Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS – marketing recap

How Warner Bros. has sold a flashy non-biopic

Elvis movie poster from Warner Bros.
Elvis movie poster from Warner Bros.

If you’re familiar with the work of director Baz Luhrmann you probably know largely what can be expected from this week’s ELVIS, new in theaters. Luhrmann directs a screenplay from himself and others telling the story of rock and roll legend Elvis Presley. Austin Butler plays Presley as the action moves from his first forays into public performance through the years of super-stardom and more. Through much of that he’s managed/coached by Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, under a metric ton of prosthetics and makeup).

It’s a simple enough setup, though in the hands of a unique filmmaker like Luhrmann you can be assured there will be plenty of flashy, unconventional stylistic choices being made. The movie also stars Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Olivia DeJonge and others as the people in Presley’s life, both personal and professional.

With one of the biggest names in all of popular music history as the subject matter, the marketing should be a no-brainer, so let’s take a look at some of the decisions the studio made while selling it to the public.

announcement and casting

The movie was oddly flying under the radar until March of 2020, when production in Australia was halted after Hanks tested positive for Covid-19.

In January WB announced a delay in release.

Hanks talked about the movie and his character briefly while promoting other projects last year. Harrison Jr. also briefly commented on the movie in mid-2021 while on the publicity tour for Monster.

Warner Bros. gave CineEurope attendees a look at the movie in October 2021.

Luhrmann teased a bit of footage from the film in November of that year to make sure audiences knew he was still working on it and was trying to do the subject matter justice.

the marketing campaign phase one: a rock star is born

The first trailer (17.2m YouTube views) was released in February of this year following a tease by Luhrmann. Narrated by The Colonel, it opens with a young Elvis sneaking into a tent revival where he’s overtaken by the sound of the music and the feeling it creates. Fast forward several years and Elvis is on stage, making girls go crazy with the sound of his voice and the shake of his hips. From there on out it’s a montage of clips from throughout Elvis’ career, including his ups and downs and even a few acknowledgements of where he stood in the middle of racial upheaval in that time. But it’s mostly about the flashing camera lights, the music and other spectacle.

At the same time the first poster came out, similarly setting the visual tone for the campaign with what looks like a rhinestone belt buckle as the title treatment.

In early April Warner Bros. confirmed the movie would premiere at Cannes in May. Later that month exhibitors and others got a look at the movie when it was part of the studio’s presentation at CinemaCon.

Luhrmann posted a video in mid-April talking about the music of the movie and offering a brief preview of “Vegas” by Doja Cat, with plans for the single to be released in full in early May. It was also revealed Kacy Musgraves was covering “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

Butler, Luhrmann and others from the cast and crew were joined by Priscilla Presley at the Met Gala, everyone in their highest of fashion as the event offered a perfect venue for a movie with visuals like this. Musgraves also performed “Can’t Help…” here.

Priscilla Presley debuted an exclusive clip showing Elvis getting all the women in the audience worked up with his wiggle in early May.

A profile of Luhrmann had the director explaining why he felt moved to make this project and why it is not, and was never intended to be, a traditional biopic in structure. Butler was given a similar profile a short while later that centered on this being a star-making moment for the actor.

the marketing campaign phase two: family approval

Another positive endorsement for the movie came from Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter, who not only praised the filmmaking and the story but said that watching it with her mother and grandmother had them all crying at seeing their family’s story on screen. She also said she hadn’t been interested in being part of the film since it was a little too close for her comfort.

Three new posters came out in mid-May, all of them featuring Elvis in different phases of his career, from the rockabilly sideburns to the black leather jacket to the white suit.

The second trailer (9.2m YouTube views) came out at the end of May. It opens with Elvis defying police orders to not be suggestive in his movements during a concert, of course leading to a confrontation with those officers but beginning the mythologizing of his persona. The focus here is on Elvis’ rebellious nature, which is presented as coming from a place of believing (and being told by others) that his gift is one that comes from God and that he’d be wrong to deny or hide it. Aside from that it sells the usual Luhrmann glitz and spectacle, which is the real point here.

A screening at the Cannes Film Festival cemented the positive word of mouth that had already been circulating, helped by a reported 12-minute standing ovation as the film ended. Another profile of Butler published in that period had him talking about how his body started shutting down after filming finished and how a call to Luhrmann from Denzel Washington helped him secure the role. The director also spoke about the racial elements not only of the film’s story but Elvis’ life, which he tried to put in context.

Costar Alton Mason, who plays Little Richard, was profiled about how he got into character and what it was like to work with Luhrmann.

Warner Bros. and British GQ hosted a special screening of the film in London where the cast and crew participated in a Q&A.

the marketing campaign phase three: the music

Warner Bros. released a tease of Musgraves singing “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” as the attention turned back to the music, including a performance by Diplo and Swae Lee of “Tupelo Shuffle” at the MTV Movie & TV Awards.

Butler and Luhrmann both talk about the challenges of taking on such lofty subject matter in a featurette that focused on the research and prep work they both did.

