How Warner Bros. has sold a big movie musical event.
Anyone not already familiar with the name Lin Manuel Miranda has certainly come to know it in the years since Hamilton – the filmed version of which hit Disney+ last year – became a Broadway sensation. Others, though, were aware of Miranda’s skills well before that based in part on his first musical.
That musical, In The Heights, has now been adapted into a feature film debuting in theaters and on HBO Max this week. Directed by Jon M. Chu, the movie stars Anthony Ramos as Usnavi de la Vega, a Washington Heights bodega owner, Leslie Grace as Nina Rosario, a young woman returning to the neighborhood after dropping out of college, Corey Hawkins as Benny, Usnavi’s best friend and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, who works at a local salon and dreams of getting out. The story follows these and other characters over three days and involves a winning lottery ticket sold at Usnavi’s bodega, that changes being experienced in the largely Dominican neighborhood and more.
Initial reviews have praised the movie, which currently has a 96% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes as bold and exuberant. And in a sign of the world reopening post-pandemic, some 96% of respondents to a recent Fandango survey say it’s the first film they plan to see in theaters since they closed down over a year ago. Helping that is not only the public health situation in the U.S. but also that school years are ending, all of which adds up to a projected opening weekend of $20 million.
With all that as context, let’s see how Warner Bros. has marketed what has shaped up to be the kickoff event of the summer.
While the image of a New York City bridge is wonderfully colorful and striking, the main selling point on the first poster from December (by marketing agency Statement Advertising) is that the movie comes from the creator of “Hamilton” and the director of Crazy Rich Asians. That’s what’s going to convince people to take a chance on a movie whose source material they may not be familiar with.
A half-dozen posters came out in mid-March of this year, all of them taking a slightly different approach to selling the story. Some pull the camera out to show the neighborhood from a wider perspective, others focus more narrowly on the main characters. All keep the same brand of bright, joyous celebrations, though, and so work together to sell a good time with lots of singing and dancing.
Two waves of character posters were released in early May that position either one or two of those characters in different parts of the neighborhood where they live or work.
“The time has come” declares the Dolby Cinemas poster, which shows the main characters in the midst of a raucous neighborhood rally.
The final poster was released later in May, showing the two lead couples in the story dancing in the streets, the other neighborhood residents also celebrating around them.
The first trailer (11.6 million views on YouTube) was released in mid-December and starts out by reminding people it comes from the creator of “Hamilton,” a reasonable message to send. Benny is telling a story of the Washington Heights that was to a group of kids. Back in the day Benny was a dreamer but the neighborhood around him, his friends and his family was changing to shut out anyone who aspired to rise above their station. It’s filled with big, glorious musical numbers and big, glorious emotions, just like a musical should be.
A second trailer (2.6 million views on YouTube) came out in early March, debuting during the Grammy Award broadcast. It’s still focused on Benny and Nina, but is really about loving your neighborhood and embracing all that it has to offer. Not only that, but it’s unapologetically an appreciation of Lantino culture and all that means. Another slightly different version of that trailer came out at the same time, offering a few additional scenes but telling the same story.
Online and Social
In addition to the standard synopsis, videos and photos the official website for the movie has Meme Generator function allowing visitors to choose from a selection of GIFs, add their own message to it and then export it for sharing on the social network of their choice.
There were also standalone social profiles on most major platforms, including Giphy.
Advertising, Press and Promotions
Warner Bros. kicked off the film’s marketing by bringing a video containing the first footage as well as comments from Chu to CCXP in December 2019.
Miranda was interviewed about the movie while he was in Sundance earlier this year promoting other projects.
The movie’s production designer spoke about how he sought to accurately represent the cultures of the movie’s characters.
Both Ramos and Miranda were presenters during the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony.
Ramos, Barrera and others were interviewed about the movie and how they felt a great deal of cultural responsibility to get things right and present the neighborhood and its people respectfully and accurately.
In March of last year Warner Bros. pulled the movie from its original June release, one of several such changes in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak. It was later rescheduled for June when the studio made its big HBO Max announcement in late 2020.
