The Nine Most Compelling Movie Campaigns of 2019’s Second Half

From Once Upon a Time In Hollywood to The Rise of Skywalker and everything in between.

The second half of 2019 ahs seen a number of notable movie releases from some of the biggest names in filmmaking. Downton Abbey was revived for the big screen and new entries in the Zombieland, Rambo and Terminator series hit theaters to varying degrees of success.

Major releases like The Lion King, Frozen 2 and others dominated the mainstream cultural conversation as well as the box office in the last six months thanks to their massive marketing efforts, there are a number of films where the campaigns were even more interesting and noteworthy. Sometimes those campaigns featured a particularly creative execution, sometimes they represented something new being done to reach an interested audience.

So, to follow up on my list of the most compelling movie campaigns from the first half of 2019, here’s the nine that seemed most interesting or innovative to me in the year’s second half.

Hustlers

There have been a number of movies in the last couple years about women determined to exact some pound of flesh from the world that has wronged them. Hustlers is among the most successful of that genre, thanks in part to the lead performance by Jennifer Lopez. What the movie’s marketing campaign did was out Oceans the Oceans movie, especially the recent Ocean’s 8. From the first moment of the campaign, the audience was presented with a neon bright brand that combined women owning their sexuality as exotic dancers with a social message of making the 1% pay for exploiting the poor.

The Hunt

No, the movie has not actually come out. Universal’s curtailed marketing campaign isn’t worth calling out, mostly because it was that campaign that lead to the studio pulling the movie from its release schedule. The planned August release was initially delayed in reaction to the mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso following concerns the ads were insensitive to the news at the time. But at about the same time the campaign came to the attention of right wing media, which felt the story of wealthy elites kidnapping poor people for sport was terribly offensive. That conclusion was reached by ignoring the class warfare story and focusing on how the hunted were demographically more likely to be conservative voters than the rich people doing the hunting. To date there have been no updates on the movie’s status.

Ready Or Not

Released at the same time The Hunt was being nixed, Ready Or Not wound up being one of the year’s surprise box office hits. The movie is about a young bride who, on the night she marries into a family that made its fortune making and selling games, finds out that family is going to hunt her. Only if she survives the night will she be deemed worthy of becoming one of them. The marketing sold it as a ridiculously fun horror outing, filled with slapstick humor and more, all while maintaining a brand identity rooted in dark hardwood tones and gothic symbolism.

Joker

Warner Bros. seems to have finally found some kind of groove with its DC-related films following the release of Wonder Woman, Shazam, Aquaman and, most recently, Joker. The movie, one of the most successful of the year so far, was the subject of some of the most intense pre-release debates and conversations in recent memory. That’s largely because of the campaign, with trailers that seemed to present Joker’s backstory as startlingly similar to that of so many of the mass shooters that have plagued society. Before taking on the Joker persona, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is shown as a marginalized struggling comedian angry at the ways the people in his life have failed him. If the movie weren’t set in the 80s he’s the kind of guy who would frequent men’s rights forums. Post-release, it’s made the Bronx staircase Joker dances down a hot spot for Instagrammers, which itself is a statement about the power of the campaign.

Between Two Ferns

between two ferns posterNetflix has released a number of noteworthy films this year (more on that later), but the revival of Zach Galifinakis’ Funny Or Die celebrity interviews as a feature deserves mention not for the undeniable quality of the movie (though it is very funny) but because of the teaser poster. Designed by marketing agency Works Advertising, there’s so much going on with the one sheet it’s hard to keep track.

  1. All the lines of copy, even those right next to each other, are all at slightly different angles.
  2. The “www” in the URL for Netflix is a style that hasn’t been widely used in 15 years or more.
  3. The typeface for the release date and web address are laughably simple, a default style in Microsoft PowerPoint, and not one meant to convey any sort of impact.
  4. The two ferns are obviously the same fern copied and pasted on each side of Galifinakis’ head.
  5. The photo of Galifinakis still bears the Netflix watermark, like it was pulled from a press site and slapped onto the poster.

Overall it conveys a sense of “sure, fine, whatever,” which is completely on-brand for the Between Two Ferns series. It’s so sloppy and one of the best of the year.

The Lighthouse

How do you sell a black and white movie about two men left alone together on a remote New England lighthouse, isolated from the rest of the world and stuck with their own secrets and baggage? By going completely bonkers. The trailer has singing, dancing, axes, mermaids, terror, and Willem Dafoe repeating “Why don’t you spill your beans?” over and over again. With Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as the leads, it says something when a pelican is the only character that gets its own poster. In a move usually reserved for franchises and sequels, A24 also released an iMessage emoji pack so people could add images of angry lighthouse keepers and various sea creatures to their messages.

