How 20th Century Studios is selling another travelogue/murder mystery
Death on the Nile, out this week from 20th Century Studios after over two years’ of delays, is of course the sequel to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express. Once again Kenneth Branagh directs an all-star cast while himself starring as Agatha Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot.
This time around Poirot is part of a group cruising down the River Nile when a murder upsets the otherwise pleasant vacation he and the others are enjoying. As usual, everyone is a suspect for their own reasons and it’s up to Poirot to weed through the lies, motives and intrigues to find out who the killer truly is before they can escape into the Egyptian backdrop.
Just as with the first movie, Branagh has an all-star cast to work with. This time around Gal Gadot, Annette Bening, Armie Hammer, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright and others are on board to power the intrigue and mystery and, as we’ll see, cause a few headaches for the Disney publicity and marketing teams.
announcement and casting
There were reports that Branagh and the studio were interested in a sequel even before the first movie was released, a natural given there being a number of Christie’s novels that could be pulled from.
Things seemed to be confirmed in October 2019 when the movie was officially announced and the cast revealed.
Branagh and some of the cast members spoke about the movie from time to time while promoting other projects, well before the publicity cycle for this film had begun.
An interview with Faza had him talking about color-blind casting, including with this film.
the marketing campaign…maybe
Poirot narrates the first trailer (2.6m YouTube views), released in August of 2020, as we see the basic outline of what the story entails. That includes infidelity, revenge and other sinister motives from a wide scope of characters he must interrogate in order to determine who among them was responsible for a grizzly murder aboard a ferry. It has the same sort of flashy style, helped by the star-studded cast, as the trailer for the earlier movie and once more features a slowed-down version of a slick pop song, in this case Depeche Mode’s “Policy of Truth.”
A steam ship motors down the Nile on the first poster, released at the same time. Conveying the look and feel of the movie is secondary to showing off that cast list, which is displayed above the image of the ship.
The first official still came via People and shows Gadot and Hammer as the couple who are hosting the outing as part of their honeymoon, only to have it interrupted by murder. More photos along with comments from Branagh came in Empire.
The cast contributed messages to a video celebrating Christie’s 130th birthday a month later.
An interview with Faza had him talking about color-blind casting, including with this film.
The cast appeared in a video in November to talk about the fabulous mustache sported by Branagh and promote a Movember charitable campaign.
In late September 2020 Disney moved the film’s release, originally set for October of that year, by two months to December. A month later it was taken off the 2020 release calendar completely with no new date announced until mid-December, when it was slated for February, 2021.
a slight hiccup
As the movie languished in the background while Disney looked for a good pandemic-appropriate release date, things got more complicated when Hammer was accused of a mix of sexual abuse and having a kind of cannibalistic sexual fetish. To say that likely caused problems for the studio and its marketing team would be an understatement, especially coming after Gadot’s appearance in a misguided “Imagine” video in March 2020 and reports Wright and Brand were ardent anti-vaccine advocates who frequently trafficked in health misinformation. In fact, Brand’s official YouTube channel has become a steady stream of him railing against mask mandates, vaccines and more.
It has to be noted that this comes after the publicity and marketing for Murder on the Orient Express was marred by press coverage of the abusive behavior of star Johnny Depp toward his ex-wife Amber Heard and more. So this is the second time one of these star-studded mysteries has encountered problems.
Allowing these stories and others like them to die down in the minds of the press and the public resulted in further delays, effectively taking all of 2021 off the board. It also meant when the movie was finally rescheduled theaters were essentially completely reopen and the box office back in business. At the same time, it’s become clear over the last several months that the public has a very specific – almost singular – idea of what kinds of movies it’s now willing to head to theaters to see.
the marketing campaign…again
In December of last year the second trailer (15.5m YouTube views) – notable for its distinct lack of Hammer – was released. Poirot has been invited aboard a steamboat that hosts a wedding party, but when a guest is murdered it’s up to him to navigate an array of intrigue and motives among the others aboard to find the killer before anyone else winds up dead.
The whole cast is assembled on the accompanying poster, though, the pyramids seen in the background to make it clear it’s *that* Nile the title is referring to.
Poirot is introduced to the happy couple in the first extended TV spot, released in mid-January. After some perfunctory setup we get right down to the detective interrogating the suspects to find the killer among all the lies.
This phase of the campaign continued with a handful of character posters that show off select members of the cast and continue the bright, glowing aesthetic established by the first couple one-sheets. Short character-intro videos followed a bit later.
