The United States Vs. Billie Holiday – Marketing Recap

How Hulu has sold a biopic of a civil rights icon.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is not the first time the story of the singer and civil rights figure has made it to feature film, first in 1972’s Lady Sings The Blues. This time around Andra Day plays Holiday and instead of being an all-inclusive biopic, the story focuses on an era of her career where she was targeted by federal agents for instigating racial unrest, specifically with her song “Strange Fruit.” As a pretense, the government goes after her for her drug uses, adding a racial element to the burgeoning war on drugs.

Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Suzan-Lori Parks, the movie also stars Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead, whom Holiday was at least friends with and may have had an affair with, and Garrett Hedlund and Trevante Rhodes as two of the federal agents going after the singer. It currently sports a paltry 58% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, indicative of the mixed reviews it’s received. But Hulu’s campaign has played it as an awards-contender, especially based on Day’s performance in the title role.

The Posters

Elements of the layout on the one and only poster (by marketing agency BLT Communications) released in January are meant to reinforce each other through apparent contradictions. Specifically, the copy “Her voice would not be silenced” both contradicts and supports the image of Holiday with her mouth hidden by the microphone. That shows how Holiday used music and song to keep her message going out, even under pressure.

The Trailers

The first trailer (307k views on YouTube) was released by Hulu in mid-January, opening by showing us Holiday as a woman who knows what she wants. After some standard biopic elements, we see that her efforts to integrate the music scene and other activities have gotten the unwelcome attention of lawmakers in Washington, who want to discredit her and shut down whatever influence she has. That leads to her arrest, after which she has a hard time getting started again. Still, she’s determined to follow the path she believes in, even if it means putting herself in danger.

Online and Social

No website that was easily found, but Hulu did give the movie some promotional support on its brand social media profiles instead of creating one-offs.

Advertising and Promotions

The project was one of those up for grabs at the 2020 Cannes Virtual Market, with Paramount eventually winning the competition and acquiring distribution rights. Later on Paramount took it off its schedule as Hulu picked it up.

Daniels and Day participated in a video conversation about making the film and telling Holiday’s important story. Another video featured Daniels talking with the whole cast.

A featurette from early February had Day and others talking about Holiday’s part in the Civil Rights Movement and her continued influence today.

Day’s full performance of “Strange Fruit” was released to show just how powerful that song still is.

More videos came out of a conversation with the cast and crew and Day talking about the original song she wrote for the film.

Audible announced a tie-in limited-series podcast that framed contemporary issues through the lens of Holiday’s life and struggles.

At the recent virtual premiere the cast and crew were joined by a handful of celebrities, including some government officials, to talk about Holiday’s legacy and continued relevance.

Media and Press

How Day prepared for the role, including the singing she was going to have to do, was covered in an interview with the actress.

Writer Suzan-Lori Parks was interviewed about how she portrayed Holiday’s conflict with U.S. law enforcement officials and what similarities her protests have with those of today. Costume designer Paolo Nieddu spoke on not wanting to recreate Holiday’s style exactly but offer a twist on that style to make it more dramatic.

An extensive profile of Daniels not only touches on how and why he told this story but also on the fact he’s newly sober and how that played into the production. He was then interviewed about capturing the legacy of Holiday’s real-life activism, his desire to expose Holiday to a new generation of audiences, the importance of highlighting her battle with the government and more.

In a joint interview with Day, Daniels talked about how studios weren’t interested in the project for a long time as well as how they wanted to portray Holiday as realistically as possible. He also touched on the potential comparisons with Lady Sings The Blues, the previous film about Holiday.

Additional interviews with Day covered how she physically and emotionally embodied Holiday, especially on stage, the physical changes she made – including gaining weight and smoking – for the part and more.

When she appeared on “The Tonight Show” she shared again how she initially turned down the role and what she did to make herself ready for it and shared a video for a remix of “Strange Fruit”. Day performed “Tigress and Tweed” on “The View” and was interviewed by Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show.”

