Rocketman – Marketing Recap

rocketman posterThe fate of “classic rock” as a viable radio format may be up in the air, but on the big (or streaming) screen it’s alive and well. That is most recently evidenced by the fact that this week’s Rocketman, a biopic of flamboyant piano player and the man behind some of rock’s biggest hits Elton John, is tracking for a debut weekend of $25 million. That opening, should it come to pass, would only be about half of what last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody brought in, but well above some of the other non-franchise releases so far this year.

(Side note: For the purposes of maintaining focus, we’re not going to address how the movie is titled “Rocketman” but the John song it’s named after is “Rocket Man.”)

Taron Egerton takes on the role of John in a story that follows him from his beginnings as a struggling bar and club musician through the super-stardom he experienced in the 1970s and 80s. That journey includes not only his growth in the music world but also his personal life, a big part of which is his sexuality, something he kept secret from the world for years, as well as his rampant drug and alcohol abuse.

The Posters

Egerton *is* John on the first poster, showing him in one of his trademark flamboyant performance outfits and clearly having a blast singing and playing in front of a massive stadium crowd. It’s tinted purple with light shimmering all over the image, communicating clearly the bright fantastical tone of the film.

John is shown in close up, his eyes obscured by big dramatic glasses on the Dolby Cinemas poster released in early May.

rocketman poster dolby

The Trailers

The teaser trailer labels the film as being “Based on a true fantasy” and indeed is meant to create a kind of surrealistic framing for the story. That’s helped along by the good looks we get at some of John’s most iconic styles, from the glittery Yankees jersey to the feather boa to the massive cowboy hat and lots more. There are scenes of him as a young child to help make clear that we’ll be following him from his youngest days – or at least flashing back to them – and some indications the film won’t shy away from the sexuality John kept secret for decades.

The official trailer from late February offers a more complete look at the story, moving between John’s beginnings as a working pub musician named Reggie to the heights of super stardom. It presents his story as one of trying to change his reality through the creation of one fantasy after another, including the costumes and other theatrical excesses. There’s also more than a few hints at the sexuality he kept under wraps in the early years and how that contributed to his feeling there was always a block on him being who he truly was. It’s filled with John’s music, which makes for a great selling point in and of itself.

Online and Social

There’s not a lot on the movie’s official website, but what is there is at least somewhat original.

“Never Ordinary” is a photo-upload feature that allows visitors to add some sparkle to a headshot or other photo via a selection of colorful frames, John-like glasses, text with declarations of strength or uniqueness and more. The end result can then downloaded or shared on social networks.

Also shareable is the “What’s Your Song” section, which has a personality quiz asking you a series of questions to determine what Elton John song is the perfect one for you.

More standard are the “Videos” section with the trailers and more, and the “Soundtrack” section with links to stream, download or buy the album.

Only Facebook is linked to from the site but there were also Twitter and Instagram profiles as well as an official Giphy channel. You can also find an official movie playlist on Spotify along with the soundtrack.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

The first TV spot debuted around the same time as the second trailer, cutting down the story of John living out a fantasy life into a shorter pitch for the audience but including many of the same key moments.

Fandango announced in early May it would give its VIP members access to screenings two weeks prior to release in an effort to jumpstart audience buzz for the movie, a partnership promoted with a new commercial spot.

A couple weeks before the movie came out, John’s music was used in a special themed episode of “American Idol” that had contestants singing some of his biggest hits. The costumes were, of course, the focus of a special movie-themed episode of “Project Runway.”

Most of the online ads – and there have been quite a few – have used key art of John in his sparkly Dodgers uniform that wasn’t from a U.S. but a U.K. poster. Pre-roll ads on YouTube included spot for both the movie in general and for the soundtrack specifically.

rocketman pic

There weren’t many promotional partnerships – at least not any that received much attention – but one involved Lucky Brand, which created a collection of t-shirts inspired by the film and featuring classic photos of John. Another exclusive collection was offered by fashion retailer Mr. Porter, but those pieces were more formal and subdued, understandable given it was a subset of its ongoing Kingsman label.

