How Netflix has sold its animated feature based on a hit series.
The three seasons of “Trollhunters” have been popular on Netflix. Created by Guillermo del Toro and produced by DreamWorks Animation, the series follows a group of teenage friends who find they must protect the world from all manner of mystical monsters and other threats.
Now the story concludes in the feature-length Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans. In the movie, the group of teenage protectors, led by James “Jim” Lake Jr., (voiced by Emile Hirsch) and Aja (voiced by Tatiana Maslany) must stop the threat posed by the Arcane Order and their massive Titans and keep the world safe.
Netflix’s campaign has relied heavily on the popularity of the three previous series, selling the film as a culmination of everything that’s come before.
The first poster, released in mid-June, shows the assembled team of heroes – human or otherwise – as they are prepared to face some unseen threat. There’s not a whole lot of information about the story, but those familiar with the series will be able to identify who’s who and make some conclusions about what to expect.
The same characters are shown on the second poster, released earlier this week. This time they’re posed on a building rooftop, the massive Titans they are facing off against looming in the background.
Finally the first trailer (800,000 views on YouTube) came out in mid-June. A war between mankind and magic is coming, we’re told, as we see the teen heroes told about the emergence of ancient titans determined to destroy civilization. There’s a lot of humor and a lot of action, both of which are familiar to anyone who’s seen the series, and overall it looks like a lot of fun.
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Netflix announced in August, 2020 that the movie would be coming some time in 2021, acting as a conclusion to the popular series.
A short teaser from late April finally made the movie’s release date official.
This was one of a few features Dreamworks promoted at the 2021 Annecy Animation Festival in June.
The cast appeared in a video released at the beginning of July warning people of the dangers of cyberbullying and telling anyone who’s been the victim of it to not fight back but to report the harassment.
Netflix put out the first few minutes of the video to help get people excited and show what they could look forward to.
Can’t wait for July 21? Here are the first few nail-biting minutes of TROLLHUNTERS: RISE OF THE TITANS—arriving next week on Netflix! pic.twitter.com/wDlD0TGmeO
Netflix hasn’t made as big a deal about this movie as it has for other recent releases, particularly the Fear Street trilogy, but the smaller campaign has played well to the elements that have made the original series successful. There’s a good deal of humor as well as the promise of plenty of supernatural action and adventure, which is exactly what fans are likely to expect. There could have been more done to pull in some new fans and explain how it concludes the three series already available, but that’s a relatively minor quibble in an otherwise solid push.
If it’s the end of summer that means it’s time for studios to start rolling out their slate of horror movies. This week brings one of the first of the season, Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark. Directed by André Øvredal and produced/written by Guillermo del Toro, the movie is based on a series of short story collections, with those stories being woven together into a single narrative for the film.
That narrative is focused around a group of teenagers in the rural small town of Mill Valley. They discover a book written long ago by Sarah Bellows, a troubled young girl part of a family that has dominated the town’s history and legacy. As they work their way through the book they realize the terrifying stories Sarah wrote down are coming true as a series of monsters begins terrorizing them and those around them.
In early February, around the same time the first teasers were released, the first teaser poster came out. It doesn’t show a whole lot, just a creepy scarecrow in the foreground and a dilapidated house in the back, all under ominous, cloudy skies. The second poster shows Stella looking in a mirror to figure out what is happening to her, especially regarding some sort of massive wound on her face. A third shows a lone figure standing at the end of a hallway bathed in red light, adding a stark sense of dread to the image while the fourth shows a terrifying creature walking down a dark staircase.
The first full trailer, released two months after the first teasers appeared, presents Sarah Bellows’ book of scary stories as the central element to everything that happens to Stella. There isn’t much of the plot that’s explained here beyond Stella intoning “You don’t read the book, the book reads you” and lots of things that go bump in the night. Still, it effectively sets the tone and promises audiences a lot of scares in theaters.
The second trailer is just as creepy. It’s also a bit more clear about the plot, showing how the book discovered by Stella contains stories that feature the names of other kids who were with her, all of whom die in various nasty ways. So she has to convince people of the danger and try and stop the stories from coming true before anyone else falls victim to the evil lurking in the book’s pages.
Released in July at the same time del Toro was appearing at Comic-Con, the Jangly Man trailer focused on that particular story in the movie and included lots of characters talking about how they don’t believe the myth of the book that causes so much trouble and death.