Overall

The campaign understands that the story is (or at least should be) compelling enough, but if the audience isn’t pulled in through that, Hulu’s hope appears to be they will tune in for Day’s performance as Holiday. That’s why she has performed “Strange Fruit” on a number of occasions and in a number of ways and why so many of the interviews with the actress have focused on the work she did to fully take on the role.

That’s coupled with the other major element of the campaign, which is Daniels’ focusing on the importance of telling Holiday’s story, one that has a number of elements making it relevant decades after the events happened. He’s been talking the entire time about her legacy and related topics in an attempt to make it less of a period piece, which may turn off some members of the audience, and more contemporary.

It also needs to be noted that this is the second movie released in February about a real life black activist being targeted – under questionable if not completely fabricated auspices – by law enforcement. If I had to guess I’d say there are countless similar stories, many of which the white public aren’t familiar with or aware of.

2020’s Nine Most Intriguing Movie Campaigns

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.

Mank

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.

Mulan

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.

Yifei Liu GIF by Walt Disney Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Assistant

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.

Birds of Prey

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.

Harley Quinn Smile GIF by Birds Of Prey - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Invisible Man

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.

Universal GIF by The Invisible Man - Find & Share on GIPHY

Trolls World Tour/Scoob!

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.

Zac Efron Animation GIF by SCOOB! - Find & Share on GIPHY

The New Mutants

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.

Angry X-Men GIF by 20th Century Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

Tenet

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.

Coming Robert Pattinson GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Happiest Season

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.

Christmas GIF by HULU - Find & Share on GIPHY

HONORABLE MENTION – Emma

Just for this GIF.

Run – Marketing Recap

How Hulu is selling a psychological mother-daughter drama.

There are too many real life stories of parents abusing their children in some manner. The new movie Run, debuting on Hulu this week from writer/director Aneesh Chaganty, is about just that kind of situation.

Sarah Paulson plays Diane Sherman, a mother who has cared for her chronically ill daughter Chloe (Kiera Allen) throughout the girl’s life. The two have a good relationship, but now that Chloe is a teen she’s worried her mother is doing too much. Diane’s assurances that she’s fine, Chloe begins to find evidence that her mom may not be as loving as she seems and may in fact be actively keeping Chloe sick and dependent on her care.

The movie was originally set for theatrical release in March from Lionsgate, but that studio pulled it from the schedule because of the coronavirus. Hulu then acquired it in August. Since then it’s run a campaign that has sold it as a psychological thriller, albeit one focused on the mother-daughter dynamic. It also has an excellent 96% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Posters

The first poster (by marketing agency P+A) came out in February when Lionsgate still had control of the film. Its design strongly evokes the work of Saul Bass for the films of Alfred Hitchcock, with the figure of Diane looking up the staircase at the figure of Chloe. The vibe here is kind of great, with the tension of the story communicated not only by the distance between the two but also the copy “You can’t escape a mother’s love.”

That same tagline is used on the second poster, also released in February. This time, though, the image is a photo of Diane looking slightly worried with a smaller photo of Chloe placed inside of Diane’s head to show the strange connection between the two.

The Trailers

The first thing we see in February’s first trailer (13.6 million views on YouTube) is Diane looking at the tiny body of Chloe hooked up to tubes and instruments as she lies in a NICU incubator. Cut to present day and Chloe is a grown teen in a wheelchair and living with her mother, who does everything for her. But Chloe, worried she’s not doing enough, begins to become suspicious her mother is hiding something from her. Turns out that might be a great many things, including what her real name is. Not only that, it’s implied Diane might be keeping her daughter sick and needing her aid, leading to some tense and dangerous situations.

A new trailer (170,000 views on YouTube) came out in late October that establishes the drama of the story quite nicely. It starts by showing what seems to be a loving relationship between Diane and Chloe, but which soon evolves into something much more dangerous. As Chloe becomes more aware of what her mother has been doing, Diane’s actions become more desperate and all the more terrifying because they are being done out of what she considers to be “love.”

