man - Find & Share on GIPHY

Trolls World Tour/Scoob!

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.

Zac Efron Animation GIF by SCOOB! - Find & Share on GIPHY

The New Mutants

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.

Angry X-Men GIF by 20th Century Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

Tenet

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.

Coming Robert Pattinson GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Happiest Season

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.

Christmas GIF by HULU - Find & Share on GIPHY

HONORABLE MENTION – Emma

Just for this GIF.

Quick Takes on Disney, Warner Bros. and More Recent Movie News

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.

Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max Isn’t Just the Best Choice, It Was The Only Choice

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 sold Coming 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.

With Movies Paused, Super Bowl Ads In Question

Big Game, But What Movies Will Be Advertised?

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.

Paramount

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.

Warner Bros.

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.

Sony

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.

Universal Pictures

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.

Amazon Studios

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.

Comparing Box-Office, Streaming and Other Movie Reporting

How much longer do we have to wait?

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcMBFSGVi1c&feature=youtu.be Avengers Endgame (screen grab) CR: Marvel Studios

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.

Advertising Is Rebounding Just In Time For Theaters To Reopen For No Reason

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 Tenet Experiment Failed 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.

The question also remains how many people are even able to head out to theaters right now or for the foreseeable future. On top of massive sustained unemployment numbers, “essential” workers who may be dealing with reduced hours or the need to change their schedule to accommodate remote learning for their kids anticipate earning have also had the “hazard pay” employers offered for a while cut completely. Even those who can work full-time from home likely don’t have the freedom they once did if they have young kids who need help with online classes and other issues. Gig workers and freelancers are largely uncertain of their future. Overall income has fallen after brief upward movement.

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.

Mulan – Marketing Recap

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.

The Posters

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 Trailers

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.

Disney offered a “special look” in early March that featured the song “Loyal Brave True” from Christina Aguilera. The full video for that song came out in mid-August followed by a video for Aguilera’s “Reflection” along with a featurette on the making of that video.

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.

Overall

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.

The New Mutants – Marketing Recap

How Disney is selling the much-delayed mutant thriller.

Of all the movies to become the first major studio release to hit theaters since mid-March, The New Mutants seems the most unlikely, for a number of reasons.

First, there is of course the fact that so many others – including titles like Mulan and Tenet that have been held up as saviors of the theatrical industry – have been delayed anywhere from a few months to a year to indefinitely.

Second, The New Mutants itself has a long history of having its release delayed. Fox, prior to its acquisition by Disney, originally slated the film for August 2018, it’s also been on the calendar for early 2019, late 2019 and, finally, March of this year. Some of those delays were efforts to avoid other releases like Deadpool 2, some reportedly to allow writer/director Josh Boone to reshoot portions of the film to make it more like his original horror-centric vision instead of the YA story the studio requested.

When the Covid-19 pandemic closed theaters in March, right as the film was about to open, it seemed the movie’s fate was sealed and that Disney would finally punt it to Hulu (a move that had long been speculated on) or PVOD.

But no, that was not to be, as The New Mutants was moved to August, meaning it’s about to hit theaters amid a wave of questions about whether going to the theater, even with the protocols put in place by NATO, is a safe activity to participate in.

With the main X-Men film series now complete and the fate of Deadpool up in the air, The New Mutants is now the sole mutant-based film franchise at Disney. This isn’t the first time the characters have been in that situation, since their 1982 Marvel Comics debut was a spinoff from the successful X-Men comics, an attempt to introduce younger characters to the series.

In this case, the characters and premise are slightly different than what appeared in the comics. Maisie Williams plays Rahne Sinclair, a young woman who wakes up in a strange hospital with no memory of how she got there. Mysterious and unexplained things keep happening as she meets some of the other patients/inmates, including Illyana Rasputin (Anna Taylor-Joy), Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) and Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), each of which has special powers just like Rahne. They slowly come to understand they’re being studied, not helped, and seek to unlock the secrets of the institution and free themselves from it.

