The Nine Most Compelling Movie Campaigns of 2019’s Second Half

From Once Upon a Time In Hollywood to The Rise of Skywalker and everything in between.

The second half of 2019 ahs seen a number of notable movie releases from some of the biggest names in filmmaking. Downton Abbey was revived for the big screen and new entries in the Zombieland, Rambo and Terminator series hit theaters to varying degrees of success.

Major releases like The Lion King, Frozen 2 and others dominated the mainstream cultural conversation as well as the box office in the last six months thanks to their massive marketing efforts, there are a number of films where the campaigns were even more interesting and noteworthy. Sometimes those campaigns featured a particularly creative execution, sometimes they represented something new being done to reach an interested audience.

So, to follow up on my list of the most compelling movie campaigns from the first half of 2019, here’s the nine that seemed most interesting or innovative to me in the year’s second half.


There have been a number of movies in the last couple years about women determined to exact some pound of flesh from the world that has wronged them. Hustlers is among the most successful of that genre, thanks in part to the lead performance by Jennifer Lopez. What the movie’s marketing campaign did was out Oceans the Oceans movie, especially the recent Ocean’s 8. From the first moment of the campaign, the audience was presented with a neon bright brand that combined women owning their sexuality as exotic dancers with a social message of making the 1% pay for exploiting the poor.

The Hunt

No, the movie has not actually come out. Universal’s curtailed marketing campaign isn’t worth calling out, mostly because it was that campaign that lead to the studio pulling the movie from its release schedule. The planned August release was initially delayed in reaction to the mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso following concerns the ads were insensitive to the news at the time. But at about the same time the campaign came to the attention of right wing media, which felt the story of wealthy elites kidnapping poor people for sport was terribly offensive. That conclusion was reached by ignoring the class warfare story and focusing on how the hunted were demographically more likely to be conservative voters than the rich people doing the hunting. To date there have been no updates on the movie’s status.

Ready Or Not

Released at the same time The Hunt was being nixed, Ready Or Not wound up being one of the year’s surprise box office hits. The movie is about a young bride who, on the night she marries into a family that made its fortune making and selling games, finds out that family is going to hunt her. Only if she survives the night will she be deemed worthy of becoming one of them. The marketing sold it as a ridiculously fun horror outing, filled with slapstick humor and more, all while maintaining a brand identity rooted in dark hardwood tones and gothic symbolism.


Warner Bros. seems to have finally found some kind of groove with its DC-related films following the release of Wonder Woman, Shazam, Aquaman and, most recently, Joker. The movie, one of the most successful of the year so far, was the subject of some of the most intense pre-release debates and conversations in recent memory. That’s largely because of the campaign, with trailers that seemed to present Joker’s backstory as startlingly similar to that of so many of the mass shooters that have plagued society. Before taking on the Joker persona, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is shown as a marginalized struggling comedian angry at the ways the people in his life have failed him. If the movie weren’t set in the 80s he’s the kind of guy who would frequent men’s rights forums. Post-release, it’s made the Bronx staircase Joker dances down a hot spot for Instagrammers, which itself is a statement about the power of the campaign.

Between Two Ferns

between two ferns posterNetflix has released a number of noteworthy films this year (more on that later), but the revival of Zach Galifinakis’ Funny Or Die celebrity interviews as a feature deserves mention not for the undeniable quality of the movie (though it is very funny) but because of the teaser poster. Designed by marketing agency Works Advertising, there’s so much going on with the one sheet it’s hard to keep track.

  1. All the lines of copy, even those right next to each other, are all at slightly different angles.
  2. The “www” in the URL for Netflix is a style that hasn’t been widely used in 15 years or more.
  3. The typeface for the release date and web address are laughably simple, a default style in Microsoft PowerPoint, and not one meant to convey any sort of impact.
  4. The two ferns are obviously the same fern copied and pasted on each side of Galifinakis’ head.
  5. The photo of Galifinakis still bears the Netflix watermark, like it was pulled from a press site and slapped onto the poster.

Overall it conveys a sense of “sure, fine, whatever,” which is completely on-brand for the Between Two Ferns series. It’s so sloppy and one of the best of the year.

The Lighthouse

How do you sell a black and white movie about two men left alone together on a remote New England lighthouse, isolated from the rest of the world and stuck with their own secrets and baggage? By going completely bonkers. The trailer has singing, dancing, axes, mermaids, terror, and Willem Dafoe repeating “Why don’t you spill your beans?” over and over again. With Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as the leads, it says something when a pelican is the only character that gets its own poster. In a move usually reserved for franchises and sequels, A24 also released an iMessage emoji pack so people could add images of angry lighthouse keepers and various sea creatures to their messages.

