avatar: the way of water – marketing recap

How Disney/Fox has sold a return to land of the clear blue (people) waters

Avatar: The Way of Water movie poster from Disney/20th Century Studios
Avatar: The Way of Water movie poster from Disney/20th Century Studios

It wasn’t long after the 2009 release of Avatar before director James Cameron started talking about the myriad stories he had in mind for the sequels he was planning to make. Over the 13 subsequent years the number of sequels being developed varied from two to five or more, and the target release dates for those movies has slipped from the original 2014 to, roughly, now.

Avatar: The Way of Water arrives in theaters with more than a decade’s worth of anticipation, both from the audience and the movie industry, on its shoulders.

Picking up a decade after the first film, the story once again follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a human who now lives completely in the body of a Na’vi, the natives of the planet Pandora. He has married Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and together they have two children of their own along with Spider, a human boy born on Pandora who has taken on the customs of the Na’vi, and Kiri, a Na’vi avatar with the mind of human Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver).

Once again the story focuses on the attempted human exploitation of Pandora for its mineral resources. Another team of humans has crossed the stars, including Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who has been resurrected into a Na’vi clone avatar. As they attempt to stop the invasion, Jake and Neytiri are forced to leave their own tribe and take refuge among one that lives in and around Pandora’s oceans, opening up a whole new part of the planet barely shown in the first movie.

Just as with the original, this one has been supported with a massive marketing campaign, so let’s get on with it.

prelude : 2017 & 2018

After years and years and dozens of false starts, announcements that production was about to commence followed by news that Cameron was delaying it for some reason, in September 2017 we got what amounts to a “proof of life” photo in the first official still of the new movie’s young cast.

In an interview that was otherwise about Titanic’s 20th anniversary, Cameron made it clear that the second and third Avatar movies would be a complete story but that if they were successful more installments could come. Other than that, few details were revealed as to the story. He did though confirm that Winslet had joined the cast.

Sony ran a substantial paid social media campaign in mid-2018 touting Cameron’s use of its new Alpha cameras on the film.

Producer Jon Landau offered a bit of an update on production during Fox’s CinemaCon 2018 presentation, basically assuring exhibition executives that the movie really for sure was totally happening. Landau and Cameron later took the same message to CineEurope.

prelude (continued): 2019 & 2020

While he was out promoting Alita: Battle Angel, Cameron confirmed that some of the titles floated for the various sequels were – or at least had been – accurate. It wasn’t much but it kept the conversation around the movie alive while production dragged on.

At the end of November 2019 the official Twitter account marked the end of principal photography by showing off one of the production’s massive sets.

That the sequels were still on track was confirmed by Cameron in late December 2019. Concept art showing some of the film’s locations was released a month later. Production was delayed for a short while because of the Covid-19 pandemic but was scheduled to resume in late May.

In late 2019 Cameron told his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger that filming on this installment was “100%” complete while production of the third was nearly done.

Mercedes Benz announced a partnership with the movie in early January 2020, just before it unveiled the VISION AVTR concept car at CES. The car featured no steering wheel but reportedly used intuitive navigation along with being carbon neutral and more.

In October 2020 Dark Horse announced a new comics mini-series set just after the events of the first film, the first continuation of that story as the sequels were still in production.

almost there: 2021 & 2022

In April 2021 Cameron appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the sequels he was filming and express his hope that movie theaters survive long enough for them to show his new movies.

A batch of new stills was given to Empire in October of that year, with Landau offering brief tidbits on the story and characters. Cameron talked more later about the difficulties – largely of his own making – involved in production and how he and the cast adapted to those challenges. Landau was back in a later interview to praise Cameron’s approach to filming and set up what might be coming in additional sequels.

In an interview that was ostensibly about her movie The Adam Project, Saldana spoke about the emotional nature of the footage she’d seen from this film while also commenting on the challenges of filming such a technical project. Later on Worthington also talked about the long waiting period for the second installment and what it was like to come back to this world.

The movie was among those touted by Disney during their CinemaCon presentation in April, with attendees getting a look at footage with producer Landau on stage to talk about Cameron’s plans for this and future installments. It was also announced the first trailer was going to debut in front of the Doctor Strange sequel about to come out.

the marketing campaign: teasers and LEGO sets

After all that the campaign proper finally kicked off when the first trailer (26m YouTube views) hit the internet in early May. There’s little to no story that’s revealed here, it’s mostly a collection of beauty shots of the film’s colorful world and characters, though you can skim some hints from what’s shown. There’s obviously a new level of cooperation between the Na’vi and humans on Pandora, and we see lots of the kids in Sully’s family.