It shouldn’t be surprising, given everything laid out above, that the marketing campaign has zigged and zagged over the years, starting and stopping and shifting tone with some frequency. At times it’s been sold as a straightforward horror film, with the characters’ super hero identities conspicuously missing. More recently, it’s those super powers have come more to the forefront, though the thriller aspects of the story have still been prominently featured.

The movie was tracking for an opening weekend of $15-25 million tracking, the lowest in the X-Men franchise, but that was in advance of the March release date, and no updated estimates have been made because so much is in flux. Likewise, there are no reviews to date on the film.

The Posters

The first poster (by marketing agency Ignition) came out a lifetime ago, in December, 2017. It takes an image from the trailer, specifically a photo of various faces trying to poke through an unexpectedly flexible wall, and makes it the central focus. This would be part of the horror-centric angle that was initially presented to audiences in the early days of the campaign.

Over two years passed before the next poster was released. In this case, 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 January of this year.

Later that month another poster was released that began to more clearly display the characters. This time they’re all shown standing together, but with the movie’s title scratched across the picture, revealing the skulls of each character in a slightly creepy way. Another poster from February has them all huddled in a dark and scary hallway, their eyes all lit up, conveying both the eerie setting and they are all slightly unusual in their own ways.

An IMAX-specific poster has the nascent team standing outside the institution they’re being kept in, with Magick (Illyana) at the front with her sword at the ready. For Dolby Cinemas, they’re arranged like fingers in a bloody handprint on a concrete wall. The Cinemark XD poster arranges their faces in a darkly contrasted photo that’s reminiscent of a teen drama from the 1980s. Finally, the Fandango one-sheet, released about two weeks prior to the movie hitting theaters, takes the concepts back to something more simple, showing all the main characters standing in what’s clearly some sort of cell, with the shadow of wire grates appearing on their faces and the wall behind them.

The Trailers

It’s hard to overstate how odd the first trailer (12 million views on YouTube) from October, 2017, is. There are no character introductions, no sense of what the story might be or anything else. Just a slowed down version of “Another Brick In The Wall Part 2” sung by a children’s choir and footage that sells it as a horror movie. There are even standard horror cliches like strange-colored IV bags, faces that try to protrude from walls and more. It mentions mutants a couple times, but other than that this isn’t notable at all and could easily be selling any of a dozen generic horror films featuring a young cast that are released every year.

In early January of 2020, over two years after that initial spot, the second official trailer (8.2 million views on YouTube) was released as Disney finally gave the movie a locked-in release date. It starts out by showing Dani is the audience’s entry point into the story, having been sent to a mysterious facility after surviving a tragedy that killed the rest of her family. She’s there with other mutants like her, most of whom we meet during a group therapy session. The hospital isn’t what it appears to be, though, and seems to be more interested in torture than healing.

Where the first trailer seemed to be selling the movie as something like The Ring, this is more of a traditional super hero movie, albeit with an apparent focus on psychological torture being conducted on adolescent mutants. That’s a stronger message and allows the trailer to present a more coherent and intriguing story to the audience. But, strangely, it was the last full trailer released.

Online and Social

Very odd that the official site for the movie is so stark and bare, featuring only the most basic of information about the film. It’s not like there hasn’t been time to work on it, but there are no character introductions or anything else to be found here.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

It was surprising, given the ups and downs the movie has experienced, when it was among those Disney showed off to exhibitors and press at CinemaCon 2019, two years after it was first included by Fox at the show in 2017. The studio maintained it would be getting a theatrical release – dispelling rumors it was being shunted to Hulu or another streaming service – and was still on track to hit theaters this year.

Things went quiet for a good long while then until March of this year, about a month before the planned April release date. At that point a TV campaign began that included spots focusing on Dani’s story as she’s taken to the mysterious facility and slowly learns the truth of what’s happening to her and the others, as well as how dangerous mutants are and how they need to work together to escape and survive.

That last spot in particular seemed to mark a new approach to the campaign, one that leaned more fully into the idea of super heroes instead of just positioning the movie as a horror film with gifted individuals.