Knives Out

I truly believe no one had more fun selling their movie this year than director Rian Johnson. After making The Last Jedi, objectively the best Star Wars movie ever, Johnson assembled an all-star cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Daniel Craig and others for Knives Out, an old-fashioned murder mystery. The story is set on a wealthy family’s estate as investigators try to solve the murder of the patriarch, and the campaign not only played up the cast but also the breezy nature of the film. In interviews for the film, Johnson frequently evoked his love of classic movies based on Agatha Christie and other stories. That love was evident in the “A Rian Johnson whodunit” branding featured throughout the campaign and especially in one of the final videos, where the director personally invites audiences to see the movie, a move reminiscent of similar appeals by Hitchcock and other classic filmmakers.

The Irishman

After snagging new films from directors like Joel and Ethan Coen, Steven Soderbergh, Tamara Jenkins and other big names, producing a three hour epic from Martin Scorsese represents Netflix’s biggest conquest to date. To celebrate that milestone the studio/streamer ran a campaign that broke new ground for its original releases, including over a dozen featurettes on every aspect of the film, from the cast to hair and makeup to set design and everything in between. Not only were there teasers but there were trailers timed for the movie’s limited theatrical release and then again for just before it became available for streaming. This is very much the moment Netflix adopted tactics similar to how traditional studios sell movies while still supporting its non-traditional business model.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

It would be negligent to omit Disney’s massive, 8-month long campaign for what has been sold at every turn as the final installment in the Skywalker saga that began 42 years ago. The movie has been positioned as the conclusion to the story that began the first moment Qui-Gon Jinn laid eyes on a young Anakin Skywalker. Along the way the studio has had to thread various needles, appealing to older audiences that remember seeing the Tantive IV being chased by a Star Destroyer on the big screen in 1977 and those whose first experience might have been Poe landing on Jakku as the Resistance searched for a missing Luke Skywalker. With seven key promotional partners all producing their own commercials and campaigns along with other companies doing their own thing, there’s been no avoiding the idea that this is the ultimate event film, one audiences would be negligent in missing.

Honorable Mention: Every Ryan Reynolds Movie

He went method for the Pokemon: Detective Pikachu campaign earlier this year and then managed to put an ad for Aviation Gin inside an ad for his new movie 6 Underground that was inside an ad for Samsung. He’s already selling upcoming projects with the same knowing humor, showing he’s one of the strongest marketing brands around.

Hustlers – Marketing Recap

You can read my full recap of the marketing campaign for Hustlers at The Hollywood Reporter.

Online and Social

STX created a lackluster website for the movie that doesn’t offer much in the way of context or background on the story. The “About” synopsis doesn’t even link to the article that inspired it. There was, though, an interesting secondary site called Hustling In that, once you allowed it to access your location and uploaded a photo, shared a graphic on social media showing where you were hustling from.

Media and Press

Lopez appeared on “The Tonight Show” to debut the first trailer.

Writer/director Lorene Scafaria was interviewed about the commitment Lopez and the rest of the cast showed in prepping for production along with what kind of original story she was hoping to tell in the movie. Meanwhile Cardi B shared what kind of dancing advice she gave some of her costars.

A profile of Lopez covered much of her career to date had her sharing how she got involved with the movie, including how doing so is part of a surge of creativity she’s enjoying at the moment. An interview with Wu allowed her to talk about this movie and some of the other elements of her career lately.

While in Toronto for the movie’s premiere, Scarfaria was interviewed at length about the journey she’s been with the project over the last several years, including how it was dropped by Annapurna last year as part of its corporate realignment. Similar ground was covered in another interview. What’s notable is that this is at least the second recent movie directed by a woman where a key narrative in the press push has been that no one was interested in helping make the movie happen, something you don’t hear a lot about when it comes to male directors.

She also spoke about how she worked to make a movie about strippers that wasn’t designed for the male gaze but emphasized the power the women in the story had in a movie made for women.

There were lots of interviews with the cast and crew following the TIFF premiere. That included more from Lopez on the dancing in the film, how proud she was to have helped bring the story to the screen, the on-set solidarity that resulted from a largely female production team and more. The movie’s costume designer was interviewed about how she leaned on Cardi B for insights on how stripper’s clothes are meant to perform and talked again here about the costumes and look of the film.

Just days before it opened, Lopez stopped by “GMA” in Times Square to talk about the movie and more. A little before that, Wu made an appearance on “The Tonight Show” to have some fun with Fallon and Lopez showed up on “Late Night” as well.

