Joker – Marketing Recap

Warner Bros.’ standalone movie about the Batman villain has become a lightning rod for controversy

joker poster 2With a respected director – Todd Phillips – at the helm, one of today’s most respected working actors – Joaquin Phoenix – in the title role and a story of one of the most iconic pop culture villains, Joker should have been a relatively easy movie to sell to moviegoers. Instead, Warner Bros. has found the movie has become a symbol for societal violence and other problems.

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, an aspiring but failing stand-up comedian in Gotham City circa 1981. Unable to fulfill his dreams and seemingly held down by a society that refuses to accept him for who he is, he makes a meager living standing on the sidewalk dressed as a clown and promoting a local business. When the injustice he feels he’s subjected to finally causes him to crack he becomes Joker, inspiring others who feel like him to rise up against the powerful in Gotham.

While tracking predicts an $82 million or higher opening weekend and early festival reviews praised Phoenix’s performance. Throughout the campaign, though, critics have taken issue with how it seems to glorify the kind of violence-prone male that has, in the real world, been at the center of countless hate-filled mass shootings.

The Posters

joker posterJoker is shown at the bottom of the photo on the first poster (by marketing agency BOND), released in early April along with the teaser trailer, laughing up toward the sky. The paint on his face is still fresh but crude, not the more stylized look the character sports in other incarnations while his expression is one like joy, as if he’s finally free. Dingy walls and dark backgrounds filling the rest of the image communicate the dark tone and aesthetic of the film.

Three more posters came out in early August, just as the film started making waves on the festival circuit. The first shows Joker dancing on a stairway, a scene familiar from the trailers. The second has the character in profile as he stretches his mouth in a faux smile. The third (by marketing agency WORKS ADV) shows him with his face half-obscured, glaring at the camera.

Another set of three came in September, just before the movie opened. One (by BOND) takes a very literal approach by showing Arthur and Joker as opposite faces on a Joker playing card while another shows Arthur’s face with clown paint smudged on it in the shape of a hand, but the way the paint drips from his face it’s apparent that clown paint is underneath the mask he wears. A third, from Fandango, simply shows Joker looking over his shoulder at something off-camera.

Joker gleefully walks away from a burning car on the IMAX poster, apparently amused by the violence happening around him. The Dolby Cinema poster shows a more contemplative Fleck in Joker garb, a shot pulled from his appearance on the late night talk show. A special poster for Regal Cinemas works to establish the urban setting of the film as Joker walks down a residential city street.

The Trailers

We meet Arthur in the teaser (62.1 million views on YouTube) trailer from April as he’s in therapy for some issue. Narration explains how his mother always knew he’d bring joy to the world and that he should put on a happy face. Along with that we’re shown he’s working as a sidewalk promotions guy, dressed as a clown but being ignored or beaten up by local toughs. The themes of a forced smile – painted on, created by pulling the corners of his mouth up with his fingers – and a world gone mad – the violence he suffers and the intolerance of strangers – are hit repeatedly throughout the trailer. At the end he’s dressed more like the traditional Joker, with more exact makeup and an intentionally colorful outfit as he dances down a staircase.

The official trailer (44.1 million views on YouTube) – released in August just about the time the film was premiering at the Venice Film Festival – was teased with a series of Instagram videos that had white letters etched into the “film” to herald the spot’s arrival. In the trailer, Arthur is shown as a deeply unhappy man, though he’s presented as someone who’s simply misunderstood and unappreciated. “All I have are negative thoughts,” he says to his therapist. An aspiring standup comic, he’s mocked by a late-night talk show host, something that sets him on a path to change his life. He becomes fixated on clown masks and paint until he appears on that same talk show and insists on being referred to as “Joker.”


The movie’s official website is pretty boring and standard with just the usual content being wrapped in a site header.

Advertising and Publicity

Exhibitors and others got a first look at the teaser trailer and other footage when WB made it a key element in their CinemaCon presentation back in April. It also played a large role in the studio’s CineEurope showcase two months later.

DC Comics announced in July that legendary director John Carpenter would write a one-off Joker issue as part of the publisher’s “Year of the Villain” focus. While not tied to or related to the movie, the issue was scheduled to be released this week in conjunction with the film.