Gucci was also involved, but seemingly only in that it has long been John’s preferred outfit provider and so has occupied a significant role in the publicity of this movie just as it has on the singer’s recent and previous tours. Their status as the movie’s official crystal provider was touted by Swarovski.

Media and Publicity

The movie was part of the studio’s presentation to exhibition executives at CineEurope in mid-July 2018. Quite a bit later, in late September, Paramount released a first still of Egerton as John, showing off how he donned the singer’s unique 70s style.

Egerton spoke about the movie while promoting Robin Hood last year. He and Maddon were interviewed jointly about working together on the film.

A short featurette from mid-February had Egerton and others talking about the process of recording John’s songs for the movie and receiving the artists approval for his interpretations. John’s approval of Egerton’s performance and abilities extended to the actor singing “Tiny Dancer” with John at piano for the musician’s charity event earlier this year.

Given the club’s status as an important part of John’s rise to fame, it was a nice move to have the cast and crew show up at L.A.’s The Troubadour for a Q&A.

In mid-March Paramount held a preview event giving select attendees a first look at expanded footage from the movie, resulting in a wave of very positive buzz and word of mouth as those who saw it came away impressed by Egerton and the production as a whole. About that same time Egerton was interviewed about how his primary goal was to do John proud and remain true to the real story.

Shortly after that there was some controversy when it was reported Paramount was balking at scenes depicting a gay sexual relationship, reports Fletcher dismissed as speculation, saying his and the studio’s intent was still to release an R-rated film that dug into John’s life and behavior. Similar comments were made by Egerton when the film screened at London’s Abbey Road Studios and then again by the actor when Paramount brought him and footage from the movie to CinemaCon in early April. That footage wowed attendees, generating a lot of positive buzz in advance of release.

Reports circulated the movie would have its official premiere out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, rumors that were later confirmed as it would screen out of competition there. It was later added as the opening night feature at the Toronto LBGT Festival.

In mid-April a short featurette had the cast and crew talking about telling a fantasy-driven story of John’s life.

A feature story profiled the production team and their efforts to recreate Los Angeles from the era the story takes place in. Another focused on the costume design team and how they dressed Egerton in facsimiles of John’s most outlandish outfits.

Continuing the emphasis on Egerton’s real-life vocal abilities, it was announced in early May that he and John would duet on a new song for the movie’s soundtrack.

rocketman pic 2

Some of the movie’s cast revealed the songs from John’s catalog that had the biggest impact on their lives.

A feature profile of Egerton had the actor talking even more about taking on the Elton John persona as well as how some of the roles he’s taken to date have lead him to this point, ready to vault into the realm of super stardom. That was also the theme of another later interview with him and became a constant element of other stories prior to release. Along those same lines, Maddon was profiled in a piece that focused on how he was ready to stop playing a “nice guy” and get a little darker, a move this movie is part of.

Scenes from the movie are mixed with footage of Egerton in the studio singing in an official video for his version of John’s classic song “Rocket Man” that lends its title to the movie. The costuming – featuring recreations of John’s outlandish wardrobe over the years – was the subject of another featurette in early May.

A profile of Fletcher covered his previous work and allowed him to talk about not only this movie but also his contributions to last year’s big musical biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. John’s real-life husband, who’s also a producer on this movie, spoke about how eerily close to reality Egerton appeared while Fletcher once more sought to assuage concerns the story would go light on the singer’s sexuality.

“The Tonight Show” hosted an appearance by Maddon. Closer to release Egerton was interviewed about his friendship with John on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” A number of interviews featured John and Egerton together, including this appearance on “Good Morning, America.” The duo of Egerton and Maddon sang along to John’s music on an episode of “Carpool Karaoke.”

The movie’s appearance at Cannes was a major event, with the entire cast as well as John, co writer Bernie Taupin and John’s husband. Everyone engaged in multiple interviews, talking about the story and how true it is or isn’t to the events that inspired it. What it also accomplished was to set aside some of the concerns that had plagued Rhapsody, assuring people it contained a frank portrayal of John’s sexuality, something that was a first for a major studio release. Fletcher even compared it to Rhapsody directly, saying this is the “R-rated version” of the story that in that movie was toned down for a PG. That comparison was one Egerton wasn’t so eager to address, wanting to let both movies be judged on their own.

