dune – marketing recap

Dear Paul Atreides…

If you’ve seen David Lynch’s 1984 version of Frank Herbert’s Dune you know that the conventional wisdom of the novel being essentially unadaptable might not entirely be hyperbole from die-hard fans who want their favorite book to remain unadulterated. Herbert’s text is dense with detail and story, making it an imposing wall to climb for anyone trying to translate it to another medium.

Dune movie poster

This week brings another attempt to scale that wall in the form of Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Timothée Chalamet stars as Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). House Atreides is called by the emperor to take on stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, important because it’s the only source of spice – a drug that extends human life and which is so pervasive it’s now essential to life itself – in the galaxy. But the enemies of House Atreides stand in the shadows to attack. And once on Arrakis, Paul and the others will have to work with the Fremen, natives of the planet that include Chani (Zendaya), a young woman Paul has been having visions of in his dreams.

Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Charlotte Rampling, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem and others round out the cast.

That the movie, which runs over two-and-a-half hours, only covers the first half of the first book indicates just how dense that book is, though Villeneuve’s luxurious, unhurried style surely contributes as well. With that in mind, let’s see how it’s been sold.

announcement and casting

While there had been other projects that had attempted to get off the ground over the years, this one was officially announced all the way back in 2017, when Villeneuve was revealed as the director of this new version.

Though Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t a smash success, that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm for Villeneuve to take on Dune, with the director being called the “sci-fi remake master” in this interview where he discussed both movies. Later on he revealed he planned to make the adaptation a two-parter, a format he confirmed in a separate interview.

Chalamet and Ferguson were cast in mid-2018, with others added that year and up to the beginning of production in mid-2019.

One of the first cross-media expansions of the story announced was a video game from Funcom, news that showed the movie was renewing interest in the universe as a whole.

Warner Bros. announced in May 2019 that the series “Dune: The Sisterhood” would debut on its upcoming WarnerMedia streaming service. The series would focus on the women of the Bene Gesserit, the enigmatic mystical power brokers in the story’s universe and be produced by Villeneuve, who would also direct the first episode.

marketing phase 1: pandemic is the release date killer

An interview with the filmmakers was accompanied by a number of first-look photos from the film in April 2020, showing off Chalamet, Issac and others in the cast. More photos along with additional comments from Villeneuve came a bit later.

Also on the tie-in front, a comic version of the “House Atreides” novel was announced in May, telling a story set some 30 years prior to the events of the movie.

Reports circulated in mid-June that WB was planning to release a first look at footage from the film along with Inception when that movie returned to theaters to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

A Q&A featurette with the cast was released in early September at the same time as the first trailer.

Despite the marketing seeming to get up and running through September, in early October reports emerged that WB was pulling the movie from its planned December release date and pushing it all the way to October, 2021.

A first-look package in Empire included Villeneuve talking about the expanded role he gave Lady Jessica, Issac talking about the relevance of the story in today’s world and more.

Warner Bros. debuted the first trailer in theaters in front of Tenet’s release at the end of August 2020, weeks before it came online.

When it did (37.5m YouTube views) at the beginning of September of last year it went a long way toward making even skeptics eager with anticipation. The focus of course is on Paul as we follow from his training to his life on Arrakis and the adventures and people waiting for him there. It offers significant glimpses at other major characters as well, especially in how they relate to Paul, but only at the end do we get a look at the worms that dominate the planet, offering the key to its place in the universe while also presenting a clear threat to the humans living there. It’s…just great.

Just after the first trailer came out, Zimmer was interviewed about working with a full choir on the version of Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse” that appears in that spot. The use of Floyd is also a nod, intentional or not, back to the development of a Dune adaptation in the mid-70s with Alejandro Jodorowsky set to direct. At the time, Jodorowsky intended to have the movie’s soundtrack created by the band.

There was a feature profile of Chalamet that covered the actor’s role in this film as well as his rise to stardom over the last few years, including comments from Villeneuve.

Like the rest of Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate, the release of Dune was altered in December of last year to include both theaters and HBO Max, a concession of pandemic reality by the studio. But that didn’t sit well with financier Legendary, who blasted the decision, or with Villeneuve, who penned an op-ed criticizing WB for grabbing cash instead of respecting artists.

When Chalamet appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in December of last year, about the time the movie was originally meant to be in theaters, his choice to wear a “Legendary” branded t-shirt raised lots of eyebrows given that company’s disapproval of WB’s HBO Max decision.

Zendaya commented on making the movie when she was promoting Malcolm & Marie earlier this year.

Rumors came early in 2021 that the studio may not have completely settled on a release plan for the film despite it appearing in a number of HBO Max promos, but nothing solid was reported or announced. Eventually WB execs confirmed it would receive a hybrid release just like the rest of this year’s lineup, and not be exempted from that plan.

marketing phase 2: hope clouds observation

With Warner Bros. now committed to that theatrical/HBO Max release plan, the marketing restarted in July of this year.

That’s when a series of character posters came out showing extreme close-ups of Paul, Chani and others.

The second trailer also came out at this point. It opens with Chani describing how beautiful the planet Arrakis can be but also how that beauty is marred by the greed and brutality of the outsiders who want her homeworld for the spice, regardless of who gets hurt. The focus then shifts to Paul and the rest of House Atreidis, which has been tasked with managing the spice and the world as a whole. As loyalties are betrayed and war comes to the planet, we’re reminded numerous times that Paul may have a destiny that’s unknown and unexpected by others, one that seems intimately tied to the Fremen and Dune as a whole.

