How Warner Bros. has sold a story of power, politics and betrayal.
Judas and the Black Messiah, directed by Shaka King and co-written by him and Will Berson (with the story from Keith and Kennth Lucas), travels back to 1960s Chicago to tell the story of Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Specifically, it focuses on Hampton’s betrayal by William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). That betrayal by O’Neal comes after he’s picked up by the FBI and told the only way he can stay out of jail is by informing on Hampton and his organization’s activities at a time when the Black Panther movement was viewed by law enforcement as a terrorist organization.
The movie, which also stars Jermaine Fowler, Martin Sheen, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons and others, is hitting both limited theaters and HBO Max this week as part of Warner Bros.’ day-and-date release strategy. With a 98% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and already either having been nominated or won a number of awards, WB’s campaign has focused on the performances as well as the real-life drama that inspired the story.
Last September the first poster (by marketing agency Statement Advertising) came out, showing O’Neal in the foreground with a red-tinged photo of Hampton and the crowds that believed in him in the background. That design, even independent of the copy reading “You can kill a revolutionary but you can’t kill the revolution”, is similar to the look and feel of propaganda posters, with the red usually indicating a socialist or similar message, one that’s appropriate for Hampton’s mission.
The second poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) came out in January and pares things down to just Hampton and O’Neal. While it keeps that red shading, it also loses the copy but adds all the festivals the film has appeared at and claim that this is “One of the best films of the year.”
A final poster (by marketing agency GRAVILLIS) came out just last week and takes a different approach but keeps the idea of generally looking like some sort of propaganda poster. This time though it’s a blue and black color scheme and a design that also kind of mimics a paperback book, with the title at the top and the imagery in the bottom two-thirds. This one was designed for artist and former Black Panther member Emory Douglas.
The first trailer (2 million views on YouTube) was released in early August, opening with Hampton introducing himself and then showing how he is ready to lead a revolution. It quickly switches to focus on O’Neal, who is being interrogated by the FBI, who want him to inform on Hampton. Scenes of violent uprising are mixed with shots of Hampton and his organization helping feed and support communities, showing the good and the bad that the FBI was so eager to quash.
The second trailer (6.9 million views on YouTube) came out in January, showing Hampton and the community work he and the Black Panthers are doing. That’s far from the terrorist threat the FBI makes them out to be, something O’Neal comes to realize after he’s already in too deep. There’s an awful lot of powerful emotion here, selling a movie that’s focused on presenting a much more accurate picture of that period than may be taught in many history classes.
Online and Social
You’ll find information on showtimes (where applicable) as well as a synopsis and other very basic information on the film’s website, which uses a variation on the key art at the top.
Advertising and Promotions
As with the rest of the studio’s 2021 slate, it was among the titles named by Warner Bros. as debuting simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max.
The movie’s profile was raised significantly when it was added as a late entry to the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which served as the film’s premiere.
A featurette released during Sundance in early February went into the real people and stories that influence the movie.
Cutdown versions of the trailer were used as preroll ads on YouTube and elsewhere.
The song “What It Feels Like” from Nipsey Hussle and Jay-Z came out earlier this week, one of the tunes on the movie’s “inspired by” soundtrack.
Media and Press
Right about the time the trailer debuted, King was interviewed about the controversial casting of a British actor to play a prominent Black American, something he said he was aware of but had to make the best choice he could regarding. Kaluuya was later interviewed about how the movie follows a path he’s carved out in her career to date along and more.
There was a feature profile covering how long King and others had worked on the project, how there were at times two Hampton-oriented films in development and how a number of studios passed on the film for reasons that seemed based more on “no one wants to see a movie about Black power” than anything else.
How Kaluuya researched his role and what that research exposed him to in terms of American history, as well how he worked with King and others were covered in an interview with the actor.
Stanfield appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the film, though the conversation of course spilled over into more of his recent and upcoming projects.
WB’s campaign here is very strong, selling a biopic about a public figure that’s too often marginalized in many history books and lessons. Kaluuya and Stanfield are rightly front and center here, but so is King and that’s great to see since, as a filmmaker himself, the opportunity afforded by a higher profile is that he will be able to tell more like this.
The performances by the leads are at the forefront of a marketing push that has a clear and easily recognizable brand identity, one that makes it clear the film does not shy away from addressing sometimes uncomfortable societal issues. It’s not one that will likely drive massive amounts of new subscribers to HBO Max, but it does make the case that it’s a movie that needs to be watched if you can.
Even a dumpster fire can yield some interesting results.
If compiled, the articles, think-pieces and hot takes written between March and December of 2020 on the present and future of movies and theater-going would fill volumes rivaling the collected works of Marcel Proust, though they would be far easier to summarize.
A year unlike any other certainly proved even more disruptive to aspects of the film industry – production, distribution and exhibition alike – than anything like MoviePass or other threats once held to be dire could have dreamed. No one could have engineered a scenario where over 90 percent of the nation’s movie theaters would close for months at a time, studios would shut down filming on major motion pictures and so on ad infinitum because of a virus outbreak around the globe.
All of that, as well as the pivot by studios and media owners to streaming, upended, delayed or otherwise altered a great many movie marketing efforts. That doesn’t mean 2020 didn’t have plenty of interesting campaigns, though. It just means in some cases what made them “interesting” or otherwise notable was a little different than what would have qualified in prior years.
More than anything else, 2020 was a year of unexpected firsts. WarnerMedia finally launched HBO Max and offered a number of original films before announcing it would be home to its entire 2021 theatrical release slate. Disney rushed Onward over to Disney+ before later using it for titles like Hamilton and Soul that otherwise would have gone to theaters and for Mulan as a test for a new pricing model. Paramount sold off many of its titles to Netflix or Amazon. Apple released a handful of original features while trying to provide Apple TV+ with some momentum. Universal essentially reinvented and reinvigorated PVOD.