Paramount hosted a special performance of both John and Egerton at the festival, something that garnered massive press attention. The singer was also interviewed about his substance abuse from decades ago and how it plays into his – and the movie’s – story.

There were also interviews with the technical crew of the movie, including the costume and set designers responsible for creating the movie’s fantasy-inspired look and feel.

Fandango hosted an exclusive clip of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” EW then got a clip of “Crocodile Rock.” Future clips included scenes of John meeting Taupin and more.

That fateful meeting was also covered in a piece written by Taupin about how the two were brought together and their decades-long collaboration.

Being true to the story continued to be a big topic of the press, with Maddon reiterating similar comments from Fletcher about how cutting the gay sex scenes from the movie would have been a disservice to John and everyone else. An interview with John included him saying some studios the project was shopped to over the years wanted that aspect of the story toned down, a compromise he was unwilling to make.

Fashion was the focus of an interview with Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays John’s mother in the film, one that touched on not only the styles sported in the film but also her own personal preference for styling herself and buying second hand clothing. She also appeared on a few TV talk shows and engaged in a few other interviews.

Overall

How the movie was being seen as a pivotal proving point for both Paramount – which needs a non-franchise hit – and Egerton was the subject of this story, which makes it clear the studio is taking a big bet here that could have significant upsides as well as downsides depending on how fickle the audience is. Appearing at Cannes offered a moment where the general conversation turned cautious optimism to one that included it among potential Oscar contenders. I wouldn’t be surprised, based on that late buzz, if opening weekend proves a bit stronger than the $25 million forecast.

In marketing the movie, Paramount has seized the larger-than-life nature of the story and man to position it as just as big a blockbuster event as Aladdin or other franchise entry. This is a big, oversized and dramatic story with flashy costumes, massive spectacle that should be seen on the big screen according to the studio. The message has been one of reassuring the audience that they know the music and the basics of who these people are and what happens, so come see a glitzy version that will entertain you for two hours or so.

That the project has so deeply involved the real people being portrayed has been an advantage for the marketing, especially on the press circuit, where John, Taupin and others have been available for interviews and appearances. Putting the cast and crew out there to this extent would have resulted in a bit of overload, but spreading it around the group means there are more cumulative beats generated.

Previously I had lumped this movie in with Bohemian Rhapsody and The Dirt, two other recent music biopics that had the seal of approval and heavy involvement from the subjects themselves. Those others were criticized for being too glowing in their portrayal of sometimes problematic or at least more complex artists, something that can be expected when the parties giving approval have an active interest in managing their own reputation.

The message sent by John in particular in the campaign for Rocketman is the opposite, though: Instead of shying away from aspects of the story that might be unsavory he seemingly sought to embrace them, unwilling to partner with a studio or filmmaker who didn’t want to be truthful about what happened even if it might be unusual for a major studio film. That has made a big difference in how it’s been sold.

Picking Up the Spare

John took to iHeartRadio to host a special show featuring some of his biggest hits and tell stories related to the movie. Music was also the subject of an interview with Giles Martin, the producer of the soundtrack. 

The cast and crew spoke more about production and John’s legacy at the film’s premiere. 

More attention has been paid to the production team, with features on how the film’s fantasy sequences were developed and how they recreated the famous Dodgers Stadium concert. Costar Richard Madden got another profile as well. 

Egerton showed up at a John concert in England, once more teaming up on a duet of “Your Song.” 

A couple stories in early November about how Egerton has come to have a side hustle as a John collaborator and more on how nervous he was about taking on the project.

Movies as Music Marketing Vehicle

When director Dome Karukoski was interviewed about Tolkien and what, if any, involvement the family and estate of the late author might have had in crafting the story, he responded by saying he avoided such entanglements, fearful that in doing so things might become watered down. He was concerned they would want certain aspects of the story removed, hidden or downplayed because they cast Tolkien in a less than favorable light and instead wanted to remain as true as possible to the facts, with certain creative license taken, of course.