A red carpet premiere event was held in Australia in early June, a natural given Luhrmann and much of the cast hails from there. That was followed by a special screening of the film held at Graceland in mid-June with the director, stars and Presley family in attendance, another sign of the family’s endorsement of the film.

An exclusive poster from Dolby Cinemas came out at this time.

In an interview, Luhrmann revealed Harry Styles campaigned extensively for the title role but that the director was too worried Styles’ existing persona would overwhelm the character.

To help sell how Butler did his own singing in the movie Luhrmann released a video of pre-production test footage showing the actor singing and performing along with a small band.

Butler and Hanks both appeared on “GMA” to talk about the movie and Hanks received his own profile about working with Luhrmann and how things are going in his career and life in general. Butler later stopped by “The Tonight Show”.

Another special screening was held in New York City and once again was sponsored by Vogue.

That was followed by a featurette on the fashions and costume design of the film. Another had Luhrmann talking with a member of the group BLACKPINK about how she was inspired by Elvis and more.

Additional media appearances by the cast included Hanks on “The Late Show,” Olivia DeJonge (with Priscilla Presley) on “GMA,” Butler (again with Priscilla) on “20/20” and lots more.

Luhrmann and others appeared in an exclusive AMC Theaters interview video.

The Canadian premiere of the film was held last week in Toronto with DeJonge, Butler and Luhrmann in attendance.

The Presley family joined the cast and Luhrmann at the TCL Chinese Theater for a “Handprint and Footprint” ceremony.

One final trailer was released just today exclusively by Fandango MovieClips. It features a bit of new footage and a slightly different take on some story elements but fits largely with what has been seen so far. It also includes some of the praise from members of the Presley family to let audiences know this has been officially endorsed by them.

overall

As of now the movie is projected to bring in around $35 million in its first weekend, which isn’t at the same level some other recent high profile releases have grossed. Maybe that’s because this isn’t a super hero sequel, even though it’s about an artist dubbed The King for much of his career and who’s been recognized as the best-selling solo musical artist of all time.

So maybe the campaign just can’t make up the difference in generating audience interest despite Warner Bros. hanging the marketing on a few key elements:

  • Making a star out of Butler: He’s been positioned as a breakout here, someone who lost himself in becoming Presley for the camera. There have been countless profiles and other accolades for Butler, who is the lynchpin of the effort here.
  • Translating the music for a new generation: Instead of trying to sell people the Elvis originals of his recordings, the focus here has been on the more current artists that are reinterpreting and livening up those classics in a way that’s apparently meant to be palatable for younger listeners. Many of those artists have also been in attendance at various premieres and other events to help hammer home how integral they are to the finished film.
  • The Presley Family seal of approval: The studio and filmmakers want everyone to know this isn’t a hit job or critical look at the star (thought it might be less kind to Parker) and so the praise from three generations of Presley women has been used extensively in the last half of the campaign.

On top of all that I have a few questions/issues:

First: What’s the connection with Vogue that seems to be laced throughout the campaign? The publication hosted multiple events and published multiple profiles of Butler and others in the cast. It’s so constant and pervasive there has to be some kind of deal in place, but it’s never called out or acknowledged.

Second: Look at most all of the posters, trailers and other material and you’ll see “TCB” emblazoned on them, a reference to the name given to Elvis’ backing band in the 1970s. But that band is almost entirely absent from the trailers and isn’t called out in any way in other promotions. Not only that, there’s nothing about the campaign that uses “Taking care of business” as a slogan or tagline, so it’s a weird stylistic choice here.

It’s an intriguing campaign that sells Luhrmann’s vision very well and repeatedly hits a few key points but has a hard time otherwise resonating.

9 Elvis Presley Movie Trailers

It’s been 40 years today since the death of Elvis Presley to mark the occasion we’re going to look back at the trailers for just some of the movies he starred in as he worked to leverage his success with music into a Hollywood acting career. To make the selection process easier I’m using this list from Variety of what it identifies as 10 of The King’s best feature films,

The Trouble With Girls (1969)

In his second-to-last film role Elvis plays the boss of a traveling medicine show filled with lecturers, motivational-speakers, quick cure salesmen and more. When the show lands in Chautauqua things get complicated as Walter Hale (Presley) and his crew become involved in the investigation into a murder and other problems. That trailer doesn’t get to that murder plot until halfway through its running time, though, and even then only gives it a small amount of attention. Instead the focus is on Elvis singing and balancing a steady stream of women all eager to fall into his arms if they’re not getting on his last nerve.

Kid Galahad (1962)

Elvis famously was drafted into the Army in 1958, serving two years, largely in Germany. Kid Galahad reflects some of that as Presley plays Walter Gulick, who returns to his small New York hometown after leaving the Army. Despite wanting to make an honest living, his boxing prowess leads him to a professional fighting career. We see in the trailer him as a fighter and getting into trouble outside the ring as well. From there on out it’s the usual combination of singing, dancing, romance and more that are common themes in selling most of Presley’s films, including him taking a moral stance against someone who’s asking him to compromise his ideals.