Announcements came in late July the film would screen at both this year’s Toronto and Venice film festivals, the latter of which featured what was reported to be an eight-minute standing ovation from audiences at one presentation. News came in mid-August that Phoenix would receive the TIFF Tribute Actor Award while at Toronto. The movie went on to win the Golden Lion at Venice while accumulating numerous very positive reviews out of both festivals. A screening at the New York Film Festival was announced in August that would include a Q&A with Phillips.

Outdoor and online ads used elements of the key art, including an image of Joker with his arms outstretched, seemingly taking in all he’s created or is about to destroy. Preroll video ads were placed on YouTube that used cut down versions of the trailer.

joker billboard

Just a week before the movie’s release date, a group of survivors and family members of victims of the 2012 shooting in Aurora, CO. at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises sent Warner Bros. a letter asking the studio to join other companies in actively working to curb gun violence. James Holmes, the shooter in that incident, was reportedly inspired by Joker (though those reports have been subsequently debunked) and the group was concerned others would seek to emulate that violent, anti-social behavior. Those fears were rooted in how the campaign has shown Joker doing just that, inspiring masses to rise up in protest and violence as well as the neverending string of mass shootings in the U.S.

[Disclosure: In 2012 I led an agency team managing social media marketing for DC Entertainment and was involved in the response to that shooting.]

That issue had come up before. Days before the letter was sent, Phoenix walked away from an interview when asked if the movie could inspire real-world violence.

In response, WB issued a statement reiterating its belief lawmakers should find bipartisan gun control solutions while making it clear the studio sees the movie as an artistic statement meant to spur conversation, not an endorsement of violence. Phillips offered similar comments, wondering why it was bad that the movie might lead to conversations. In a later interview he asked why Joker was being held to a different standard than action films like John Wick, seemingly unaware of the difference between a covert assassin and a disaffected loner who, in the story itself, is held up as an icon for those who feel violence is the only way they can be seen or heard by society.

Meanwhile the LAPD issued a statement reminding people to “vigilant” and saying it would maintain a more significant presence around theaters to deter potential violence. Costumes were banned by Landmark Theaters in an effort to ensure everyone felt comfortable at showings.

Just days before the movie’s scheduled red carpet premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatre, Warner Bros. disinvited print and television journalists, allowing only photographers access to the stars and filmmakers. The move seemed designed to limit the potential for Phoenix, Phillips and others to be bombarded by more questions about the film’s message, tacitly admitting the answers provided to date had been problematic.

Media and Press

News and rumors had circulated for a while, including how this was just one of a number of Joker-related projects in the works. When it was finally officially announced Phoenix spoke almost immediately about how excited and nervous he was to take on the role. In mid-September of last year Phillips shared a look at Phoenix as “Arthur” sans makeup or costume.

That was followed by a short video posted online showing the transformation of Arthur into a malevolent clown. The video was labeled a “camera test” and it remained unclear whether this was Joker’s final look or something else. A good shot of Beetz came out a few days later as Phillips sought to counter the crappy pics taken by paparazzi. Beetz commented on the movie while she was at Sundance promoting other projects.

At about the same time De Niro commented on the perception that Phoenix’s Arthur shares some spiritual connection with the character he played in King of Comedy decades ago.

Many of the profiles of Beetz, even short ones like this, pointed out the sheer number of upcoming projects she was working on, including this movie. While he was promoting other things, Henry offered his interpretation of the main character’s motivations.

Comments from Phillips in mid-June confirmed he was crafting an R-rated movie, something rare in the comic book world. He later commented on how the movie’s story would not only not feature anything specific to the comics but also barely be about anything audiences would recognize as The Joker but be more about a guy *like* Joker.

Maron talked about working with De Niro on the movie while promoting other things in August. Around the same time, Phoenix shared how he approached the role and how it kind of intimidated him while Phillips talked about his love of working with Phoenix and how excited he was for the film.

When the trailer dropped the director spoke more about why he set the story in a vague, ill-defined time period and the struggles he had with the WB marketing department over what to show when. In a separate interview Phillips explained why he finally gave in and took on one of the comic-based projects he’s been offered over the years and what tone he was trying to strike. That one was notable for including mention of how much goodwill he has at the studio because of past success and how much leeway that bought him while making this movie.

