what the huh? batgirl shelved by warner bros.

Barbara Gordon doesn’t get any respect

You can’t help but notice the timing.

About a week and a half ago Marvel Studios unveiled their cinematic plans through 2025, announcing the next entries in what is now being referred to as “The Multiverse Saga” with interconnected movies and streaming series culminating in another two-part Avengers finale. Directors have already been hired, plans made and more, even as the studio preps for the debut of “She-Hulk: Attorney At Law” on Disney+ and basks in the success of the latest Thor movie.

And based on how recent Marvel Studios have gone, it’s reasonable to speculate that the embrace of the “multiverse” will allow it to bring together several disparate efforts from recent years – the Netflix Defenders, Fox Mutants and anything else that isn’t connected to Spider-Man and therefore controlled by Sony – under one roof, plucking the best from each territory to build the next decade of cultural dominance.

This approach, where everything is connected and each chapter builds toward a conclusion (that isn’t really a conclusion but simply the jumping off point for what’s next), has been refined by Marvel Studios and Disney over the last several years.

By way of answer to this latest onslaught, Warner Bros. Discovery (the name of the new post-merger company) has decided to trip over its own shoelaces and faceplant into an anti-personnel mine.

Season 5 GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

As evidence, see the decision announced earlier this week to unexpectedly shelf the nearly-complete Batgirl movie starring Leslie Grace.

The film didn’t have an official release date. And whether it was going to be released theatrically or just on HBO Max was a conversation that seemed to go back and forth, especially as Discovery exerted more control over the company and its output.

But, at least for now, it won’t be seen anywhere, reportedly because the studio has calculated it can get more from not releasing it at all and taking the tax writeoff than it could from sending it to theaters, streaming, VOD or other platforms.

Putting aside whether test screenings were lukewarm, or if there was internal disagreement about whether to invest more money in order to make it a bigger theatrical “spectacle”, this is a weird decision.

It’s hard to think of any recent precedent for a studio to remove a film entirely from release consideration. Dates have been pushed back, movies removed from calendars for a while for various reasons and plans otherwise altered, but for a title to just be spiked completely, especially when it’s this close to being finished, is just insane.

Not only that, but it’s hard to imagine WBD making the same decision if a Batman or Superman movie was getting the same early reactions. And it’s worth pointing out Batgirl’s $90 million budget is just a little more than Warner Bros. gave Zack Snyder to reclaim Justice League and turn it into an even longer and more incoherent movie, with the studio specifically using it as a lure to build HBO Max subscriptions.

This news comes just a few months after the company shut down pre-production on a planned Wonder Twins film, again citing the “it would cost too much to make it theatrical but it’s too expensive for streaming” justification.

Twins GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

These are just the latest examples of the lack of coherent or consistent strategy or plan around the DC cinematic franchise.

  • Man of Steel 2 eventually became Batman v Superman, which was delayed a by nearly a year because Zack Snyder needed “more time”
  • Suicide Squad was effectively taken out of the hands of director David Goyer, with editing turned over in part to a trailer production agency. The movie was such a disappointment with critics and fans the sequel The Suicide Squad effectively ignores it and starts over, only carrying Harley Quinn over.
  • We all know what happened when the studio tried to create a Justice League team movie
  • At one point there were three different Joker movies in development but only one wound up getting made
  • A proposed Harley Quinn solo movie eventually became Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey, which again just doesn’t bother with much of what’s come before
  • Green Lantern Corps was announced at SDCC 2015 but, aside from a few vague comments, it seems like this is dead in the water. A TV series from producer Greg Berlanti was also announced a while ago but it’s been a bit since there was any public momentum on it
  • New Gods was announced in 2018 with Ava DuVernay directing and comics superstar Tom King writing, but the project was killed in 2021
  • A Cyborg solo film was announced in 2014 and even given a 2020 release date, but that never happened

That’s actually just a small sampling of the projects that have been canceled, altered and otherwise taken to a farm upstate. Over the course of all this, the studio managed to burn almost all the goodwill earned by Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn by constantly shifting her character around. That goes right up to just days ago, when Lady Gaga confirmed she’ll play Harley in a sequel to Joker.

Screaming Harley Quinn GIF by The Suicide Squad - Find & Share on GIPHY

It also throws everything currently planned for the near future into doubt.

Solo movies featuring Static Shock, Blue Beetle, Zatanna and Booster Gold were expected to go to HBO Max but now it seems those films will either be shut down before production begins or have their budgets increased to make them worthy of theatrical release. Given projects with characters who aren’t white men seem to be first on the chopping block, it’s not recommended you hold your breath for these to come out.

If WBD is truly emphasizing theatrical features for its DC properties, it makes the potential for a second season of “Peacemaker” questionable, though director James Gunn has said things are still set on that front, and might even throw the various spinoffs of The Batman into the Maybe Pile.

Most notably, the question now becomes what WBD does with The Flash.

Being generous, the movie originally had a 2018 release date, but that was four directors and six screenwriters ago. It was positioned by the studio as being a new start for the DCEU that fully embraced a Multiverse encompassing both the cinematic and television iterations of characters. Big buzz surrounded announcements Michael Keaton was returning as Batman and Sasha Calle had been cast as Supergirl, the latter being setup for her own later solo outing.

Over the last several months star Ezra Miller has been arrested for harassment multiple times and has more recently faced charges he’s holding people in Vermont on a farm stocked with firearms and that he’s harassed others overseas.

So with a budget of $200 million (but likely more than that given the multiple stops and starts it’s experienced), does Warner Discovery cut its losses on this film and let it fall to the ash heap? The idea of trying to promote anything with Miller has to be extremely unattractive right now, though the studio hasn’t let past incidents with the actor stop it from including him in DC and Wizarding World projects. And if it does, what does that mean for Calle’s Supergirl or Keaton’s Batman?

There have been multiple reports over the last few years that the studio doesn’t know what to do with Superman (which is mind-boggling in and of itself) but it seems few there know what to do with any of their super hero characters.

Each time a new leadership team comes in they seem intent on burning down the projects of the previous administration and creating their own “10-year plan”. While that might be standard operating procedure in Hollywood, the impact is different when you’re trying to create a cohesive universe of characters and stories since no plan ever has enough time to get any traction. And knee-jerk decisions are made at the studio level that never make anything better.

For years WB has said it needs a figure like Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige to oversee everything, but the four or five people it’s tried to put into that role have never been given the power to make changes, nor have they lasted long enough before they’re shuffled out after their first movie doesn’t have a $500 million opening weekend.

It’s extremely disappointing to see Batgirl cast aside like this. The project seemed to have a lot going for it and likely would have worked on either the small or big screen. More than that, it’s disappointing to see there still isn’t a plan other than to keep letting Marvel/Disney+ dominate the super hero genre both in theaters and on streaming.

kimi – marketing recap

How Warner Bros. has sold a drama about whistleblowing and isolation.

Kimi movie poster Warner bros. HBO Max
Kimi movie poster

Director Steven Soderbergh is back with another in his career-long experiment with style, structure and genre. This time around it’s Kimi.

