How Focus Features has sold a high society sequel.
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.
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.