Another shorter spot came out shortly after that, with lots more following over the next few weeks.
Branagh introduces the sensual, mysterious story of the movie in a featurette released in early February. Many of the cast members also appear to talk about their characters and the twists and turns the film takes.
MovieClips got the first official clip at the same time that has Poirot’s confidant Bouc giving him the lay of the social land, including who has grudges against whom and so on.
Regal Cinemas’ exclusive poster features the same visual style seen before, just with the cast rearranged slightly in front of the pyramids. Cinemark and IMAX posters take the same approach.
The characters are once again introduced in another extended TV commercial that labels them all as suspects in the murder that took place.
Another clip shows Linnet welcoming all her guests aboard the ship and promising them a good time.
The costumes and how they represent aspects of the respective characters was the focus of a later featurette. Then another one finally makes use of the fact that both Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders are in the movie together as they host a featurette about the cocktails of the era that appear in the film.
Branagh and others appeared at the British Museum’s Egyptian exhibit to celebrate the movie’s release.
You really can’t evaluate this campaign without considering how so many of the stars – the primary selling point of the movie – have become persona non grata over the last year or so. That likely explains why there hasn’t been a major press push from any of the talent involved save for Branagh.
It’s a problem a number of movies have had recently on their way to theaters. West Side Story and others couldn’t put certain members of the cast out there because any responsible journalist would have to mention sexual abuse allegations, toxic behavior on set and other problems, none of which fit into the promotional narrative. But here’s it’s infected nearly the entire lineup save for Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.
That all may be beside the point. Or it’s influenced everything. One way or the other, it’s been a lackluster campaign for a movie that has a middling 62% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a projected opening weekend box office of just $11-14 million, about half what the first movie did. There are a lot of factors behind that number, but a marketing push that has been more eyebrow-raising than interest-building is a big part of it.
When Justice League arrived in 2017, the term “troubled production” was frequently used to describe it. The critical drubbing received by the preceding Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice created tension between Warner Bros. and director Zack Snyder, including rewrites by then DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns to the script from David Goyer and Chris Terrio. Confusion was created when different interviews with Snyder, Johns and others seemed to alternate between there being one two-hour movie, two two-hour movies, one four-hour movie in two parts and so on.
Then, as the movie moved into post-production, Snyder stepped away, reportedly to deal with the recent death of his daughter. The narrative at the time was that writer/director Joss Whedon was being brought in to handle a small number of reshoots and other pickups because he had already done even more work on the script.
And then of course there’s the issue of Henry Cavill’s mustache.
Kicking off at San Diego Comic-Con 2016, the marketing campaign for Justice League was more or less what audiences expected given both BvS and Snyder’s earlier Man of Steel. It was dark and moody, but after Whedon took over there seemed to be a bit more humor. Throughout, though, you couldn’t help but notice the distinct lack of Superman, an omission informed largely by the movie’s story – he dies at the end of BvS – and not wanting to spoil his return here.
When the finished product finally hit theaters the reaction was “mixed,” to say the least. Critics called it a mess and the $229 million it grossed domestically was a disappointment compared both to Wonder Woman earlier that year and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which at that point was nearing its eventual conclusion.
No…There Is Another…
Almost immediately, the most fervent adherents to Snyder’s nihilistic artistic view began to believe they’d been duped. Demands to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut were soon at full volume online, with those signing petitions and saying “Actually I have more of a comment than a question” at panels believing Warner Bros. had someone in its archives a version of the film free of Whedon’s influence. That version would more fully represent the intent of Snyder, who for years has been referred to in the marketing of his films as a “visionary director.”
WB continually denied such a version existed, pointing out that Snyder left an incomplete movie to Whedon’s stewardship. Snyder himself said much the same thing, that there was only a work print with unfinished effects and some scenes completely missing. There was no Snyder Cut.
That didn’t mean much to those whose very personal brands seemed to depend on the opposite being true. Over the course of the next three years the DCEU was hit or miss, with the same group of toxic fans howling in delight whenever something that wasn’t The Snyder Cut failed to live up to expectations. Not only that, but similar groups made concerted efforts to strangle movies like Captain Marvel and Star Wars: The Last Jedi in their cribs on the grounds that girls are icky and anything that doesn’t cater to the lowest common denominator of male mob mentality shouldn’t be allowed.
Denials from Warner Bros. were said to be the first and last word on the matter, right up until they weren’t.