Zoe Kravitz stars as Angela Childs, an agoraphobic woman who works from home for a tech company. One day she finds what she believes to be evidence of a violent crime in the data she’s reviewing, but her higher ups don’t seem to be interested in acting on it. So Childs has to confront her fears and venture outside her apartment to find others who will take it seriously.

The movie also stars Rita Wilson, Byron Bowers, India de Beaufort and others as the people Childs has to deal with in her efforts to find someone who will believe her story. Let’s take a look at how it’s been sold.

announcements and casting

HBO Max announced the film in late February, 2021 with Kravitz starring and Soderbergh directing. Bowers, Erika Christensen, Devin Ratray and the rest of the cast joined a couple months later in advance of filming taking place in the middle of last year.

the marketing campaign

The trailer (120,000 YouTube views) was the first bit of marketing that was released, hitting in mid-January. After some juxtaposition of Childs’ automated home/work life and her running from something dangerous, we settle in to see how she has arranged her life so she never needs to leave her apartment. When she hears what she believes to be a murder on an audio file she’s transcribing she finds her superiors want her to forget it. Others are also skeptical, but despite attempts to make her feel she’s the crazy one her fears seem to be justified as she’s targeted by some powerful people who want her to go away.

Childs peers nervously around a corner, hoodie up to keep her as hidden as possible, on the first and only poster, released at the end of January. As if her positioning weren’t enough, the “She’s not the only one listening” copy hints strongly that there’s something sinister about the story.

Outside of those elements there wasn’t much to the marketing of the movie. Kravitz has been in the press quite a bit lately, but that’s mostly for The Batman, coming out next month.

Just now a 30-second cutdown of the trailer was released that hits the major points of Childs being on the run after hearing something she wasn’t supposed to and navigating the various parties who at best don’t believe her and at worst want to eliminate her.

overall

What I’m most surprised at is that this isn’t getting a bigger push from Warner Bros. and HBO Max. Not that everything Steven Soderbergh does needs to be treated like the biggest release of the year, but it feels like this is an afterthought for the studio/platform as they focus on not only major features like The Batman but also buzzier titles like “Euphoria” and others that have captured the public’s attention.

That being said, Soderbergh has rarely (if ever) turned in something boring and this doesn’t seem to deviate from that. He doesn’t turn genres upside down like the Coen Brothers, but instead offers examples of what the best of a genre can look like, a talent that’s on display fully in this trailer.

On top of that, more than other similar recent movies, it creates a sense of dread around what are now largely considered everyday conveniences and devices. Every time the KIMI says “I’m here,” you’re reminded of how the one-sheet copy hints at everything being monitored, with the vague threat that those sessions will be used against us in some way.

the matrix resurrections – marketing recap

How Warner Bros. has sold an unexpected sequel

The Matrix Resurrections movie poster
The Matrix Resurrections movie poster

1999’s The Matrix was, of course, a massive success and a groundbreaking shift in the idea of what science fiction on film could look like and, even more importantly, *be* like. After two subsequent sequels (which are better than conventional wisdom in the early 00s held them to be) the series seemed to be done, with The Wachowski Sisters moving on to other projects.

Now it’s back with The Matrix Resurrections. Lana Wachowski directs, with Keanu Reeves returning as Neo and Carrie-Anne Moss back as Trinity.

The story picks up 20 years after The Matrix Revolutions, with Neo living in what seems to be the real world under the name Thomas Anderson, working a job and occasionally seeing things he thinks are odd or unusual. He also meets Tiffany, the “real world” version of Trinity, someone he can’t help but think he has some kind of connection to. Eventually Thomas meets a new version of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who gives him a red pill that once more opens his mind to the reality that is a new, more aggressive Matrix, with Neo and Trinity again going to war against the machines.

Neil Patrick Harris, Jessica Henwick, Jonathan Groff, Jada Pinkett Smith and others also star as those either fighting against or with the pair.

announcement and casting

The announcement of the fourth movie in August, 2019 came after a year or so of conversation about what plans Warner Bros. might have for the property. Speculation had included prequels or sequels that would go beyond the story of Neo, Trinity and the others and often didn’t include the involvement of the original creators. So when WB let it drop that most, if not all, the excitement was palpable.

The movie was one of many to have its production put on hiatus because of the Covid-19 outbreak, with the release date pushed from its original March, 2020 to April of 2021. It was later moved back to December, 2021.

In mid-2020 Ross and others were interviewed about their reactions to the project happening, what they were most looking forward to about the film and more. Harris and Reeves both commented on the story over the course of the year, as did Moss and others.

One of the first, albeit very brief, looks at the movie came via an HBO Max promo touting the same day theatrical/streaming availability of WB’s 2021 lineup.

Abdul-Mateen II talked about joining the franchise and what it was like to film the movie in an interview that covered a number of projects the actor is involved in.

down the rabbit hole: the marketing campaign begins

This past August marked the first steps toward a formal marketing campaign when Warner Bros. brought footage from the film to exhibitors and other attendees of CinemaCon.

That really kicked off in early September when a video teasing the arrival of the first trailer was released. Also in that video was the https://www.whatisthematrix.com URL where visitors could get a brief look at the first footage from the new film, with different experiences for those selecting red or blue pills.

When the first trailer (41m YouTube views) finally did come out it hinted at a very different continuation of the series than people might have imagined. Neo – now living in The Matrix under the name Thomas and with no memory of what’s come before – is having dreams of things he knows couldn’t have happened but is otherwise living his life. Even meeting Trinity, also suffering amnesia, doesn’t trigger anything in his mind. Things start to change when he goes off his meds (which just happen to be blue pills) and is then offered a red pill by Morpheus. So Neo has to go through the process of discovery all over again, followed by lots of visually impressive fights and other challenges he and the others have to navigate and overcome.

Later that month it was announced the movie’s premiere would take place in San Francisco.

A featurette released in early October had this movie’s cast and crew reminiscing about the first movie in particular and its legacy on their lives specifically and the overall culture more generally.

The first poster came out in late October and, like the teaser videos and other images released earlier, it focuses exclusively on the red and blue pills sitting side by side, waiting for someone to choose one or the other. Intriguingly the copy at the top reads “Now, based on real events.”

In an interview later that month Abdul-Mateen II confirmed he was playing Morpheus, albeit a different version of the character than what we’ve seen before.

United Masters launched a contest where songwriters could submit their original compositions for the chance to win $15,000 and a chance to have that song featured in the movie’s promotional and marketing campaign.

The five primary characters are arranged on the theatrical poster, released in mid-November. Neo and Trinity are dressed in familiar outfits while the other characters each get something that fits with the story as well as their role and personality, all in front of the green code that symbolizes the Matrix.

Some of the biggest moments from the trailer and more are pulled into the first of several TV spots that kicked off that part of the campaign.

Warner Bros. partnered with Niftys.com to create 100,000 NFTs inspired by the movie people could buy with the option later to keep the NFTs as they are or choose to have them transformed, with more such opportunities coming later as well.

Each of the main characters got their own poster as part of a series of one sheets that came out in late November.

One of many profiles of Reeves focused on his zen, chill approach to the acting gig he’s been in for decades as well as this movie in particular.

IMAX announced that, for the first time ever, the original film would be screened in the large format for two nights in early December, part of a move to not only bring audiences back to theaters but also of course set the stage and build anticipation for this new installment.