Online and Social

No stand-alone website that was easily found, but there were some social profiles to share promotions and other updates on the movie.

Advertising and Promotions

A “date announcement” spot came out in late September when Hulu finally put it on the calendar.

Further short video promotions came out on social media over the next couple months.

Some of those were used as pre-roll ads in the weeks leading up to release.

Hulu announced a watch party accompanied by a Twitter Q&A for the day after the movie was scheduled for release.

A drive-in premiere was held in L.A. earlier this week.

Media and Press

A first-look photo came out just before the trailer was released, including comments from Paulson and Allen on how they got involved in the project and what drew them to the material.

Not a whole lot of other press activity in the immediate lead-up to the movie. Most of the interviews with Paulson in particular have been about her roles on the latest iteration of “American Horror Story” or on Netflix’s “Ratched.”

Overall

The subject matter of the story is certainly disturbing, that’s beyond dispute. But the marketing offers the promise of an interesting and revelation-filled journey to find out just how disturbing things get and what exactly is happening. There are some moments in the campaign that make it seem as if Diane is not doing what it seems, showing that it’s worth the audience’s time to check it out and see what the truth of the matter is.

Picking Up The Spare

Additional profiles of Allen focused more on her status as the first wheelchair-using actress in a thriller in 70 years. 

Ads like the full-site takeover screen capped below ran in the weeks following the movie’s release. 

The movie’s DP talked about creating the tension-heightening visuals for the film.

Hulu released a couple deleted scenes as well as a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Bad Hair – Marketing Recap

How Hulu is selling a unique take on the body horror genre.

Set in the innocent era that was the late 1980s, Bad Hair is a story of how far someone will go in order to achieve their goals. In the movie, directed and written by Justin Simien, Anna (Elle Lorraine) aspires to become a DJ at the height of the popularity of music videos as cultural touchstones.

Told she doesn’t have the right look for the job, Anna decides to get a weave, but doing so has a terrible cost when it turns out the hair is, for lack of a better term, haunted. In fact, it seems to have a mind and desires of its own, and is using Anna to act in the world.

The movie, which has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 63% “Fresh,” costars everyone from Vanessa Williams to Jay Pharoah to Blair Underwood to Lena Waithe and a host of others. Its campaign has been chilling and atmospheric.

The Posters

It’s hard to not thoroughly enjoy the fun being had on the poster (by marketing agency Gravillas), released at the beginning of October. A head of hair, turned upside down, has a hand reaching out of it as if someone is trying to escape. Meanwhile the copy “Terror takes root.” is just spot-on perfect. The message here isn’t that it’s a satire or horror comedy, but that the story will have a wicked sense of humor that shouldn’t be missed.

The Trailers

The first teaser (89,000 views on YouTube) finally arrived in mid-August, opens with Anna entering a hair salon for a new style that we see quickly becomes more than she bargained for and much more dangerous than she anticipated. Her new extensions, we see, are not just a betrayal of who she really is but also have an agenda of their own and begin to exact a terrible price, throwing her life into chaos and endangering both Anna and those around her.

A full trailer (5.5 million views on YouTube) came out from Hulu in early October, offering a more complete look at just what motivates Anna to seek out a change in hairstyle while showing roughly the same look at what happens when that cursed hair starts trying to take over and cause all sorts of mayhem.

Online and Social

Nothing, but Hulu did promote it on social media channels.

Advertising and Promotions

The movie was among those premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it received pretty good reviews and buzz. Hulu acquired distribution rights toward the end of the event and finally gave it a release date in mid-August, but that date was shifted to October. Neon, which partners with Hulu, announced a limited drive-in theater release for just prior to its streaming debut.

A handful of creepy spots were shared on social media that showed the extent of the closeups on Anna’s hair will be.

The cast and crew participated in a virtual New York Comic-Con panel earlier this month along with others talking about Black horror as a unique genre.

There were also promotions for Hulu’s larger “Huluween” campaign that included this title along with the other scary films and shows it was debuting or showcasing.