During the Venice Film Festival both Phoenix and Phillips were interviewed about how they used every day of filming to learn more about the character and what they hoped to achieve with the story. Phillips also shot down any speculation the Joker from this movie would meet Batman as played by Robert Pattinson in Matt Reeves’ upcoming film. He later clarified one of the reasons for the story’s 1980s setting is to clearly disconnect it from any other films or characters.

A profile of Phoenix that ran while Toronto was winding down took pains to call this movie out as a “character study” in an attempt to make it fit in with the rest of the mercurial actor’s filmography.

The movie’s premiere included more comments from Phillips about how he now wanted to let the film “speak for itself” though the cast seemed to remain conspicuously silent. Another cover story profile of Phoenix had him doing his usual “I don’t know why I’m doing this interview” schtick while also including questionable comments from Phillips about how he no longer feels able comedies are a viable genre because of “woke” culture where everyone wants to find offense and no one thinks anything is funny anymore. That kind of statement is exactly what wasn’t needed at the moment, and does more to show he’s uninterested in how comedy has evolved from being solely from the white, horny male’s point of view.

A much friendlier reception was given to Phoenix when he appeared on “Kimmel” to have some fun with the host.


Warner Bros.’ campaign works hard to sell the movie as a throwback to the kind of gritty urban anti-hero films of the 70s, the kind made by William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese and others. The trailers, posters and more all come together to present a movie rooted in urban and societal decay. In the absence of any chance at redemption, then, the protagonist chooses nihilistic chaos and violence.

What’s missing from the marketing is any sense that the nihilistic chaos and violence embraced by Arthur Fleck as he descends into madness as Joker is a commentary on anything in particular. Instead it appears to hold that chaos and violence up as a reasonable reaction to feeling like the world is holding you back. That’s a worldview eerily similar to what’s ascribed to many of the white men in the wake of mass shootings at schools, mosques, churches, homes and elsewhere.

That Phillips and Phoenix didn’t have a reasonable, constructive response to concerns along those lines is in and of itself a response. The decision to bar members of the press who would ask questions from the premiere reinforces that conclusion.

The controversy around the movie’s story is rooted in a separate question that’s been asked by comics fans and others for years: Does Joker even need an origin story? While Tim Burton’s 1989 movie and the “Gotham” TV series have given him a clear one, the comics have been more vague. Even Frank Miller’s “Year One” storyline didn’t make his origin explicit and Scott Snyder’s 2013/14 “Zero Year” arc danced around the villain’s beginnings. The incarnation in 2008’s The Dark Knight, as memorably played by Heath Ledger, purposefully muddied the waters as the character gave several contradictory variations on how he got those scars.

In short, the origins of the Joker have always been in doubt, and the uncertainty only adds to the character’s unpredictability. Giving him a backstory is not just unnecessary but can take away from the impact he has. Making Joker human and relatable diminishes him.

That gets to the crux of the problem: If there’s no real reason to tell this story, then why did it have to be *this* version of the story? The studio’s campaign offers no real answer.

Picking Up the Spare

Rebecca Keegan and Ryan Parker at THR has a great look at the inside machinations that influenced the film’s marketing. Nicole Sperling and Brooks Barnes at the NYT have a similar insider perspective.

Phillips kept talking (which wasn’t a good idea) about the film’s violence and why he’s actually being responsible.

Beetz appeared on “Late Night” to talk about this film and other projects she’s involved in while Phoenix was interviewed again on “The Tonight Show.”

The makeup and costume teams on the film were also profiled.

IMAX released a couple featurettes, one with the filmmakers talking about creating the audio/visual feel of the movie and another with Phillips and Phoenix sharing how the big format helps them create more in-depth characters.

Notable that the campaign didn’t involve anything in the way of brand partnerships or support.

The stairs where Joker does the dance seen in the trailers has apparently become a hot spot for Instagrammers.

WB’s marketing chief spoke about the support the film received from the studio at a Variety-hosted industry event.

Interesting look at the process of designing the movie’s title treatment.

The Sisters Brothers – Marketing Recap

sisters brothers poster 2John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play the titular pair in the new movie The Sisters Brothers. Eli (Reilly) and Charlie (Phoenix) are a couple of assassins in the 1850s with a reputation for efficiency, cruelty and success, they find themselves pursued across Arizona by Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has a grudge to settle with the brothers.