IMAX offered theater goers at that time not only the trailer but also an exclusive look at even more of the film at a special event slated for late July.

An interview with Villeneuve had him talking more about the imposing nature of the story and how casting Chalamet was crucial to his deciding to make the movie at all.

“It begins” we’re told ominously on the next poster, released in early August. It shows Pau wandering the vast nothingness of Dune at the bottom while above the main cast is shown assembled in the standard franchise design.

IGN offered introductions to the heroes of the movie that included exclusive images and character backgrounds. The site would later publish similar roundups of the Fremen, House Harkonnen and other major groups from the story.

marketing phase 3: if you don’t see this movie in theaters, we’ll kill this dog

At this point the director began hitting on a notion that would become common through the rest of the publicity campaign, namely that this may be the first movie but it’s just the first part of the larger story he’s telling. Building on that, he makes it clear fans shouldn’t take the second installment for granted as it will depend on this first one being successful.

The message is this, then: You better go to the theater because that’s the yardstick WB is using to measure whether or not it greenlights Part 2. The fate of Dune as a movie series is thus clearly placed in the hands of the audience. That message is underlined by his additional comments about how moviegoing is an almost religious experience, one that should take place communally, not just on your own at home.

Screenwriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts were interviewed about the challenges in adapting what’s long been seen as an unfilmable book and story. A later interview with the movie’s costume designers covered their own struggles with recreating the looks described in such detail in the book, as would the director of photography in his own conversation.

Warner Bros. included footage from the movie in their presentation to exhibition executives and others at CinemaCon in August.

Shorter videos – likely used as TV spots, social media and other promos – started coming out at this time that each focused on a slightly different aspect of the story, from Paul’s journey to the other characters like his mother and father that influence his path and more.

The IMAX exclusive poster simply zooms in on the image of Paul in the desert seen on the earlier one-sheet while calling out that the movie was “filmed for IMAX” to lure in those who want to see it in the format it was apparently intended for. The same message was shared in a commercial for IMAX and in an exclusive featurette on how Villeneuve shot the film specifically for big screens.

The movie’s appearance at the 2021 Cannes International Film Festival was confirmed in May. It was also scheduled (out of competition) for September’s Venice International Film Festival and as a “special presentation” at the Toronto Film Festival. Villeneuve received the TIFF Ebert Director Award at Toronto. It was later added to the lineup of the New York Film Festival.

That Venice appearance garnered mostly positive buzz and reviews, with critics calling it some mix of exhilarating and impressive and mildly disappointing, though many of the latter comments seem to stem from this not being the complete story. In interviews from the festival Villeneuve again called for audiences to see it on the big screen and urged for them to turn out in droves so the studio will allow him to make the sequel.

We’re introduced to the characters, especially the warring houses that drive the action and drama, in a featurette given to Fandango’s MovieClips.

The director joined Chamalet and Zendaya in a short featurette about the process of making the movie together. In another he talked about working with composer Hans Zimmer on the score of the film.

Dolby’s exclusive poster shows Paul still wandering the desert, but this time from a slightly different and harsher looking point of view. It also had its own featurette on how Villeneuve directed and crafted the sound of the movie.

The cast and crew headed to Paris in early September for a screening there.

Additional interviews with Villeneuve had him talking about why he chose Abu Dhabi to serve as Arrakis and how he wanted the screenwriters to focus specifically on the influence and importance of the story’s female characters.

A takeover ad campaign run on IMDb at the beginning of October caused more than a few negative reactions for being too obtrusive, covering information on pages and rendering the site largely unusable because the ads couldn’t be minimized.

Both Ferguson and Villeneuve appeared on “The Late Show” to hype the movie while revealing as little of what it entails as possible.

An exclusive poster for RealD 3D pulls the camera out a bit but, like the others, shows Paul walking along a massive sand dune

MovieClips received an exclusive featurette that had the cast and crew talking about the massive scale of the movie and how it was filled with visuals and more that the audience had never seen before.

The final trailer (3.1m YouTube views) came out in the first week of October. It doesn’t have a whole lot that’s brand new, though there are a few scenes we haven’t seen before, but does sum up the story and the epic nature of the movie nicely, including some quotes from positive reviews to help make the case to the audience.

At the same time, Villeneuve and composer Hans Zimmer were hosting a screening and Q&A at New York Film Festival.

EW ran a cover story package of features that went into the making of the movie, including how Villeneuve first began considering how a new adaptation might be made, the process of bringing the cast together and lots more.

Momoa praised Chalamet when he appeared on “The Tonight Show.”

AMC Theaters had a couple exclusive interviews with the cast and crew, as did Regal Cinemas.

Cinematographer Greig Fraser talked about how he worked to make a big movie that felt small in terms of the focus on the characters.

The movie took over @TwitterMovies this week, sharing videos of the cast and crew answering fan questions.

Another interview with Villeneuve had him making it clear that he took this job not in spite of being seen as difficult but because it was seen as difficult, which is a nice sentiment.

HBO Max announced just days before release that the movie would be available on Thursday, not Friday, as part of a “special preview event.”

overall

Let’s be about what works in the campaign.

It focuses on Paul Atreides, which makes sense given the entire story revolves around that character, but it doesn’t go too hard in the paint in setting him up as a white savior out to rule the native people and their lands. Nor does it spend too much time tipping its hat toward Paul’s role as a prophet or Christ-like figure. Instead he’s a young man put in a rough situation and making the best of it and trying to fulfill his destiny as well as his father’s expectations for him.