So, with all that said, these are some of the most intriguing movie marketing campaigns of a year for which “intriguing” is such an understatement as to almost be irresponsible.
Why It Made The Cut: Many campaigns for period films include some element or another meant to evoke the era the story takes place in. No movie takes that as far as Netflix’s Mank, where the whole campaign was designed to seem as if the film were being released in the late 1930s/early 1940s, just like Citizen Kane. Trailers were cut and narrated in the style of that period, posters were designed to look similar to the kinds of one-sheets seen then and more. It shows something unique can be created if the marketing team goes all-in on a concept.
Why It Made The Cut: The campaigns for many movies that had their release plans changed dramatically saw subsequent alterations made to their marketing campaigns. Few were as innovative as Disney’s shift of Mulan. Not only was the film sent directly to Disney+ (as well as limited theaters), but the introduction of a “Premier Access” PVOD tier to that streaming platform set this one apart from the others. By all accounts this experiment was a success, one that may be replicated with other titles in the future. It also essentially set the stage for what Warner Bros. would wind up doing with HBO Max beginning with Wonder Woman 1984, though Disney remains committed to sending its Marvel Studios titles exclusively to theaters.
Why It Made The Cut: Few films felt as timely as The Assistant, which came out at the same time Hollywood was dealing with not only the continued fallout of Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace due to sexual harassment and assault but also the burgeoning protests by assistants in the industry over lack of adequate pays and other mistreatment. While other campaigns made big, flashy statements to audiences, this one played it so quiet and understated it sometimes fell off the radar, but kept coming back to show how powerful the story and performances were.
Why It Made The Cut: Before May of last year, Warner Bros. and DC Films seemed to be actively apologizing for the dark, dystopian tone (not to mention storytelling shortcomings) of earlier films from Zack Snyder and David Ayer. The campaign for Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) was part of that, presenting a new take on the best character to come out of Suicide Squad that freed Harley Quinn from the male gaze and other traps. In contrast to some of those earlier movies, this campaign was funny, bright and full of women taking their power back. It was also one of the last major fully-theatrical campaigns of the year before things got weird.
Why It Made The Cut: Universal’s unsuccessful effort to launch its Dark Universe film franchise on the back of 2017’s The Mummy is legendary as a case study in corporate hubris. That made the campaign for The Invisible Man so notable as it not only looked like a powerful and compelling story in its own right but also was the first example of the studio’s new approach of making smaller movies driven by creative filmmakers, not the dictates of a shared cinematic universe.
Why It Made The Cut: These two kid-targeted movies were some of the earliest efforts by their respective studios into the burgeoning world of premium video-on-demand, an avenue theater owners had kept off-limits for a decade. Most notably, each represented early adoption of the studio-hosted watch party, encouraging fans to engage in a communal but remote viewing experience anchored by Twitter chats. While Trolls World Tour was a first-mover, Scoob! in particular went all-out for its watch party with downloadable party packs, recipes and other items for those at home to use as part of the event.
Why It Made The Cut: The New Mutants is included here simply because it actually came out after years of delays, rumors of extensive reshoots and other issues. Not only was it finally released – after a campaign that shifted over time from a horror-centric push to one that was more of a conventional super hero message – but it came out theatrically instead of, as many expected, via streaming.
Why It Made The Cut: With so many movies coming out on PVOD or streaming, Tenet’s theatrical release is a bright shining example of a powerful stakeholder intentionally not reading the room. The film’s massively disappointing box-office performance shows there was no audience in September willing to brave theater-going in sufficient numbers, a lesson so well-learned by Warner Bros. it’s cited as being a major reason for the studio’s decision to send #WW84 and eventually all its 2021 releases to HBO Max. It would rather anger directors, agents, production partners and others than go through that again, and with good reason.
Why It Made The Cut: Few films of late have tried so hard – and to a great extent so successfully – to redefine an entire genre as The Happiest Season. Its holiday-centric campaign was perfectly in keeping with the movie’s story, and the emphasis on providing a new take on the Christmas movie category was felt throughout the marketing by Hulu.
How Warner Bros. has mounted an oft-delayed and ultimately unusual campaign for its first legit superhero sequel since 2012.
To call Wonder Woman 1984’s trip to an eventual release date “unconventional” would be a severe understatement. Originally scheduled for December 2019, it was later moved to June, 2020, then later and later in the year following the theatrical closures resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. The final release date of December 25, 2020 seemed iffy as late as last month but has finally come to pass because WB – and parent company AT&T – pulled a bold move that has subsequently disrupted the entire film industry, sending the movie to both whatever theaters are open and the HBO Max streaming platform.
Just as the title implies, the movie – directed once more by Patty Jenkins – jumps several decades from the World War I setting of the 2017 installment to the 80s. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is now an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute, where she meets coworker Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig). Barbara’s insecurities make her a ripe target for Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a megalomaniac businessman who acquires the ability to grant wishes and fulfill desires, an ability he uses to increase his own fortunes. Eventually Barbara wishes for superhuman powers and is transformed into Cheetah, setting the stage for an epic showdown with Diana. Along all that, Diana is confounded by the mysterious return of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who she believed dead 60 years ago and who doesn’t appear to have aged at all.
Before the HBO Max release was announced, #WW84 had taken Tenet’s position as the movie exhibitors were pinning all their hopes for a moviegoing revival on. The simultaneous distribution may have dashed those hopes (along with the fact that the pandemic is nowhere near controlled in the U.S., meaning most theaters are still closed), so the film is now seen as an example of what could becomeHollywood’s future. At the very least, it set the stage for Warner Bros. announcement its entire 2021 slate was following the same pattern.
In addition to the copious discussions and analysis of what all of the above means for theaters, HBO Max and other studios, initial reviews have praised it as a feel-good sequel to help close out an infection-filled tire fire of a year. Those reviews have been mixed enough to give it a lackluster 76% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but the marketing of the film has struck the same colorful, powerful tone as that of the original.