Media and Press

While at Sundance Simien was interviewed quite a bit about how he developed the idea for the story, how the marketplace has changed since his last festival feature, how the movie is a tribute to the women in his life and more. He was joined by the cast to talk about the realities of showing off natural black hair.

Lorraine was interviewed about this film and its story, Hulu’s release and more, including broader topics like diversity and inclusivity in Hollywood.

Overall

As with most horror films, your receptivity to the campaign for this movie will vary based on your fandom for the genre as a whole. But – and this was the point of the NYCC panel earlier this month – Black horror is having a moment over the last few years, and seems uniquely suited to serve as a metaphor for the lengths Black individuals are expected to go to in order to fit in or succeed in White-dominated society.

This campaign hits that on the head. While that’s not an experience I can speak to in any way, I’m aware enough to know when a story is being told that is outside my worldview or unusual in the kind of project being made.

Picking Up The Spare

Pharaoh appeared virtually on “Kimmel” to talk about the movie and more. 

Hulu has released a number of music videos for songs featured in the movie. 

The movie’s producers talked more about the movie after it was released. 

Coverage here of the hair brands that got a promotional boost from the film. 

The filmmakers discuss the 90’s soundtrack for the movie in a new featurette that came out after the movie was released. Later on there was a conference call with the director and cast to reflect on the film. 

Palm Springs – Marketing Recap

How Hulu is selling a romantic comedy set in a time loop.

Last year I noticed there seemed to be an influx of movies and series about characters living the same day over and over again until they achieved some kind of insight or other result. At the time I speculated that was in part because of the younger generation’s fear their adult lives were going to be an endless series of boring, repetitive days with no end in sight.

Now another in that loosely-defined genre comes to Hulu. Palm Springs stars Andy Samberg as Nyles and Cristin Milioti as Sarah. They are both attending the destination wedding of mutual friends and connect with each other while there. After they’re attacked by a mysterious stranger they each wake up separately, finding it’s the previous day all over again, a cycle that repeats each time they fall asleep, with no way to get out from the loop they’re stuck in. With nothing to lose and no consequences for their actions, they engage in all sorts of reckless mayhem and behavior.

Hulu’s campaign for the film, which has a perfect 100 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, has focused less on the romantic comedy aspect of the story and more on the time loop premise, but with a strong self-aware point of view.

The Posters

You can’t miss the YOLO vibe on the first poster (by Legion Creative Group), released in late May. The copy placed above an image of Nyles and Sarah reads “Live like there’s no tomorrow.” How the pool the two are floating on goes on and on all the way to the horizon reinforces the endless nature of the situation they find themselves in while the fact they’re drinking in the pool hints at how they’ve given up on normality.

Instead of a straightforward photo, the second poster from early July features a kind of watercolor aesthetic, with Nyles and Sarah shown as large figures at the top and once more floating in the pool at the bottom. Around them are supporting characters and, like the first poster, various other elements – including a goat – that it’s reasonable to assume play a significant role in the story.

The Trailers

Nyles and Sarah have a meet-cute at a destination wedding they’re attending as the first trailer (9.3 million views on YouTube), released in early June, opens. Things take a turn when they wind up being hunted by a stranger with a bow and arrow, leading to them entering a mysterious cave and getting caught in your standard infinite time loop situation. That means they wind up living the same day over and over again, starting over when they fall asleep no matter what they do. As they embrace or struggle with their fate they engage in various outlandish activities, have a breakdown or two and generally try to make the best of their existential despair.

Online and Social

No standalone website for the film, and even the support it received on Hulu’s brand social channels doesn’t seem particularly robust.

Advertising and Promotions

The movie’s debut screening at Sundance was generally well-received, so much so that it was immediately picked up by Neon and Hulu for $17,500,000.69, a record price due to that $.69 at the end. A July release date was announced in early June.

It’s likely there were or are some paid ads being run to drive people to stream the film, but they haven’t crossed my radar. Limited pre-roll support was given to the movie on both YouTube and Hulu itself, but that’s about it.