Short videos continued to come out regularly offering recut versions of what we’d already seen along with tantalizing glimpses of new footage that usually generated more questions than were answered.

A few new photos and comments from Henwick, Wachowski and others were included in an EW cover story focusing on the reunion of Moss and Reeves and how they quickly fell back into the easy connection and chemistry they’d developed over the filming of the first three movies.

your mind makes it real: the marketing campaign continues

Moving into December there was another interview with/profile of Abdul-Mateen II where he talked about putting his own spin on the character of Morpheus.

The “glitch in The Matrix” concept introduced in the first movie is used in an extended TV spot as a way to highlight how things have changed but are still familiar over the years.

The American Red Cross ran a sweepstakes offering the chance to win a private hometown screening of the movie to those who came in to donate blood in advance of the holiday season.

“I remember this,” Neo says in the opening moments of the second trailer (12.8m YouTube views). From there we see what’s new through the lens of what’s come before, whether it’s Neo and Trinity’s relationship, a new look for the Smith agents that safeguard the Matrix or anything else. But we’re also told “Maybe this isn’t the story we think it is,” a line reminiscent of Luke Skywalker intoning “This is not going to go the way you think” in the trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

The IMAX exclusive poster puts Neo and Trinity at the center of The Matrix. There was also an IMAX-specific TV spot that shows Neo reluctant to get back into the fight.

A MovieClips featurette focused on the relationship between Neo and Trinity and how those characters are informed by the chemistry between the actors playing them

Abdul-Mateen II talked more about becoming Morpheus and working on the film when he appeared on “The Tonight Show.”

The first official clip debuted during the “Game Awards” earlier this month. It shows Anderson being led by Bugs through a series of portals until they finally arrive at Morpheus. In a sly twist, and a hint of the movie’s overall tone, he seeks to reassure Anderson by including scenes of his previous life, saying that nostalgia can be soothing and comforting.

That show was also where Unreal Engine debuted a demo of the company’s 3D technology set in the world of the movie and featuring many of its characters, including an introduction by Reeves.

Reeves talked about the movie and more on “The Late Show” as did Groff in his appearance a few days later. Priyanka Chopra Jonas showed up on “Late Night” to talk about keeping the story’s secrets. Harris then appeared on “Kimmel.”

Another featurette was about the place the original movie now holds in our culture and how this installment builds on what’s come before. The action and stuntwork was covered in another featurette.

Nvidia ran a promotional campaign where it had creators design movie-inspired custom PC mods, which fans could win by entering a sweepstakes by Retweeting one of the posts.

Users of Snapchat and other apps could add themselves to the Matrix via an AR app. A movie-inspired effect was also added to Instagram and Facebook that could be used during video calls.

The United Masters contest mentioned above paid off recently with a new spot that featured “Back To Life” by Quantrelle.

The green carpet premiere was held earlier this week in San Francisco, just making it in under the wire given a number of other premieres and events have been canceled because of the current Covid-19 case surge in the U.S. At the premiere Wachowski talked about making the movie without her sister while the rest of the cast was just amazed the movie was made at all.

The Matrix Resurrections online ad

Another clip was released via IGN, this one showing the moment leading up to the scene in the earlier clip as Thomas is confronted for the first time by Bugs, agreeing to go with her to learn the truth of what’s seemed so unusual about his life.

Moss was interviewed again about how this movie is part of and was influenced by what had come before in her career and what’s come after her first outing as Trinity. She and Reeves then spoke more about the strength of their on-screen relationship and how that informs the story this time around.

overall

The initial reactions that came out after the premiere were mostly positive, calling out the “metatextual” nature of the story and how strong the stars are in returning to their roles. The full reviews published since then have been a bit more mixed, focusing on action sequences and other components that don’t quite live up to the promise of what was featured in the first movie and the two earlier sequels.

But the campaign itself has been *very* strong, mostly because it leans early and often on the personalities of Reeves and Moss. They may not be Bogart and Bacall, but it’s clear they have a deep friendship that helps them play off each other professionally and were both committed to only returning to this franchise if it rang true with what had come before.

It also benefits from more than a little self-awareness, with characters commenting on how expectations may be upended and things may turn out differently than anticipated. That’s a good way to set the stage for a sequel that seems to have a clear message, even if it’s not the message people might assume based on the earlier films.

king richard – marketing recap

How Warner Bros. has sold a biopic about the man behind two legends

Most biopics are about the people who have made the headlines, not the people who pushed them along the way or otherwise supported them. Sure, those folks may appear as supporting characters, but the movie itself is about the lead singer, the star athlete, the groundbreaking comedian.

King Richard, out this week in theaters and on HBO Max, takes a different tack. The movie is focused on Richard Williams (Will Smith), the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena. Set when those two were still up-and-coming childhood prodigies, the story is about how their father not only pushed them to be their best on and off the court but pushed, cajoled and bargained for them to get every opportunity to excel.

As several people have said on Twitter and elsewhere, it takes a special sort of mindset to take two of the greatest tennis players to ever compete and decide that it’s actually their father who deserves to be the focus of a motion picture.

announcement and casting

Shortly after the film was announced in 2019 it was slammed with a lawsuit by those who claim their work was being stolen by the producers and filmmakers. That lawsuit was eventually settled so that production could continue.

Smith was attached to star from the outset, with others added to the cast over the first half of 2020. Those additions included Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney as Serena and Venus, respectively, as well as Joe Bernthal, Liev Schrieber and others as the people the Williams family encounters along the way from potential to success.

One of the first, albeit very brief, looks at the movie came via an HBO Max promo touting the same day theatrical/streaming availability of WB’s 2021 lineup. Another promo showed off a bit more footage.

the marketing campaign

Richard pushing the girls in a shopping cart filled with tennis balls is the central image on the first poster from July. Copy at the bottom makes it clear the story is about “Venus, Serena and a plan for greatness.”

The first trailer (14.1m YouTube views) came out in late July and opens with Richard coming home with Venus and Serena to find a child services investigator in the house. He contends he’s hard on those two and the other kids but that they are all becoming better people as a result. His ambition is evident throughout the trailer as he pushes the girls to perform at the top of the game, constantly putting them in positions to show off what they can do.

The movie was among those shown off by Warner Bros. at CinemaCon in late August.

How Smith has changed his perspective about his career and how that plays into the choice to take on this project were covered in an extensive profile of the actor from September.

After that it screened at AFI Fest, where it was the closing feature, and at the London BFI Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival. It was also the centerpiece screening at Miami Film Festival GEMS in November.

Empire debuted the second poster in October, this one showing the three main characters huddled together as the copy tells us this is a true story we’ll have to see to believe.

Another trailer, (4m YouTube views) this one featuring “Be Alive” by Beyonce, came out in mid-October. It’s less about the domestic troubles of the Williams household and more about the push-back Richard gets every time he wants to give his girls a chance to perform. But he also is obstinate in constantly going against the grain of what people advise him to do with their careers, which causes as many problems as it solves.

Promos like this began running after that as TV spots, social promotions, pre-roll ads and more.