The first teaser poster, Tweeted out by Jenkins in early June 2019 along with the news the movie would not have a panel at 2019’s San Diego Comic-Con, shows Diana looking imposing in golden full body armor. She’s set against a colorful backdrop that forms a slight “W” to reinforce the branding. It’s an impressive first image communicating what may be the movie’s brighter tone.
Four character posters – one for Diana, Trevor, Lord and Minerva – retained that colorful background branding while also offering one of the movie’s biggest revelations: that Trevor sports a fanny pack in the film.
In March two more posters came out showing Diana kneeling in her ceremonial armor, a colorful backgroundswirling behind her. Those posters also served as announcements of the new (at the time) June release date.
An exclusive IMAX poster, released in November, shows the armored Diana crouched and ready for battle while promoting the fact some sequences in the film were shot with IMAX cameras, the better to lure in audiences hoping for an immersive experience.
More posters came out earlier this month that took the same kind of visual approach, making sure to include the new selling point of simultaneous theatrical and HBO Max availability.
The “#WeekofWonder” campaign run the first week of December included another poster showing Wonder Woman walking purposefully and powerfully toward the camera. AT&T debuted another showing a more relaxed, though still armored, Diana.
A Dolby-exclusive poster loses some of the colorful background but continues the emphasis on Wonder Woman’s shiny armor, as does one for Cinemark and one for RealD 3D.
Diana is explaining to Barbara that her life has been different than she might imagine as the first trailer (37.3 million views on YouTube), released at the beginning of December 2019, begins. We see momentos from her past before seeing Wonder Woman break up a group of armed criminals in a shopping mall. As that’s happening, a TV commercial features Lord promising people they can achieve all their dreams and have what they want. Somehow Steve Trevor returns, having not aged a day in the 40 years since he apparently died. They set off on a mysterious adventure while we’re shown footage of them in combat mixed with scenes of the Amazons competing in some form of organized games.
All of that is bookended by title graphics and other animation seemingly pulled directly from a 1984 video cassette, including fuzzy static that mimics what would happen when a VHS tape got stretched after too many plays.
In conjunction with DC Fandome in August a new trailer (23.8 million views on YouTube) was released that starts by showing a young Diana in the midst of her training followed by a grown Wonder Woman using her magic lasso to swing between lightning bolts. That gives you an idea of how epic the story is. After that there’s more footage showing Barbara’s quest for power that turns her into Cheetah, Lord’s megalomania that has to be stopped and the mystery surrounding Trevor’s return. At the end there’s a nice flip from a scene in the first movie, with Trevor trying on clothes to fit into the current world while Diana judges his choices.
In mid-November in conjunction with the announcement of the HBO Max release plans the “Official Main Trailer” (4.3 million views on YouTube) came out that is almost exactly the same as the Fandome trailer from August.
Online and Social
Whatever website might have once existed for the movie it’s been replaced by a single page on HBO Max’s site with the trailer and information on either signing up for that service or purchasing theater tickets. It’s really disappointing, though there were still stand-alone social profiles that went more in-depth on promotions and other marketing assets.
Advertising and Promotions
With so much going on, it’s necessary to break all of this up a little bit.
Microsoft, which had a substantial campaign using the movie and character as a way to encourage kids to develop tech skills and learn to code by playing game, engaging in online scavenger hunts and more. There was also a Bing extension that added movie key art to browsers and an Edge browser theme.
Dorito’s, which put movie branding on chip bags, some of which came out earlier this year before various delays, leading to packaging hitting shelves with inaccurate dates.
Hot Topic, which offered all kinds of movie and character merchandise, some exclusive to the retailer.
Reebok, which offered a line of movie- and character-themed footwear. That campaign included an emphasis on highlighting healthcare workers as well as promoting the company’s education initiatives.
The movie also was included in a number of ads for AT&T encouraging people to sign up for the company’s fiber home internet service so they had the bandwidth to fully enjoy Wonder Woman 1984 via HBO Max.
Promotions for the movie kicked off all the way back in June, 2018 in advance of that year’s San Diego Comic-Con as Gadot and Jenkins Tweeted out a handful of first looks at Trevor, Barbara and Diana. That Trevor’s presence in the movie was revealed at the outset of the publicity cycle is notable since the question of whether or not he would show up could have been a significant part of the campaign. Instead, Jenkins – and presumably the studio – felt there was more to gain from getting it out there early and not making everyone endure months of speculation, which is appreciated.
The movie was also part of that year’s CineEurope presentation from the studio.
Jenkins, Gadot and Pine all appeared at SDCC 2018, an appearance that was followed by the launch of an Omaze campaign where people could win a role as an extra on the film.
Warner Bros. sat out Hall H at SDCC 2019 but Jenkins and Gadot did appear at Comic Con Experience in Sao Paulo in December, talking about the movie and what audiences could expect while giving attendees an early look at the first trailer.
The film was included in WB’s 2019CinemaCon presentation that included footage from the film and comments from Jenkins. It was also featured in that year’s CineEurope presentation.
Gadot appeared as a presenter during the recent Oscars broadcast.
Shortly after that news came the movie would be among those included in DC FanDome, a virtual event planned for August. That panel, which included the debut of another trailer, had Jenkins and others discussing both this and the first film and fielding some questions from fans. There was also a surprise appearance by the original on-screen Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter. More promotions for the film, including another appearance by Jenkins, were part of the second part of FanDome a month later.
The news the movie would debut in theaters and on HBO Max was accompanied by a short promo making that point to audiences. It was also prominently included in promos for WB’s later announcement of its 2021 theatrical/HBO Max plans.
Additional longer commercials showed an abridged outline of the story.
A new extended spot was unveiled at this year’s CCXP, one that focuses on the emotional journey Diana goes on over the course of the story.
Immediately leading up to release WB bought Promoted Trends on Twitter.
