downton abbey: a new era – marketing recap

How Focus Features has sold a high society sequel.

Downton Abbey A New Era movie poster from Focus Features
Downton Abbey A New Era movie poster from Focus Features

Downton Abbey: A New Era is, of course, the sequel to the 2019 film and, like that first movie, continues the story begun over the course of six series.

Once again the focus is on the aristocratic Crawley family, with the action this time set in the late 1920s. The story is split into two parts: In one part of the family travels to the south of France to visit a villa that was recently left to Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith) by a man she knew there decades earlier. In the other, a Hollywood film crew has come to Downton to film a movie there. That production is not smooth but proceeds with the help of the home’s residents as well as the help staff.

Most of the main cast returns and once again series creator Julian Fellowes wrote the script with Simon Curtis stepping in to direct the movie. With all that in mind, let’s see how it’s been sold to the public.

announcement and casting

While it had been speculated on and about since 2019 when Julian Fellowes said he and others were already working on ideas for a sequel, it wasn’t until April 2021, when production was already underway, that Focus Features officially announced the movie. The principle cast all confirmed their return in the months before and after that.

Universal gave CinemaCon attendees in August of last year a look at footage from this and other upcoming movies. That was also where the studio revealed the movie’s subtitle.

the marketing campaign

A teaser released in November of last year didn’t do much other than to provide a few quick glimpses and announce the mid-March release date.

The full teaser came out shortly after that. It begins with a surprise as the Countess of Grantham announces she now owns a villa in the south of France because of a man she met decades earlier. So the whole crew is off to this new location for more high-society parties and such.

In January, Universal moved the film’s release date from mid-March to mid-May, making it an early summer film event.

The official trailer (7.1m YouTube views) came out in February. It expands nicely on the teaser by showing more of the mystery Lady Grantham offers her family regarding the villa she’s been bequeathed, one that everyone goes off to in an attempt to learn more. That travel is well-timed as a Hollywood film crew has taken over Downton as a location where they’re shooting a movie, leading to lots of moments of film stars bringing their spotlight to the old world sophistication of the landed aristocracy.

“The legacy continues” declares the poster released at the same time. Most all of the main characters are seen here sitting outside Downton, with the klieg lights of a film production hinting at that aspect of the story.

“Downton Abbey: The Official Podcast” launched in mid-May, offering listeners both episode-by-episode recaps of the original series and exclusive content from this new movie.

Early April brought a short recap of the first movie for those who needed to catch up.

Viking Cruises also launched a contest offering the chance to win a trip to the castle that serves as stand-in for Downton Abbey itself.

Another poster was released on National Pet Day in mid-April showing the family dog following the car down the driveway. The split nature of the story is on display on a one-sheet that has half the cast in one location and the other half in another.

Later that month a four-part video series launched with Fellowes reflecting on what’s come before and teasing what’s coming.

The cast and crew turned out for the world premiere event in London at the end of April.

You could take an audio tour of the abbey via Amazon Alexa with Mr. Carson as your guide.

AMC Theaters shared an exclusive behind the scenes featurette with the cast and crew talking about making the movie and returning to their characters and more. Meanwhile Marcus Theaters promoted a movie-themed tea event later in May. Landmark Theaters later announced a similar event in conjunction with Republic of Tea.

A new movie-inspired line of cosmetics from Sunday Riley was revealed in Vanity Fair.

The first clip came out around that same time showing the film crew arriving at Downton. Carson has an awkward moment while buying a hat in the next clip from early May.

Everyone assembled once again for the U.S. premiere of the movie in mid-May, an event that was followed by the cast appearing together on “The Today Show” and other media appearances to talk about the film

Focus/Universal once again included the movie in their promotions to exhibitors and others at CinemaCon.

The week of release Focus ran Twitter Promoted Trends ads to drive interest and awareness.

An episode of the studio’s food-centric video series was devoted to recipes for some movie-themed cocktails and snacks.

Star Michelle Dockery talked about the movie when she appeared on “The Tonight Show.”

One more trailer came out just days before release. This one covers all the expected story points while positioning the movie as an event that must be experienced on the big screen.

Another featurette focused on the costumes and styles of the characters.