Karukoski’s point of view runs in stark contrast to the approach taken by the filmmakers behind a spat of recent “authorized” biopics, particularly those focusing on bands and musicians. On a number of different occasions those movies, which purport to offer behind-the-scenes “real” stories of how artists rose to fame or bands went through the years of paying their dues before becoming worldwide phenomena, not only have the blessing of the people being portrayed but their active involvement as well.

Consider the three following examples:

  • Bohemian Rhapsody has been in the works for a number of years, with the surviving members of the band Queen shepherding the project along. Their involvement and the desire for it to be a glossy history of the band and not one the delved too deeply into the troubles it had or lead singer Freddie Mercury’s sexuality kept it from moving forward for a long while, at one point leading to Sacha Baron Cohen dropping out due to “creative differences.”
  • The Dirt covers the early years of Motley Crue and adapts the book of the same name that was written with the band’s involvement. As the movie was nearing release, band members gave it their endorsement by appearing at numerous publicity events and promoting it on their social media channels.
  • Rocketman, which tells the story of the rise of Elton John from obscure club musician to international superstar, has received his approval at every step. He’s been interviewed about it and is quoted in stories often, emphasizing how true to reality the story is. John’s husband serves as a producer on the movie as well.

The verdict on Rocketman is still out, but if it follows the pattern established by the first two it’s easy to understand why John would want to not only get his story out there but do so in a way that he had some measure of control over.

the dirt pic

Bohemian Rhapsody was criticized for glossing over Mercury’s personal life and playing up the involvement of the rest of the band, but sales and streaming of their music increased dramatically and Queen launched a new tour to take advantage of the attention being turned their way. So too Motley Crue’s music became more popular than it had been in a long while despite pushback on the movie, which many pointed out conveniently overlooks allegations of serious sexual misconduct and other problems.

These movies have become marketing platforms for classic rocks acts who need a shot in the arm that’s less damaging to their livers and kidneys than the shots in the arm they enjoyed in their heydays. While “classic rock” is still prevalent on the radio in many markets, it’s not as popular as it once was as it fades further into history. Stations find more success playing soft rock hits from the last few decades or Top 40 hits. There are still fans, of course, but as Boomers age and Gen X (which invented the category, thank you very much) get older and are less attractive to advertisers, stations that once specialized in classic rock are going under much like Chicago’s 97.9 WLUP, which folded last year when it was sold to Christian rock syndicator KLOVE.

Getting a movie out there brings these acts and artists back into the conversation. As mentioned, Queen launched a new tour with Adam Lambert taking on vocal duties. Rocketman arrives between legs of John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour, touted as the singer’s final big outing before he joins the ranks of singers like Neil Diamond, Paul Simon and others that have hung up their touring equipment because life on the road in their 60s and 70s is very different than it was in their 20s and 30s.

rocketman pic

The difference between how the subjects are producing and developing these authorized biopics and how Tolkien, like many recent movies about famous authors, is unauthorized is that the former have something to sell while those late authors don’t. That’s even the case with an upcoming movie like Judy, a case where the family of the late Judy Garland has disavowed the project entirely. Garland doesn’t have any new music to promote or an active touring career to support, nor does Tolkien have any new books hitting shelves. So their estates and families have moved into “protection” mode to safeguard the reputations of their famous ancestors instead of actively developing new projects that draw attention to new offerings.

The movies are, in essence, a form of owned content marketing.

These certainly aren’t the first movies being used in this manner – all those films based on comic/video game/other properties do the same thing – but it’s still somewhat surprising to see it happening this blatantly. The reputations and stories of those in the movies are being burnished by the subjects themselves or those with an active monetary interest in doing so. It’s not so different from what authorized biographies and autobiographies have always done, but having it happen on film is still a bit disconcerting, especially with a cluster of examples like this.

It’s not hard to imagine more projects along these lines coming soon. The success of Bohemian Rhapsody and even the two Mamma Mia! films shows there are plenty of people who want to see their favorite sing-along rock hits on screen, so more artists and bands could jump aboard before this particular train runs out of steam.