fantastic beasts: the secrets of dumbledore – marketing recap

How Warner Bros. is selling the latest outpost in The Wizarding World.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore movie poster
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore movie poster

The gold standard when it comes to stretching out an IP into as many films as possible was, for a short time, held by The Hobbit trilogy, which managed to create three movies from, with assistance from various appendices and secondary material, a scant 310 pages of fiction.

Now, though, you have to bow down and pay respect to Warner Bros. for taking a 128-page guide book – not even a novel – and turning it into an entire series of films that have kept the Wizarding World originally seen in the Harry Potter films on the big screen.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore hits theaters this weekend. It’s the third in the Fantastic Beasts series, with WB still apparently on track to produce two more in the future. Eddie Redmayne returns as Newt Scamander, a wizard specializing in the care and protection of all sorts of magical creatures. In the other corner, wearing the black trunks, is Johnny Depp Mads Mikkelsen as Gellert Grindelwald, an evil wizard planning an nasty scheme. He hired a temp by the name of Mike…

…wait…that’s something else.

Grindelwald’s objectives aren’t super clear, though, other than taking over the Tri-State Area the world. With a story set in the early 1930s and set in Austria/Germany, you can put some of the pieces together.

Jude Law returns as Albus Dumbledore, future Hogwarts headmaster but at this point still a teacher at the wizarding school. Jessica Williams, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol and others are also back, with new additions joining as well.

The marketing campaign has, just as with the previous two installments, become a lightning rod for all sorts of issues and controversies, none of which has helped the movies become more attractive to audiences.

announcement and casting

The movie had technically been announced since 2014, which is when Warner Bros. said they would be creating a trilogy – if not more – of films based on the book. But most of the returning cast reiterated they would be coming back in March 2020.

While various stories about the movie and its production were in circulation prior to that, early November 2020 brought two big updates.

First, Warner Bros. took the move some had been calling for since the first movie, finally cutting ties with Depp. The decision came in the wake of a U.K. legal ruling that gave the studio the air cover to finally let go of an actor whose reputation has become far less ideal in recent years. In the wake of that news, reports circulated that Mads Mikkelsen was being considered for Depp’s role. Those reports were confirmed later in November.

Second, because of pandemic-delayed production as well as a release schedule that was dramatically different because of theater closures, the movie’s release was pushed back several months from late 2021 to the summer of 2022. It was later shifted again to a few months earlier in 2022.

Warner Bros. gave CineEurope attendees a look at the movie in October 2021, around the same time the studio revealed the film’s official title.

the marketing campaign phase one: just the tip of the wand

At that point (specifically early December of last year) the marketing campaign for this movie finally kicked off with a video that celebrates the whole 20 year history of the Wizarding World, whether it’s in the form of books, movies, theme parks or anything else. It ends with a tease of the first trailer.

That trailer (18.5m YouTube views) opens with Newt coming to meet up with Dumbledore as they prepare to take the fight to Grindelwald, who is continuing his campaign of hate and terror. With a ragtag group of friends helping him, Newt has to figure out what the bad guys are up to next and stop them.

As noted here, the name of J.K. Rowling, who wrote Fantastic Beasts along with all the Harry Potter books, is nearly entirely absent from the trailer, an indication of how far the author’s public stock has fallen over the last few years. That’s largely because of her continued position against trans individuals, one she has shared time and again and in various ways.

Anyway, the first poster that came out a week or so later invites audiences to “Return to the magic” while showing a fiery phoenix flying over the water toward Hogwarts. This is a pretty generic image, not one that seems specific to this movie, but it’s an awareness and branding play more than anything.

Things went relatively quiet for a few months at the beginning of 2022, with the overall brand kept active by the release of the HBO Max special on the first movie’s 20th anniversary, a few other updates about various Wizarding World activities and so on.

the marketing campaign phase one: going whole hogwarts

Activity ramped back up with the release of a few batches of character posters in late February, an attempt to help introduce some of the new characters taking various stances in the story. One set focuses on allies of Dumbledore’s fight against evil, one on those who are fighting with Grindelwald and one with some of the wizards who are part of a dark “new power” said to be rising at the time of this film’s events.

A new theatrical poster came out at the end of February that has most of the major characters in various battle-ready poses, Hogwarts seen in the background along with another image of a phoenix in the middle of it all.

The second trailer (16m YouTube views) came out at the same time. Once again the battle is presented as being a half-dozen good guys fighting Grindelwald’s army and their quest to rid the world of muggles. As things go on there are a handful of mentions of secrets about to be exposed, past actions that are coming back to haunt people and so on, all in keeping with the film’s title.

The first featurette came out in mid-March and offers a brief explanation of the story from the cast, including what kind of challenges the good guys will face. It continues the presentation of the heroes in the story being Dumbledore’s “First Army,” a reference to the name Harry, Hermoine, Ron and the others would given themselves decades in this universe’s future.