DC FanDome was reactivated in mid-December for the movie’s virtual premiere, including exclusive looks at the film and more. That premiere supported World Central Kitchen, which has been doing a lot of work to feed hungry people across the world – including the U.S. – during the pandemic.
DC Comics Tie-Ins
There’s been a full-throated promotional effort from DC, not only because that division is home to the Wonder Woman IP but also because the movie’s release roughly coincides with the 80th anniversary of the character’s print debut. That effort has included a number of on-domain “get to know X character” stories and videos as well as insights into the design and creation of Wonder Woman’s golden armor, an interview with Tina Guo, the guitarist behind the now-famous Wonder Woman movie theme and more.
A planned movie tie-in comic with cover art by Nicola Scott, who shared her work on Twitter in March. More details came out in July, including that the book – “Wonder Woman 1984 No. 1” – would debut exclusively in Walmart stores and feature multiple stories, including a direct prequel to the film co-written by Louise Simonson and associate producer Anna Obropta.
A handful of Zoom chat backgrounds, released earlier this year (as many companies were doing) so people could add some film branding to their video calls.
Lilly Aspel, who plays the young Diana, appeared on an episode of DC’s Kids YouTube show to talk about the movie and play games.
#WonderWomanDay was celebrated in October with all sorts of merchandise sales, events at comics retailers and more.
With all the delays and date changes, publicity didn’t truly kick off – outside of a few interviews and comments, including those from Pine and Jenkins from the “I Am The Night” set – until February of this year.
That’s when more photos were released to EW, which also hosted a roundtable conversation with Jenkins and the cast as well as an interview with Gadot about the continuation of Diana’s story as well as that spiffy new armor.
Another interview with Gadot had her talking about this movie as well as her career, public image and more.
New images and comments from Gadot and others emerged in April, as Warner Bros. execs reiterated their commitment to the theatrical model for this movie. At about the same time, Jenkins hinted at the four-film arc she has in mind for the character if she gets the chance and more. She discussed more details and ideas in another interview later on.
As the reality of the pandemic became more clear in May, Gadot surprised a group of Wonder Woman-inspired healthcare workers in Detroit with an appearance to lift them up during difficult times.
Wiig was interviewed about what a career change it was to take a role in a big-budget production like this and how that went.
DC interviewed Magnus Lygdback, Gadot’s trainer on the film, about how he helped her get ready for production, while Jenkins offered more information on how she intended to bring back Trevor.
Pascal was the subject of a feature profile that included comments from Jenkins about working with him and more.
In an interview earlier this month Jenkins said she was essentially ignoring the theatrical cut of Justice League, directed by Joss Whedon, because she felt it contradicted what she had done and had planned, unlike the way she had worked with original JL director Zack Snyder
Gadot spoke in a later interview about returning to the role and what she hoped that meant for the character, feminism and the world as a whole. In another she acknowledged again how rough a year this has been for many people and expressed her hope this movie brings them and everyone else some joy and relief.
Wiig also returned to her “Saturday Night Live” home the weekend before release.
A substantial profile of Jenkins made lots of headlines for including her thoughts on the HBO Max situation, the prolonged negotiations that finally allowed her to return for a sequel, her plans for a third film and more. Another interview had her revealing how studio notes influenced the ending to the first movie.
Let’s face it, the campaign is one of the best of the year, even despite all the delays and awkwardness, because of this single image.
On top of what it’s selling to audiences, the campaign has a strong message for entertainment industry executives who feel threatened by change they’re not in charge of.
Picking Up The Spare
Gadot appeared in a quick video recapping and setting up the movie’s story. She was also interviewed about this movie and state of the industry.
Another DC post covered the process of bringing the film to life.
Connie Nelson was interviewed about the new film and more. There were also additional features and interviews about how the filmmakers customized Cheetah for Wiig, what prompted Wiig to take the role, Pascal’s approach to this film as well as his history with Wonder Woman and more.
More on how Gadot and Wiig bonded was covered in a joint video interview with the two.
The film’s costume designer explained how she created the film’s 1980’s fashion aesthetic.
A few thoughts while pondering whether James Corden’s denial a “butthole cut” of Cats exists is proof it totally exists.
Just like the rest of 2020, the last week has contained eight months worth of news. And that’s just in the entertainment world and doesn’t even take into account the attempted coup taking place or the fact that an entire political party has pulled away the mask to show off its anti-democratic nature.
Warner Bros. Uses HBO Max To Plan For The Future
Yes, the news that Warner Bros. plans to release its entire 2021 movie slate to both theaters (at least any that are open) and HBO Max is a huge deal.
No, this is not WB offering up theaters as a sacrifice. I don’t think Jason Kilar or anyone else actively wants to destroy the theatrical exhibition industry, but they *do* want to maintain their own business and for the foreseeable future going direct-to-consumer is the best way to do that.
To that point, a survey from Deloitte reports most people aren’t going to feel comfortable going to a theater until at least the middle of next year. That means the theater industry isn’t likely to move upward significantly until the second half – or later – of 2021, a window that roughly lines up with when enough of the U.S. population has received the pending Covid-19 vaccines to impact communal spread.
Despite that, WB’s announcement seems to have unlocked the rare achievement of honking off almost everyone within the movie industry.
Theater chains were angered because they thought the Wonder Woman 1984 shift to HBO Max was a one-off. Their stock prices dropped just as you would expect them to and AMC Theaters has once again said it will have to secure an influx of cash to survive past early 2021. Independent cinemas weren’t thrilled either.
Directors Denis Villeneuve and Patty Jenkins, who helmed Dune and WW84 respectively, have blasted the move, with Villeneuve specially calling out how it betrays a lack of respect for the art of cinema and instead is about the debt management of a telecom behemoth.
There’s also, of course, director Christopher Nolan, who said it showed WB panicking and “dismantling” a great studio. Whether or not he’s self-aware to realize the theatrical release of Tenet he insisted upon despite the pandemic helped lead to this change remains up in the air.