A roundtable with the cast was released on The CW, an attempt to reach that network’s young audience.

Just as things seemed to finally be rolling, another delay – this time because of Covid-19 related theater closures and disruptions – happened, putting the movie’s future once more in doubt. In May a new August release date was announced, but that date was taken as aspirational more than anything else, and our collective breath was not being held. Still, a new phase of the campaign kicked off shortly after that.

In June released one of their “101” videos that gave viewers an overview of the team’s history and members in comics.

A short teaser introducing the characters and some of their powers was released in early July, also announcing the cast and crew would participate in a remote panel as part of Comic-Con @ Home later in the month. That panel ended by showing off the movie’s opening sequence, which certainly sets a chaotic tone as we see Dani in the middle of some kind of attack that ends with her father’s death and her being taken to the institute.

In mid-August the advertising campaign picked back up with spots that showcased the mystery the characters find themselves in the middle of along with the powers each possesses. Further spots teased more of the action and then, 10 days out, began counting down to the movie hitting theaters.

A featurette hosted by the cast allowed them to introduce their characters and their powers along with the basic outline of the story, shown here to be a mix of psychological horror and super hero action. More detailed introduction videos went a bit in depth on Rahne, Roberto, Dani, Sam and the rest of the characters.

On Spotify, Disney has created a “Young and Powerful Playlist,” a collection of songs “inspired by” the movie and curated by both Boone and the cast.

Media and Publicity

There were certainly conversations about the movie before this but the first major press for the movie came when it was announced it was being pushed by several months to 2019. Shortly after that Boone talked about the tone of the movie and how it was going to push the boundaries of the PG-13 rating, as well as how the characters in the story were too messed up to associate with the more “normal” X-Men.

News broke in late 2017 that the movie’s release date was being pushed well past what it was originally scheduled for, with it later coming out that the delay was at least in part to do reshoots that would introduce a whole new character to the story. That initial delay, which moved it from 4/13/18 to 2/22/19, was followed by another one to 8/2/19, almost a year and a half after its original release date. That’s a *huge* shift and one that, a report later claimed, was due to nearly half the movie needing to be reworked to bring it in line with studio expectations.

Further insights into the delay said Fox was in part reacting to the success of It with a trailer that was very horror-oriented and the reshoots were designed to bring the movie more in line with that expectation, which was different than what was originally filmed. Interestingly, that gave Boone a chance to do what he originally wanted to, since he had to curb his horror-leaning instincts during the initial filming.

While promoting other projects the cast would occasionally talk about this movie as well. Heaton talked about playing Cannonball while on the press circuit for Marrowbone,

Producer Lauren Shuler Donner commented back in February on the movie’s frequent delays and uncertain future with the Fox/Disney merger, saying she hoped the movie still got a theatrical, not streaming, release. The question release date came up when Williams was out promoting the final season of “Game of Thrones,” with the actor saying reshoots had yet to happen – a year after they were reported to be in the works – and she had no idea when the film might finally come out.

Producer Simon Kinberg dismissed concerns over the reshoots and subsequent delays, saying it was all due to some simple “pick up shots” being needed while actor schedules were difficult to wrangle.

Unsurprisingly, the movie’s fate seemed to be even more in doubt following the severe underperformance of Dark Phoenix at the box office. Disney execs reportedly saw little potential in a theatrical release of the film, fueling renewed speculation it would be dumped to Hulu or killed outright.

With all the reports of reshoots – which were never confirmed to have happened – that had circulated, Boone stated in January that the movie slated for release represented his version of the story.

A new batch of photos and character descriptions were released in mid-February to familiarize audiences with who would be in the movie.

During the Emma media tour, Taylor-Joy spoke about this movie and how she’s handled the delays between production and release. A profile of Heaton included him talking about his hesitancy in joining the movie over concerns he would be typecast.