The teaser poster released at the same time shows an extreme closeup of one of those characters.

In late June the movie was the subject of a feature cover story in Empire that included a batch of exclusive images, including the first look at the character played by Winslet, and comments from Cameron defending the film’s reported three-hour running time.

Landau and producer Josh Izzo made an appearance at LEGO Con in June to unveil the first Avatar-based LEGO set.

the marketing campaign: the first movie returns

In late-August Disney announced the first movie was returning to theaters in September to set the stage for the sequel. Trailers, posters and TV spots were all created to support that rerelease. There was even a featurette with Cameron and the cast talking about the movie’s cultural impact.

That release added an impressive $58 million to the movie’s total, an amount seen as a positive indicator there was audience demand for the upcoming sequel. That was aided in part by the fact the film was pulled from the Disney+ streaming service in advance of this engagement but then returned a few weeks ahead of the sequel hitting theaters.

Cameron appeared via camera while Weaver, Saldaña, Worthington and Lang were on stage at Disney’s D23 event, also in September. They all talked about the experience of making the movie and showed off footage to those in attendance as they worked to sell it as a massive blockbuster theater owners could count on to prop up the fall box office.

A wide-ranging profile of Cameron included him touting the theatrical experience that the first movie delivered and the second movie promises, specifically pointing to how young audiences are craving that sort of immersive communal viewing. He also recounted the battles he had with Fox over the making of the first film and how he was kind of glad it wound up being over a decade before the second movie was made and released.

Cameron hosts a featurette from mid-September that focuses on the impact the first movie had on the cast and others

Weaver talked about this movie when she appeared on “The Late Show” during her press rounds for The Good House back in September. She was also the subject of an NYT profile that covered not just this film but also The Good House and Call Jane, all of which were coming out over the span of a few months.

There were a couple features like this that openly questioned whether too much time had passed since the first movie and whether its cultural impact was strong enough to buoy a sequel. Along similar lines were the “was anyone really pining for an Avatar sequel” stories that puts this movie in the context of other franchises, where the concept of a “sequel” is somewhat antiquated, as well as asking whether or not there was a groundswell of fan demand for more stories from Pandora.

the marketing campaign: now we’re getting serious

After spending much of October promoting LEGO sets, high-end statues and more, the second trailer (43.6m YouTube views) was finally released in early November. It spends half its running time just showing off the visuals of the movie and making it clear there’s even more spectacle this time around. Only after all that do we get – for the first time in the campaign – to the conflict that is driving the story. But even that is brushed past quickly in favor of more talk about “the way of water” and lots of shots of massive creatures moving through the oceans.

The poster released at the same time shows Sully and Neytiri looking at their children as someone flies a winged animal over the surface of the water.

Footage from the film was shown at a massive event at Niagara Falls, which itself was illuminated in celebration of the trailer’s release.

Total Film published a cover story on the film that included another batch of stills.

Disney launched an initiative called Keep Our Oceans Amazing where the company promised to donate $5 to The Nature Conservancy for ocean preservation and clean-up for every piece of artwork submitted by fans showing off their own underwater creature creation.

Another profile of Cameron had him talking about how the characters have grown and evolved since the first story and how this one is even more personal for him given his work on ocean conservation.

The final trailer (13m YouTube views) debuted later in November, just as tickets were going on sale, during an ESPN broadcast of “Monday Night Football.” It starts off with Sully explaining to the chief of the ocean-dwelling clan he’s just trying to keep his family safe, but what it is he’s keeping them safe from is never explained and once again only shown briefly. More time is devoted to how the Na’vi teenagers have to adjust to the water clan’s ways and learn to ride the ocean creatures they rely on.

A series of posters gave all the main characters their own spotlight. There were also exclusive one-sheets released for Dolby and IMAX that continue the focus on the colorful imagery without much of the story explained or on display. IMAX also shared an exclusive featurette on the making of the movie. A little bit later there were additional posters for RealD3D, 4DX and ScreenX.