In fact the Director’s Guild of America is pretty upset as well.
Legendary, the production company behind Godzilla vs. Kong and more, which reportedly had less than an hour’s notice before the announcement was made and is upset because it had Netflix on the line for GvK but still wanted a theatrical release.
Disney Announces [checks notes] Literally Everything
On the heels of Warner Bros. grabbing a hammer and walking over to the “Break glass in case of once-in-a-generation-pandemic” box where it kept HBO Max, Disney took its Investors Day presentation to announce scores of projects and changes. Those announcements were, depending on who you talk to, either A) the greatest things ever, of B) soulless exploitation of beloved characters with no respect for the individuals who created them decades prior.
Those announcements included lots of Star Wars series and films and lots of Marvel series and films along with plenty of Disney, Pixar and other projects. Of note:
The timing of Jenkins being announced as the director of an upcoming Star Wars movie is coincidental to that of the WW84 HBO Max news. The former has likely been in the works for a long time while the latter just broke a week ago, so I’m not reading too much into that.
20th Century Studios and Searchlight Pictures, the remnants of 20th Century Fox, are becoming producers of content for Hulu, which is kind of a sad fate for a once major movie studio.
Disney is doing what WB didn’t and clearly laying out tiers for feature film distribution. Tier One (Theatrical): MCU, including Black Widow, and Star Wars; Tier Two (Windowed): Raya and the Last Dragon etc will get the same Disney+ Premier Access Mulan did; Tier Three (Disney+): Live action remakes like Pinochio and others or legacy sequels like Sister Act 3.
What all of this means to my eye is that the battle lines for the second phase of the Streaming Wars have just been laid out.
Companies like Netflix and even Amazon Video have long felt that the key to expanding on existing success was the development or acquisition of some major blockbuster movie franchises all their own. Netflix might have something brewing if the Russo Bros. can build on the success of Extraction, which they said they have plans to. Recent hits like The Old Guard and Enola Holmes could also easily be turned into ongoing series if the creators are on board. And Amazon might be hoping it can do something with Without Remorse, which it acquired from Paramount.
Warner Bros. could do that with their own properties on HBO Max, but how it handled the recent news means they’re now working from a deficit in terms of goodwill among agents, directors and others.
Right now Disney is the only player actually executing on that strategy, counting on the impressive portfolio of brands and properties it manages to keep people coming back to Disney+ for spinoffs, sequels, prequels and other expansions.
If I were a betting man, I’d say that a year from now we’re having a very different conversation. Platforms have realigned, studios have altered their strategies and at least one studio has been purchased by a tech company, probably either Apple or Alibaba.
Whatever happens, this last week has been a very, very interesting two months.
How HBO Max has sold a story of making peace with your past.
Meryl Streep teams for the second time with director Steven Soderbergh in this week’s new HBO Max release Let Them All Talk. Streep plays Alice, a well-known author who decides to reconnect with some old friends by taking a cruise as a group. Joining them is Alice’s nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges), who is responsible for making sure the ladies get where they need to be and so on. Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest play Roberta and Susan, Alice’s friends and fellow travelers, while Gemma Chan plans Karen, a literary agent who gets involved with Tyler on the trip.
The movie, which has a strong 93% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, has gotten a campaign that sells it as part of the overall Soderbergh brand while also relying heavily on the charisma and talent of the three women in the leading roles.
In addition to selling the names of the director and stars, the poster makes sure to label this as a “Max Original,” a different designation given to the titles it has produced as opposed to those it’s acquired after the fact. That’s meant to apply a little cache, but with such a new brand it’s hard to put much weight behind it.
Outside of that the photo of Streep looking pensive and tense pairs nicely with the copy “Write your wrongs,” conveying a good sense of the basic story as well as the emotional tone of the film.
Alice is furiously writing as the trailer (2.3 million views on YouTube), released in mid-November, opens, but she hasn’t actually turned in anything. So Karen has booked her and her friends on a cruise to try and shake things loose. Turns out there’s some bad blood between the friends, stemming partly from Alice’s use of them as characters in her past works. The chemistry is still there, though, and the time together brings some laughs and some tears and quite a bit of soul-searching. What the trailer really sells, though, is a bunch of professionals doing their thing on one of Soderbergh’s loose sets, which is a strong message to send.
Online and Social
Nothing here specifically for the movie, but HBO Max’s corporate social profiles did provide some support leading up to release.
Advertising and Promotions
Soderbergh announced the movie in mid-August of last year, revealing he was already well into production at the time. It wasn’t long until it was reported the feature marked the first major acquisition by HBO Max for what at the time was its unlaunched streaming subscription service.
The first very brief look at the film was offered in a sizzle reel promoting HBO Max’s upcoming slate of original material.
A few short promos like this were distributed on social in the last few weeks, offering slightly different looks at some scenes previously shown in the trailer.
Media and Press
A group interview with much of the primary cast had them talking about the story as well as the unconventional nature of Soderbergh’s filming style, including how low-budget, low-tech and low-stress the shoot was. That piece also hinted at a December release for the movie.
Streep appeared on “The Late Show” to talk about both this movie and The Prom, also released this week. She, Bergen and Weist all took part in a “Today” interview.
There was a big profile of Bergen that touched on her role here as well as her life and career overall.
You won’t go wrong with a certain segment of the audience (myself included) by selling a movie by promising simply a good time watching a bunch of seasoned professionals breeze their way through a simple premise.
That’s exactly what is being communicated here, with the added bonus that it comes from Soderbergh, who has a history of guiding just those sorts of productions. There’s good stuff here specific to the story, but the real hook is simply a few naturalistic performances and a director with a knack for capturing interesting moments on film.
Picking Up The Spare
More from Chan on her role in the film here. Hedges later appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie.