Media and Press

While he and the rest of the cast were at Sundance, Samberg spoke about why he’s drawn to exclusively comedic roles. They also revealed what it was the drew them to the project and what audiences could expect. How the movie’s DP worked to make the film stand out was covered in this interview. Samberg appeared on “The Tonight Show” and talked about Sundance while promoting the return of his TV show.

A feature interview with Milioti allowed her to talk about working with Samberg, how she kept all the story twists straight during filming and more. Another group interview with the cast and filmmakers, including director Allison Jones, covered the path the project took from inception to production.

Other interviews with the primary and supporting cast covered largely the same ground.

Overall

Regardless of when it was made or what the original intent was, it’s hard to think of a premise that’s more timely than it is right now. Much of the U.S. is just beginning to emerge from months of quarantine, where days blended into one another and it felt exactly like you were stuck in an endless loop of repetition.

That’s likely why that’s the aspect of the story Hulu has focused on with the campaign. The search by Nyles and Sarah for not only an exit from their loop but also meaning within it is one a lot of people can relate to at the moment, regardless of or in addition to whatever feelings along those lines they carried with them previously. If anything, the relationship between the two main characters is unclear and ill-defined in the campaign when for other films it would have been the primary element, framed within the fuzzy time setting.

Samberg’s star power is a big part of the appeal put out for audiences to latch on to, but the charm and humor of Milioti can’t be overlooked either, and she’s given nearly equal representation within the marketing elements. That all adds up to a very attractive product being put out there, one that comes with significant buzz and positive word-of-mouth built in from its festival appearances.

Picking Up The Spare

Director Max Barbakow was interviewed about the story and how he got the film into production. He and others in the crew were interviewed here about creating the story. 

There were a few additional profiles of Milioti where talked about her role in this film and career in general. She was also jointly interviewed with Samberg about making an unconventional romantic comedy. Samberg also got another interview on his own. 

Cinematographer Quyen Tran spoke about how she got involved with the project and more. 

Milioti talked about this movie and more when she appeared on “Late Night.” Samberg appeared on “The Tonight Show” to engage in hijinks.

Samberg and Milioti took part in another conversation about the movie for Hulu. 

What Streaming Services Can Do To Up Their Game

As streaming services seize the day, their shortcomings become clear.

There are any number of streaming services – though notably not the big three or four – offering extended free trials or other incentives right now, hoping to capture the attention of people who are locked at home at the moment. Those audiences aren’t going to the theater anytime soon, so may as well try to hook them.

Most all of these services will make much the same pitch they’ve been making for a while now, one that’s based around their own selection of content, especially whatever originals and exclusives they’ve managed to produce or acquire. They will hope people find the balance of content and price point attractive enough to continue on for a while, occupying the rotating fourth “Other” position alongside mainstays including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Disney+.

Most of the streamers feature roughly the same functionality, including search and various forms of recommendations, often based on a combination of what you’ve watched previously and what the company is working to promote at the moment. They also have at least a handful of shortcomings in common.

First, Lack of Context

A big, consistent problem with streaming offerings is that the content available is almost always presented as a one-off. Here’s Raiders of the Lost Ark followed by a handful of random 80s films and then Temple of Doom. That they are part of a series or have any other connective material is completely missing from the presentation.

In other words, there’s no context.

When I look up a particular Coen Brothers film what I’m presented isn’t whatever portion of their filmography is available but a selection of what the algorithm feels is “similar” to what I’m looking for. And when I finish watching one, I’m more likely to get a recommendation for whatever the corporate priority is at that time, not another movie from the same filmmakers or with the same stars.

Part of this is due to the ever-changing nature of the lineup on these services. The Bond movies bounce around from one to the other every few months, as does the Star Trek franchise. Why bother building a hub for these films when they’re just going to be gone soon?

Disney+ does the best job of solving this problem, mostly because they have such strong brands. All the Star Wars, Pixar etc material is helpfully grouped, and watching one leads to a logical and contextual suggestion for what to watch next.