Once again the release of a trailer was accompanied by a massive event, this time an “Avatar Day” display of footage in New York City’s Times Square. Later on the center of Venice would be lit up with a massive “A” to celebrate the movie’s upcoming release.

Along with the beginning of paid advertising – including TV spots, online banner ads and more – late November brought the beginning of the non-Cameron part of the publicity campaign. The younger members of the cast appeared on the “Disney Holiday Celebration” special while Saldana appeared on “GMA” and other shows, including the online “Hot Ones” taste test/interview series. Closer to release Weaver appeared on “Kimmel

Avatar: The Way of Water online ad

The in-person events started when the cast assembled at Brazil Comic-Con at the beginning of December. They then turned out for the world premiere in London. Later stops on the world press tour included Seoul, South Korea and Tokyo before ending with the blue carpet event in Los Angeles, which Cameron had to skip after he was diagnosed with Covid-19 but where the rest of the cast talked about shooting the movie, especially the technically difficult underwater shoots and more.

It was announced shortly after that the original song “Nothing is Lost” from The Weeknd would appear on the soundtrack.

Two more character posters came out focusing on a couple of the younger characters.

Saldana and Worthington asked each other softball questions in an official video. Worthington was the subject of a feature profile that delved into the personal and professional struggles he’s faced and largely overcome in the 13 years since the first movie should have catapulted him to the stratosphere.

overall

First off, the $150-175 million opening weekend predicted by tracking estimates is alright, but let’s keep in mind Black Panther: Wakanda Forever just opened to about $180 million in its first weekend, so it wouldn’t be earth-shattering, especially given Cameron’s comments about how it kind of needs to be a top-five all-time total just to make its production budget back.

This while media companies of all kinds are laying off staff, pulling content from streaming services to save money on residuals, canceling other expensive productions and so on. I mean…good for Cameron et al but also, the question of whether or not the first movie has any sort of cultural traction remains a valid one.

While the marketing campaign here is certainly massive and seems to have done its job in generating awareness and interest, there’s little here that answers the question above in an affirmative manner. That stems primarily from how the marketing keeps insisting on not showing the audience what the story of the movie is. It’s *all* about the sweeping camera shots and the beautiful shots of the alien planet but there’s nearly nothing here, not even in the press and publicity interviews, about the conflict that threatens Pandora. That has to be a choice (not one I necessarily agree with) based on how the pretty pictures are going to do more to sell LEGO sets than scenes of bombs and missles raining down on a peaceful people.

Terminator: Dark Fate – Marketing Recap

You can read my entire recap of the marketing campaign for Terminator: Dark Fate at The Hollywood Reporter.

Online and Social

The lack of content on the movie’s official site exemplifies how little attention studios are paying to owned web properties in recent years. There are ample opportunities afforded by the Terminator franchise to offer interactive timelines, recaps of the story so far that include clips from (and links to purchase) the first two movies and much more. Only including a “Synopsis” and “Videos” section – there aren’t even stills – indicates no one cares about putting any effort into movie sites, despite their long-term advantages.

Media and Press

A bit later, while promoting other smaller movies, Davis spoke briefly about how this was the biggest production she’d worked on to date.

Just before SDCC kicked off, Miller was interviewed about how he approached making the movie and how he felt audiences would react to the characters and story. EW’s annual Comic-Con issue included comments from Hamilton about why she chose now to return to the character and what it was like to reunite with Schwarzenegger, Miller introducing the requisite new Terminator models,

At the same time the official trailer was released, a feature profile of Hamilton ran telling the story of how she abandoned Hollywood years ago, shortly after Hollywood abandoned her. Miller’s work in recruiting her to return to the series involved him making the case she would be alright getting back into the business. The biggest takeaway from the story is that the actress gives zero cares about what anyone else thinks and is unwilling to do anything by half measures.

Hamilton and Davis sat down for a joint interview where they talked about their admiration for each other and what it was like to work together. Schwarzenegger appeared on “Kimmel” to talk about the movie and returning once more to one of his most familiar characters. Hamilton also appeared on that show to talk about her long-awaited return to the series.

Overall

Picking Up the Spare

Lots more talk show appearances by the cast, with Hamilton, Davis and Reyes all showing up on “Kimmel.”

Additional profiles also popped of Hamilton, Davis, Reyes and Luna, while AMC was given an exclusive interview with Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.

Paramount’s extensive mural campaign was the subject of a featurette that showed where they were appearing and who the artists behind them were.