It highlights bits of comedy – or at least levity – that are wholly missing from the source novel or previous adaptations. Those especially come through in some of the scenes featuring Isaac’s Duke Leto Atreides and Duncan Idaho, played by Jason Momoa. With such a weighty product being pitched to audiences, it’s good to include a few lighter moments added by screenwriters Ross, Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts to make it a bit more attractive.

It keeps the scale both massive and human. This is addressed in one of the interviews linked above, but the marketing nicely balances showing how big the movie is while also making it clear the story hinges not on those huge ships or the grand, detailed buildings we see but on the characters walking around and through them. That helps communicate that the audience won’t be overwhelmed or wonder who they’re being asked to care about or why they should care.

Mood Protect GIF by Dune Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

With those all in mind there’s one thing that strikes me as odd about the marketing.

Namely, the message sent by Villeneuve and others that the fate of the second movie being made at all hinges on audiences going to theaters in huge numbers to see this one.

It’s odd, especially in this age of franchises being central to studio success, that there would be any contingency placed on the second installment, especially given the admission that this is only the first half of the first of multiple stories that could be told. If not “odd” then it’s at least out of character for a major studio to not immediately say that both movies will be made and released. After all, that’s the approach WB itself took with both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, reassuring fans that they would see the whole thing over a few years and wouldn’t be left hanging without The Return of the King because The Two Towers had underperformed. We know when the next 12 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are coming out, so why not lock dates in for the entire Dune two-parter?

Instead we have the cast and crew sounding increasingly desperate in their appeals.

Critics, who have given the movie positive reviews adding up to an 87% Fresh Rotten Tomatoes ranking, have added to that. For a while now the unofficial line has been that the movie needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible to get the full experience. While that may be true and is relatively common/innocuous, many have gone further recently and suggested anyone who doesn’t go to the theater is someone who doesn’t actually love movies.

That’s not fair and does a disservice to critics in general, who should be more concerned with substance than delivery platform. And, based on what’s seen in the marketing campaign, Dune has plenty of substance and style, both of which can be just as easily enjoyed at home as on a big theater screen.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League – Marketing Recap

Our long national nightmare…is now here.

When Justice League arrived in 2017, the term “troubled production” was frequently used to describe it. The critical drubbing received by the preceding Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice created tension between Warner Bros. and director Zack Snyder, including rewrites by then DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns to the script from David Goyer and Chris Terrio. Confusion was created when different interviews with Snyder, Johns and others seemed to alternate between there being one two-hour movie, two two-hour movies, one four-hour movie in two parts and so on.

Then, as the movie moved into post-production, Snyder stepped away, reportedly to deal with the recent death of his daughter. The narrative at the time was that writer/director Joss Whedon was being brought in to handle a small number of reshoots and other pickups because he had already done even more work on the script.

And then of course there’s the issue of Henry Cavill’s mustache.

Henry Cavill Summer GIF by HBO Max - Find & Share on GIPHY

Kicking off at San Diego Comic-Con 2016, the marketing campaign for Justice League was more or less what audiences expected given both BvS and Snyder’s earlier Man of Steel. It was dark and moody, but after Whedon took over there seemed to be a bit more humor. Throughout, though, you couldn’t help but notice the distinct lack of Superman, an omission informed largely by the movie’s story – he dies at the end of BvS – and not wanting to spoil his return here.

When the finished product finally hit theaters the reaction was “mixed,” to say the least. Critics called it a mess and the $229 million it grossed domestically was a disappointment compared both to Wonder Woman earlier that year and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which at that point was nearing its eventual conclusion.

No…There Is Another…

Almost immediately, the most fervent adherents to Snyder’s nihilistic artistic view began to believe they’d been duped. Demands to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut were soon at full volume online, with those signing petitions and saying “Actually I have more of a comment than a question” at panels believing Warner Bros. had someone in its archives a version of the film free of Whedon’s influence. That version would more fully represent the intent of Snyder, who for years has been referred to in the marketing of his films as a “visionary director.”

WB continually denied such a version existed, pointing out that Snyder left an incomplete movie to Whedon’s stewardship. Snyder himself said much the same thing, that there was only a work print with unfinished effects and some scenes completely missing. There was no Snyder Cut.

Wonder Woman Family GIF by HBO Max - Find & Share on GIPHY

That didn’t mean much to those whose very personal brands seemed to depend on the opposite being true. Over the course of the next three years the DCEU was hit or miss, with the same group of toxic fans howling in delight whenever something that wasn’t The Snyder Cut failed to live up to expectations. Not only that, but similar groups made concerted efforts to strangle movies like Captain Marvel and Star Wars: The Last Jedi in their cribs on the grounds that girls are icky and anything that doesn’t cater to the lowest common denominator of male mob mentality shouldn’t be allowed.

Superman Shrugged

Denials from Warner Bros. were said to be the first and last word on the matter, right up until they weren’t.

Snyder’s tune began changing in early 2019 when he started posting pictures that seemed to confirm his cut of the film did exist in some manner. Members of the cast and others involved in the production made similar comments, with people like Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck, who play Wonder Woman and Batman respectively, getting in on the hashtag action.

Finally, in late 2020, as part of WarnerMedia’s hype cycle for the then pending launch of HBO Max, it became official that the streaming service would be the release platform for the reworked movie.