At the beginning of November the movie was the opening feature at the American Black Film Festival. Just before that it had been the closing night feature of the Chicago Film Festival where it won the Best Feature Audience Choice Award.

Smith, Sidney and Singleton were the subjects of an Entertainment Weekly cover story that had them talking about researching their roles, the process of actually making the movie and lots more.

Earlier there had been a number of early screenings at colleges, culminating with a coordinated push to historically black colleges and universities to try and reach those audiences ahead of time and begin building even more buzz outside the usual critics and media circles.

A video was released showing the real life Venus and Serena visiting the set and meeting, apparently for the first time, the girls who are playing them as children and the other actors playing family members and others.

Reports emerged around that time that Smith himself wrote checks to many of his costars and others in an effort to compensate them for the revenue they stood to lose because of the changed release plan, which could impact their bottom line. Whatever the case, the stories were intended to help burnish Smith’s image as a nice guy and a leader on set.

Aunjanue Ellis, who plays the Willams sisters’ mother, was profiled about her experience on this movie and how it fits into a career spent mostly as a secondary player. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green was interviewed about how he first heard about the project and how he ultimately scored the job after making a connection with Smith and convincing him he could do the story justice.

MovieClips released an exclusive featurette covering the dynamics and drive of the Williams family.

Smith has made the talk show rounds of “The Tonight Show,” “The Daily Show” and more, including an appearance on Oprah’s show. Even the real Serena stopped by “Kimmel” to promote the movie. Sidney and Singleton made multiple stops together, including on “Drew Barrymore” and “Tamron Hall” talk shows.

The three major stars showed up at a Chicago tennis event to talk about the movie and encourage those folks to go see it.

What it felt like to play a sports icon so early in her career was covered in a profile of Sidney.

Regal Cinemas and AMC Theaters both featured exclusive video interviews with the cast and crew.

Both Smith and Ellis received the Outstanding Performers of the Year Award from the 37th annual Santa Barbara Film Festival. The two were also jointly interviewed about the movie specifically but also what it has to say about black families and other topics.

There were additional profiles of Ellis and Bernthal, the former focusing again on how this is her long-worked for overnight success and the latter how it’s an opportunity for the actor to not play a stereotypical tough guy character.

The Williams sisters stopped by the movie’s red carpet premiere at AFI Fest where the cast talked about portraying people who are still alive and more.

That was followed by a cast and crew appearance at an event at Wimbledon in London that also served as the movie’s UK premiere.

Ellis appeared on “Kimmel” just days before release.

overall

Reviews have been very good – the movie is 91% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes – but tracking estimates an opening weekend of just about $10 million, which would be pretty low.

That could be for a number of reasons: A lack of interest in largely conventional biopics, the split distribution pattern, other plans over the weekend before Thanksgiving or something entirely different.

But the campaign hasn’t really taken a wrong step, so it doesn’t seem that the marketing is playing a role in those lowered expectations. Of course that may be part of the problem, that following the variation on a theme shown in Spencer and other recent true stories, something that’s more conventionally heartfelt, inspiring and standard just isn’t resonating

dune – movie review

Thoughts and reactions while wondering the Gom Jabbar scene was triggering to the anti-vaccine crowd…

So I watched Dune.

Despite the most peer-pressure I’ve felt since high school, that viewing took place in the comfort of my own home, via an internet streaming device connected to my television set. I understand this violates the catholic doctrine that has swept the world of film criticism, where anything less than 100% adherence to seeing the movie on the biggest theatrical screen available requires immediate confession and will result in generations to come being required to buy AMC Indulgences™.

Somehow I was able to still enjoy the movie and appreciate the work of director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser. This is obviously because, based on the opinions of various essayists and sharers of hot takes, I do not truly love film, nor do I support filmmakers.

Its Time Adventure GIF by Dune Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

Still, there are a handful of thoughts I’d like to share, though of course you are free to give my opinions the weight you consider appropriate given the shameful admissions above.

on the presentation…

I’m the first one to agree that theatrical viewing is great, but we need to do away with the notion that there’s some sort of hallowed experience that needs to be preserved. Even putting issues of the quality of the theater – including the parking lot, lobby and everything else connected with it – aside, arguments that seeing a movie theatrically is “immersive” fall apart quickly. That’s especially true with any movie over 1:45. After that point I’m no longer immersed in whatever I’m watching and can only concentrate after I miss 10 minutes of the movie and come back to my seat.

Tell me how that’s a more pure viewing experience than being able to pause the film and come back to it without missing a single scene.

Also, I’m going to assume every critic and columnist insisting people can only fully appreciate the movie on a massive screen will not be buying or viewing any home video release, including its current streaming on HBO Max. Wouldn’t want to sully yourself, after all.

Which leads me to:

on the box-office…

Dune’s $40 million domestic opening weekend total may seem somewhat on the small side, especially since both Halloween Kills and No Time To Die recently hit or exceeded $50 million and Venom: Let There Be Carnage hit $90.

Conventional wisdom has suggested that, if Dune hadn’t been on HBO Max in addition to theaters, it might have scored closer to $80 million or so. But that $40 million is significantly better than Villeneuve’s last two big budget sci-fi movies, and given the…imposing…nature of the source material in this instance, it could have been a lot lower.

While it’s impossible to prove a hypothetical alternative, I’m inclined to believe the constant “go see it in theaters!” message from the filmmakers, critics and the campaign itself motivated a lot of people to go do just that. In a non-HBO Max timeline my hunch is the weekend total would still be under $50 million, and the long-term value of the hybrid release to Warner Bros. is probably greater than the difference.

on the visual design…

One thing Villeneuve, with the help of his production designers and other trades experts, seems to do better than many other current filmmakers is create a sense of proportion between massive sets (both practical and virtual) and the performers being asked to move in and around them.

Fight Defend GIF by Dune Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

Throughout Dune, especially in the first 1:30, characters are walking around massive 50-foot tall inscribed solid walls. Somehow the director and his team are able to successfully convey the size of these while also showing the characters as fully inhabiting them instead of being dwarfed by them.

on the performances…

That’s in part because the performances of the actors are not trying to fill the room. Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet all seem to be acting in a small, storefront black-box theater instead of on the set of an epic sci-fi motion picture. The focus from all of them and others is on the moment and the emotions contained therein, not on trying to act next to a huge dragonfly-esque flying craft.

There’s not really a weak link in the chain in terms of cast. The three mentioned above are all great, Chamalet conveying a lot about Paul Atreides simply by staring at the sculpture of his grandfather fighting a bull, Isaac being stoically honorable behind his thick beard and Ferguson clearly demonstrating love for her son Paul despite repeatedly setting him up for various tortures and tests.

Serious Film GIF by Dune Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

Also completely enjoyable are Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling and others. Rampling in particular manages to be more menacing behind her black veil than most mustache-twirling villains in other movies.

Speaking of which:

on the score…

The praise being given to composer Hans Zimmer for his score is absolutely deserved. But you really have to stand up and applaud how the music fits into the overall sound design from Mark Mangini and Theo Green, who are responsible for creating everything from huge mining vehicles to the smallest sound of two grains of sand bouncing off each other.

I mean it’s no Toto, but in this economy, what is?

on the comparisons to David Lynch’s 1984 film…

The two can’t really be compared, at least not objectively. They’re both trying to do completely different things and convey completely different themes and messages.