Among the later press was a profile of Bergen and how she prepared for the film.
How HBO Max has sold a high-concept comedy not too far removed from reality.
Melissa McCarthy stars in this week’s new HBO Max release Superintelligence, directed once again by her husband Ben Falcone. In the film McCarthy plays Carol Peters, an all-around unremarkable woman who one day finds herself targeted by a powerful artificial intelligence (voiced by James Corden) that is deciding if it should enslave, destroy or leave humanity alone. It plans to study Carol for a few days before making its ultimate decision.
Along the way, the AI gifts her with a fortune to see what she does when freed from other concerns. The situation also prompts Carol to attempt to reconnect with her ex, George (Bobby Cannavale), wanting to spend what might be her last few days with no regrets about the past. Meanwhile, the FBI wants to know why Carol got the AI’s attention and what can be done about it.
As with many others, the movie was originally scheduled for theatrical late last year before being pulled by Warner Bros. and ultimately replatformed for streaming.
Carol and George are having a nice romantic moment on the poster (by marketing agency Works Adv), released in November. The two look like they’re enjoying each other’s company along with some champagne and it all seems pleasant until you realize the heart shape in the wall behind them seems to hint at some sort of violence or devastation that has created such an opening. That juxtaposition, intended to create some intrigue or interest, comes off as a bit odd, hinting at a movie that may not know which tone to take.
As the trailer (6.7 million views on YouTube), released in early November, opens, we see that an ultra-sophisticated computer system has set its eyes on Carol for…reasons. It knows everything about her and has led her to believe the world is going to end in three days, something it’s threatening to do if it can’t understand humanity more fully through her. With the FBI wondering why it’s targeted Carol, she takes the idea of there not being many more tomorrows to reconnect with an ex-boyfriend.
Online and Social
No stand-alone site for the movie, but HBO Max did give it regular support on its brand social channels.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
A brief controversy emerged in mid-November when it was noticed that one of the groups taking part in the “20 Days of Kindness” campaign was staunchly anti-abortion, which seemed to be off-brand for McCarthy and others. She and the studio issued a statement days later saying that group had been removed from the effort.
Other promos like this really leaned into McCarthy’s popularity.
Media and Publicity
McCarthy and Forte appeared on stage to do a bit during WB’s CinemaCon 2019 presentation, an effort to get exhibitors and others excited about the upcoming film. In October of last year it was announced the movie would forego a theatrical release and instead be saved for the debut of HBO Max.
The cast participated in a group interview about technology and related issues here.
Both Falcone and McCarthy appeared on late night and other talk shows to talk about the movie and once more working together.
The message of the campaign is simple, and largely the same one as most other comedies starring McCarthy. Namely, if you enjoy her antics and persona, you’ll likely enjoy this movie. If not, you may want to find something else because it’s probably going to be relatively similar to what you’ve seen before.
That’s not a bad thing, as McCarthy is a comedic powerhouse, one with a relatively solid and box-office record. Such a record makes her streaming feature debut more of a statement about the health of comedies at the box-office than it probably should be, even when adjusting for this being a pandemic year. She is who she is, especially when being directed by Falcone, and this campaign makes that abundantly clear.
Picking Up The Spare
A joint profile of McCarthy and Falcone had them talking about their long history of not only being a couple but also working together. McCarthy later appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie.
[Editorial Note: I’ll be honest, I must have gotten my dates mixed up. In early September HBO announced an October release date for the movie, putting out a new trailer that took a more dramatic take on Mouse’s story. It hit a lot of the same notes but upped the angst he seems to be balancing as well as making the dreams he’s chasing a bit more clear. Below is the original marketing recap published in August. –CT]
How HBO Max is selling a story of following a dream to make your mark.
Just what someone will do to make the intolerable tolerable seems to form the core of the story in this week’s new release Charm City Kings. The movie stars Jahi Di’Allo Winston as Mouse, a young kid growing up in Baltimore whose options for the rest of his life are limited. Because they’re the coolest people in the neighborhood, Mouse idolizes those in The Midnight Clique, one of the dirt bike gangs who come out every summer. That he’s too young and doesn’t have the money to get his own bike to join them are small matters to Mouse, who refuses to be deterred, even if it means he has to do things that are dangerous.
The movie then is about Mouse’s conflict in choosing whether to do whatever is necessary to achieve his dream or be the law-abiding young man his family and friends want him to be.
The campaign for the film has been a disjointed affair, thanks in large part to a recent shift in release plans, to the extent that it’s lost a lot of momentum and could completely pass audiences by.
Just one poster, released in February, so it still sports Sony’s branding at the bottom. The overall design features Blax (Meek Mill) looking out over the dirt bike racing action that’s happening below him. Copy reads “3 kings. 2 choices. 1 summer.” in order to establish the overall dynamic between the characters and the situations they will face over the course of the story.
In mid-January the teaser trailer (now unavailable) was released, introducing us to Mouse as it opens. He has aspirations of joining a team of dirt bike riders who race along the city streets, but not only is it dangerous but his mother forbids him from doing so because that’s how his older brother died. The spot shows the rough world Mouse lives in and the things he does because of that environment.
The second trailer, released in early March, offers much more explanation of the story. It starts with Mouse sharing his aspirations to join the biggest biking group in the area, something he feels he’s old enough and good enough to do. When his attempts to get a bike of his own through legitimate methods don’t work out he takes up other, illegal tactics. That gets him in a fair amount of trouble but he’s focused on his goals and so does what he feels he has to.
Online and Social
Nothing here, including what seems to be a complete lack of support for the movie on HBO Max’s brand social accounts. Even the URL featured on the first poster has been taken down completely, redirecting to a DNS server.
Advertising and Promotions
With the debut screening scheduled for the Sundance Film Festival, Sony Pictures Classics acquired distribution rights for the movie. It won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast at Sundance. As that festival was winding down the news came it would later screen at the Miami Film Festival. A planned appearance at SXSW was cancelled when that festival was scrapped.