Just as there was confusion in 2017 as to whether there would be one or two movies and how long they would be, reports have differed over the last several months as to what form this one would take. At one point it was said to be four one-hour installments. At another it was back to being two two-hour movies.

The Snyderhead

Despite Snyder’s rejection of any mention of “toxic fandom”, the director himself credits fans using every channel at their disposal, including sliding into the replies of Sesame Street’s Twitter account, with turning dreams into reality by consistently pressuring the studio into action.

It’s almost like a demagogic political figure saying he doesn’t want his supporters to be violent but then buying them all airline tickets to attend an event specifically intended to foment insurrection. And then at the end he tells them they’re very special and he loves them, but only after people have died and others have had their life put in danger.

But what do we expect from Hollywood’s leading objectivist? So many of the stories he’s been part of telling focus on heroes or other characters that can’t find anything in life worth living for until they act on the power they have. Possession of that power in and of itself gives them the right to use it in the manner of their choosing. So it’s no wonder Snyder would be on board with a group of individuals claiming whatever power they could in order to achieve whatever goals they wanted, especially if those goals happen to overlap with his own.

Let me pause here and make a few clarifications.

First, I’m painting with an overly broad brush here. Not all #ReleaseTheSnyderCut adherents are examples of the worst of toxic male fandom. There are some genuine movie fans who feel Snyder is a great filmmaker, so good for them. Like any other art form, people are allowed to like what they like. People might judge me based on my love of Rush or Kenny Rogers, but all art works differently for different people. That being said, this particular group in my experience over-indexes in terms of members likely to verbally assault a woman cosplaying as Power Girl at Comic-Con, labeling her a “fake fangirl” if she doesn’t know who pencilled a random 80’s comic issue she appears in.

Second, Snyder has harnessed this and adjacent groups for good, working with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. That effort, clearly borne of the tragedy that befell his family years ago, is a good one, selling t-shirts and other swag to help worthy cause.

Crisis On Infinite Snyderverses

In the months leading up to and following WarnerMedia’s announcement that the movie would finally see the cold, desaturated light of day, the landscape has changed significantly, as has the narrative that framed the release of the theatrical cut of Justice League over three years ago.

Beginning in mid-2020, costar Ray Fisher, who plays Cyborg in the film, began making a series of accusations against Whedon and by extension Johns and others at Warner Bros., saying the pinch-director created a hostile work environment for him and others after Whedon took over on set. Fisher’s claims were enough for Warner Bros. to open an investigation, though then it turned into dueling statements over whether Fisher had or hadn’t cooperated with that investigation. Representatives for Whedon and Johns denied those accusations, but Fisher remained adamant and public. Ultimately Warner Bros.’ investigation recommended moderate remediative actions but was light on public details.

Batman Dc GIF by HBO Max - Find & Share on GIPHY

As time went on, Fisher received public displays of support from Momoa and other members of the cast and he discussed the talking points WB had given him and the rest regarding Whedon’s involvement, most of which matched up with how things were framed in 2017. All of that acted as prelude to actress Charisma Carpenter, who had worked with Whedon on “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” making similar comments, saying he had become hostile and offensive toward her and others. Those accusations, combined with Fisher’s made WB’s lack of overt action odd, especially since Whedon had over the last couple years, been removed from other Warner projects including a planned Batgirl movie and the HBO original series “The Nevers.” Someone, it seemed, knew something.

While Whedon’s reputation was being dismantled, Snyder’s was being enhanced/rehabilitated.

A major feature appeared in Vanity Fair that offered an official version of the events of the last few years. Quoted in the story are Snyder, his wife and producing partner Deborah and a handful of past and present Warner Bros. executives. According to them, the situation around Snyder’s exiting of the original film was much more complicated, including not only the death of his daughter but a new lack of support from studio heads in the wake of Batman v Superman’s critical drubbing. Whedon’s involvement then grew from script doctor to eventually reshooting as much as three-quarters of the film. Similar points were made in a later interview with Snyder.

With that polishing of Snyder’s image, he’s been positioned by himself and the studio at the forefront of the marketing campaign for this new version of the movie, now officially titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League to emphasize his importance.

The Marketing of Zack Snyder’s Justice League

All of that now brings us to the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max and the marketing of the movie, which Snyder has been at the bleeding edge of.

Darkseid and DC Fandome

That began in May of last year, when Snyder strongly hinted the movie was in the works during a Vero-hosted “watch party” for 2013’s Man of Steel, hints that were quickly confirmed when HBO Max released the first official announcement later that same month, leaving the official release date as a vague “2021” at the time.

Almost immediately Snyder began teasing out what would be new and different, sharing images that confirmed the inclusion of Darkseid in this new cut.

That continued in June, when promotions for the virtual DC Fandome event began. With Snyder and many of the cast scheduled to appear there to answer fan questions and show off more of the upcoming movie, teasers began coming out. In one, Wonder Woman navigates a cave where she discovers ancient wall paintings showing Darkseid.

Cavill spoke briefly about the project in June, saying he was anxious to see the finished product but offering few details.

As a way to prime the pump for the new movie, HBO Max debuted Batman v Superman – Ultimate Edition in July, with this new version containing about a half hour of additional material.

In an interview in July, Snyder hinted that the reworked movie wouldn’t fit in nicely with how the DCEU has evolved – meaning he would not be obligated to acknowledge Shazam or Birds of Prey (both of which have higher Rotten Tomatoes scores than either of Snyder’s previous entries) but work instead as the culmination of the trilogy he began in Man of Steel and continued in Dawn of Justice.