Villeneuve’s movie is more straightforward, seeing the whole story about honor and destiny, whereas Lynch’s is more about the machinations of the characters that lead them to take the actions they do and break the trusts they do. That’s most seen by considering what scenes Lynch included but Villeneuve did not and vice versa.

The visuals are just as stunning in both versions but in different ways, most clearly exemplified by the different approaches to portraying Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), not just because certain…unsavory…aspects of the character have been excised in the new version but in the general design of the gluttonous leader of the clan opposing House Atreides.

Adventure Float GIF by Dune Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

the many saints of newark – marketing recap

How Warner Bros. has sold the much-anticipated prequel to a critically-acclaimed series.

The Many Saints of Newark poster

“The Sopranos” retains its status as one of the most acclaimed and influential series of all time even 14 years after its final episode aired. It is still a cultural touchpoint alongside fellow HBO series “The Wire” and a handful of others that have been off the air (so to speak) for over a decade.

This week the world of mob boss Tony Soprano – memorably brought to life by the late James Gandolfini – returns in the form of The Many Saints of Newark. Jumping back to 1967 Newark, the prequel movie is still centered on Tony, whose younger self is now played by Michael Gandolfini, James’ son. At this point, though, he’s just an underachieving teen who idolizes his uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), who leads the family’s criminal operation. Tony’s ruthlessness grows as time goes on under the influence of Dickie and others, setting the stage for his eventual ascent to power.

Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Bernthal, Corey Stall, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Billy Magnussen and others also star, some as wholly new characters who will influence the direction Tony and others take, some as younger incarnations of characters familiar to viewers of the show and who are part of Tony Soprano’s orbit. Let’s take a look at how Warner Bros. has sold what should be a slam-dunk with a built in audience of loyal super fans.

[disclosure statement: I’ve never watched a full episode of “The Sopranos” but I do believe the ambiguous cut-to-black ending is incredible simply because it refuses to neatly tie things up. Watching people freak out was highly enjoyable, even if the next 10 years of endless debate and discussion made me sometimes want to walk into traffic. Let’s move on…]

announcement and casting

Ever since the elder Gandolfini’s passing, series creator David Chase had ruled out telling stories that would take place after the end of the show. His idea of telling a story set earlier in the timeline, though, remained intriguing and it was this idea that New Line and HBO Films finally greenlit in 2018. Alan Taylor, who had directed a number of episodes during the original show’s run, was hired to helm the movie at that time.

Nivola was one of the first to be cast later in 2018, with others added over the course of 2019. That included the younger Gandolfini, who reportedly was hesitant to step into his father’s shoes and who, despite the genetic connection, had to audition for the role.

Originally scheduled for September, 2020, in April of last year the date was pushed to March, 2021 because of pandemic-related theater closures and other delays. This past January release was moved to October at the same time Warner Bros. announced it, like the rest of its slate, would debut simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max.

selling the movie

One of the first, albeit very brief, looks at the movie came via an HBO Max promo in January touting the same day theatrical/streaming availability of WB’s 2021 lineup. But the campaign didn’t really kick off until just this past June.

That’s when the first trailer (9.5m YouTube views) came out in late June. It starts with the older Tony’s voice introducing us to his younger self on screen. After getting into a fight we see his mother being told by a high school teacher that Tony is smart, a born leader, a label she disagrees with since he’s not doing well in school. He eventually gets involved in the “family business,” first as a lark and then as he accumulates more power and influence. But it’s clear there will be hurdles he has to clear on the way up, including lots of violence and betrayal.

The first poster was released at the same time. Using the same stylized typeface and black-and-white photography – albeit with a single pop of color – it shows the primary dynamic of the story with a young Tony looking to Dickie

Van Zandt talked in July about how he had consulted on parts of the movie’s story at the request of Chase, even though he doesn’t appear in the film.

Director Alan Taylor talked about the difficulty he had in taking the story from the small to big screen while keeping Chase’s vision intact. For his part, Chase was interviewed about not only the pressure of returning to a story he’d already left behind but also the difficulty in casting many of the parts.

TV spots/social media promos began running in late August, cutting down the trailer to focus on a few key moments in the criminal development of young Tony Soprano and how that’s enabled by Dickie.

A sprawling feature from early September went in-depth on the making of the film, especially how the actors sought to capture the spirit of well-known characters, making them familiar to those who know them from the show without doing impressions. It also covered the long road the movie took to finally being made all these after the end of the original show.

Rolling Stone followed that with profiles of the cast members, including Gandolfini, Odom Jr. Stoll, Liotta and Bernthall.

About about the same time there was an interview with/profile of Chase, who talked about how the original show came to be, the passing of Gandolfini and what eventually convinced him to return to the world of Tony Soprano for this prequel story.

Chase talked more about casting Gandolfini to play a young version of the same character his father brought to life when he appeared on “Kimmel.” Gandolfini himself appeared on “CBS Sunday Morning” to talk about the same thing, including sharing how at times he went a little hard in that direction and had to be pulled back. Bernthal’s appearance on “Late Night” had the actor telling fans of the show they shouldn’t just expect more of that in the movie.

Like many others, Chase was asked for his thoughts on the movie going day-and-date on streaming and theatrical, saying he wasn’t thrilled with that decision and, if he’d thought it was a possibility, he might not have made it at all.

Dickie is looking to make a name for himself as the second trailer (2.9m YouTube views) released in early September, begins. His aspirations have made enemies, of course, but they also overlap with his nephew Tony’s burgeoning interest in the family business. It’s a more fast-paced trailer that has more of an emphasis on Dickie’s story than Tony’s, along with what I’m sure are a few nods to stories from the show that fans will enjoy.

Dickie is all on his own on the next poster, also from early September. The same design aesthetic from the first one-sheet is used here. This time he’s labeled as “Who made Tony Soprano.” That the copy is declarative instead of being framed as a question is intriguing, telling the audience that the movie won’t so much be a journey to find out who it is that made the future mobster the man he would become but that this is the guy, so come along and see what happens.

A series of almost a dozen character posters came out shortly after that, showing off the movie’s impressive cast.

At this point the younger Gandolfini began a substantial media tour that would, in the three or so weeks leading up to the film’s release, include “CBS Sunday Morning,” “The Tonight Show,” “Late Night” and elsewhere. He was also the subject of a number of feature profiles like this.

Odom Jr., Bernthal, Liotta, Nivola and others from the cast also made appearances on a handful of morning and late night talk shows.

A featurette from later in September had Taylor, Chase and many of the cast members talking about returning to these characters and this world or, in many cases, entering for the first time.

Just a couple weeks ago the movie’s world premiere happened at the first ever Tribeca Fall Preview, an offshoot of the Tribeca Film Festival. At that premiere Chase, Taylor and the rest of the cast hit on similar themes about their experiences with the movie and the franchise as a whole.

Betting site DraftKings ran a free sweepstakes where fans could simply name their favorite “Sopranos” character for a chance at a $5,000 prize.

The focus is more squarely on Dickie in some of the additional TV spots run in the last couple weeks, continuing a shift begun in the second trailer.