In early May news broke that the movie had been sold by Sony to HBO Max, becoming one of the new streaming platform’s handful of original features at launch. Sony’s original release plans had been shut down when the Covid-19 outbreak shuttered most theaters, with the studio pulling it from the schedule at that time.
Media and Press
The cast and crew spoke about the movie and its story while at Sundance, including how they hoped the story would be seen as universal to kids everywhere.
Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi was interviewed about her attempts to bring a starkly realistic look to the film and its environment.
Since then there’s been almost nothing.
It’s striking how in some very real ways the campaign simply doesn’t exist. Both of the trailers were taken off of Sony’s YouTube channel and HBO Max never reuploaded them after it acquired the film. So the only apparent “official” versions of the trailer are those shared by co-star Meek Mill and producer Will Smith. Add that to the fact that there’s no website and no apparent social support and it’s almost like the movie is intentionally being given as little attention as possible.
That’s a shame because it came out of Sundance like a rocket, with a fair amount of positive buzz that made it out to be a movie people shouldn’t miss, which is part of the reason Sony scooped it up. That Covid-19 pandemic, though, seems to have thrown a wrench in those gears and it’s now coming out with nary a whimper and with much of its past marketing efforts erased.
How HBO Max is selling a story of two girls trying to help each other out.
The new film Unpregnant, hitting HBO Max this week, is the second film of 2020 to focus on a character who’s required to go to extreme measures in order to obtain an abortion. Where Never Rarely Sometimes Always took a dramatic and serious approach to the topic, this one is more of a teen road trip comedy.
High school student Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) finds out she’s pregnant and decides she can’t go through with it. Because she lives in Missouri there are no legal abortion providers around her and so realizes she needs to cross state lines. Lacking her own transportation, she reaches out to Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) an estranged friend and convinces her to help, specifically by driving the two of them to the nearest clinic they can find.
Written by Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendriks, who also wrote the book the movie is based on, and directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg, HBO Max’s campaign hasn’t shied away from the sensitive nature of the story while also selling it as a comedy that’s less imposing than the earlier film.
Veronica and Bailey sit on the hood of the latter’s car on the poster (by BLT Communications), released in mid-August. That photo sells it as a teen comedy in the vein of something like Booksmart. The story itself is communicated, albeit in a subtle kind of way, through the copy “She’s a Type A without a Plan B.” With that copy, the audience gets that one of the characters – presumably the less goth-looking one – is a high achiever who needs to deal with an unplanned pregnancy.
The first trailer (128,000 views on YouTube) came out in mid-August, starting off with Veronica finding out she’s pregnant and then discovering the nearest abortion provider is a couple states away. Without a way to get there, she turns to Bailey and the two embark on an epic road trip involving chases, unexpected help, a minor run in with the police and an unsuccessful attempt to jump on a moving train. It looks funny and kind of sweet in its own way, taking a serious subject and making it about friendship and being true to who you are and the choices you make.
Online and Social
No website for the film, but there were social media accounts on Twitter and elsewhere that were less focused on the story than they were on positioning Veronica and Bailey as #friendshipgoals and their fashion.
Advertising and Promotions
Not much on this front, though it’s likely there were at least some online ads run along with other promotions.
Media and Press
Some first look stills along with comments from those involved were released in early August.
The cast and filmmakers all spoke about how they connected to the material and more.
There’s some good stuff in this campaign, particularly in how it presents the characters as largely independent and able to make their own choices. And it does a good job of keeping the central theme of the story – Veronica’s desire for an abortion and the lengths she has to go to in order to get one – front and center, even as it has some fun with the friendship between the characters.
That tone has come under some criticism by those who don’t feel abortion should be treated so lightly. But there’s nothing in the marketing, at least, that plays down the serious nature of the topic or treats it with any disrespect. Instead it just offers a more comedic take that shows there’s room enough for different takes on a theme when one movie doesn’t have to represent everything because it’s the only one that’s been made.
Picking Up The Spare
A couple new interviews with director Rachel Lee Goldberg where she talks about wanting to remove the stigma from abortion and why she choose to tell the story in a comedic manner. That last point was also covered by Richardson in this interview.
The movie’s drive-thru premiere event was covered here.
Sony sponsored a Spotify playlist of driving tunes to promote the film.
Substantial profile of Ferreira here, including how she feels about body-shaming and other issues in the industry and culture as a whole. There was also a new interview with Richardson where she talked about some of the influences she pulled from for her performance. Producer Erik Feig was also profiled.
How HBO is selling a comedy starring dual Seth Rogens.
In the last few year, multiple projects have featured a single actor playing two roles, usually twins. Paul Rudd, Mark Ruffalo and others have all turned in split-screen performances, playing off themselves in addition to anyone else who happens to be on screen. One could make the case, like digital de-aging usage, that this is a questionable tactic to employ that deprives other actors of a role and plays down to the audience in a way.
Seth Rogen becomes the latest to take on not one but two characters, this time in the HBO Max original film An American Pickle. Rogen plays Herschel Greenbaum, an Eastern European immigrant who comes to America in the early decades 20th century with his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook). Herschel gets a job in a pickle factory and one day falls in a vat of brine, where he’s left when the factory closes. The brine preserves him and he wakes up a century later, finding himself in a world he doesn’t recognize. His great-great-grandson Ben (also Rogen) is his only relative, introducing Herschel to the 21st century and telling him what became of his family after his disappearance.
The movie, like many others this year, had a very different fate planned originally. But HBO Max’s campaign has used Rogen’s unique sense of humor and an offbeat story to hook audiences who are already streaming subscribers or who might become subscribers.