Snyder appeared virtually during a fan convention, discussing his upcoming remade version and making it clear not a single frame of what Whedon had shot would be included. That interview also marked the first shot in the official change in the messaging around the theatrical version’s release, exposing some of the conflicts that emerged between Snyder and the studio and other details.

Additional teasers in advance of Fandome showed more a pre-Cyborg Vic Stone and more.

The full trailer, preceded by a short teaser, then debuted during Fandome in August. How well it and to what extent it delivered on expectations depends greatly on your feelings about the original, Snyder himself and other factors. Set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and sporting a Super 16 aspect ratio, the trailer features a mix of old and new footage. Added are more scenes featuring Barry Allen, including one where he saves Iris West, and Cyborg. The latter in particular is notable as this indicates more of his backstory would be fleshed out, something that’s been anticipated for a while. The scenes carried over from the theatrical edition feature revised color palettes, adhering closer to what was seen in the original trailers back in 2016. Most importantly, this gives fans their first look at Darkseid, who will be the main villain of the story instead of his henchman Steppenwolf.

Video from the DC Fandome panel was also released to the public.

Reshoots, Trailer Confusion and HBO Max’s Evolution

Much like there were different stories about what the theatrical cut would look like – two movies, one super-long movie etc – there was at this point the beginnings of some confusion about what the new version would be packaged as and what it would include. While Snyder said he wouldn’t use a single frame of Whedon’s footage it was unclear whether he was being permitted to shoot anything new himself. Budget estimates have ranged from $20 million – which would seem to just allow for post-production work on existing footage – to $70 million.

Finally, news came out WB had scheduled a short period of reshoots, though who was or wasn’t involved remained unclear. In October news broke that Leto would be reprising his Suicide Squad role of Joker in the film, something that would require new footage being shot.

In a very odd turn of events, that trailer had to be pulled from YouTube in early November, reportedly because Warner Bros. failed to clear the rights to “Hallelujah,” which is something you wouldn’t expect from a major motion picture studio. The trailer was re-released later that month but was once again pulled for unstated reasons, meaning that beat was almost completely lost from the campaign.

This is unquestionably a weird stage of the campaign, one with so many false starts, walkbacks and other problems you kind of can’t believe a major studio is involved. But this may be the result of allowing one person to lead the campaign, with the studio itself being a fast-follower more than a driving force.

It’s also a period where HBO Max started to carve out its own identity. Instead of being “the place where The Snyder Cut would eventually be available,” it gained some momentum thanks to series such as “Lovecraft Country,” “The Undoing,” “The Flight Attendant,” and other buzzed-about hits.

Not only that, but it was in mid-November that Warner Bros. announced Wonder Woman 1984 would debut on HBO Max on Christmas Day, the same day it was released to limited theaters due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. That was just the first step, though, with WB revealing a month later it would do the same for its entire 2021 movie slate.

All of a sudden it’s a very different ballgame. ZSJL now wouldn’t just be competing against catalog titles, a few exclusive series and a handful of original features but with titles like Godzilla Vs. Kong and other big-budget movies.

Finally, a Campaign

After so many twists and turns through the end of 2020, the campaign itself finally kicked into a higher, more substantive gear in January.

Snyder released a series of posters at the end of the month that finally announced the movie’s premiere date on HBO Max. Two of the three just showed the “JL” symbol in some form of disrepair due to battle damage, but one showed a film canister laying on the ground, as if this had finally been unearthed for the public to see.

Additional shared by Snyder on Twitter at the end of January hinted at the appearance of Martian Manhunter and Joker from Suicide Squad. A more complete look at Joker came out shortly after that.

Another trailer (21.5m views on YouTube), teased by Snyder ahead of its release, came out on Valentine’s Day. Though it largely contains footage we’ve seen before, it does have a few notable elements, including:

  • Slightly more Cyborg
  • Actual footage of black-suited Superman
  • Actual footage of Joker, providing a live-action version of the “we live in a society” meme
  • Reinforcement that the movie will be shown in a 4:3 aspect ratio.

Unlike earlier trailers, this one still seems to be available online.

An interview with Lennix had him talking about finally taking on the role of Martian Manhunter, something that drastically changes how his character is seen in the previous movies and a development that’s completely unearned by those appearances.

Clips from the movie’s soundtrack were released by Water Tower Records shortly after that.

DC then announced a series of movie-themed variant covers for Justice League #59, scheduled to hit store shelves the day before the movie became available.

At the end of February IGN debuted a video showing the members of the Justice League as different sides to a Mother Box, with each character and his or her powers and attributes represented as a relief on the cube.

In a later interview Snyder called out Fisher’s Cyborg as the centerpiece of his version of the story, something that runs in marked contrast to the theatrical cut. He also teased what he had in mind for a potential sequel, though he’s also said on multiple occasions this movie ends his involvement with the DCEU.

The theatrical poster showing a black and white photo of the assembled heroes advancing toward the camera came out at the beginning of March.

Short character introduction – or reintroduction as it were – videos for Superman, Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman, Cyborg and Aquaman came out earlier this month. There was even one for Darkseid, Steppenwolf and Deathstroke.

Character posters for Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Flash, Aquaman and Darkseid also came out around this time using the same black and white aesthetic as the theatrical poster.

The AT&T Discover District in Dallas opened up an exhibit of costumes and props from the film.

