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.

Emma – Marketing Recap

How Focus Features is selling a new version of a classic novel.

emma poster 2Adaptations of Jane Austen’s most famous novels are relatively common on the big screen. Some take a more faithful approach to the source material (see 1995’s Sense and Sensibility) while others update the characters and situations to a more modern setting.

The new version of Emma – directed by Autumn de Wilde and starring Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role – seems to split the difference, keeping the time period of the original while updating some of the sensibilities of the characters. Remaining intact is the premise of the story, that Emma Woodhouse is the undisputed social queen of her town, becoming a matchmaker for those around her. While trying to get everyone married and attached she has trouble setting down herself until she finds a solution has been in front of her the whole time.

Focus has been selling the film, getting a limited release this week with an 88 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a wicked sense of humor behind a story of gender roles and class in 19th century England.

The Posters

Emma is “Handsome, clever and rich” we’re told on the first poster (by marketing agency P+A). She’s shown standing and looking ready to match wits with all comers, perched on a flat rock on the edge of a massive estate garden. The plants in the foreground look deliberately fake while the background looks like a matte painting, giving the poster the look of a stage production of sorts. It’s a great look.

“Love knows best” is the copy used on the second poster, released in mid-January), which adds Mr. Knightly and Mr. Churchill, both of whom play significant roles in the story, to either side of Emma in the same setting.

Just last week a series of character posters came out that shows more of those in Emma’s social sphere, also in the same background. Using the same setting for the entire poster campaign creates a great sense of brand consistency, all while presenting the movie like a stage play.

The Trailers

As the first trailer (4.3 million views on YouTube), released in November, makes clear, this is not a traditional take on Jane Austin’s material. All the story elements might be there – though the trailer doesn’t take pains to communicate them in any sort of linear fashion – but the attitude is much more arch and comedic. It’s a fast-paced trailer that shows the material is every bit as malleable as other classics, even if you keep the time period setting.

Online and Social

The movie’s official website uses the standard Focus Features site template but offers a lot more content than has been seen on other recent efforts. For the most part that takes the form of curated social updates that offer behind the scenes and other looks at the production and stars. There are also profiles on the major social platforms.

Advertising and Promotions

A 60-second commercial was released last week that cuts the story down slightly while retaining everything about the sense of humor the movie contains. Emma is presented as a willful and slightly subversive young woman, seeking to maneuver those in her orbit into marriages, all while oblivious to the romance in front of her.

Promotional partners for the movie included:

PaperSource, which offered a line of stationary and more featuring designs inspired by Emma or by Jane Austen.

BellaCures, which gave movies tickets to those coming to one of their salon locations for a manicure or pedicure.

Vogue Magazine hosted a screening of the film earlier this month.

Media and Press

EW hosted a sweepstakes awarding tickets to the movie’s premiere.

Interviews with the cast included Taylor-Joy and costar Johnny Flynn talking about their experiences with the costumes and others including costars Bill Nighly commenting on the importance of continuing to adapt Austen’s works.

In a nice nod to one of the most popular of those adaptations, Taylor-Joy talked with Clueless director Amy Heckerling about their various approaches to the story and more. Taylor-Joy was the subject of a feature profile about her experiences filming the movie and more.

A group of young women are playing a game of which Emma does *not* approve in an exclusive clip given to Town and Country, the outlet appropriate given the important role real estate and locations play in this and other Austen stories.

Overall

To use a term that would fit in with the time the story is set in, the entire campaign features such a wicked sense of humor it’s enough to make one blush.

That sense of humor is apparent in the posters in how everything is staged like the promotional photos from an amateur stage production of the story, with the actors posed on a rock with plants placed around them and a painting of a scenic backdrop behind them.

In the trailers it’s more subtle but still very much there. It takes the form of arched eyebrows and sly, suppressed smiles. And volumes could be written about that moment Emma looks at the woman next to her while delicately putting a strawberry in her mouth.

emma movie gif

It’s a great example of how to sell a movie that retains its period setting while clearly offering something relevant to the audience, showing modern awareness that is still respectful of the original. More than that, it just looks like a lot of fun.

Picking Up The Spare

Costume designer Alexandra Byrne was interviewed about collaborating with de Wilde on the look of the characters and more.

Costumes were also the focus of an interview with Flynn about his character and another about how he wrote an original song for the film and what he felt the core of his character was.

Taylor-Joy was interviewed again about how this movie allowed her to expand her range a bit as well as her experience working with de Wilde. Another had her talking about adding a sense of whimsy to a very dramatic story.

MovieClips got an exclusive clip of a key scene between Emma and her potential suitor.

How de Wilde got her first directorial gig and her approach to the movie was covered in this interview. She also talked about why Emma made sense as her first attempt.

The locations featured in the movie were the subject of the latest installment of Focus Features’ “Reel Destinations” web series. The film’s food was also given the spotlight in another featurette. There were further featurettes where the cast gave etiquette lessons and shared stories from the set.

A later interview with de Wilde had her talking about the movie’s early home video release.