A few of the actors took part in an interview during the virtual edition of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers 21st Annual Media Summit in June, talking about the tone of the film and how production went.
Miranda talked about writing the original stage show late last year, making it clear he was moved to do so at least in part because of the lack of representation elsewhere in the entertainment world. Later on he was interviewed about what drew him to Chu as a director for the movie
Early April brought a short TV spot/promo that didn’t have much details but certainly conveyed the spectacle of the film.
Disney worked to get some early buzz going for the movie in April by both allowing critics and others to share their early reviews and announcing the film’s world premiere would be held at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in June. It was also scheduled as the premiere film for the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival.
An extended TV spot titled “Change The World” came out at the end of April that plays up the aspirational nature of the story, showing how the characters are out to not only preserve and celebrate their neighborhood and life but change the world while doing so. Another similar spot – this one titled “96,000” – is centered on how someone in the neighborhood has one the lottery and shows the characters talking about what they would do if they came into that kind of money.
Unsavi sings about his love for his neighborhood in the first clip, which debuted during the broadcast of the “MTV Movie & TV Awards” in mid-May.
Gold House, the Asian Pacific-Islander advocacy group that has coordinated support for movies with AAPI creators and leads, announced a spinoff #LatinxGoldOpen campaign in conjunction with the National Association of Latino Independent Producers.
An exclusive MovieClips featurette covered how the themes of the story are universally applicable to everyone.
Ramos was the subject of a THR cover story where he talked about his history with the stage musical, his career to date and more while his work ethic and performance were praised by Miranda, Chu and others. He also received an NYT profile where he shared the pressures of so much attention right now as well as how he’s defined his career to date.
IMAX released a TV spot encouraging audiences to come see it on the big big screen.
In June Smits was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with the actor talking about his long love of the stage production and lots more.
Grace was interviewed about this being her big screen debut as well as the cultural history she and the rest of the cast strove to portray and represent. That history and heritage was the focus of a feature with the whole cast sharing their thoughts on those topics and more, something they along with others also did at the movie’s recent Los Angeles premiere. They also commented on the relief and thankfulness they felt at the movie finally coming out a year after it was originally scheduled. An interview with costar Daphne Rubin-Vega had her talking about how her character was changed to be queer in the film when she was straight in the original show.
Regal Cinemas had an exclusive collection of interviews with the cast. Dolby shared an interview with Chu about the process of filming the movie in Washington Heights. Another Dolby video with Chu had him presenting the movie as a welcome way to celebrate the reopening of the world as the worst of the pandemic fades, at least here in the U.S.
Along with a few more clips, Warner Bros. released the first eight minutes of the movie on YouTube and made the same footage available within HBO Max.
An extended spot proclaiming the movie the “event of the summer” includes not only the critical praise it’s received to date but also endorsements from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Jackman and others.
One final featurette has Miranda, Chu and others who are actually from the neighborhood portrayed on screen about how special Washington Heights is and how it’s always been an immigrant community of some form or another.
Chu was scheduled to appear on TCM to introduce three classic movie musicals that inspired this film.
Promotional partners for the movie included:
- Travelocity, which ran a sweepstakes giving the winner a dream vacation to either the Domincan Republic or another destination of their choosing.
- Roblox, which is hosting a virtual block party in-world through June 20th featuring recreations of Washington Heights as well as some of the characters.
- Foot Locker and Fila, which collaborated on a movie-inspired sneaker coming soon.
- Open Table, which suggested people celebrate the movie’s release by ordering in from a local restaurant.
As is appropriate for screen musicals, there are no small emotions in this campaign. Everything is big, everything is colorful, everything is heightened. That comes through in almost every aspect of the marketing, from trailers to posters to Gifs.
In addition to the constant reinforcing of Miranda’s personal brand, what comes through most strongly is how different this movie is from others that tell stories of immigrant or similar communities. This isn’t a dark, serious look at the struggles of people in those neighborhoods, though the problems they face are still evident. Instead it’s a celebration of the people in a neighborhood and how they take joy in life, want to preserve their heritage and make the best of each day, dreaming of not just making it big but then coming back and helping those they grew up alongside. That’s pretty unique and makes this campaign pretty special.