At this point it’s worth calling out some of the promotional partners for the movie, including:

  • Wonderland Restaurants, which created a movie-themed menu of items for people to order in while watching the film.
  • Foot Locker, which offered a line of movie-inspired t-shirts.
  • Vero, which hosted a cosplay contest

One final trailer (6.7m views on YouTube) came out earlier this week. While it features a lot of footage seen in previous clips or trailers, there’s a lot more of Darkseid, showing how dangerous he is, or at least claims to be, and how the heroes are holding out hope their combined strength is enough to take him on.

A virtual watch party was scheduled for 3/18, with the movie’s red carpet premiere planned for 3/17. But before that, earlier this week, a screening that was planned that wound up erroring out for everyone involved, leaving them unable to watch the movie and feeling pretty sore about it. That came after a glitch that had this movie playing when HBO Max subscribers pulled up Tom & Jerry, something that caused no small amount of laughter and confusion.

Overall: For the Fans, Not The Literally Anyone Else

Well, let’s see what we have here.

Reviews of the revamp have been generally positive but mixed, citing improvements in some areas while problems either persist or have newly cropped up in others. Almost universally, it’s said to be much more Snyder-esque, right down to the Randian worldview and carry all the positives and negatives that implies.

The same can be said about the marketing itself. As stated earlier, Snyder is frequently referred to as “visionary” in the campaigns for his films, but that only really resonates in the small percentage of the audience that has fully bought into that vision. For the rest, it almost acts as a sort of warning that the film in question contains more nihilism is recommended over the course of an entire year.

What’s on display here is just that.

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The theatrical cut of Justice League is an unquestionable mess, the cinematic equivalent of putting peas in your guacamole recipe. But there’s nothing in Snyder’s previous DCEU movies that would have indicated his original cut would have been any more coherent and there’s nothing in this campaign indicating this version will be so either.

Those feelings are compounded by the multiple instances over the course of the marketing where trailers disappeared for one reason or another and confusion reigned as to what the movie would ultimately look like and what it would include.

Also raising eyebrows is how power dynamics within Hollywood are on display here.

While Snyder has been brought back into the light with multiple profiles and interviews that have allowed him to tell his side and come out as the aggrieved party, Fisher in particular still seems to be sidelined. His complaints about how he was treated by Whedon, though vindicated in the court of public opinion, were still largely dismissed and denied by the studio and his involvement in future projects hasn’t been improved. Why might that be?

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For the last three years, fans of the director have been clamoring for this movie, believing it to be the ultimate lost classic, pure bath salts in cinematic form. All art is compromise, though, and the idea that any version would ever be delivered free of influence from outside parties is naivete, and it’s likely the reaction to this when it’s finally available will represent that. If it’s not everything they’ve been dreaming of and speculating about, things will go poorly. More theories will emerge that this *still* isn’t the movie Snyder could have or wanted to make, and those grievances will be taken out the next time a studio casts a woman or person of color in the lead role of a franchise property.

This campaign, though, is meant solely for that group. There’s little to nothing here that might attract someone who isn’t already a charter member of the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement. Even someone who was simply disappointed by the theatrical version and wants to see if this might be an improvement will find no appeal to them has been made.

At least this time we don’t have to sit through the studio pretending like Superman isn’t in the movie.

Aquaman – Marketing Recap

Recapping Warner Bros.’ marketing campaign for AQUAMAN.

aquaman poster 11Let’s state facts at the outset: This week’s release of Aquaman is merely a holding action by DC/Warner Bros. to distract fans from continuing to demand they make public The Snyder Cut of last year’s Justice League.

OK, not really. But it is hitting theaters in the hope that audiences and critics find it more palatable than that muddled mess of a movie, adhering closer to the quality of Wonder Woman. Once more Jason Momoa takes on the role of Aquaman/Arthur Curry, the son of a human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman).

Raised on land, Arthur teams up with Mera (Amber Heard) to unlock the secrets of the long-vanished kingdom and stop the threat posed by his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson). That also means Arthur is asked to embrace his destiny as the rightful ruler as well as a hero of the seas.

The Posters

aquaman posterThe first poster, released just before San Diego Comic-Con 2018, shows Aquaman perched on an underwater reef looking serious and determined as sharks, whales and various other creatures swim behind him. The copypoint “Home is calling” at the top provides some clues as to the story and what the hero will be searching for in the movie. Author Chuck Wendig didn’t care for that tagline, though, and offered some suggestions of his own.

It’s notable how bright and colorful the poster is, a stark contrast from the one-sheets for Justice League and some of the other DCEU movies. Warner Bros. clearly wants to create a distinct visual identity for the movie that’s not as dark and grim as some of the previous films have been.

That same colorful approach was taken on the promotional poster handed out at San Diego Comic-Con 2018, which shows Aquaman out in front of all the other characters, Orn and Black Manta looming over everyone in the back of the group.

“A tide is coming” we’re told on the next bit of promotional art, which shows a gloved hand being raised out of the water while clutching a trident.

Each character got their own turn in the spotlight courtesy of a series of posters in early November that featured their name and a good look at their costumes. Two more were released shortly thereafter, one with both Aquaman and Mera and the other with just Aquaman where he strikes a pose similar to that seen at the end of the Comic-Con trailer from a few months prior.

There were two IMAX posters created, one showing Aquaman posing with trident in hand as sea creatures swim around him and one simply showing his hand grasping his trident. Both sell audiences on the promise of seeing even more of the picture by seeing it in that format.