Boone confirmed the story would feature a full-out LGBTQ love story between two main characters in an interview, setting it apart from other franchise films that promote such elements but then wind up allocating it to blink-and-you-miss them situations and characters. At the time of the Comic-Con @ Home panel, Boone hinted that this could be just the first of a planned trilogy of films that ends with a massive crossover story pulled from a key X-Men comics event from the 80s. He also was interviewed about the long time between production and release and what factors might have influenced that, along with how the movie fits into his overall career.

Williams appeared to talk about this movie and more on “The Tonight Show.” She was interviewed again about the film finally being released and what got her involved in the project.

Overall

The shift in tone that the movie’s campaign has undergone isn’t completely surprising given it’s been spread out over almost three years. In that time there have been substantial changes not only in the structure of the studio behind the film, but also in the fate of the X-Men franchise this is part of and, of course, the world in general.

So much time has passed there’s a good chance that the false starts between the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2020 have fallen out of many people’s memories. For all intents and purposes, then, the campaign started fresh around April with the August release date in place.

Using that as the yardstick, this has been a relatively successful campaign, presenting an interesting mix of comic book action and psychological terror. Those themes are consistent through the posters, TV spots and other elements, putting Williams’ Rahne at the forefront but promising lots of other characters with unique powers and backstories to offer audiences.

That there’s no real connection to the X-Men cinematic series to date is obvious but it’s unclear how much that really matters since it’s not what’s being sold here. If the goal was, as has been reported at various points, to present something different along the lines of Deadpool or Logan, the marketing here achieved that goal.

The question then becomes whether the campaign was effective enough to convince people to come out of their homes at a time when public health officials are saying they really shouldn’t do so to see a movie that doesn’t flaunt its connections to a popular franchise and features all-new characters the audience doesn’t already know.

Those are high hurdles to clear, and without more recent tracking or other data it’s hard to tell if it did so. While there may be enough theaters open to support a release like this, there may not be enough people who have been convinced by this campaign to make it a success.

Picking Up The Spare

Two more character introduction videos came out after the movie was in theaters, on for Sam and one for Illyana

More stories about the movie’s backstory and history, including reports that Fox was massively unhappy with the first script from Boone and almost spiked the project entirely. Meanwhile, Bob McLeod, who created the characters for Marvel, took issue with not only how they appeared on screen – though he praised the actors – but also with the fact that Fox/Disney couldn’t even spell his name right in the credits. 

Boone took a potshot at Disney by claiming the gay love story in the film was much more substantial than the one barely seen in The Rise of Skywalker

Another clip/commercial came out that shows Illyana confronting something creepy happening in the hospital. Additional spots encouraged audiences to “find yourself” and more. IMAX also put out a promotional spot for the big screen format and released a brief exclusive interview with Boone.

The One and Only Ivan – Marketing Recap

How Disney is selling a sweet story that adds talking animals to a true story.

The One and Only Ivan, debuting on Disney+ after being shunted from theaters to the streaming platform earlier this year, is based on author K. A. Applegate’s young adult novel of the same name. In the story, a gorilla named Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) teams up with an elephant (voiced by Angela Jolie) and a dog (voiced by Danny DeVito) to figure out where they came from before winding up at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade under the care of Mack (Bryan Cranston).

Their journey to discover their past and leave the Big Top Mall is prompted by the arrival of a baby elephant (voiced by Brooklynn Prince), who has been abused in the past and who the others seek to protect. Together they plan an escape, but to what is unclear.

Disney’s campaign for the film has featured many of the earmarks of a full-fledged theatrical release, the byproduct of those original plans, while selling a generally positive and funny film for all ages.

The Posters

A caravan of animals is seen in silhouette against a paintbrush-hewn sunset sky on the poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts), released in early July. The names of the primary cast are shown against that same sky, with those two elements making up the primary selling points presented to the audience here along with the date of the streaming debut.

That same waterbrush style was used on a series of character posters that came out just last week in mid-August. On each one, a different animal looks out from the frame created by those painted lines, with the character and actor name featured at the top.

