belfast – marketing recap

How Focus has sold a deeply personal story from a top director.

Belfast movie poster
Belfast poster

Franchise entries aside, Kenneth Branagh is most well-known for his multiple Shakespeare films, some of which are the best of the genre. The director takes a more personal turn with this week’s Belfast, a semi-autobiographical story of his childhood in the Belfast of the 1960s, when the city was at the heart of the political unrest known as “The Troubles.”

The movie stars Jude Hill as Buddy, the child at the center of the story. Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan are Ma and Pa, Buddy’s parents and Dame Jude Dench and Ciarán Hinds play his grandparents. It arrives in theaters this week after a campaign that’s been steeped in nostalgia and the yearning for childhood innocence.

announcement and casting

Branagh announced he would make the movie in mid-2020, noting at the time he’d taken time during the pandemic to explore more personal territory. Dench, Balfe, Dorna and Hinds were cast a few months later.

Focus Features acquired the project in December, 2020. A release date was announced a few months later in March.

the marketing campaign

Universal gave CinemaCon attendees in August a look at footage from this and other upcoming movies, with the trailer released to the public a month later.

That trailer (4m YouTube views) starts out by introducing us to Buddy and showing us how, like most kids, he’s figuring out who he is while also having fun with his friends. But that exploration and self-discovery is marred by the unrest gripping the city at the time, something Buddy’s parents are doing their best to protect him from.

Buddy runs down the street on the poster that came out at the same time, the photo showing the look and feel of the film. Even more so than in the trailer, the fact that Buddy is carrying make-believe versions of weapons at a time the adults were carrying the real thing creates a strong sense of tension that highlights the innocence of Buddy’s childhood.

The movie’s world premiere was held at the Telluride Film Festival in September, a screening that garnered mostly positive reviews and word of mouth for the very personal story Branagh had crafted.

While at Telluride the director talked about how long he’d been working on the project, telling such a personal story instead of bouncing between franchises and Shakespeare and more. Similar topics were covered by him during the Q & A following that screening and then again when the movie screened at the Toronto Film Festival. It went on to win the People’s Choice honor at Toronto. It also screened at the BFI London Film Festival.

An interview with Balfe during TIFF had her talking about a story that mixes the importance of family with the political fighting that made childhood in that area difficult to say the least.

The second poster once again shows Buddy with his makeshift sword and shield, this time leaping over the heads of his family to emphasize their role in his story.

Another screening was held in Washington, D.C. in mid-October and then at the Chicago Film Festival that same month followed by the SCAD Savannah Film Festival at the end of October.

TV spots like this began running in late October that emphasize the movie’s story of family being a bulwark against outside troubles instead of how the trailer positioned it more directly through Buddy’s perspective.

In November it was part of Miami Film Festival GEMS.

Branagh was the subject of a Variety cover story that focused on the positive festival reception that had turned the movie into a contender for Oscars and other awards. In another interview, Branagh talked about the emotional impact of seeing such a personal story on screen, especially watching it with critics and others in the crowd and taking their reactions into account.

The cast and crew reunited at the Belfast Film Festival for a screening and Q&A there.

Cole was interviewed about how he worked to become a young version of Branagh and more. Dornan later shared how having been born in Belfast he was eager to take on the role and explore the city’s history.

Clips began coming out a week or so ago showing more of the family relationships of the story as well as the broader world the story is set against.

The movie’s L.A. premiere was held earlier this week, with Branagh and the cast in attendance and appearing on the red carpet. At that event Dornan serenaded attendees with “Everlasting Love,” which he sings in the film. The stars and Branagh talked while there about the movie’s awards potential as well as helping the director tell a very personal story.

Dornan talked about singing on screen and at the premiere and more when he appeared on “Kimmel”. Balfe promoted the movie on “Today.”

A featurette had everyone involved talking about making the movie and recreating The Troubles of Belfast in the late 60s. More was explored in an installment of Focus Features’ “60 Second Film School” series.

overall

Comparisons to Roma from director Alfonso Cuarón have been consistent, especially since both movies are presented on black-and-white, but the idea of a fictionalized version of a filmmakers’ childhood has a long history.

Putting that aside, the campaign is so endearing and joyous while also communicating the problems that will come up in the story that it works on a handful of levels all at once. Certainly Branagh is at the forefront of the push since it’s his story being told, but there’s still room for Dornan, Balfe and others involved, though they frequently bring the focus back to the director.

More than anything the movie looks like an escape, anchored by performances from some of the finest actors working. If you’re a Branagh fan (as I am) then you’ll likely be hooked, with the festival buzz acting as assurance it will be time well spent.

Cats – Marketing Recap

How Universal Studios is selling a big screen adaptation of an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical with no discernible story.

cats poster 3Here’s the official synopsis for Cats, directed by Tom Hooper:

A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.

What the hell does that even mean? It’s some sort of twisted cat-themed snuff film where a group of felines play God and choose who deserves to live based on what, dancing ability? Overall popularity? Fur texture? What kind of messed up dystopian power dynamic is in place here?