EW featured a joint interview with Lopez and Wu just before the movie hit theaters.

Julia Stiles, who plays the journalist interviewing the dancers in the film, was completely absent from the campaign and made what seems to be only one appearance in the media push with an interview here.

Overall

Picking Up the Spare

Creating the look and feel of the movie was covered in this interview with the the costume designer and director of photography. Lopez and Wu spoke more about the bond they formed during production.

Julia Stiles, who plays the journalist interviewing the dancers in the film, was completely missing from the campaign prior to release but finally got at least one interview about her role.

The movie was the latest for which Entertainment Weekly created an exclusive Snapchat and Facebook lens.

There was lots – LOTS – of coverage devoted to how the filmmakers got Usher to make a cameo appearance as himself. Also getting plenty of notice was the attention paid to the music.

A professional stripper who served as a consultant on the film to keep things authentic was interviewed about her efforts. Meanwhile, Scafaria praised the performances of Cardi B and Lizzo and talked about how she approached framing the story.

Lopez made headlines and grabbed attention for hitting Versace’s runway wearing an updated version of her iconic green dress from 2000.

The movie came under fire for apparently not paying for the life rights to Samantha Barbas, the women who served as the inspiration for Ramona, Lopez’s character, but it’s not clear they needed that release.

Scafaria wrote a glowing appreciation of Lopez, praising her work ethic and talent.

Interesting examination of how STX went deep into audience data and habits to help give the movie a fighting chance at the box office. Along the same lines is a look at the partnership between the movie and Fandango.

Later on Scafaria shared a sizzle reel of compiled scenes she says inspired her and helped her land her job.

There’s another interview with Scafaria about the work she put into just trying to get the movie approved, much less made.

Movies Finally Allowing Women to Take Revenge

It’s long been a staple of movies that men seek revenge when some tragedy befalls them. Think of films like Death Wish, where the killing of the main character’s entire family sends him over the edge into vigilantism. The system is always failing white men, who then have to take matters into their own hands.

That such stories have been so common for so long is at least in part responsible for some of the societal problems we face today. These aggrieved white men tried to be good but were forced to go outside the law by the politically correct socialists who want to rehabilitate people instead of jail them and refuse to shoot someone on sight before they are allowed due process in a judicial system awash in corrupt judges and slimy prosecutors.

You can see how that would, when taken along with everything else, add to someone’s burgeoning victim complex, causing them to see everyone in authority along with anyone who doesn’t look like them and share their anger to be seen as the enemy.

Recently, more female characters have been allowed to take on roles that see them seizing power for themselves, often by exacting some level of revenge on those who have wronged them.

Consider a few examples.

Widows (2018) – Four women come together to pay off the debts left behind when their criminal husbands are killed or disappear, plotting a major heist that will allow them to control their own destiny.

Peppermint (2018) – After her husband and child are killed, a woman returns to take down the organized criminals responsible since the justice system was unwilling or unable to do so years ago.

The Hustle (2019) – Two female con artists work together to take down the men who have wronged them – and others like them – over the years

The Kitchen (2019) – Three women are left on the edge of collapse when their husbands are sent to prison, finding the key to survival involves becoming criminals themselves, seizing more power than their husbands ever dreamed of.

Hustlers (2019) – Tired of having to scramble and compromise, a group of night club dancers set out to turn the tables on the Wall Street bros who have everything while they worry about making enough for food and rent.

On that list you’ll find story elements common to the male-centric movies of both the past and present, as well as the future. So it’s not that anything new is generally being done here, it’s just the women are finally being given some agency in their own lives beyond “suffering wife who encourages her husband to go out there and get the son of a bitch who did this” or “helpless woman who has to enlist the aid of male hero cop who will help her finally find justice.”

the kitchen pic

What’s unfortunate is that these movies are finally arriving at a time when non-franchise blockbusters are tanking left and right at the theatrical box office. Of the three that have already finished their release lifecycle, Widows was the most successful with $42 million domestically. The Kitchen performed poorly in its opening weekend and Hustlers’ fate is uncertain due to the financial problems reportedly plaguing Annapurna Pictures.

While there’s a bigger issue of movies that glorify vigilantes and criminals as empowering and justified, that women are finally able to take on these roles themselves is a marked step forward. Let’s hope there are more of them to come, whether they hit theaters, Netflix or other distribution, so that women see they can take charge of themselves and are allowed to feel emotions every bit as deep and sometimes troubling as men have long been free to.