Snyder’s tune began changing in early 2019 when he started posting pictures that seemed to confirm his cut of the film did exist in some manner. Members of the cast and others involved in the production made similar comments, with people like Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck, who play Wonder Woman and Batman respectively, getting in on the hashtagaction.
Finally, in late 2020, as part of WarnerMedia’s hype cycle for the then pending launch of HBO Max, it became official that the streaming service would be the release platform for the reworked movie.
Just as there was confusion in 2017 as to whether there would be one or two movies and how long they would be, reports have differed over the last several months as to what form this one would take. At one point it was said to be four one-hour installments. At another it was back to being two two-hour movies.
Despite Snyder’s rejection of any mention of “toxic fandom”, the director himself credits fans using every channel at their disposal, including sliding into the replies of Sesame Street’s Twitter account, with turning dreams into reality by consistently pressuring the studio into action.
It’s almost like a demagogic political figure saying he doesn’t want his supporters to be violent but then buying them all airline tickets to attend an event specifically intended to foment insurrection. And then at the end he tells them they’re very special and he loves them, but only after people have died and others have had their life put in danger.
But what do we expect from Hollywood’s leading objectivist? So many of the stories he’s been part of telling focus on heroes or other characters that can’t find anything in life worth living for until they act on the power they have. Possession of that power in and of itself gives them the right to use it in the manner of their choosing. So it’s no wonder Snyder would be on board with a group of individuals claiming whatever power they could in order to achieve whatever goals they wanted, especially if those goals happen to overlap with his own.
Let me pause here and make a few clarifications.
First, I’m painting with an overly broad brush here. Not all #ReleaseTheSnyderCut adherents are examples of the worst of toxic male fandom. There are some genuine movie fans who feel Snyder is a great filmmaker, so good for them. Like any other art form, people are allowed to like what they like. People might judge me based on my love of Rush or Kenny Rogers, but all art works differently for different people. That being said, this particular group in my experience over-indexes in terms of members likely to verbally assault a woman cosplaying as Power Girl at Comic-Con, labeling her a “fake fangirl” if she doesn’t know who pencilled a random 80’s comic issue she appears in.
Second, Snyder has harnessed this and adjacent groups for good, working with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. That effort, clearly borne of the tragedy that befell his family years ago, is a good one, selling t-shirts and other swag to help worthy cause.
Crisis On Infinite Snyderverses
In the months leading up to and following WarnerMedia’s announcement that the movie would finally see the cold, desaturated light of day, the landscape has changed significantly, as has the narrative that framed the release of the theatrical cut of Justice League over three years ago.
Beginning in mid-2020, costar Ray Fisher, who plays Cyborg in the film, began making a series of accusations against Whedon and by extension Johns and others at Warner Bros., saying the pinch-director created a hostile work environment for him and others after Whedon took over on set. Fisher’s claims were enough for Warner Bros. to open an investigation, though then it turned into dueling statements over whether Fisher had or hadn’t cooperated with that investigation. Representatives for Whedon and Johns denied those accusations, but Fisher remained adamant and public. Ultimately Warner Bros.’ investigation recommended moderate remediative actions but was light on public details.
As time went on, Fisher received public displays of support from Momoa and other members of the cast and he discussed the talking points WB had given him and the rest regarding Whedon’s involvement, most of which matched up with how things were framed in 2017. All of that acted as prelude to actress Charisma Carpenter, who had worked with Whedon on “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” making similar comments, saying he had become hostile and offensive toward her and others. Those accusations, combined with Fisher’s made WB’s lack of overt action odd, especially since Whedon had over the last couple years, been removed from other Warner projects including a planned Batgirl movie and the HBO original series “The Nevers.” Someone, it seemed, knew something.
While Whedon’s reputation was being dismantled, Snyder’s was being enhanced/rehabilitated.
A major feature appeared in Vanity Fair that offered an official version of the events of the last few years. Quoted in the story are Snyder, his wife and producing partner Deborah and a handful of past and present Warner Bros. executives. According to them, the situation around Snyder’s exiting of the original film was much more complicated, including not only the death of his daughter but a new lack of support from studio heads in the wake of Batman v Superman’s critical drubbing. Whedon’s involvement then grew from script doctor to eventually reshooting as much as three-quarters of the film. Similar points were made in a later interview with Snyder.
With that polishing of Snyder’s image, he’s been positioned by himself and the studio at the forefront of the marketing campaign for this new version of the movie, now officially titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League to emphasize his importance.
The Marketing of Zack Snyder’s Justice League
All of that now brings us to the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max and the marketing of the movie, which Snyder has been at the bleeding edge of.