The Trailers

As the first trailer (1.3 million views on YouTube), released in July, begins, Ivan is a playful young gorilla playing with his family in the jungle. But then he’s brought to human civilization by Mack, who makes him the centerpiece of a circus. Ivan is asked to be fearsome but is really peaceful and nostalgic for the family he hasn’t seen for years. When everyone discovers Ivan’s more sensitive – and artistic – side, a journey begins to reunite him with his family.

Online and Social

It doesn’t look like Disney created any standalone sites or profiles for the movie, but it did give it decent promotion on its brand social channels.

Advertising and Promotions

Disney announced in mid-June that the movie was being pulled from the theatrical release and instead would debut on Disney+ a week after it was initially planned.

A special behind the scenes featurette came out in early August offering a bit of background on the characters and story.

About the same time a short commercial was released that cuts down the story to make it look fun and silly and heartwarming.

The first clip from the film came out earlier this month, showing Mack getting very excited over the potential of a gorilla who can draw.

Another clip shows the animals in mid-escape, but taking a moment to have a good laugh.

A later commercial continues to present the film as a lighthearted and fun romp involving some goofy talking animals.

The cast gets another opportunity to talk about their excitement about participating in the film in a featurette released this week.

Media and Press

Cranston appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie and the story that inspired it.

There were a few other appearances and interviews by Jolie and some of the rest of the cast, but the pre-release publicity cycle seems to have been relatively low-key.

Overall

There’s nothing wrong with the campaign, but it comes off a little…trite. That’s mostly because there seems to be something of a disconnect between the movie’s logline – which emphasizes how Ivan and his group of friends seems to be prompted by the arrival of a baby elephant to protect it – and the theme of the campaign, which presents a slightly silly story about goofy animals who talk to each other.

That could create some confusion in the audience when reviews start hitting and when people are able to view it themselves. But honestly the odds are likely low that what’s presented as lighthearted fun gets into territory that’s seriously dark.

Picking Up The Spare

Another featurette focused on the translation of the book to the screen. 

The movie’s VFX team was interviewed about how they made the graphics production as seamless and efficient as possible. 

Ads have been running on YouTube like the one below driving people to Disney+. 

Charlie Puth put out a video for a song written by Diane Warren that’s featured in the movie. 

One more promo for the film now that it’s available for streaming by subscribers.

Disney Carves Out An Owned Future With Mulan

None of this is that surprising, tbh.

In response to the (largely indefinite) closure of movie theaters around the country because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, studios have generally taken one of three potential alternative paths:

  1. Punt: Just keep kicking the release date down the road, hoping that the situation improves by then and the movie can be sent to theaters.
    1. EX: Wonder Woman 1984, Tenet, Fast & Furious 9, Black Widow
  • PVOD: Accepting the reality that not everything can be held for a later date, some titles have been sent straight to VOD, with premium price points to make up for the loss of theatrical revenue.
    1. EX: Scoob!, The High Note, Bill and Ted Face The Music
  • Streaming: Whether it’s an owned platform like Disney+ or a third party like Amazon or Netflix, some titles have been handed off to streaming because the economics make more sense or it fills in some other part of an overall strategy.
    1. EX: Artemis Fowl, Without Remorse, Hamilton, The Lovebirds

With no end in sight for the Covid-19 outbreak it’s only logical studios would seek out some alternative release plan. They are in the production and release business and if they need to they will seek alternative distribution methods. That’s similar to how changes in the retail world as a whole has led to the rise in direct-to-consumer businesses and more.

Add to that the fact that so many of 2020’s planned movies have been delayed by several months – in some cases up to a year – that the 2021 release schedule is backed up all the way to the Tri-State interchange, limiting any studio’s options.

This Did Not Go Over Well

The reaction from theaters has been predictable, beginning with AMC Theaters’ promise to never play future films from Universal after it sent Trolls World Tour to PVOD in April. Most recently, those two parties announced a new deal wherein future films would have shorter theatrical-to-home windows. Smaller theater owners have also had time to express their displeasure while other large chains like Cinemark and Regal have offered their own skeptical takes.