AMC Theaters had an exclusive video interview with some of the primary cast members, as did Regal Cinemas.

overall

It’s not terribly surprising that many of the reviews of the movie have been lukewarm, resulting in a 71% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To some extent no movie, whether it was set before or after the series, could live up to the reputation the show developed or the hallowed place it has been elevated to in the intervening years.

WB’s campaign for the movie has been solid, though, designed to give fans exactly what they want, which is more tales of Tony Soprano and his “family.” To that end, much of the marketing has been designed to evoke or outright mimic the key art and other elements of the show. Other elements are more geared to make fans react to an important mention or appearance that’s explicitly tied to the show that has come before.

Leonardo Dicaprio Reaction GIF by Once Upon A Time In Hollywood - Find & Share on GIPHY

What’s missing is a message to those (like myself) that haven’t yet explored the show. This could be an excellent on-ramp to that broader experience, allowing us to start with a young Tony and then continue on with his later, more established years. That could leave people in that category feeling shut out for one reason or another and therefore uninterested in checking out the movie.

no sudden move – marketing recap

How Warner Bros. is selling the latest heist film from one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors.

Of the high profile directors working today perhaps none has embraced streaming quite like Steven Soderbergh. After putting out two movies for Netflix in 2019, this week brings his second straight film for HBO Max.

No Sudden Move focuses on a group of small-time criminals in 1955 who are hired by a mysterious party to steal corporate documents. They recruit a reluctant insider to actually nab the goods, with some of the crooks sent to his home to keep his family in check. But when the job goes sideways they set out to find out who it was that hired them and why.

The movie stars Don Cheadle, Kieran Culkin, Benicio del Toro and others as the criminals, David Harbour as the executive marked to actually steal the documents, Amy Seimetz as his wife Mary and Jon Hamm as the Detroit city detective assigned to investigate the crime. With a solid 87% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie’s campaign has been heavy on the kind of stylized filmmaking that Soderbergh is known for.

The Posters

“Trust is a setup” we’re told on the one poster (by marketing agency The Refinery). Shown are Goynes and Russo, two of the criminals at the center of the plot played by Cheadle and del Toro. The rest of the notable cast is named at the top of the one-sheet, but the overall design is very simple and moody, setting a dark and shadowy tone for the movie more than anything else.

The Trailers

A brief teaser in late May preceded the first trailer’s release, which didn’t happen until early June.

That trailer (238,000 views on YouTube) is all about selling an attitude and a vibe. It conveys the story of how the criminals are A) convincing a mid-level auto executive to steal company secrets while B) the gang watches over the exec’s family to make sure they don’t do anything stupid and he knows what the consequences for not cooperating are. As usual, everything turns pear-shaped in a flurry of irrational behavior, divided loyalties, law enforcement investigation and other factors, but what’s clear is that this is another stylized Soderbergh production that looks fantastic.

Online and Social

The signed-out landing page for the movie on HBO Max’s site has some very basic information, including a collection of cast headshots, a small gallery of stills and the trailer.

Advertising, Press and Publicity

Casting news dominated much of the press for a while. In late September production, previously delayed because of the pandemic, resumed at the same time the movie was renamed from its original “Kill Switch” to the current title.

HBO Max and Warner Bros. confirmed in May that the movie’s world premiere would happen at the 2021 Tribeca Festival. At that premiere the cast was interviewed about the movie itself as well as the uncertain nature of the production.

Harbour promoted the film when he appeared on “Late Night” in June.

A profile of Seimetz focused on how she has bounced between acting and writing/directing her own material over her career, including how she steals the show in this film.

While it’s not actually press for the film, Alissa Wilkinson at Vox explores some of the very real social issues, including housing discrimination, highway construction and more, that inform the movie’s setting, action and characters.

Online ads like the one below were used to drive traffic to the HBO Max landing page for the film.

Warner Bros. partnered with Shinola Detroit on a sweepstakes awarding the winner a trip to Detroit’s Shinola Hotel. The company also created a movie-inspired line of handbags, watches and other apparel.

An interview with screenwriter Ed Solomon emphasized how he and Soderbergh sought to construct a story the audience would have to follow closely if they wanted to get the full experience of the payoff.

Short spots like this were used on social media (and likely elsewhere), presenting a cutdown version of the trailer that continues selling the movie as a high-drama heist story with a great cast.

HBO Max released a featurette with the cast talking about the complex nature of that story and the unique filmmaking aesthetic of Soderbergh.

Overall

What I said above really encapsulates the campaign from Warner Bros./HBO Max: Everything about the campaign is focused on presenting it as a dramatic, tense heist film with a great cast portraying characters who are always just one move away from turning on their compatriots.

Adding to that is the brand Soderbergh has for himself as a director who dabbles in seemingly every possible sub-genre and style. If you told me tomorrow he was directing a remake of The Music Man it wouldn’t surprise me at all. The point being that his involvement in and of itself is a big draw for the movie, which is why his name is so prominent throughout the campaign.

In The Heights – Marketing Recap

How Warner Bros. has sold a big movie musical event.

Anyone not already familiar with the name Lin Manuel Miranda has certainly come to know it in the years since Hamilton – the filmed version of which hit Disney+ last year – became a Broadway sensation. Others, though, were aware of Miranda’s skills well before that based in part on his first musical.

That musical, In The Heights, has now been adapted into a feature film debuting in theaters and on HBO Max this week. Directed by Jon M. Chu, the movie stars Anthony Ramos as Usnavi de la Vega, a Washington Heights bodega owner, Leslie Grace as Nina Rosario, a young woman returning to the neighborhood after dropping out of college, Corey Hawkins as Benny, Usnavi’s best friend and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, who works at a local salon and dreams of getting out. The story follows these and other characters over three days and involves a winning lottery ticket sold at Usnavi’s bodega, that changes being experienced in the largely Dominican neighborhood and more.

Initial reviews have praised the movie, which currently has a 96% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes as bold and exuberant. And in a sign of the world reopening post-pandemic, some 96% of respondents to a recent Fandango survey say it’s the first film they plan to see in theaters since they closed down over a year ago. Helping that is not only the public health situation in the U.S. but also that school years are ending, all of which adds up to a projected opening weekend of $20 million.

With all that as context, let’s see how Warner Bros. has marketed what has shaped up to be the kickoff event of the summer.

The Posters

While the image of a New York City bridge is wonderfully colorful and striking, the main selling point on the first poster from December (by marketing agency Statement Advertising) is that the movie comes from the creator of “Hamilton” and the director of Crazy Rich Asians. That’s what’s going to convince people to take a chance on a movie whose source material they may not be familiar with.

A half-dozen posters came out in mid-March of this year, all of them taking a slightly different approach to selling the story. Some pull the camera out to show the neighborhood from a wider perspective, others focus more narrowly on the main characters. All keep the same brand of bright, joyous celebrations, though, and so work together to sell a good time with lots of singing and dancing.

Two waves of character posters were released in early May that position either one or two of those characters in different parts of the neighborhood where they live or work.

“The time has come” declares the Dolby Cinemas poster, which shows the main characters in the midst of a raucous neighborhood rally.

The final poster was released later in May, showing the two lead couples in the story dancing in the streets, the other neighborhood residents also celebrating around them.