How steep the odds are stacked against the heroes is the theme of the first TV spot, which also came out around that time. It pulls footage from the second trailer and doesn’t add much, just positioning it as a fight that will be difficult to win.

An IMAX poster features a design that’s just a slight variation on what was used for the one-sheet back in December. IMAX later announced some early screenings fans could buy tickets for if they wanted to be the first ones to see the movie. The Dolby Cinemas poster has Newt engaging in a wand duel with one of the dark wizards.

A second featurette uses Hogwarts and some of its locations as the framing device for further discussion of the story and where some of the characters are when this film begins. Another finally turns the attention to some of the creatures that factor into that fight.

The same “Dumbledore’s First Army” line is used in another TV commercial that’s a little more action-packed than the first one.

MovieClips got its own exclusive featurette that delves into some of the secrets Dumbledore is keeping and why he is doing so as well as how that impacts his ability to recruit allies and such.

The world premiere was held in London at the end of March with much of the cast and crew – including Rowling in one of her only appearances in the campaign – in attendance. Later on Mikkelsen appeared on his own at the Denmark premiere. Events were also held in Brazil and Italy.

Movie-themed sticker packs were released for various messaging and GIF archive platforms. A bit later on Regal Cinemas introduced a Room of Requirement AR app.

Members of the technical crew were part of a Dolby-exclusive featurette that had them talking about the visuals, sound design and other aspects of making a movie like this.

Williams talked about her franchise fandom in a profile that also touched on issues of self-care, health industry inequality and more that are unique to women of color and not usually covered in pieces like this when they appear in other publications. She’s also the focus of another featurette that’s just about the professor she plays, a role that’s much expanded from a brief moment in the second film.

A similar character-specific featurette came out later on about Grindelwald.

Around this time another issue popped up, namely some bad behavior by Ezra Miller that prompted studio execs to have a panicked meeting about the actor’s future given his involvement in both this and the DCEU franchises.

More positively, both Williams and Redmayne appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about their roles in the movie. Around that same time Redmayne and others popped into the New York City fan screening to surprise attendees.

A final trailer (2.3m YouTube views) only came out earlier this week. There’s a bit of new footage and some additional story context offered, but for the most part it’s a reminder of some of the main points seen in earlier spots, one more reminder of an epic story awaiting audiences in theaters.

At the very end, controversy came up one more time when it was reported WB cut six seconds or so of dialogue alluding to Dumbledore’s gay love life in order to meet the needs of Chinese censors. That caused people to slam the studio for a willingness to bend the knee in that way and over the realization gay representation in a major release like this only amounts to a scant six seconds.

overall

Tracking projections are estimating an opening weekend of $40-55m, which is good but not great, especially for what should be a sure-fire IP like this. And it would continue the downward trend, which each new installment coming in 15% or so below the previous film.

The movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score is a dismal 57%, in part because critics are calling it overstuffed with a story that’s paper thin and nonsensical.

Perhaps that’s because the Wizarding World has overstayed its theatrical welcome, even if it might still have potential as a theme park attraction. That may have a lot to do with Rowling’s continued anti-trans opinions, which have soured people on the whole thing.

Perhaps that’s because audiences aren’t all that interested in what kind of secrets Dumbledore has had to keep, already aware he keeps things close to the vest.

Perhaps that’s because the campaign doesn’t feature any actual Fantastic Beasts, at least not at any greater scale than any other movie about wizards and goblins.

Or maybe it’s a little of everything.

The Stagnating Potterverse

In the wake of the lackluster box-office for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, there were a few stories like this that talked about the various reasons behind it.

A lot of that analysis and commentary has focused on the inability of Warner Bros. to unlock new audiences for the series, instead simply counting on turning out the same group of longtime Potter fans time and time again. That much was evident in the campaign for this new movie, which featured a number of overt attempts to engage with super fans and get them excited for the film.

Also frequently cited is the surprise that the Fantastic Beasts franchise can’t seem to recapture the magic that captivated an entire generation as the Potter books and films were being released.

Therein lies what I think is the main difference and that’s clear in both the marketing and reception.

The Potter series was unique in a way that not many other stories have been able to recreate. Specifically it featured characters that grew and learned from the experiences they had, moving from young children to young adults, with the story showing how that progression impacted how they viewed the difference between good and evil, how they dealt with temptations, how they matured in their relationships and more. There was an evolution on display, one that rewarded readers and viewers because something different was being promised with each outing.

By way of contrast, the Fantastic Beasts series of films seems like…just another version of a generic super hero story, with a reluctant, eccentric hero being sent into battle against some vague enemy whose motivations are both unclear and elaborate.