The cast and crew appeared in exclusive videos from Regal Cinemas and AMC Theaters.

overall

At this point the audience for additional Downton Abbey stories is pretty much baked in and fully formed. It’s hard to imagine there are a lot of people unfamiliar with the franchise who are going to be converted by this campaign. Similarly, there aren’t going to be many who have decided it’s not for them who decide this is the point they’ll give in and check it out.

But it’s hard to fault the marketing team at Focus Features for sticking with what’s worked before in selling this new movie. We see all the old favorite characters interacting with each other and once again navigating the world of the landed gentry in the early 20th century. The tie-ins that promise movie-themed tea times and so on are going to speak to audiences that want to live the upper crust lifestyle of the series they love, if only for an afternoon.

With an 82% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and projections for an opening weekend of about $18 million, what the campaign will really test is whether or not those audiences will turn out for an “event” in theaters that isn’t a sci-fi adventure. That hasn’t been the case recently, but Downton has a devoted base that could make this the exception to that precedent.

Downton Abbey – Marketing Recap

The ITV/PBS fan favorite drama about the landed class in turn of the 20th century Great Britain returns with a bigger story.

downton abbey poster 14Three years after its six season run on TV ended Downton Abbey is back, but this time the drama is taking place on the big screen. Nearly all the cast has returned, including Maggie Smith as Violet Crowley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, in yet another story focusing on both the wealthy family that lives in the majestic estate and the staff that attends to their needs.

The story of the movie is bigger than the interpersonal drama often seen on the show. This time the Crowley family must prepare for the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary, a grand affair that necessitates the return of Carson (James Carter), their longtime butler who has since retired. With troubled marriages, pregnancies, squabbles over inheritances and more adding to the already high tensions around a Royal visit, the drama is sure to be high.

Focus Features has run the marketing equivalent of a warm blanket on a chilly fall day, focusing on exactly the story elements audiences are sure to be looking for as their favorite characters return to their lives. Tracking estimates predict an opening weekend of about $12 million, which would be a decent showing. And the 81% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes indicates they will get most of what they’re expecting when they head to the theater.

(Note: it’s a bit hard to differentiate between the U.S. and U.K. campaigns for the film, so I’ve aired on the side of including material unless it’s specifically designated for overseas markets)

The Posters

“We’ve been expecting you” the first poster (by marketing agency BOND) declares. A smartly dressed butler is shown, his gloved hands inspecting the silverware being placed on a table so finely polished it shows a reflection of the Abbey itself. A second poster similarly shows him polishing a crystal glass. Two more shift the focus from the servants to the nobility, showing Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Hexham (Laura Carmichael) in their finest gowns.

 

 

More of the characters are assembled in the house’s expansive hall on the next poster to show off how many are back for the movie.

Those characters are broken out into pairs in a series of posters that put each group into a portion of the house they’re associated with. So Carter and Elise (Phyllis Logan) are shown in the pantry while others are placed in other rooms befitting their status and vocation.

 

 

On the next poster the nobility are presented at the top while the servants are at the bottom, befitting their perceived status in the house and society.

Another poster came out that eschewed the cast for a golden image of the Abbey itself, presented as a “cordial” invitation to come see “the motion picture event” in theaters.

 

 

Two more posters came out in September on International Dog Day that focuses on Teo, the family dog. On one, Teo is shown sitting on a formal chair in the same manner as the other character posters. On the other, she’s seen jogging alongside Carson, welcoming him as he returns to the house following his retirement.

The Trailers

The teaser trailer from mid-December didn’t offer much, just a sweeping crane shot of the estate grounds and the promise that the whole cast was going to be back for everyone to enjoy.

That same opulence and grandeur are on display in the first official trailer, showing that the story is back on familiar territory even if things have changed a bit since the series ended. After establishing the return of most of the characters it’s revealed the King and Queen are coming to Downton, an event that has everyone preparing and which necessitates the return of Carson to the staff. After that it’s a series of shots showing the relationships between different characters and how they’ve grown or changed over time.

Online and Social

Focus Features’ official website has some good information but never really rises above the standard template used by the studio to offer unique material or take visitors deeper into the story.

Advertising and Publicity

The first full trailer was shown to exhibitors and others in attendance at CinemaCon in April, sparking lots of positive buzz and conversations as it revealed more of the story’s details. Footage was later shown at CineEurope a couple months later.