Along the way Eli and Charlie deal with not only with the consequences of their actions but also Eli’s changed perspective on what they do and how long they can do it. So they have crises both personal and professional to surmount, including simply staying alive.

The Posters

sisters brothers posterThe shape of a skull wafts up to the sky from the dust kicked up by the brother’s horses on the poster, letting everyone know that death follows them on their journeys. The copy at the bottom hits that same point: “Make a killing. Make a living.”

Eli and Charlie are seen more clearly on the theatrical poster, standing side by side and looking rough from the life they lead. “Brothers by blood. Sisters by name.” is the copy at the top of the one-sheet.

The Trailers

As we see in the trailer, the two brothers are a pair of hired guns just trying to make a living in the Old West. Eli is looking for a way out of their violent life and dreams of opening a small store and setting down but Charlie seems to think this is all he knows how to do. They’re on the trail of a prospector/chemist who may have discovered a new way to pan for gold. The “why” of that isn’t made clear, just that Eli is hoping this will be their last outing.

It’s a pretty funny trailer, though not consistently and not in expected ways. Basically what’s being sold here is a kind of ironic Western more than anything, with some laughs along the way as we see people dealing with the violent life they need to live to survive.

Online and Social

The official website only has the trailer and a synopsis along with a prompt to buy tickets. It doesn’t even feature links to the movie’s Instagram, Facebook or Twitter profiles.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

A few paid Tweets crossed my radar, but that’s about it. No TV spots were found and I didn’t see any other online ads being run.

Media and Publicity

The movie was announced as one of those screening at the Toronto International Film Festival as well as the Venice Film Festival. Those appearances created a good amount of positive buzz and, in the case of the Deauville Film Festival, an award that the stars, writer and director were all on hand to collect.

Reilly spoke while in Toronto about the long journey he’s taken to get the movie made and more. There was also a profile of Reilly that covered how he’s always had a varied and interesting career, as well as talking about how this was one of several movies he had coming out in the next several months. A similar profile hit the same basic points.

A clip released earlier this week shows a showdown between the two men. At about the same it was announced the movie was being added to the lineup for the London Film Festival.


The emphasis in the publicity campaign has been on Reilly, which makes sense given Phoenix has been on quite a few recent releases that have involved a good number of interviews and other profiles. It’s good to see, since we don’t often enough give Reilly credit for being able to bounce effortlessly between comedy, drama and everything in between.

Overall the message of the campaign is that the movie deals with the effect violence has on your life and your soul. That’s a good message for today’s world, where violence is too often seen as something that can be easily compartmentalized and put to the side. The word of mouth that’s been generated in the last week or two thanks to festival screenings may help it find an audience in limited release.


A new interview with John C. Reilly includes hefty background on how is wife Alison Dickey was the one who found the novel and helped bring the movie along.

A couple fun little videos were released after the movie came out that showed how to get ready for a lady and mix a drink in the Old West.

Another full trailer came out post-release. This one starts out by introducing the brothers and then explaining who they are what they do. What they’re running from isn’t made all that clear, but we do get lots of background on the bond between the two and how committed they are to each other, even if they’ve started to see things differently.

Costar Raz Ahmed spoke here about working on the movie and taking on a role that isn’t always available to non-white actors. And Rebecca Root talks about being a trans woman playing a cis woman.

Author Patrick DeWitt, writer of the source novel, was interviewed about what it was like seeing his story and characters be turned into a movie.

Another little “how to” video was released, this time on how to cook a gourmet dinner.

A series of character posters offers brief descriptions of who each of the leads is.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot – Marketing Recap

The marketing of DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT consistently misses some opportunities to make the story much more interesting.

dont worry he wont get far on foot posterJoaquin Phoenix reteams with director Gus Van Sant for this week’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot. In the movie, based on a true story, Phoenix plays John Callahan, a man who one night gets in a car accident that puts him to a wheelchair. Despite this, he’s reluctant to seek help for the alcohol abuse that lead to that accident and only enters treatment at the behest of his girlfriend Annu (Rooney Mara).

When he does finally begin a program he meets Donny (Jonah Hill) and the two form a bond despite John’s bad attitude toward the whole affair. Along the way, though, he realizes he has a knack for drawing edgy satirical cartoons that soon spread across the country, bringing him some amount of recognition.