One final trailer released just days ago featured visuals that emphasized how the book has been brought to the screen, with illustrations of scenes transitioning into the actual filmed sequences. It shows off some of the supernatural threats the kids have unleashed by opening Sarah’s book, presenting a series of chilling encounters. This one gained a lot of attention for featuring a cover of “Seasons of the Witch” by Lana Del Ray.
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The second trailer – the official version – opens the movie’s website. Most all of the sections introduce the content in the context of “Sarah’s stories.” So the Photos section encourages visitors to see how Sarah’s stories have been brought to life and so on. It’s an effective way to keep people in the setting of the story and reinforce the framing device used in the movie. There’s also a section where people can have their name inserted into a story that can then be shared on social media and elsewhere.
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While the movie had been anticipated for a while, the first big coming out for the film came when CBS Films bought a series of short commercials during the 2019 Super Bowl, with each spot – compiled by the studio here – focusing on a different aspect of the story.
Both Øvredal and Del Toro were scheduled to appear at San Diego Comic-Con earlier this year on a panel to talk about this film and their love of scary movies in general.
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Del Toro offered his insights on the stories told in the movie and talked about his love of scary stories along with similar comments from Øvredal.
Del Toro and others clarified why the setting and character types were chosen for their ability to tie all the disparate stories together into a cohesive narrative.
Just days before the movie hit theaters, del Toro was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. During the ceremony he spoke about this movie film as well as his career in general. Those comments contain the single best response to date from a filmmaker asked about the difference between working with a traditional movie studio and a streaming distributor like Netflix.
“I execute my craft exactly in the same way through both [Netflix and Fox Searchlight],” he says. “And the thing I have with both is a very clear relationship: they know what I do. At this point I’ve been directing and producing for more than a quarter of a century, so you become like a certain type of tree. If you come to an orange tree, you’re not going to get an apple. I’m very clear with what I want.”
It’s not surprising that del Toro’s presence has been all over this campaign, from his name being included in the trailers and posters to the big role he’s played in the publicity and press efforts. He’s a filmmaker with a lot of name recognition in the audience – particularly among discerning movie lovers – and a sterling reputation for creativity and originality, particularly in the horror genre.
It’s that creativity and originality that are pervasive throughout the marketing as CBS Films and Lionsgate seek to sell the movie as a chilling time at the theater for audiences that have had enough laughs and adventures thanks to franchise installments.
The campaign has made a point to include elements from the various stories plucked from the source books, but framing device of the kids working through Sarah Bellows’ book is sometimes less than clear. That could create some confusion in audiences not familiar with those books who are subsequently not sure what to expect, confusion that could wind up hurting the movie’s box office prospects in a weekend likely to still be dominated by the high octane action of Hobbs and Shaw.
Picking Up the Spare
A MovieClips-exclusive featurette focused on the practical makeup used to bring some of the story’s creatures to life.
Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is back in theaters with another of his fantasy-driven stories. Set in the Cold War of the early 1960s, The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who gets a job as a cleaning lady at a top-secret government facility alongside Zelda (Octavia Spencer). They’re sworn to secrecy because of what’s housed there, including a strange and potentially dangerous amphibian humanoid (Doug Jones) that’s kept in a tank.
Overseeing the facility is Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) along with Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Elisa violates multiple protocols when she begins interacting with the creature, eventually falling in love with him. She creates a plan to rescue it from captivity with the help of Zelda and Giles (Richard Jenkins). That effort is complicated by not only Strickland’s manic desire for secrecy and bully-like nature but by the political intrigue that results in many agencies and parties being interested in the creature.
The first poster uses artwork released around the time of the trailer but now formatted for a one-sheet. It shows Alice and The Asset locked in a passionate embrace, a variation on the kind of pose you’d see on the cover of an airport bookstore romance novel. Kelp and water flow around them. It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful image that’s accompanied by the movie’s festival credentials. Thankfully the amount of text that gets in the way of the design is minimal.
There’s still no copy or plot points on the second poster, but who needs it when you have an image of a woman being embraced by some sort of strange mer-creature while they both float underwater. As with everything else it’s striking and unique and gets the point of the movie across as opposed to trying to fully explain the story to the audience.
The first trailer seemed to come out of nowhere and set us into the world of Eliza, a mute woman who works in a creepy, secretive government installation where they seem to house monsters. She’s supposed to just clean and nothing else and we hear about how dangerous and special the creature they’re studying is. But she forms a connection with it through their shared inability to speak. The head of the facility is less than sympathetic, just wanting to dissect the monster, but she wants to help it escape. That causes all sorts of problems, of course.