Knives Out

I truly believe no one had more fun selling their movie this year than director Rian Johnson. After making The Last Jedi, objectively the best Star Wars movie ever, Johnson assembled an all-star cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Daniel Craig and others for Knives Out, an old-fashioned murder mystery. The story is set on a wealthy family’s estate as investigators try to solve the murder of the patriarch, and the campaign not only played up the cast but also the breezy nature of the film. In interviews for the film, Johnson frequently evoked his love of classic movies based on Agatha Christie and other stories. That love was evident in the “A Rian Johnson whodunit” branding featured throughout the campaign and especially in one of the final videos, where the director personally invites audiences to see the movie, a move reminiscent of similar appeals by Hitchcock and other classic filmmakers.

The Irishman

After snagging new films from directors like Joel and Ethan Coen, Steven Soderbergh, Tamara Jenkins and other big names, producing a three hour epic from Martin Scorsese represents Netflix’s biggest conquest to date. To celebrate that milestone the studio/streamer ran a campaign that broke new ground for its original releases, including over a dozen featurettes on every aspect of the film, from the cast to hair and makeup to set design and everything in between. Not only were there teasers but there were trailers timed for the movie’s limited theatrical release and then again for just before it became available for streaming. This is very much the moment Netflix adopted tactics similar to how traditional studios sell movies while still supporting its non-traditional business model.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

It would be negligent to omit Disney’s massive, 8-month long campaign for what has been sold at every turn as the final installment in the Skywalker saga that began 42 years ago. The movie has been positioned as the conclusion to the story that began the first moment Qui-Gon Jinn laid eyes on a young Anakin Skywalker. Along the way the studio has had to thread various needles, appealing to older audiences that remember seeing the Tantive IV being chased by a Star Destroyer on the big screen in 1977 and those whose first experience might have been Poe landing on Jakku as the Resistance searched for a missing Luke Skywalker. With seven key promotional partners all producing their own commercials and campaigns along with other companies doing their own thing, there’s been no avoiding the idea that this is the ultimate event film, one audiences would be negligent in missing.

Honorable Mention: Every Ryan Reynolds Movie

He went method for the Pokemon: Detective Pikachu campaign earlier this year and then managed to put an ad for Aviation Gin inside an ad for his new movie 6 Underground that was inside an ad for Samsung. He’s already selling upcoming projects with the same knowing humor, showing he’s one of the strongest marketing brands around.

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 Joker Trailer Feels Very 2019. That’s the Problem.

The Clown Prince of Crime is having a cultural moment.

Not that he’s ever been far from the pop culture spotlight, but Warner Bros. seems to be deep in The Joker business. There are multiple projects featuring the erstwhile Batman villain in the works, including two that would have Jared Leto reprising his turn with the character from Suicide Squad, one of which would reunite him with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn.

First up is Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. The final trailer for the film was released last week, just before it started screening at film festivals, first Venice than Toronto.

While the reviews coming out of those festivals are almost uniformly positive – many of them hailing it as a potential awards contender for the film as a whole and/or Phoenix’s performance in particular – the marketing campaign mounted so far by Warner Bros. has been problematic to say the least. Many of my own thoughts were expressed succinctly in this post.

A Twitter conversation that ensued when I pushed back on someone who dismissed that point of view basically amounted to “well that’s not what the movie is, so it doesn’t matter” and a refusal to acknowledge that this perspective is a valid reading of the film’s marketing.

But watch the trailer.

What do you see?

  • Told by society he’s weird and unacceptable
  • Frustration with support systems
  • “All I have are negative thoughts.”
  • Mockery by the rich and powerful
  • Feelings of being held back from the success he deserves
  • Refusal to continue playing by the rules
  • Identification with unusual marginalia
  • Tendency to insight chaos
  • Adoption of wholly new identity as a way to channel his anger

That list reads like the characteristics of any of the number of white men in the last several years who have been radicalized by online platforms to the point they bring a gun to school, work or some other public place to exact revenge against the women and others they feel have wronged them in some way. You know, the kind who dress as comic villains and shoot up movie theaters.

If the movie has something more to say about how society can drive people mad, I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong. But the trailer and the rest of the campaign aren’t conveying any of that to the public, instead hoping that the public’s familiarity with the Joker character and hope people are in the mood to continue rooting for the bad guy.

The Joker is a character with a long history in comics. Interpretations have run the gamut and are often used as mirrors exposing some aspect of society that needs to be addressed. The Joker seen in Scott Snyder and Greg Cappulo’s Batman run (disclosure: I worked to promote that while managing DC Comics’ social media accounts from 2011 to 2015) is a romantic who wants to get his crush’s attention, a perfect representation of how dangerous obsession can be. Heath Ledger’s 2008 performance in The Dark Knight was a chaotic anarchist, perfect for how society was expecting more and more safety and conformity. Comic versions in the 70s portrayed him as an over-the-top performance artist, a contrast to the grizzly cruelty invading society at that time.

What’s missing from the campaign is any indication of what exactly the version of the character created by Philips and Phoenix is a reaction to. That hasn’t been evident in any of the trailers, nor is is clear in any of the interviews with the two. If there is societal commentary being made, it’s entirely missing from the campaign and that’s a problem in and of itself, even if it can be found in the movie.

That needs to be addressed and acknowledged.