The Posters

The first and only poster wants to sell you mostly on the ensemble and so uses photos of the four main players – Phoenix, Hill, Mara and Black – placed within a frame to show you who’s involved in the story. It’s clear from the hair and clothes that the action takes place in the 70s or thereabouts, or at least that that’s the kind of vibe everyone’s going for. Not much else here except for an illustration at the top like those created by John and the inclusion of the Sundance logo to let everyone know it was screened there.

The Trailers

We’re introduced to John as the trailer opens with him explaining how he has been drinking since a very young age. Left unsaid is where he is or how he wound up in the wheelchair, but it can be safely assumed he’s in rehab and that the drinking resulted in some sort of accident. John is obviously still angry about things and isn’t thrilled to be where he is. There are brief flashes to scenes that offer bits and pieces of backstory but nothing really that fleshes out the situations significantly for the audience.

That makes Phoenix’s performance – as well as Hill’s – the main value proposition for the audience. We’re asked to get on board with another fully immersive performance from the former, something that has been his go-to for several years now, the hook on which many of his film’s campaigns have been hung on. Unfortunately that comes at the expense of Mara, who’s barely seen here at all.

In the second trailer John is recounting his last day of being able to walk, a day that ended with the accident that paralyzed him. Most of what comes next is John interacting with Donny and the rest of his support group as well as him finding the inspiration to continue on as an artist. Mara gets a little more to do here, but not much. It’s a bit more upbeat and lighthearted than the first trailer, which is nice as well.

Online and Social

There’s not much on the barebones official website from Amazon Studios, just the usual sorts of information that takes a backseat to the desire to sell tickets. The one exception is an “Illustration Contest” encouraging people to submit artwork inspired by Callahan’s for the chance to win a movie-themed prize pack. Links to the movie’s Instagram, Twitter and Facebook profiles are at the bottom of the page.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Not much that I’ve seen outside of some promoted posts on social media to help spread the trailers.

Media and Publicity

A first look still from the film was shared at the same time it was announced it would premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, appearing on quite a few “must see” lists before the festival began. It was soon after given a release date of May, just a few months following that premiere.

Later on Van Sant spoke about why he didn’t cast a quadriplegic actor in the lead role. While the “he’s not in the wheelchair the whole story” perspective makes sense, it’s less believable that he simply couldn’t find someone else. Later on the director would talk about how this movie fits into some themes he’s hit many times over the course of his career.

A promo video from Amazon Studios acknowledged the fact this was one of two films starring Phoenix it’s putting out this year.


I don’t have anything objective to point to about the campaign that doesn’t work or which shouldn’t bring in audiences who are fans of Phoenix, Van Sant and the rest of the cast. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some bones to pick, though:

  • Why, as we collectively chastise Scarlett Johansson for taking on roles meant for minorities and other groups, are we not similarly taking Phoenix down several pegs for playing a quadriplegic? I understand he’s not in that condition for the whole story, but surely there was some workaround available. Phoenix and Van Sant have both made movies that pushed the realms of storytelling before, why are they being given a pass for not doing so now?
  • Why can’t Hollywood figure out what to do with Rooney Mara – as well as several other actresses – other than cast her as the supportive girlfriend to a self-destructive and troubled man?
  • Why is Phoenix so reliably uninteresting in everything he does?
  • Why were there no better options chosen for a poster? This is a movie about an artist and they used a photo montage.


Another substantive feature interview with director Gus Van Sant here about how the film fits into his overall body of work.


Amazon released a bunch of new posters on Twitter that are much better than the low-effort theatrical one-sheet.


Jonah Hill showed up on “Kimmel” to talk about the movie and working with Phoenix.


You Were Never Really Here – Marketing Recap

you were never really here poster 2Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a violent man with a gentle soul in the new movie You Were Never Really Here. He’s a Gulf War veteran who has found a new line work as hired muscle, though only in the service of finding and rescuing missing teenagers. His reputation as someone who’s brutal but gets results brings him to the attention of a Senator whose daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has gone missing and may be in serious trouble.

As Joe investigates outside the law he gets closer to Nina but also deeper into a world where he has trouble telling truth from fiction. His long-running attempt to use attempts to save innocents as a way to deal with the guilt of his own actions is failing and he’s increasingly paranoid and desperate. Even if he succeeds in finding Nina, the implications of his actions and the after-effects of his descent into a particularly-seedy world may have unintended consequences.

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