Why aren’t I watching this right now.
A red-band trailer (due to language) was up next. It starts off after Elisa has already taken The Asset from the facility it’s confined to. Strickland is determined to get it back, repeatedly questioning her, Zelda and others. It intercuts between his search for who stole it and her attempts to do so, all while repeating how important it is and how everyone is after it.
What’s on display most here are the performances of Hawkins and Shannon, both of whom are powerhouses in their own way, either silently or loudly. Not only that, but del Toro’s amazing visual style is clear as day here, both in the design of The Asset and the world all these characters live in. He makes a 1950s living room appear just as dark and mysterious as the secret lab where The Asset is housed. It’s incredible.
The next trailer, a red-band version, starts out with Elisa receiving her orders from Strickland to steer clear of the creature being held at the facility, a warning that’s reinforced when Strickland is injured. Eventually she forms a bond with the creature and helps him escape, both because of his treatment by Strickland and a plot by the Russians to kill it. Elisa’s plan is exposed and she – and it – are hunted down by all interested parties to finally secure what has been deemed a threat to all involved.
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The final red-band trailer opens the official website, so take a few minutes and watch that again. After that’s done the splash page features the key art of Elisa and the Amphibian Man embracing underwater. A rotating series of positive quotes from early reviews are displayed below the title along with the film’s festival credentials as well as its Rotten Tomatoes “Fresh” certification. In the bottom left are the links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles.
Moving to the content menu at the top, “Cast” kicks things off with a photo and quote from the actor or about him or her from del Toro along with it. Same with “Filmmakers.”
“Story” has a brief synopsis of the plot. All three trailers can be found and viewed in the “Videos” section. Finally, “Fan Art” displays some fan creations based on the character in the film.
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A massive series of TV spots like this one were released just a week before release, each one featuring a slightly different collection of footage and scenes. It’s possible there’s some connective material here but they all offered a basic overview of the story and characters while selling the movie as a tight thriller.
If there were online or social ads I’m not aware of them. It’s possible some, along with outdoor signage were run in the initial select markets the movie has hit. The only online effort I’ve encountered is the placement of the trailer as a pre-roll ad on YouTube.
Media and Publicity
The movie was announced as one of those that would screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. It also was slated for the Venice Film Festival, where it racked up impressively positive buzz and where talked about the look and feel and story of his unusual movie. Already great word-of-mouth was only enhanced when the movie won the Golden Lion at Venice. During TIFF, del Toro talked about different aspects of the story and characters, including how he saw Hawkins’ caretaker as a sort of Disney Princess.
There was a fascinating feature on the design of those first bits of promotional poster artwork that went behind the scenes on the creative process of artist James Jean.
Spencer talked about how she was finally able to play someone for whom race wasn’t the defining characteristic as well as the responsibility of handling so much of the dialogue alongside Hawkins’ silent performance. There was also a lengthy profile of Doug Jones, a frequent collaborator of del Toro who plays the role of the Amphibian Man that drives the story. That profile emphasized how many movies and TV shows he’s been in and how infrequently we’ve ever seen his face since, as in this movie, he’s usually hidden behind masks and makeup, something he’s specialized in because of his unique ability to offer emotional performances even when hidden. Another similar profile hit many of the same beats.
Shannon also got involved, with a profile of the actor that included talk of how he got involved in the movie and how he approached creating the character. He also talked about filming the movie in appearance in the media including “Late Night.”
It’s not surprising to see the marketing for a movie from del Toro rely this strongly on a combination of secrecy, fantasy, mystery, story and visual style. That’s been his stock and trade for years now, with each film using all those elements to varying degrees. His movies are, as much as anyone else working in Hollywood, a representation of his imagination. Strong word of mouth that’s focused on the performances of Hawkins and Spencer propelled it from early screenings and seem to have primed the pump for the movie to finally hit wide release.
The campaign started off with a bang, the out-of-nowhere release of that first trailer, and kept up a solid pace over the intervening months. It’s been remarkably consistent, showing off the artistry of the visuals, the emotions of the story and the depth of the characters at most every turn. The lack of press push involving Hawkins is somewhat surprising, but there’s likely a reason behind that decision. Still, as the central focus of the story I would have expected her to play a bigger role in the publicity. It’s a small gripe in relation to a wonderful overall effort.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.