The Trailers

The first trailer (11.6 million views on YouTube) was released in mid-December and starts out by reminding people it comes from the creator of “Hamilton,” a reasonable message to send. Benny is telling a story of the Washington Heights that was to a group of kids. Back in the day Benny was a dreamer but the neighborhood around him, his friends and his family was changing to shut out anyone who aspired to rise above their station. It’s filled with big, glorious musical numbers and big, glorious emotions, just like a musical should be.

A second trailer (2.6 million views on YouTube) came out in early March, debuting during the Grammy Award broadcast. It’s still focused on Benny and Nina, but is really about loving your neighborhood and embracing all that it has to offer. Not only that, but it’s unapologetically an appreciation of Lantino culture and all that means. Another slightly different version of that trailer came out at the same time, offering a few additional scenes but telling the same story.

Online and Social

In addition to the standard synopsis, videos and photos the official website for the movie has Meme Generator function allowing visitors to choose from a selection of GIFs, add their own message to it and then export it for sharing on the social network of their choice.

There were also standalone social profiles on most major platforms, including Giphy.

Advertising, Press and Promotions

Warner Bros. kicked off the film’s marketing by bringing a video containing the first footage as well as comments from Chu to CCXP in December 2019.

Miranda was interviewed about the movie while he was in Sundance earlier this year promoting other projects.

The movie’s production designer spoke about how he sought to accurately represent the cultures of the movie’s characters.

Both Ramos and Miranda were presenters during the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony.

Ramos, Barrera and others were interviewed about the movie and how they felt a great deal of cultural responsibility to get things right and present the neighborhood and its people respectfully and accurately.

In March of last year Warner Bros. pulled the movie from its original June release, one of several such changes in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak. It was later rescheduled for June when the studio made its big HBO Max announcement in late 2020.

A few of the actors took part in an interview during the virtual edition of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers 21st Annual Media Summit in June, talking about the tone of the film and how production went.

Miranda talked about writing the original stage show late last year, making it clear he was moved to do so at least in part because of the lack of representation elsewhere in the entertainment world. Later on he was interviewed about what drew him to Chu as a director for the movie

Early April brought a short TV spot/promo that didn’t have much details but certainly conveyed the spectacle of the film.

Disney worked to get some early buzz going for the movie in April by both allowing critics and others to share their early reviews and announcing the film’s world premiere would be held at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in June. It was also scheduled as the premiere film for the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival.

An extended TV spot titled “Change The World” came out at the end of April that plays up the aspirational nature of the story, showing how the characters are out to not only preserve and celebrate their neighborhood and life but change the world while doing so. Another similar spot – this one titled “96,000” – is centered on how someone in the neighborhood has one the lottery and shows the characters talking about what they would do if they came into that kind of money.

Unsavi sings about his love for his neighborhood in the first clip, which debuted during the broadcast of the “MTV Movie & TV Awards” in mid-May.

Gold House, the Asian Pacific-Islander advocacy group that has coordinated support for movies with AAPI creators and leads, announced a spinoff #LatinxGoldOpen campaign in conjunction with the National Association of Latino Independent Producers.

An exclusive MovieClips featurette covered how the themes of the story are universally applicable to everyone.

Ramos was the subject of a THR cover story where he talked about his history with the stage musical, his career to date and more while his work ethic and performance were praised by Miranda, Chu and others. He also received an NYT profile where he shared the pressures of so much attention right now as well as how he’s defined his career to date.

IMAX released a TV spot encouraging audiences to come see it on the big big screen.

In June Smits was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with the actor talking about his long love of the stage production and lots more.

Grace was interviewed about this being her big screen debut as well as the cultural history she and the rest of the cast strove to portray and represent. That history and heritage was the focus of a feature with the whole cast sharing their thoughts on those topics and more, something they along with others also did at the movie’s recent Los Angeles premiere. They also commented on the relief and thankfulness they felt at the movie finally coming out a year after it was originally scheduled. An interview with costar Daphne Rubin-Vega had her talking about how her character was changed to be queer in the film when she was straight in the original show.

Both Ramos and Miranda appeared on “The Tonight Show” recently.

Additional interviews included conversations with Chu as well as the movie’s costume designer, screenwriter, cinematographer and production design team.

Regal Cinemas had an exclusive collection of interviews with the cast. Dolby shared an interview with Chu about the process of filming the movie in Washington Heights. Another Dolby video with Chu had him presenting the movie as a welcome way to celebrate the reopening of the world as the worst of the pandemic fades, at least here in the U.S.

Along with a few more clips, Warner Bros. released the first eight minutes of the movie on YouTube and made the same footage available within HBO Max.

An extended spot proclaiming the movie the “event of the summer” includes not only the critical praise it’s received to date but also endorsements from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Jackman and others.

One final featurette has Miranda, Chu and others who are actually from the neighborhood portrayed on screen about how special Washington Heights is and how it’s always been an immigrant community of some form or another.

Chu was scheduled to appear on TCM to introduce three classic movie musicals that inspired this film.

Promotional partners for the movie included:

  • Travelocity, which ran a sweepstakes giving the winner a dream vacation to either the Domincan Republic or another destination of their choosing.
  • Roblox, which is hosting a virtual block party in-world through June 20th featuring recreations of Washington Heights as well as some of the characters.
  • Foot Locker and Fila, which collaborated on a movie-inspired sneaker coming soon.
  • Open Table, which suggested people celebrate the movie’s release by ordering in from a local restaurant.

Overall

As is appropriate for screen musicals, there are no small emotions in this campaign. Everything is big, everything is colorful, everything is heightened. That comes through in almost every aspect of the marketing, from trailers to posters to Gifs.

In addition to the constant reinforcing of Miranda’s personal brand, what comes through most strongly is how different this movie is from others that tell stories of immigrant or similar communities. This isn’t a dark, serious look at the struggles of people in those neighborhoods, though the problems they face are still evident. Instead it’s a celebration of the people in a neighborhood and how they take joy in life, want to preserve their heritage and make the best of each day, dreaming of not just making it big but then coming back and helping those they grew up alongside. That’s pretty unique and makes this campaign pretty special.

You Got It Salute GIF by In The Heights Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

Those Who Wish Me Dead – Marketing Recap

How Warner Bros. is selling a drama of a young man and fire.

Those Who Wish Me Dead theatrical poster (by The Refinery)

Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Koryta, Those Who Wish Me Dead stars Angelina Jolie as Hannah Faber, a former smokejumper in the forests of Montana. Faber is haunted by the memories of an earlier forest fire that went very badly for the rest of her team. One day while keeping watch she comes across Conner (Finn Little), a young boy who seems to be on the run from something. Turns out he’s being pursued by two hitmen who have just killed his father and who are so desperate to tie up loose ends they will set a forest fire to flush out Faber and the boy.

The movie, directed by Taylor Sheridan, has a decent 71% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and arrives this week in theaters and on HBO Max preceded by a campaign that has emphasized the drama of evading fire but not so much on the story or characters themselves.