The movie was among those announced by AMC Theaters as part of the first curated under its Artisan Films program to highlight smaller films.

A short featurette was released in August that had the cast and crew talking about how excited they were to be returning to characters and settings the audience loves.

Just before release, NBC – a corporate sibling of Focus Features – was scheduled to air “Return to Downton Abbey: A Grand Event,” a special that amounted to an hour-long featurette designed to suck fans back into the world of the movie.

Focus launched a web series on YouTube called “Reel Destinations,” with the first episode – sponsored by Visit Britain – visiting the locations of this movie and offering some of the history found at those spots.

A brief clip was released in early September that showed Lady Crawley still had all her wits about her.

Online ads featured photos of the assembled cast to sell audiences on the return of their favorite characters.

downton abbey ad

Promotional partners for the movie included,

  • Airbnb, which listed the castle used as the fictional Abbey for one night only, the caveat being that those staying must prove themselves to be passionate fans of the series.
  • The Art of Shaving, which introduced a movie-themed collection of products featuring the same formal invitation style seen on one of the poster.
  • Books-a-Million, which ran a sweepstakes awarding movie tickets and books about the film.
  • Cost Plus World Market, which offered a curated collection of high-end goods all featuring the movie’s branding.
  • Fairmont, which offered Afternoon Tea at locations around the country. Select locations also offered additional movie-themed catering, drink selections and more. The Boston location hosted a display of costumes from the film.
  • Visit Britain, which created a whole to the film’s locations and settings for people to explore.
  • Magnolia Bakery, which created a new Earl Grey Cupcake to celebrate the movie’s release.

Screen Shot 2019-09-17 at 8.45.36 PM

  • The Republic of Tea, which offered a series of special edition teas inspired by the movie’s characters and featuring them on the labels.
  • Saks Fifth Avenue, although that partnership was also unclear.
  • Viking, which offered a sweepstakes awarding a tip to visit the castle where the movie was filmed.
  • Chase, which ran a sweepstakes awarding tickets to the movie’s New York City premiere.
  • Walker’s, which ran a sweepstakes awarding a trip to London that included a tour of the film’s shooting locations.

The Biltmore in Asheville, N.C. hosted Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, featuring props and costumes from the film as well.

The studio put out a helpful recap of the major events of the series.

AMC Theaters shared an exclusive interview with some of the actors from the film. It also hosted a fan event early screening last week for people to see the film ahead of release and start spreading the word.

Media and Press

In late November members of the cast appeared on “The Today Show” to offer a behind the scenes look at production. A month later EW’s 2019 preview issue had more first look stills and comments from the cast and crew, including why Lily James’ character isn’t included.

A feature profile included comments from much of the cast as to why they felt it was important to come back as well as why the filmmakers were reluctant at first to jump in and potentially disrupt any storylines from the show. The producers were also interviewed about the likelihood of a sequel should this one prove successful.

A cover story in Town & Country focused the massive undertaking that was reassembling the cast and how the filmmakers worked to make everything special. There was also significant focus on the style of the movie, including features like this and this.

The cast and crew made various other stops around the media world in the last few weeks to talk about the movie.

Overall

Without the Downton Abbey branding attached, this campaign would have faced significant pressures in the market. This kind of quiet, reserved adult drama has been going nowhere at the box office in the last few years, drowned out by the bigger, noiser campaigns for sci-fi sequels, adaptations and other high-profile releases.

With that branding, though, the chances for success increase significantly. The show still enjoys a deeply-invested fanbase, many of whom will likely turn out for the film in the coming weeks. Never mind that the campaign barely mentions anything involving a story or stakes or character arcs, it’s simply the return of loved characters that will entice many to venture out.

Picking Up the Spare

Michelle Dockery appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie.

Allen Leech was interviewed about his career and how he was happy the movie would allow for a fix to the unsatisfactory ending he thought he got on the show.

Additional stories covered the important role the score plays in the franchise and how creator Julian Fellowes was inspired to create the original series and the movie.

Additional clips like this came out once the movie was in theaters and more featurettes like this had the cast talking about production.

“Saturday Night Live” put out a fake trailer for the movie that poked fun at how low the stakes and drama in the story are that turns into something else entirely.

The movie’s gowns and costumes were once more brought to the forefront in a profile of the designer who created them.