As additional media companies repatriate their content under their own banner, it will be interesting to see how they handle this issue. But Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others that still rely to a great extent on licensed material could do much better with the original content they *do* own.

Second, Lack of Peer Recommendations

Given how big a role recommendations play in the business model of most every streaming service, you’d think that they’d approach the issue from all angles. Instead they’ve focused almost exclusively on their own systems, completely missing out on the word of mouth that many other businesses of all types rely on.

To be clear, the specific problem is on-platform recommendations, which even filmmakers acknowledge is lacking. Off-site recommendations, especially those happening on social media, are still a thing but there’s no peer voice coming at you at the moment you’re in the app or on the site, just when you’re elsewhere.

This is part of a bigger problem, which is a lack of social features on many of these sites, but while I don’t necessarily need to see everything my friends are watching on Hulu, I would sometimes like to see what they’ve been watching. More accurately, I’d like to know if something I’m *considering* watching is something they would recommend. Make it a toggle switch, maybe, a feature to turn on and off when I want that extra level of insight.

Third, A Feed

Good Lord it can be maddening trying to navigate some of these sites looking for the most recent additions to the catalog. Some have sections called “New Releases” but those looking shockingly similar to what’s displayed in the “Featured” section more often than not.

It’s become common to see news stories toward the end of the month with lists of what’s coming to Amazon, Netflix and more in the next month, but actually adding them to your list is cumbersome. You need to go to the app *after* that date and either search for it or hope that it happens to appear on the front page.

There are a few options on how to get around this. First would be to just offer a straight RSS-type feed of new releases, both as a firehose and by category/genre. No, it doesn’t actually have to be RSS-based (though making one available would be great) but could be a Twitter-type page of updates showing what’s new.

On Spotify this would be even easier, and the foundation for it is already baked in. Spotify lets you “follow” artists and bands, yet there’s no subsequent section or feed of new additions by those artists and bands.

These are just a few of the areas where significant improvements could be made. As more and more players come on the scene, the existing powerhouses may find they have to up their game and overcome some of these shortcomings, all of which could make them stickier and improve subscriber retention.

Little Monsters – Marketing Recap

A class field trip gets interrupted by the undead in the Hulu original film.

little monsters posterZombie movies almost always rely on some sort of unique hook to differentiate them from the crowd of similar projects. This week’s Little Monsters has a great one: Lupita Nyong’o stars as Miss Caroline, a teacher taking her class on a trip to a local farm/nature center. Joining her is Dave (Alexander England), who wants to impress Caroline as a rebound after recently getting dumped.

Things take a turn for Dave when he finds he has to compete for Caroline’s attention with the annoying host of a children’s program (Josh Gad) as well as the undead zombies that have escaped from a nearby military base. Caroline has to work with the two guys to keep her class full of kindergartners safe and uneaten.

Nyong’o’s status as one of the new leading ladies of thrillers has been at the center of the campaign for the movie, which has a lot of fun with the tropes of the zombie genre.

The Posters

The unusual nature of the story is on display on the poster, which shows Caroline jumping with enthusiastic joy with her guitar in hand but also jumping to avoid the reach of the decaying zombie hands seen grasping from the bottom of the photo. That communicates nicely how while this might be a zombie movie it’s going to be one with a slightly different attitude and tone – also emphasized by the bright yellow used in the background – than audiences might expect.

The Trailers

The first trailer finally came out in September. It starts out with Caroline and Teddy leading a class of youngsters on their farm field trip, one that gets interrupted by the sudden appearance of flesh-eating zombies. After that we got a tongue-in-cheek presentation of the kind of mayhem and violence the movie contains as the human adults try and protect the kids from the zombies that have taken over and are searching for food anywhere they can get it.

Online and Social

It’s clear there’s a heavy NEON influence to the movie’s official website, which sports the usual marketing materials but also features the “social assets” that studio often puts on its sites.

Advertising and Publicity

Following the movie’s successful debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year NEON and Hulu formed an unusual partnership for distribution rights.