Darkseid and DC Fandome
That began in May of last year, when Snyder strongly hinted the movie was in the works during a Vero-hosted “watch party” for 2013’s Man of Steel, hints that were quickly confirmed when HBO Max released the first official announcement later that same month, leaving the official release date as a vague “2021” at the time.
That continued in June, when promotions for the virtual DC Fandome event began. With Snyder and many of the cast scheduled to appear there to answer fan questions and show off more of the upcoming movie, teasers began coming out. In one, Wonder Woman navigates a cave where she discovers ancient wall paintings showing Darkseid.
Cavill spoke briefly about the project in June, saying he was anxious to see the finished product but offering few details.
As a way to prime the pump for the new movie, HBO Max debuted Batman v Superman – Ultimate Edition in July, with this new version containing about a half hour of additional material.
In an interview in July, Snyder hinted that the reworked movie wouldn’t fit in nicely with how the DCEU has evolved – meaning he would not be obligated to acknowledge Shazam or Birds of Prey (both of which have higher Rotten Tomatoes scores than either of Snyder’s previous entries) but work instead as the culmination of the trilogy he began in Man of Steel and continued in Dawn of Justice.
Snyder appeared virtually during a fan convention, discussing his upcoming remade version and making it clear not a single frame of what Whedon had shot would be included. That interview also marked the first shot in the official change in the messaging around the theatrical version’s release, exposing some of the conflicts that emerged between Snyder and the studio and other details.
The full trailer, preceded by a short teaser, then debuted during Fandome in August. How well it and to what extent it delivered on expectations depends greatly on your feelings about the original, Snyder himself and other factors. Set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and sporting a Super 16 aspect ratio, the trailer features a mix of old and new footage. Added are more scenes featuring Barry Allen, including one where he saves Iris West, and Cyborg. The latter in particular is notable as this indicates more of his backstory would be fleshed out, something that’s been anticipated for a while. The scenes carried over from the theatrical edition feature revised color palettes, adhering closer to what was seen in the original trailers back in 2016. Most importantly, this gives fans their first look at Darkseid, who will be the main villain of the story instead of his henchman Steppenwolf.
Video from the DC Fandome panel was also released to the public.
Reshoots, Trailer Confusion and HBO Max’s Evolution
Much like there were different stories about what the theatrical cut would look like – two movies, one super-long movie etc – there was at this point the beginnings of some confusion about what the new version would be packaged as and what it would include. While Snyder said he wouldn’t use a single frame of Whedon’s footage it was unclear whether he was being permitted to shoot anything new himself. Budget estimates have ranged from $20 million – which would seem to just allow for post-production work on existing footage – to $70 million.
Finally, news came out WB had scheduled a short period of reshoots, though who was or wasn’t involved remained unclear. In October news broke that Leto would be reprising his Suicide Squad role of Joker in the film, something that would require new footage being shot.
In a very odd turn of events, that trailer had to be pulled from YouTube in early November, reportedly because Warner Bros. failed to clear the rights to “Hallelujah,” which is something you wouldn’t expect from a major motion picture studio. The trailer was re-released later that month but was once again pulled for unstated reasons, meaning that beat was almost completely lost from the campaign.
This is unquestionably a weird stage of the campaign, one with so many false starts, walkbacks and other problems you kind of can’t believe a major studio is involved. But this may be the result of allowing one person to lead the campaign, with the studio itself being a fast-follower more than a driving force.
It’s also a period where HBO Max started to carve out its own identity. Instead of being “the place where The Snyder Cut would eventually be available,” it gained some momentum thanks to series such as “Lovecraft Country,” “The Undoing,” “The Flight Attendant,” and other buzzed-about hits.
Not only that, but it was in mid-November that Warner Bros. announced Wonder Woman 1984 would debut on HBO Max on Christmas Day, the same day it was released to limited theaters due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. That was just the first step, though, with WB revealing a month later it would do the same for its entire 2021 movie slate.
All of a sudden it’s a very different ballgame. ZSJL now wouldn’t just be competing against catalog titles, a few exclusive series and a handful of original features but with titles like Godzilla Vs. Kong and other big-budget movies.
Finally, a Campaign
After so many twists and turns through the end of 2020, the campaign itself finally kicked into a higher, more substantive gear in January.
Snyder released a series of posters at the end of the month that finally announced the movie’s premiere date on HBO Max. Two of the three just showed the “JL” symbol in some form of disrepair due to battle damage, but one showed a film canister laying on the ground, as if this had finally been unearthed for the public to see.