Regardless, Universal is hoping to capture the same audience that made The Greatest Showman a massive hit two years ago. To that end it has enlisted an all-star cast that includes Taylor Swift, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Idris Elba, Judi Dench and others to dress in cat costumes and in tomcat tomfoolery in what’s being sold as a bright, glitzy spectacle. They’re all lead by newcomer Francesca Hayward in a movie tracking somewhere around $15 million for opening weekend and with a lowly 17 percent “Rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Posters

The “You will believe” copy used on the first poster from July (by marketing agency Concept Arts) seems relatively generic for a movie with such a specific brand identity. A cat is shown walking toward a set of ornate doors, light glowing from the inside. Hooper’s name is prominently displayed not once but twice along with the names of the director’s previous popular films and the impressive cast list.

The second poster didn’t come out until November, showing Victoria (Hayward) with her back arched in dance as feathers fall all around her and honestly I don’t know what’s happening here. Whatever it is, the movie is labeled “The most joyful event of the holiday season.” Another poster (by marketing agency BOND) from early December has just Victoria’s head lit from behind.

The Trailers

The first trailer (13.3 million views on YouTube), released in mid-July, certainly fulfills the promise of showing off the look of the movie and the fact that it features a variety of human-shaped cats. Only the barest of information about the story is offered here as the focus is on the all-star cast while Hudson’s performance of “Memories” plays in the background the whole time.

In November the second trailer (8.6 million views on YouTube) caused a lot of buzz by showing more of the story of how it’s the night where the cat who deserves a new life is chosen as well as that the cats are actually cat-sized, with human-scaled objects around them. Other than that, the same flashy film is on display here, but it’s conspicuously devoid of any of the musical numbers.

Online and Social

The movie’s official website has all the usual marketing materials, but when you first load the site the front page is an interactive version of the neighborhood where the story takes place. Clicking the characters that appear in the scenery lets you play Cats-themed games and explore more about the characters and the world they inhabit.

Notably, the “Story” section doesn’t actually discuss the story of the movie at all. Instead it’s about establishing the movie’s credentials, including mentioning the musical it’s based on, the star power involved in making it and so on. Even the studio can’t explain what’s going on, or doesn’t think the audience will care.

There are Twitter, Facebook and Instagram profiles, of course, But in a clear sign Universal understands what the target audience is looking for and actually does online there’s also a Giphy profile promoted here, something most movies fail to do.

Advertising and Publicity

There had been lots of conversations and updates about the movie before April, 2019, but when Universal showed off a batch of behind-the-scenes footage at CinemaCon things really kicked off as buzz and anticipation grew. More footage was shown two months later at CineEurope.

In mid-July a first look featurette was released that included comments from many members of the cast, including Swift and others, about what drew them to the project and what their history with Cats was. It showed some behind-the-scenes footage as well as a few brief glimpses at the film itself. The timing of that featurette was meant to set the stage for the first trailer, released just a few days later.

Another short behind the scenes featurette came out in September that had the cast talking about moving and dancing like cats. In October another video was released that focused on Swift writing an original song for the film with Weber. A lyric video for that song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” came out the week before Thanksgiving.

Red carpet premiere events were held in New York and Hollywood earlier this week, with those events streamed live online for those who couldn’t attend in person. Those came at the tail (I’m so sorry) end of an international press tour that had the cast and crew talking about the elaborate production.

There were pre-roll ads and TV spots, all of which eliminated whatever pretenses were made to explain the movie’s threadbare story and just focused on the fact that you could see Swift and other dancing around in cat costumes. Outdoor ads used imagery pulled from the key art and more while online ads did likewise, often with video elements added in.

Promotional partners included:

  • Harry and David, which offered a line of movie-themed gift baskets you could send to someone you…have…feelings? about/for.
  • Kate Spade, which created a line of accessories inspired by the movie.
  • Piper-Heidsieck, which offered a limited edition champagne in a movie-branded bottle and box.
  • Pure Barre, which offered those who bought tickets to the movie a free fitness class.
  • Wolford, which ran a sweepstakes awarding the winner a free custom body suit like those seen in the movie as well as a private screening and promoted similar products they sell.

Media and Press

A short after CinemaCon, the movie’s choreographer was interviewed about the production and what it was like working with some of the bigger, more unexpected talent on the set.

Elba and other members of the cast talked about the movie earlier in the cycle while promoting other projects.

An interview with Hooper following the first trailer’s release allowed him to comment on people’s reactions while clarifying that some of the graphics weren’t quite finished yet, so everyone should calm down a bit.

Both Cordon (taking a break from his own show) and Hayward appeared on “Kimmel” in early December to promote the film and talk about working with Swift.

The influence Swift’s father had on her portrayal and new song was covered in this interview.

Hudson appeared on “The Today Show” to talk about the movie and her performance of “Memories,” a song she sang on a recent episode of “The Voice.” Corden also dropped by “Today.”

At the premiere the cast and crew spoke more about making the movie as well as the controversy that has swirled around the movie, based mostly in how it used computer effects for some of the costumes and other effects, something that’s apparently a big deal.

Overall

Cats is horny.

Picking Up the Spare

Hudson appeared on “The Late Show” to talk about her role in the film, while another interview with her allowed her to talk about performing such an iconic song as “Memory.”

A good recap here of the problems that bedeviled the filming lead to Universal making the unusual move of sending a new version of the movie to theaters with updated effects.