The Posters

The faces of Faber and Conner are the primary elements on the one poster (by marketing agency The Refinery) that came out in April. Both are, of course, bathed in the red light of the fire they are on the run from and both look weary and stressed from that effort. There’s no copy about the story here, and while Sheridan isn’t name-checked exactly a couple of his previous popular credits are called out at the top.

The Trailers

Hannah is working a fire-watching tower and still reeling from the mistakes she made years ago as the first trailer (8.8 million views on YouTube), released in early April, begins. One day she encounters a young boy who, she finds, is on the run from some dangerous people who have already killed his father. Those bad men start a forest fire to flush Hannah and the boy out, meaning she not only has to keep the kid safe but deal with the trauma of her own past at the same time.

Online and Social

Not much information on the movie’s official website, just the trailer, a brief synopsis and information on either buying tickets or subscribing to HBO Max.

Advertising, Press and Publicity

One of the first, albeit very brief, looks at the movie came via an HBO Max promo touting the same day theatrical/streaming availability of WB’s 2021 lineup.

Warner Bros. announced the May release date in February.

An interview with Jolie and others included a first look still from the film.

Fandango’s MovieClips got an exclusive clip in early May showing a key dramatic moment with Hannah trying to save her young charge from an encroaching fire.

A short featurette came out around the same time with Jolie and other members of the cast and crew discussing the themes of the story and what it was like to shoot the film in some extreme conditions.

Cutdown versions of the trailer – usually around 10 or 15 seconds – were used as TV spots as well as online, including as pre-roll ads on YouTube.

The key art was modified and reused for online ads that included a link to the HBO Max website where people could sign up.

Those Who Wish Me Dead online ad

HBO Max released an exclusive “first look” clip featuring a key moment of Faber figuring out why Conner is being pursued and by whom just days before the movie came out.

Overall

It’s a mixed bag here.

On the one hand, there’s a lot of drama that’s created in the campaign. We get the tension inherent in the flight of the two main characters from both the hitmen and the fire they start to either kill or find their quarry. And Sheridan has proven himself as a solid director of emotional stories about characters whose future we care about.

On the other, the trailer and other assets don’t give us a lot of opportunity to actually experience any empathy for those characters. There’s not a lot of detail regarding the story and the trailer in particular is somewhat unclear as to what’s happening. Not only that but given the human cost of forest fires over the last few years it’s hard to see that fire without recalling some very recent stories from the real world.

Still, it’s not unreasonable to overlook a few quibbles and give the benefit of the doubt to the campaign, given the talent involved.

Mortal Kombat – Marketing Recap

How Warner Bros. is selling Mortal Kombat.

Outworld. Earthrealm. Netherrealm. Ancient prophecies.

If any of the above ring any sort of bells for you, you’re likely part of the target audience for Mortal Kombat, this week’s adaptation of the popular arcade video game of the same name and a reboot of the film series that ran briefly in the mid-1990s.

Any distillation of the plot will only end in abject confusion and likely more than a few tears, so let me simply share the brief synopsis shared on IMDb: MMA fighter Cole Young seeks out Earth’s greatest champions in order to stand against the enemies of Outworld in a high stakes battle for the universe.

So you get the gist. What Warner Bros. is really selling in the campaign below, though, is an uber-violent fantasy story with fan-favorite characters and the promise of at least one spinal column being removed from a fighter. The lukewarm critical reception to date has earned the movie a 68% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so let’s dive into the marketing and see what’s what.

The Posters

The first teaser image came out in December of last year, showing no characters or anything else, just the recognizable logo and the promise of a release in both theaters and on HBO Max.

Scorpio and Sub-Zero, two of the most popular characters from the games, are featured on the next poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts), released in February. Their two faces are split by a knife in an image that likely became the mobile device lock screen for a great many individuals.

A similar division is made on an IMAX poster that puts the two biggest characters as the most prominent faces on their respective teams. It’s a familiar design, used by many of the biggest recent franchises and is meant to tell audiences that no matter who their preferred fighter is, they’re featured in the film.

The Trailers

A long-running history and cover-up are hinted at in the restricted trailer (3.3 million views on YouTube), released in mid-February and teased ahead of time by a series of short character previews. We learn this because a paramilitary unit has learned of a secret organization – and their tournament – whose members have enhanced abilities and oh who cares what the actual story is. Sub-Zero, Scorpion and other popular characters are all on-screen here, and someone says “Finish him!” so it’s all good albeit very violent.

Shortly thereafter reporting came out it had become the most-viewed red-band trailer in the first 24 hours ever.

A “fan reaction” video showing people enthusiastically freaking out over the first trailer came out about a week after the trailer did.

Online and Social

The movie’s official website has the barest volume of information, with a “Synopsis” and the various trailers along with links to the official social network profiles.

A mobile site allowed people to put an AR-powered version of their favorite character’s mask on their own face.

Advertising, Press and Publicity

A first look at the movie came via EW’s 2021 Movie Preview in January, including comments from the filmmakers and cast along with a handful of photos. Just ahead of the trailer in February an advance look at Sanada as Scorpion was released, with more character photos coming out shortly after that.

Like the rest of WB’s 2021 slate, the movie was among those shifted to a hybrid theatrical/streaming (via HBO Max) release when that announcement was made in November of last year. A January promo showed off a bit of initial footage.

Artwork like this, released in March, shows more of the cast, splitting the characters into teams led by Sub-Zero and Scorpion. That and similar art was used for online ads and likely for outdoor billboards and other units as well.

JoBlo got an exclusive clip at the end of March.

The first TV spot came out about the same time, showing the military unit’s efforts to stop the conflict before it destroys the world. Additional spots hit different aspects of the story and focused on different characters, but all carried the same violent pitch to audiences.

Costar Lewis Tan, who plays Cole Young, an MMA fighter at the center of the story, was interviewed about the evolution of his career from behind-the-scenes to leading man and how he’s working to undo stereotypes of Asian-American actors. The training Tan underwent in preparation for the role was shown in a video from advocacy group GoldHouse.

In early April a “Meet the Kast” featurette was released that had the actors talking about the story, the action and living up to fan expectations with the characters. Another video focused on the combat training the cast underwent to get ready for the film.

The first clip of music from the movie showed off a new techno-remix version of the game’s theme song.

One commercial created for and by Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block featured a “felt-band” trailer mixing movie footage with homemade figures of the characters inflicting one “felt-ality” after another on each other.

Warner Bros. sponsored maker YouTube channel Hacksmith Industries to create a real-life version of Scorpion’s chain attack.

Additional promos included comments from the select critics who were invited to a screening of the movie’s first 13 minutes.

There were additional interviews with costars Ludi Lin (playing Liu Kang) about his career to date and with Joe Taslim (playing Sub-Zero) about his blazingly fast fighting skills.

A premiere event with the stars in attendance was held in Sydney Australia earlier this week.

In the last few days a handful of clips, most of them showing some of the movie’s key fights or action sequences, have been released.

One more featurette from IMAX had the cast and crew sharing how excited they were to see the movie on the biggest possible screen. And Warner Bros. took one more chance to get people excited by releasing the first seven minutes of the film to show more of what people could expect.

Overall

Whatever you think about the individual elements of the campaign, we can likely agree this is the overall message Warner Bros. is sending to the audience and sufficiently summarizes the marketing efforts the studio has put forth.

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