While certainly unprecedented, the deal between Universal and AMC – which has reportedly been offered to other studios – doesn’t break many existing distribution norms in function, even if the details are largely new. The “home” release will still take advantage of the platform infrastructure developed and offered by established players like Apple, Amazon and others.

Still, exhibitors kept holding out hope that one or both of two titles – Tenet and Mulan – would provide the light at the end of the tunnel they needed, offering an attractive film that audiences would, however reluctantly, come back to theaters to see after months at home.

Alternate Futures

Those hopes faded a bit when Warner Bros. announced a unique release plan for Tenet that involved the movie coming out overseas in late August and then in whatever U.S. theaters are available over the Labor Day weekend in early September. That’s bad news for domestic audiences and exhibitors (but great news for Torrent software providers) who are essentially being pushed down the priority list and who may have one of the year’s most secretive plots spoiled for them.

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They diminished almost entirely last week when Disney revealed it was creating its own fourth option for the September 4th release of Mulan on Disney+. The release is notable for at least two reasons:

First, it mashes up a couple of the existing paths to create something wholly new. While many media companies have worked to create their own streaming platforms in the last year, those have largely been subscription services, and once you subscribed you had access to everything. Even tiered services like Peacock didn’t charge you extra for one specific title, you might just have to upgrade to the next membership level.

This works differently, essentially creating a PVOD service within the existing subscription framework. If you’re not a member, you don’t have access to the PVOD content, meaning the true cost of the rental is the $29.99 list price plus at least the $6.99 monthly fee. In other words, the cover charge you paid at the door doesn’t grant you entrance to the Champagne Room.

Existing platforms like iTunes, Amazon and others should be watching this as closely as theater owners have been over the last several months. If Disney – or any other company – can find some success in this way they no longer become the one-stop, producer-agnostic shop they’ve been to date.

Second, it creates a whole new marketing paradigm. The campaigns for movies like The Lovebirds, Scoob! and others have changed, often mid-stream, when their release futures were altered, with the call-to-action shifting from “In theaters on…” to “Watch it at home on…” Even still, the expected action on the part of the consumer was only a single one. Instead of “buy a ticket” it was “subscribe” or “download.”

Whenever Disney launches a new phase of Mulan’s campaign, it will have to communicate a two step process: 1) Subscribe to Disney+, then 2) Pay $29.99 for this single movie. That will be a little harder to get through audiences and could create a fair amount of customer confusion when the movie launches as people are caught unaware they have to make an additional payment to watch the movie.

What’s Next?

That the reoriented campaign for Mulan wasn’t ready at the same time the announcement was made is slightly surprising since Disney is masterful at coordinating initiatives to take advantage of a moment.

Warner Bros. not having a new phase of Tenet’s campaign is equally surprising, though a bit more understandable given how, at least for U.S. theaters, it’s still largely contingent on a best case scenario being available. It is, in other words, less concrete and so WB is likely holding its fire.

On top of those, there are still a number of high-profile titles that are supposedly coming to theaters later this year.

The New Mutants is, against all odds, still scheduled for late August.

Wonder Woman 1984 is still scheduled for late September, but at this point there’s almost no time to mount a campaign for the movie even if that date holds.

Black Widow and No Time To Die are still scheduled for early and mid-November, which is slightly more realistic but becomes less so with each passing day.

The campaigns for those last three have been paused for a number of months now, and would have to fight through the noise of the daily news cycle – a cycle that includes 1,000 or so Americans dying each day and a ramping up presidential election – to get people’s attention. That adds to the odds some alternative will be sought, as it may not be possible to get a critical mass of awareness that overlaps with the segment of the population willing to participate in mass entertainment without a Covid-19 vaccine, much less a cohesive testing and tracing strategy.

Which option is chosen will be determined by what each studio thinks it can manage as it seeks to make a wide range of stakeholders, each with competing priorities, happy with the proposal.