Dave & Buster’s launched “Terminator: Guardian of Fate,” a new VR experience featuring the voice of Hamilton and a story tying into the film.

Miller addressed the movie’s failure at the box office as well as the creative conflicts he had with Cameron and others during production and editing.

Alita: Battle Angel – Marketing Recap

You can read my full recap of the marketing campaign for Alita: Battle Angel at The Hollywood Reporter.

Online and Social

It’s surprising, though I’m not sure why, that a movie with such a deep mythology would get a website that acknowledges none of it. There’s just the very basic information you can find anywhere else online

Media and Publicity

A live-streamed Q&A with Cameron, Rodriguez and Salazar preceded the trailer and offered fans a bit more information about the movie.

A later interview with Salazar and Rodriguez reiterated how different the hero she plays is going to be.

While at NYCC, Rodriguez was interviewed about how he got involved and the kinds of expectations that came with the job.

Salazar finally got a profile of her own that focused on the unusual nature of her role in this movie and how she got it. Another hit similar topics as well as talking about her career so far. Connelly and Cameron went on to make a few late night and early morning appearances, as did others from the cast and crew. Cameron was interviewed about the story and morality of the character as she tries to move past her history as a warrior to be a better person. The issue of Latinx representation was also commented on by Salazar.

Waltz finally joined the publicity campaign with a profile that covered this movie as well as his previous work. Rodriguez was interviewed about his experience working with Cameron.

Overall

alita gif

Why Tear Down When You Can Build Up?

It’s interesting to me that director Martin Scorsese has chosen to take issue with sites like Rotten Tomatoes and CinemaScore (which later responded) recently. He has a point when he says they reinforce the idea that every movie can be assigned a quantitative score, something that devalues the artform in real ways. I actually kind of agree with that, as I do with his position on how films being lumped in as “content” alongside quirky YouTube videos and Tweets isn’t helping anything.

While the internet has been great in how it’s allowed a broad range of previously unheard voices to be shared, it *has* also demonstrably contributed to the degrading of expertise. The lack of gatekeepers deciding what should or shouldn’t be published means a lot of garbage makes it into the system that wouldn’t have 25 years ago.

It’s not just citizen journalists who are adding unwanted opinions to the mix, though. In a few recent cases it’s other filmmakers who have added some questionable takes to the conversation.

Most recently we have esteemed filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci offering his unsolicited (it seems) opinion on director Ridley Scott’s recasting of Kevin Spacey’s role in All the Money in the World. That decision, Bertolucci says, was horrific and one Scott should be ashamed of. It’s unclear why, but one can assume it’s because Bertolucci believes Scott should have stuck with his actor and not given in to the mob mentality. I don’t know about you but I’m shocked to see the director of Last Tango In Paris, which has come under fire recently due to comments from actress Maria Schneider, taking this position. (not really)

That all comes after director James Cameron has become notable over the last year for not only continuing to fail to produce any of the 18 Avatar sequels he’s promised but also for offering his thoughts on how Wonder Woman is a bad example for women, how 2001: A Space Odysseylacks emotional balls” and how there has to be something happening in sci-fi/fantasy other than Star Wars and super heroes.

I’m always interested in what other filmmakers think of movies both new and old, but to quote Ron Burgundy, maybe these guys should sit the couple plays out.

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, of course. And again, there are some interesting thoughts here that can be discussed further. What I really just don’t care for, though, is someone criticizing the work of others in this way or dismissing fandom with the wave of a hand.

Put it this way: Contrast what Bertolucci (who has zero moral high ground to stand on when it comes to taking someone else to task on responsible filmmaking) and Cameron (who is in a position to do something about the inequity he sees regarding IP-based franchises but hasn’t) with the way the last year has seen Patty Jenkins, Taika Waititi, Ava DuVerny, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele, Rian Johnson and others all come out as each other’s biggest fans. All of these directors have been active on social media and in the press praising each other’s work and building each other up.

It’s not that there isn’t still a competitiveness or that they’re not making their own artistic decisions. It’s just that they realize this isn’t a zero sum game. If one of them succeeds in bringing in new fans and audiences, it’s good for all of them. They’re all out there hustling for their next gigs and making the most of the opportunities they’ve been given.