Rogen as Herschel is the sole figure on the one poster (by marketing agency BLT Communications), released in late July. The photo is made to look like an old-fashioned photograph that would be appropriate to the ear he lived in and so helps to establish the premise and setting of at least some of the story. Both The Disaster Artist and 50/50, both movies produced by Rogen and his partner Evan Goldberg, are mentioned at the top while at the bottom the premiere date is shared.
We meet Herschel and Sarah Greenbaum as the first trailer (9.9 million views on YouTube), released in early July, begins. They’re living and working in a small “old world” country and are more or less happy, until the day Herschel dies after falling in a vat of pickles. Cut to a century later and he reemerges, with his great-grandson Ben his only surviving descendent. The two have a hard time getting to know each other, of course, leading to what seems to be much of the movie’s humor.
Online and Social
It doesn’t seem that HBO Max has created a stand-alone website for the movie, nor did they give it much promotion on the brand’s social profiles.
Advertising and Promotions
The movie had originally been setup at Sony for several years. In April of this year, though, with the theatrical release schedule thrown into disarray because of Covid-19, it was sold to Warner Bros., which announced it would go straight to streaming on HBO Max.
No paid promotions were apparent to me, but there were surely at least a few promoted social posts or online ads that drove traffic to the HBO Max sign-up site.
Media and Press
Rogen, of course, was the public face of the movie. He gave interviews where he talked about how this project is the latest in a string of successful productions for Goldberg and himself, how this film was conceived and created and what he made of Sony selling the movie to Warner Bros. earlier this year.
He also appeared on “The Tonight Show” and elsewhere to engage in challenges and talk about the movie.
You have to at least be partially won over just by the absurd premise that’s laid out in the campaign. It’s so over-the-top and ridiculous that it’s immediately plausible as the basis for a goofy comed that doesn’t care about common sense or believability, as long as it offers a foundation for the humor to come.
In that way it’s pretty solidly on-brand for Rogen and Goldberg, who have made a career of such notions. Therein lies the appeal for anyone who’s already a fan of their previous work.
What seems evident, though, is that this isn’t a massive draw for new subscribers like some other high-profile streaming releases over the last several months. Seth Rogen movies are the kind of thing you watch because you already can, not sign up for a whole new subscription for. That’s not a knock on their work, it’s just that this likely isn’t going to be a game-changer like Hamilton on Disney+. Instead it looks like just a pretty good movie that should be highly enjoyable, which is all it needs to be.
Picking Up The Spare
Highlights from the film’s virtual premiere can be found here.
A Promoted Trend was purchased by HBO Max to drive awareness and attention. There were also standard online ads that drove people to subscribe to the service, using this movie as an incentive to do so.
Rogen appeared on “Late Night” to talk about the difficulty of playing two roles against each other.
HBO released a featurette that showed off some of the filmmaking techniques employed for the film. It also put out a cast Q&A and a look at how the filmmakers created the vintage photographs in the film.
When news broke last week that HBO Max would be producing a new series focused on the Gotham City Police Department and set in the same universe as Matt Reeves’ upcoming The Batman, it immediately set off a few skepticism triggers.
Most notably, it seemed very similar in concept to “Agents of SHIELD,” which debuted in 2013 and is in the midst of its final season. Like the proposed Gotham PD show, the pitch sets up a show that exists alongside the movie, exploring more of what life is like for the police officers and detectives who operate in the same city as a bat-themed vigilante. Similarly, “SHIELD” offered audiences the chance to follow along with the missions of the spy agency that occasionally assisted the super heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When “SHIELD” was being promoted and through its first couple seasons, the connective material between the series and the movies was plain to see. Not only did it feature the return of MCU’s favorite supporting character Phil Coulson but several stories followed plot elements initially set up on The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark WorldI and others. As the series went on, though, it seemed to take fewer cues from the MCU, in part because it seemed to get hard to plan a TV show around the big events depicted on the big screen. Some connections remained, but the final separation seems to have occurred when the show had to largely ignore the events of Avengers: Infinity War and the Thanos snap that wiped out half of life in the universe.
“SHIELD,” as an ongoing TV series, was telling a serialized story. The problem emerged from the fact that the MCU films were *also* telling a serialized story. And it’s hard to keep two simultaneous ongoing narratives going when they are intended to be complementary. Just ask anyone in the comics industry, where creators have to make sure they’re not using a character in Book A that is in the middle of a totally different thing in Book B, or that crossovers feature accurate versions of the characters as they exist at the moment. They can feed into each other every now and again, but more often than not it can be jarring for the reader when the Iron Man who shows up in an Avengers book is drastically different than the one seen in his solo title because two different writers are telling two different stories.
It’s hard to imagine the Gotham PD show won’t run into the same problems. It may start out with the best of intentions and some solid plans to keep the story flowing in both directions, with the promise of appearances by Jeffrey Wright as Jim Gordon and the like, but it’s going to be hard to maintain. Actors will come and go, producers will realize that the story arc for a character doesn’t get her where she needs to be for the next film’s planned events. Or the monumental events of a movie will be nie impossible for the smaller scale show to accurately deal with.
Again, “SHIELD” provides an instructive lesson here. Almost as soon as the show left the gate, the very premise was blown up because of what happened in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While it successfully kept going, that development cut out an important piece of the series’ foundation, and a lot of time was spent explaining those ripple effects and establishing a new footing for the characters.
There’s a lot of great potential in a Gotham PD show. That was clear in “Gotham,” which started off a bit unsure of itself but found its groove when the creators leaned into the insanity of the rogue’s gallery of villains populating the city. They told some big stories very well, but they also didn’t have the burden of trying to tie into anything else. Heck they didn’t even have to worry about Batman himself, who didn’t appear until the last moments of the show. A more straightforward police procedural could be just as interesting, but like “SHIELD” it will have to come up with one reason after another why the police are dealing with the problems they have and aren’t calling in the help of their local vigilante.
In a best case scenario, the show becomes a hit on its own and a powerful part of the brand identity and marketing machine of the films. Consider me interested enough to see how this turns out