How Sony is selling an action comedy
David Leitch directs Bullet Train, arriving in theaters courtesy of Sony Pictures. Written by Zak Olkewicz and based on the novel by Kōtarō Isaka, Brad Pitt stars as an American assassin known only as Ladybug. Despite wanting out of the life, Ladybug agrees to one last job snatching a briefcase aboard a bullet train heading from Tokyo to Kyoto. Once aboard the train, though, Ladybug finds a cadre of other international assassins there as well, all with missions that in some way connect to his own.
Sandra Bullock costars as Maria Beetle (also the original name of the source novel), Ladybug’s handler and the voice giving him directions on the train. Zazie Beetz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Zoey King, Brian Tyree Henry and a host of others play the other assassins or other underworld types that cross paths with Ladybug.
With Antoine Fuqua producing and projections for opening weekend in the $30m range, let’s take a look at the marketing campaign Sony has cooked up.
announcements and casting
The film was announced in June 2020 with Leitch attached to direct and Pitt starring. Others like King, Henry and Taylor-Johnson were added over the rest of that year. A release date was finally announced a year later.
Of course that casting led to some entirely justified backlash and criticism of “whitewashing” since the original novel’s characters are Japanese and almost none of the actors in this film are.
Sony gave attendees of CinemaCon in August 2021 the first look at the much-anticipated film but that was it for a while.
the marketing campaign
Sony kicked the campaign off at the end of February with a teaser video that eschews footage from the movie (for the most part) in favor of a promotional video for NSL, the company that runs the train line in the world of the film. It’s filled with beautiful, peaceful images of the Japanese countryside before finally showing a scraped and exhausted Ladybug looking out the windows as the scenery passes by.
The first trailer (20.6m YouTube views) was then released at the beginning of March. A tone is immediately established as we see Ladybug and Lemon (Henry) have a threatening but polite conversation on the quiet car of the train. There are lots of moments like that as we meet the rest of the characters Ladybug will be interacting with and fighting against, get the backstory there are lots of people after the briefcase in question and more.
The teaser poster released at the same time doesn’t show that impressive cast but instead opts for an image of a train steward standing formally alongside a seat that, upon closer inspection, has blood on it, with more found on the floor.
Johnson talked about his role in an interview conducted by fellow actor Andrew Garfield.
Leitch and Bad Bunny both appeared at 2022’s installment of CinemaCon in April to offer updates, show off some footage and promise distributors the movie was coming soon.
Empire offered first looks at some new stills along with comments from Leitch, Pitt, Henry and others in May. Bad Bunny also offered some thoughts on the movie and more in a GQ profile.
At the beginning of June a new poster came out, this one showing Ladybug looking somewhat confused or frustrated as he stands in front of all the adversaries he’s going to have to fight his way through to complete his assignment.
That was followed by the second trailer (6.7m YouTube views). This one offers the same story and vibe, but adds the context that not only does Ladybug have legendary bad luck but that he’s crossed paths with many of the others that have now congregated on the train.
Henry and Johnson appeared in character in a series of short videos aired during the NBA Finals where they ask questions of various NBA stars.
We get a cut down version of the story and characters in the first TV spot that aired at the beginning of June. That spot was also used as pre-roll online.
Taylor-Johnson was on hand during Sony’s presentation at CineEurope in June to introduce footage from the film.
It was then Pitt’s turn for a GQ feature interview where he talked about not only this film but his career to date and some of the other recent projects he’s been involved in as a producer.
Fandango then unveiled a series of character posters, each of which has some sort of symbol or other item relevant to that character in the background.
Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat users could search for movie stickers to add to their content. Twitter emojis were also introduced.
As July began more TV spots rolled out that offered variations on the trailers or which went a little deeper in introducing one of the other characters in the story.
News also came that the movie was scheduled for August’s Locarno Film Festival.
King was then interviewed about the training she did for this and other recent films as well as the experience of working with Pitt.
The international press and publicity tour then kicked off in France, where Pitt and others were in attendance. Additional stops included Berlin, London and elsewhere. During this tour Sony made extensive use of YouTube’s #Shorts format to show off clips of the cast dancing around and having a good time. Pitt’s fashion choices would become the subject of not just one but two feature stories.
Henry and Johnson are back in a video announcing tickets going on sale in mid-July. They also showed up on an IMAX video explaining how watching a movie on your phone is a sub-par experience compared to theaters.
The IMAX-exclusive poster uses the style of Japanese paintings to show Ladybug looking out over the scenery as the train rushes through the title treatment. AMC Theaters’ poster shows him standing at the end of a train car with a handful of bad dudes waiting for him. The poster from ScreenX shifts to a landscape perspective to show Ladybug running down the top of the train with Momonga in pursuit.
Because NFTs are still a thing there were some of those as well. Nifty’s introduced a collection of them while an exclusive NFT of Momonga was offered to those purchasing advance tickets of large-format screenings.
Back in the world of real things, Tumi promoted its rugged aluminum briefcase that is the MacGuffin of the movie.
Manga artist Hiro Mashima offered his own takes on the character posters previously released.
The first (and at this point only) clip released shows a slightly extended take on the quiet car fight between Lemon and Ladybug.
There’s a lot of fun stuff here, helped out by an entertaining and talented cast with Pitt out in front. My tolerance for Pitt varies from one film to the next, but here he’s at his most enjoyable with what looks like a loose performance matching the tone and vibe of the story. It helps that he has talented comic talents like Henry, King and others to play off, of course.
Of note is how often the campaign invokes Leitch as “The director of Deadpool 2” in an effort to amp up his credentials when it comes to action comedy. Not only that, but it’s an attempt to tie this movie into something the audience has already seen and largely enjoyed, bringing it closer to being a somewhat known quantity and therefore not as big a risk of entertainment dollars.