Additional shared by Snyder on Twitter at the end of January hinted at the appearance of Martian Manhunter and Joker from Suicide Squad. A more complete look at Joker came out shortly after that.
Another trailer (21.5m views on YouTube), teased by Snyder ahead of its release, came out on Valentine’s Day. Though it largely contains footage we’ve seen before, it does have a few notable elements, including:
Actual footage of Joker, providing a live-action version of the “we live in a society” meme
Reinforcement that the movie will be shown in a 4:3 aspect ratio.
Unlike earlier trailers, this one still seems to be available online.
An interview with Lennix had him talking about finally taking on the role of Martian Manhunter, something that drastically changes how his character is seen in the previous movies and a development that’s completely unearned by those appearances.
Clips from the movie’s soundtrack were released by Water Tower Records shortly after that.
DC then announced a series of movie-themed variant covers for Justice League #59, scheduled to hit store shelves the day before the movie became available.
At the end of February IGN debuted a video showing the members of the Justice League as different sides to a Mother Box, with each character and his or her powers and attributes represented as a relief on the cube.
In a later interview Snyder called out Fisher’s Cyborg as the centerpiece of his version of the story, something that runs in marked contrast to the theatrical cut. He also teased what he had in mind for a potential sequel, though he’s also said on multiple occasions this movie ends his involvement with the DCEU.
The theatrical poster showing a black and white photo of the assembled heroes advancing toward the camera came out at the beginning of March.
One final trailer (6.7m views on YouTube) came out earlier this week. While it features a lot of footage seen in previous clips or trailers, there’s a lot more of Darkseid, showing how dangerous he is, or at least claims to be, and how the heroes are holding out hope their combined strength is enough to take him on.
A virtual watch party was scheduled for 3/18, with the movie’s red carpet premiere planned for 3/17. But before that, earlier this week, a screening that was planned that wound up erroring out for everyone involved, leaving them unable to watch the movie and feeling pretty sore about it. That came after a glitch that had this movie playing when HBO Max subscribers pulled up Tom & Jerry, something that caused no small amount of laughter and confusion.
Overall: For the Fans, Not The Literally Anyone Else
Well, let’s see what we have here.
Reviews of the revamp have been generally positive but mixed, citing improvements in some areas while problems either persist or have newly cropped up in others. Almost universally, it’s said to be much more Snyder-esque, right down to the Randian worldview and carry all the positives and negatives that implies.
The same can be said about the marketing itself. As stated earlier, Snyder is frequently referred to as “visionary” in the campaigns for his films, but that only really resonates in the small percentage of the audience that has fully bought into that vision. For the rest, it almost acts as a sort of warning that the film in question contains more nihilism is recommended over the course of an entire year.
What’s on display here is just that.
The theatrical cut of Justice League is an unquestionable mess, the cinematic equivalent of putting peas in your guacamole recipe. But there’s nothing in Snyder’s previous DCEU movies that would have indicated his original cut would have been any more coherent and there’s nothing in this campaign indicating this version will be so either.
Those feelings are compounded by the multiple instances over the course of the marketing where trailers disappeared for one reason or another and confusion reigned as to what the movie would ultimately look like and what it would include.
Also raising eyebrows is how power dynamics within Hollywood are on display here.
While Snyder has been brought back into the light with multiple profiles and interviews that have allowed him to tell his side and come out as the aggrieved party, Fisher in particular still seems to be sidelined. His complaints about how he was treated by Whedon, though vindicated in the court of public opinion, were still largely dismissed and denied by the studio and his involvement in future projects hasn’t been improved. Why might that be?
For the last three years, fans of the director have been clamoring for this movie, believing it to be the ultimate lost classic, pure bath salts in cinematic form. All art is compromise, though, and the idea that any version would ever be delivered free of influence from outside parties is naivete, and it’s likely the reaction to this when it’s finally available will represent that. If it’s not everything they’ve been dreaming of and speculating about, things will go poorly. More theories will emerge that this *still* isn’t the movie Snyder could have or wanted to make, and those grievances will be taken out the next time a studio casts a woman or person of color in the lead role of a franchise property.
This campaign, though, is meant solely for that group. There’s little to nothing here that might attract someone who isn’t already a charter member of the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement. Even someone who was simply disappointed by the theatrical version and wants to see if this might be an improvement will find no appeal to them has been made.
At least this time we don’t have to sit through the studio pretending like Superman isn’t in the movie.