That’s much more encouraging to the audience that sees the interactions play out than the squabbling and backbiting some feel they’re entitled to engage in. It rewards fans and has the potential to turn people on to new things they otherwise might not have tried.

Filmmakers, actors and others need to be aware of how their opinions have the power to influence the moviegoing audience in a way that even peer or critic opinions don’t. It’s one thing for a CinemaScore review to weigh in negatively on a new film but a very different situation when it’s a giant of film. Not only do they kind of show their ignorance as to the state of the current marketplace and culture, but they do damage to the entire industry.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day – Flashback Marketing

Later this week Terminator 2: Judgement Day returns to select AMC Theaters locations, a re-release to mark and celebrate a new 4K 3D restoration of the film that was supervised by director James Cameron, taking time away from working on the seven Avatar sequels he’s planning. Unlike some other filmmakers, though, he’s done very little tweaking of the original, finding it sufficient to improve the master print as a way to make the film accessible on the big screen to a whole new generation of fans.

I’m old enough to remember the first theatrical release, though, and how controversial and notable it was that the film had a production budget of over $100 million, at the time an unheard of sum. Now $100 million is table stakes for anything above a title like The Big Sick. While I wasn’t a die hard fan of the 1984 original, I still stood in line for the sequel, not wanting to miss out on what was being hyped and discussed as the most essential film the summer of 1991 had to offer.

The movie picks up several years after the events of the original. Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) is in a psychiatric ward because of her insistence that the rise of the machines was coming and that humanity’s days were numbered. Because of her incarceration her son John (Edward Furlong), now 10, has bounced around the foster system and is kind of a punk. One day a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that’s identical to the one who hunted Sarah down 10 years prior shows up but this time its mission is to protect John from the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). That new, more advanced machine is made of a living, liquid metal that can take any form it wants and is even more unstoppable than the earlier model. Sarah and John, with the Terminator’s aid, try to find the man responsible for the creation of Skynet and get him to stop before he can build the AI that will cause nuclear annihilation on what in the future is known as Judgement Day.

At first it may not seem like there’s a lot going on with the theatrical poster. It doesn’t include any hints or copy that would allude to the story outlined above. It doesn’t feature anyone but Schwarzenegger, who sits astride a motorcycle while holding an imposing shotgun. The only copy here outside of the title, credits and release date is “It’s nothing personal,” which even with the advantage of hindsight doesn’t seem to be super-applicable to the story.

What the poster does convey, though, is the look. That cool, dark blue. The reflection of street lights off the leather jacket. The matte black of the gun. Those are all the key visual elements of the movie, particularly as the story moves toward its climax. Not only does it focus on the presence of the star, by then the biggest movie star in the world, but it also shares an essential color palate with the audience, setting up the expectation for the tone of the movie they’re being asked to see.

The trailer starts out by catching us up on what’s happening and setting the idea that the Terminator we saw from the first movie is back with a very different mission. We see the Terminator find and work to protect John Conner, the new machine the whole team is up against, the interplay between the Terminator and John and more. The narration over the action talks repeatedly about how the action is even bigger and more intense than before, promising at the end that “He’s back….for good.” which is a much better tagline than what’s on the poster.

It’s surprising how much of the story is actually shown in this trailer. You get a pretty good sense of what’s happening and why here, though the emphasis is certainly on the visual. Not just the action set pieces but the T-1000’s liquid transformations in particular. Those were the big draw, the subject of countless press stories at the time, held up as the next big leap forward in computer-aided visual effects.

That really presents a portion of the campaign that can’t adequately be captured here. Remember that this was only Cameron’s fourth major directorial outing, including the original Terminator. While his reputation was certainly well known, particularly in the sci-fi genre, he was still pretty green. So the focus was, at the time, on the special effects, which were pretty mind-blowing. This was still very much the early days of computer animation, with Toy Story still four years away and only 10 years removed from TRON and Star Trek II. So the innovations coming out of Cameron’s workshop were not only groundbreaking but also a substantial audience draw in and of themselves.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day would go on to enormous box office success, cementing Cameron’s place as a top-tier director (though he’d only helm three more movies over the years) and establishing The Terminator as a legitimate franchise, albeit one that’s had a few spotty subsequent entries without Cameron’s involvement. Still, this campaign stands as a testament to the power of selling the audience on a movie based on the presence of a familiar star and a continued story that was bigger and better than the original.