Love Me Tender (1956)

Elvis’ film debut casts him as Clint Reno, whose older brother went to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War. When that brother comes back, Clint has married Vance’s old girlfriend. Clint gets caught up in Vance’s involvement with the theft of Union money, money he now wants to return. “Here he comes” we’re told as the trailer opens with a shot of Elvis singing and dancing. The story is positioned as a dramatic love triangle between Clint, Vance and Cathy, while working hard to introduce Elvis to theatrical audiences. It’s notable how he’s not the focus here, despite the presence of the title track and an ending that features a handful of other songs. It’s playing off his brand while not hanging success entirely on his unproven shoulders.

Wild In the Country (1961)

Once more Elvis is cast here as a “troubled young man.” This time he plays Glen Tyler, a ruffian from the backwoods who comes under the wing of counselor Irene Sperry (Hope Lange), who encourages him to develop some obvious writing talents. The trailer starts out by promising “songs of love” for the audience to enjoy, with him performing those songs, often directly to one girl or another. There’s trouble with some locals, though that’s never really explained. It never really gets into the story of him being nudged in a productive direction by Sperry, instead making the appeal mostly about the music and the romance.

Flaming Star (1960)

One of two movies on this list set in the years following the Civil War, this one has Elvis playing Pacer Burton, the mixed-race son of a white man and Native American woman. (woof with the lack of actual representation). Because of his mixed heritage, Pacer may be the only one capable of establishing peace between the native residents and the White settlers intruding on their land. There’s lots of shirtless-Presley in the trailer, which shows him fighting with a Native American, threatening white men who he feels are responsible for the death of someone he loved and more. Two conflicts are sold here, the one between the two sides of Pacer’s heritage and the other between the two women he must choose between.

Blue Hawaii (1961)

Another movie that ties into Elvis’ history in the Army, this time he plays Chad Gates, who’s returned to Hawaii after serving his time. Not content to follow his parents’ wished and help run the family farm, he becomes a tour guide at an agency run by his girlfriend Maile (Joan Blackman). There’s not much of that story in the trailer, which is instead devoted to making the primary selling point Elvis engaging in romantic and other hijinks in the exotic location of the Hawaiian islands.

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

With that hair and those dance moves , Elvis was seen as a bad influence by the older generation during his time. So it makes sense that Jailhouse Rock would position him as a bad boy, though one who’s trying to reform. Presley plays Vince Everett, who decides to try and make a living in the music business after he gets out of jail, where he’s serving time for manslaughter, eventually going on to great success. That bad boy image is the first we see and hear about as the trailer opens, introducing Vince as a tough kid learning a hard lesson in prison. When he’s out, though, it’s all about music and girls, though it’s clear he’s still got a temper that can flare when provoked. This is the movie that would define Elvis’ public persona in a major way and it’s clear the marketing played a big role in writing that creation myth.

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

It’s interesting how relatively early in Presley’s career this came out considering so much of his later reputation would be centered around a glitzy Vegas-driven schtick. Here he plays race car driver Lucky Jackson who works as a waiter in Vegas to help earn money to upgrade his car. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have time for a little romance, though, this time with Rusty Martin, played memorably by Ann-Margaret. The trailer kicks off with the title song and establishes the setting. The romance between Jackson and Martin is very much positioned as a match of equal wits and sensuality, her rebuffing him and holding her own against his game. In fact Ann-Margaret is every bit Elvis’ equal in terms of billing and attention on all fronts, with plenty of shots of her singing and dancing.

King Creole (1958)

Here Presley plays Danny Fisher, an aspiring singer and musician who performs in a nightclub to support himself and his unemployed father. While the club he frequents is on the up-and-up, he can’t escape the influence and reach of Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau), a crime boss who controls much of the other area entertainment. The trailer makes it clear we’re catching Elvis at “the top of his career,” with this being a turn for the dramatic. So we’re sold a story of a rough young youth who wants to make a decent living in a crooked system while also being torn between two available female love interests.

It’s remarkable the kinds of common elements that present themselves when you look at these trailer in quick succession. There was certainly a formula that most of the stories followed to play on Presley’s reputation, including:

  • He’s a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who just wants to do the right thing and make an honest living, a goal that often brings him into conflict with a shady figure of some sort
  • He’s a headstrong individual who refuses to be buttoned in by the expectations someone else has for him, opting to strike out on his own
  • He almost always has to choose between two potential love interests
  • He’s a little too headstrong and temperamental for his own good, often resorting to punching someone
  • The kid, whatever his circumstances, can sing

I’m pretty confident if we looked at trailers for the other movies in Elvis’ filmography we’d find those patterns repeating themselves with some regularity. So you certainly can’t say Hollywood didn’t know what to do with him, it just kept doing variations on the same thing over and over again.