The first movie was marketed as an exploration of a new and amazing part of the magical world. It wasn’t so much about conflict, more about Newt Scamander going on a scavenger hunt to collect all the creatures he accidentally released than anything else. The second had a more clear conflict at the heart of its message, but focused on it being essentially a feature length love letter to the fans, focusing on all the connections between it and the original Harry Potter adventures.

Put that up against how the Potter films were sold, with the message always being about how the kids at the heart of the story were getting older and facing new and more challenging dangers. That’s a far more emotional play to the audience, one that’s far more likely to get people excited, because the audience was literally growing up alongside those characters.

When you make the story as generic as possible, though, you lose that.

Without Harry Potter and his friends at the center of the action, the audience isn’t given very much to invest in other than the battle against some random bad guy who wants to do…something.

I’d be willing to wager this is at least part of the reason why audiences didn’t exactly run to sere this new movie, because they understood the stakes were low and the story uninteresting, at least to anyone who wasn’t deeply invested in the deep minutia of the universe it takes place in.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – Marketing Recap

The marketing of Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald is the subject of my latest recap at The Hollywood Reporter.

The wizarding world established in print by J.K. Rowling and then on film by Warner Bros. keeps expanding with this week’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. The movie, the second in the Fantastic Beasts series that is set decades before Harry Potter enrolled at Hogwarts, picks up with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) being enlisted by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to find the recently escaped magical criminal Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp).

Online and Social

The official website is stocked with the standard content and little else. The exceptions are two elements that are meant to engage fans, part of the larger campaign that played into that specific portion of the audience.

Media and Publicity

Later on director David Yates made some remarkably tone-deaf comments that seemed to insinuate the accusations against Depp weren’t real because the actor is such a nice guy on set, a perspective that is exactly what got us to this place. Shockingly, Rowling herself made similar comments.

Without going into too much detail, it’s hard to see how this interview Depp did with Rolling Stone months later helped anyone’s case. If anything, it made the actor seem even more problematic, to the extent of wondering why – especially given his diminishing box office returns – anyone would want to work with him again.

That was followed shortly by an extensive feature in Entertainment Weekly where various elements of the story and characters were shared. There was talk of Young Dumbledore and what he’s like, details on Grindelwald as played by Depp, comments on what the audience could expect in the sequel, confirmation of the story being largely set in Paris and more.

After that largely blew over another set of stills was released along with the news that each film in the Fantastic Beasts franchise would take place in a different city, which was interesting for some reason. Yates in an interview confirmed people’s suspicions/fears, that the film would not address Dumbledore’s sexuality directly, instead just leaving things in the mind of the audience. He tried to thread the needle even more later on, saying this was just one aspect of a massive story that wasn’t being addressed directly, but that there were “sensual” scenes with the character.

More first look photos offered glimpses of a young Newt and other characters, including Dumbledore in an interview with Law where he awkwardly confirmed the future headmaster was gay but that it would not be explicitly addressed in the movie. Redmayne was also interviewed and talked about the darker tone the sequel has compared to the original.

Trying to keep things light, the studio released a first look at baby Nifflers in EW’s Fall Movie Preview issue. Later on Kravitz offered a few odds and ends about her character and the various relationships to others in the Potter universe.

The debut of the final trailer revealed Claudia Kim played Nagini, who at this point is still able to transform from human to snake. The actress spoke about that, but the overall audience reaction wasn’t positive as people felt making an Asian woman less than human was slightly derogatory.

An EW cover story just a couple weeks ago featured all kinds of new interviews and details about the movie, including Depp’s first on-the-record interview about how he got involved with the movie, what the future of the character might be and, to a very small extent, the controversy surrounding his casting.

A bit later the production crew was interviewed about how they created the historic settings for the movie.

Miller became a major face of the movie’s campaign, including a THR profile where he talked about his experience in Hollywood and lots more and a GQ profile where he was hailed as the gender-fluid, whimsical personality that perfectly fit the current cultural moment.

Law talked about the movie on “The Late Show” while Redmayne appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about how he prepared to wield a wand once more. Meanwhile Kravitz was interviewed about how she wanted to be more than a token minority in the movie.

Overall

If I were a cynical person I’d say all that “Hey fans, this is just for you!” messaging – both overt and implicit – was a bit cynical in nature, an admission the film is too dense for general audiences and might be kind of a mess.

Research from Fandom released in the last couple days shows that all those negative stories about Depp aren’t likely to make a difference among the core Potterverse fans. They are still going to turn out for the movie, even if they have to hold their noses while doing so. That explains to a large extent why Warner Bros. made the decisions they did with the campaign, putting the rest of the cast out there for fans to interact with, reinforcing that emotional connection and giving them a reason to buy tickets.

Picking Up The Spare

What was likely a sponsored bit on “The Tonight Show” had someone intentionally mispronouncing the movie’s name to unsuspecting people on the street.