Hulu gave the movie some additional publicity by using it in its “Huluween” campaign highlighting a number of scary movies and shows available on the platform.

Media and Press

A first look still from the movie was released at the same time it was announced it would be screening at Sundance. While there, Nyong’o spoke about the story’s influences and what brought her to the role.

Closer to release, Nyong’o appeared on “The Tonight Show” to engage in hijinks with the host. At the movie’s recent premiere she shared what attracts her to horror films while writer/director talked about how he came up with the idea and wound up getting it made.

Overall

It’s a fun, irreverent campaign that presents the movie as full of thrills, sure, but also one that never looses a tongue-in-cheek perspective and tone. Nyong’o obviously shines here as the teacher who’s dealing with a lot more than she expected, even while taking a bunch of kindergartners to an outdoor location.

Mostly, what’s notable is that the campaign sells the story while never appearing to talk down to the material or audience. It’s easy to do these kinds of marketing pushes in a way that slightly makes fun of the zombie trope or those who enjoy them, but this steers clear of all that and focuses on the unconventional subject matter and tone that’s used.

Picking Up the Spare

Another profile of the writer/director that explains how he conceived of the story and got the talent involved.

Netflix Sends Shoppers to Gimbels

It’s become standard operating procedure over the last decade for brands to live-Tweet during big cultural events. In most cases there’s some direct industry or thematic connection between the company and the event, even if it’s just that the company is an advertiser during the broadcast of whatever it is that’s happening or has some sort of other vested interest in what’s happening.

At first this kind of in-the-moment publishing was off-the-cuff and spontaneous, with the content team doing the best they could to keep up with what was going on, though still with whatever sort of abridged approvals processes needed to be in place. Someone from the art department might still be on call if a graphic or image was needed, but for the most part you did the best with what you had. Over time things got more planned, with beats scheduled at specific times. Media brands began partnering with Giphy to share quick-turnaround GIFs of key moments and so on. It all became very structured.

Whatever the situation, the idea remained in place that the point was to promote the brand. That is the key to all content marketing, after all.

During last weekend’s Golden Globes broadcast, though, Netflix showed there’s still some life left in what had become a very formal, stiff and unexciting marketing tactic.

Throughout the show, @netflix had been commenting on what was happening, calling out some of its favorite wins, particularly for shows and movies that the company itself was responsible for. Things got interesting, though, when it posted this comment about the show “Killing Eve.”

When someone pointed out that the show wasn’t one U.S. viewers could watch on Netflix, whoever was manning the Twitter account had the perfect response.

Now it’s a generally accepted marketing principle that promoting your competitors is a bad idea. It’s nice to see someone break that rule.

What Netflix has demonstrated is an idea my colleagues and I have been pushing for years. Namely, that there’s little to no danger to a brand in acknowledging there is a broader industry that they are part of and that their audience or consumers are aware of. You don’t always need to go all out and promote what your competitors are doing and selling, but pretending it’s not there is a silly charade that’s not fooling anyone. If anything, it makes you look out of touch and ignorant if you don’t.

If anything, you have to look at what Netflix did here through the lens of the company’s larger mission. They want to encourage people to watch streaming media and have an active interest in promoting quality content. In the long run they are also working to attract top-tier talent with lots of buzz and audience awareness since that’s what will attract new subscribers to the original material they release and which is a more important part of their business model as other media companies rethink existing licensing deals.

That means acknowledging how great “Killing Eve” is and how incredible Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer are is in the company’s long-term best interests and therefore completely on-brand.

Netflix certainly garnered a fair amount of attention for calling out a show currently available on Hulu, just as the Twitter accounts for Moon Pie, Wendy’s and others have when they’ve engaged in conversations (sometimes friendly, sometimes passive aggressive and snarky) with the accounts for other companies in or out of their markets. It’s not a well to be drawn from too often as there’s a fine line between clever and stupid, but for now it’s nice to see someone realize there’s value in taking off the marketing blinders and giving a shout out to quality products in the wider world.