The Trailers

The first trailer, which debuted at Comic-Con earlier this year, starts out with a simple explanation as to Aquaman’s origins as the son of both the land and sea. There’s a scene of him as a kid being teased about how he’s talking to the fish before we get to modern day. Mera shows up and explains he has to return to Atlantis to stop his brother from launching a war against the surface world, something he’s reluctant to do. Things get increasingly dramatic from there until we’re shown a massive underwater battle involving war sharks and other creatures.

Momoa really seems to be enjoying the space he’s finally given to expand on the character significantly and it’s great to see Heard’s Mera has what seems to be a significant role in the story. There’s not much about Black Manta, though. Generally this is showing off a fun, action-packed movie that stands in stark contrast to some previous DC releases.

An extended first look video was released around the time of New York Comic Con in October that offers a much fuller picture of the movie and its story. Arthur and Mera are on a quest to find the secrets of Atlantis (which helps establish that this takes place before Justice League) while Orm has been maintaining control of the city, planning to wage war against the surface world. The centerpiece of the video is a rooftop chase sequence involving Black Manta, though the real treat for comics fans is seeing the movie borrows elements from new of Geoff Johns’ comics story arcs. Also serving as a highlight is Aquaman standing at the end of the video in his classic orange and green costume, established by Johns as being the outfit of a king.

The final trailer from just before Thanksgiving focuses on Arthur’s history and how he’s been preparing for his role as king and hero his whole life, but now he needs to find the ancient trident of his ancestors in order to truly claim the throne.

A week later a “fan reaction” video was released that showed how people online were responding to the trailer.

Online and Social

The movie’s official website is primarily concerned with getting you to buy advance tickets, at least on the splash page.

Moving to the content menu at the top of the page, the “Videos” section has a collection of the trailers, featurettes and other promotional spots that have been released over the last few months. After that is the “About” section with a quick recap of the story followed by posters and more in the “Gallery.”

Commerce is the focus of the next few sections, beginning with the “Shop” where you can by action figures, apparel and more. “Partners” has links to the companies who have signed on to help cross-promote the movie.

Finally, aside from the links to the movie’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram profiles, there’s a side-scrolling game allowing you to play as Aquaman and navigate the dangers of the deep sea.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

As part of the movie’s presence at San Diego Comic-Con 2018, DC Collectibles announced and revealed a whole series of statues of the title character, Mera and Black Manta. DC also helped out by putting movie-themed variant covers on a big Aquaman/Justice League crossover story that hit shelves beginning in late October.

TV spots began running in mid-October with a commercial that poked a little fun at the title character while also setting him up as the fish-man who would be king. Mera’s efforts to recruit Arthur – and his reluctance to embrace his destiny – were conveyed in a spot from early November.

Outdoor ads featured Aquaman rising out of the sea in some manner or another.

aquaman billboard

When tickets went on sale Fandango offered those people making purchases through its service five free digital Aquaman comics, including a mix of classic and newer issues to introduce new fans to the character’s history. The site later reported that first day ticket sales outpaced those of both Venom and Mission: Impossible – Fallout, both of which went on to box-office success.

Amazon gave Prime members the chance to buy tickets to screenings at select theaters almost a week prior to release, the better to seed word of mouth for the official release date. The number of theaters participating was expanded shortly thereafter to meet resulting demand. Those screenings ultimately netted about $3 million.

Over the weekend following Thanksgiving Warner Bros. took over The Grove in Los Angeles with an immersive experience recreating the grandeur of Atlantis. Fans visiting the activation could not only interact with a waterfall effect that revealed scenes from the movie and have their picture taken for sharing on social media.

Momoa appeared in a promotional video for the movie-themed DLC for the LEGO DC Super-Villains game coming out around the same time as the film. A bit later Wan offered a behind-the-scenes interview that ended with promotions for Sideshow Collectibles figures based on the look of the movie and characters.

DC Universe, the OTT service devoted exclusively to DC properties and characters, offered a sweepstakes giving the winner a replica of Aquaman’s trident from the movie signed by the cast. Warner Bros. also put costumes from the movie on display on its Hollywood studio tour.

Promotional partners included:

  • Various locations of Atlantis hotels and resorts
  • Carhartt, which slapped the Aquaman symbol and name on a cold weather hat meant for those working or playing outdoors
  • Cold Stone Creamery, which created a movie-branded blue velvet sundae served in a cup sporting the movie’s key art
  • Padi, which made Aquaman part of a recent contest giving the winner a movie-branded PS4 console and pointing out how much divers are like a real life Aquaman.
  • Pinkberry, which created its own themed frozen concoction that accompanied a sweepstakes giving people the chance to win a hometown screening of the movie.
  • Oceana, which used the movie to encourage people to join its fight to clean up and protect the oceans, an effort that included a PSA featuring Patrick Wilson.
  • Visa Signature, which ran a sweepstakes tied to the movie.
  • Roblox, which offered a handful of prizes that could be won by completing games created by the company. That effort was promoted with a video featuring both Momoa and Heard.

About a week prior to release, WaterTower Records dropped “Ocean to Ocean,” a new song from Pitbull and Rhea that, to the dismay of God and everyone, is essentially a nightclub cover of Toto’s “Africa.”

Media and Publicity

While everyone was talking about Aquaman in the wake of his cameo in Batman v Superman, director Wan kept things going with comments about how he wanted to bring a fun tone to the character and movie. He also talked about how he was taking the character very seriously and not leaning into the jokes about him.

Not only was Aquaman a big part of the Justice League footage that debuted at San Diego Comic-Con in 2016 but director James Wan had a chance to talk about how he was going to bring his own unique touch of horror to the story in the hero’s solo movie. Always, because the press is insatiable, Momoa would talk about the movie while he was meant to be promoting other projects. Even Kidman was asked occasionally about her decision to join the movie, which she summed up by basically saying the director is also Australian so why not?

A small feature on Momoa called out his role as Aquaman as being part of the actor’s big breakout push. The character was a big part of WB’s 2017 Comic-Con news not only for his role in Justice League but also because the crowd in Hall H got a first look at footage from Aquaman’s solo outing. Wan later talked about the troubles he was having with the whole “most of this happens in or around water” thing, which presented quite the technical challenge.

Just as the publicity for Justice League was winding down the first official still for this movie was released, partly to capitalize on how Aquaman was frequently identified as one of the best parts of the team story. Shortly after that Wan dispelled some of the rumors that had been circulating online regarding the number of villains the movie would have, though there was some hedging in there a bit.

He eventually revealed the trailer would finally debut at San Diego Comic-Con 2018, a full year after the first footage was shown. As part of what seemed to be a substantial presence at the show for the movie, Funko revealed a convention-exclusive POP! figure of the director. It was also one of the WB movies whose title and key art were featured on the swag bags given out to attendees.

The next we heard about the movie was again Wan putting some speculation to rest, this time insisting the lack of a trailer in mid-March wasn’t because of problems with the movie, just his own perfectionism at play as he didn’t want anything less than stellar being released. Wan di, though, bring a bit of footage to WB’s CinemaCon presentation to show it off to exhibitors and press. A trailer was reportedly shown at CineEurope.

Before that trailer was officially released the movie’s producers and writers were interviewed to assure the public that the movie was still coming out and that it would be a big, fun spectacle of a story, not dour and depressing like some of the other DCEU films. That was part of a cover package on the film that included first looks at Black Manta, Orm, Queen Atlanna and more. Notably included in that package was an interview with producer Toby Emmerich about the tone and style of this movie and how it reflected a shift in the DCEU. Heard was also interviewed about how she wanted to make her character more than one-dimensional.

EW offered the first look at Fisherman King in advance of SDCC 2018 as well as a giant sea monster from the movie and an interview with Momoa about how his job was just to make sure the character came off as cool. Momoa kept talking elsewhere about what he wanted to do with the character now that he finally had his own movie to really explore things.

A couple different interviews with Wan allowed him to talk about the various challenges and opportunities involved in making the film what it was like trying to work within the DCEU. He also clarified there would not be appearances by other members of the Justice League.

A big press event allowed Wan to further explain what had influenced him, what kind of tone he was hoping to strike with the movie and more.

A featurette released in mid-November had Wan talking about how the focus remains on the characters despite the big set pieces and action, with the cast also sharing how they fell in love with the story. It also showed just how big some of that action will be, selling audiences on the scale as well as the look and feel of the film.

Heard finally got a chance at the mic with an interview detailing how she was skeptical about how she was approached for the role. In a shot across the bow of another release, it was later revealed Julie Andrews had a voice role in this movie, a role the movie’s writers discussed more later.

A conversation with Heard and Momoa discussing the difficulties their costumes presented.

Momoa was named one of the recent hosts of “Saturday Night Live” on an episode to coincide with the release of the movie. A few weeks before that in early December the actor made a surprise appearance in New York City, first wielding a trident in Times Square and then showing up to the delight of an early screening audience. Additional appearances by the whole cast at early screenings were captured in a promotional video showing how hyped those fans were.

Wilson was interviewed on “The Late Show” to talk about the movie and his physical preparation for such an action-intensive role. A bit after that Momoa appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie and show off his trident-throwing skills, with Heard making an appearance shortly after that to talk about Momoa’s on-set antics.

THR profiled Heard on a variety of subjects, including her role in the movie. She also appeared on “Good Morning America.” Around the same time two profiles of Kidman were run in The Los Angeles Times, one showcasing the multiple films she’s been in this year and one including Wan among the directors who have worked with her on those films touting her abilities.

In the last few days before release Wan was interviewed a number of times about how he wanted to do something new and different with the super hero genre and how he should bare the brunt of criticism if it doesn’t work for people. The whole cast spoke about the movie at its premiere while another profile of Wilson allowed him to share his experiences during filming and more.

Overall

Warner Bros. has focused its marketing of the movie on this year’s major comics conventions, seemingly aware that by effectively reaching that crowd of hardcore fans it can potentially avoid the kind of poor word of mouth that has plagued other DC-based movies, particularly last year’s misfire.

Not only have those conventions been the venue where major trailers were released but the campaign as whole has embraced and tried to showcase the character’s backstory and history. Hardcore fans should be pleased to see those elements on display while their use in the trailers and other elements provides an on-ramp for those only casually familiar with Aquaman, or who know him only as a pop culture punchline.

The studio also seems to understand that Momoa’s larger-than-life personality is a strong selling point and so, with him in the lead role, it seized the opportunity to put him front and center, leading traditional haka dances and generally selling the movie by sheer force of will.

Picking Up the Spare

Dafoe finally got in the publicity game with an appearance on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the ridiculousness of the filming process.

Wan talked more about not feeling beholden to dropping hints about other DC movies or referencing what came before but just making his own story. And Wilson shares more about his workout routine for movie.

More details on the Roblox cross-promotion here.