Tenet – Marketing Recap

How Warner Bros. is selling the single most important movie of the year.

The stakes could not be higher. Whether or not theaters are open, and how safe they might be amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, has been endlessly discussed and debated. It’s been the subject of more hot takes and think pieces than defunding the police.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, Tenet is finally here.

Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest film comes with more baggage than Princess Vespa fleeing her wedding on Druidia and more expectations than an only child going to the same college where her father was student body president.

John David Washington stars as The Protagonist, a man who is recruited into a mysterious spy organization, given only the word “tenet” to guide him as he’s ushered into a world where terrorism and war can be prevented by examing the artifacts that fall backward through time from the future to the present. The war in question is one that seems to be caused by Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch married to Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Helping him are the scientist who explains how time inversion works named Laura (Clémence Poésy) and his handler Neil (Robert Pattinson).

Warner Bros. originally planned a July release for the film, putting it in the middle of what was sure to be a hot summer movie season. The world had other plans, though, and after a number of delays because of theater closures resulting from the pandemic it is finally coming to U.S. theaters, a week after its international release, which brought in about $53 million. Over the course of 2020 it has been held up as the great savior of theaters, the title that would bring audiences back after months of watching movies at home or at drive-ins.

Now we see if that hope was in any way justified. Nolan is a beloved filmmaker whose work is largely praised, but initial reviews have been somewhat mixed, giving it a 78 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That lukewarm reception may be giving theater owners additional concern. Even if they acknowledge that recovery may not be quick, this is the basket in which they have placed most – if not all – of their eggs. AMC Theaters has put off reopening a few times, largely in reaction to this movie’s delays, but is now touting how 70 percent of its locations will be open this weekend. Other chains like Regal have also promoted how many of their screens will be open and in what states, depending on local restrictions on group gatherings.

In some ways, it benefits by not actually being the first big studio release to come back to theaters. After a few smaller titles have come out recently, last week Disney put The New Mutants on screens, and while the $7 million take for that film might have been disappointing, it essentially served as the warm-up act for this week.

With all that on the record, let’s look at how Warner Bros. has selling the film over the last several months, right up to release.

The Posters

The Protagonist strides toward the camera on the first poster (by marketing agency BOND), released last December. The image is split down the middle, showing him walking away on the other side, which is also turned upside down, hinting at the fractured nature of the story.

In July the second poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) came out, once more showing a split image of The Protagonist, a scene of apparent devastation in the background. Note that this one still has the mid-August release date.

An IMAX poster came out later in July that features multiple versions of The Protagonist placed around the expanded canvas, similar war-like scenes again shown in the background. Nolan is not only mentioned on this one but also identified as the director of Inception and Dunkirk.

The Trailers

The first trailer (24 million views on YouTube), released in December, is as enigmatic as you’d expect from a Christopher Nolan movie. The Protagonist has passed some kind of rigorous test and now finds himself in “the afterlife,” though whether that’s the name of an organization or some other designation is unclear. Whatever the case, he’s now part of a team tasked with preventing the end of the world, and his role allows him to see things in a non-linear, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey kind of way. There are car chases and expertly choreographed action sequences and, at the end, more questions then there were at the beginning.

The Protagonist is introduced to the word “tenet” almost as soon as the second trailer (28.7 million views on YouTube), released in late May and debuting in Fortnight, begins. From there he – and we – learn about the job he’s undertaking, one that has implications including preventing something much worse than armageddon. There’s discussion of how the time “inversion” he and others are capable of works and how it helps them do their job, and a more or less clear statement of who it is behind the threat they have to extinguish. Throughout the trailer the audience is reminded that Nolan is the creative force behind the film and, at the very end, an emphatic statement that the movie will be coming to theaters.

The “final” trailer (9.8 million views on YouTube) came out in late August, just after release plans were finalized by the studio. There’s a bit more of the story offered here, though not enough to come close to fully explaining what exactly is happening. But we see how The Protagonist is being trained and is given a mission to, essentially, prevent a war that hasn’t happened yet by manipulating time. It’s all very slick, sold like a James Bond adventure complete with fast car chases and more. Notably, it features an end card reminding fans the film opens September 3 “where theaters are open.”

Online and Social

Unless I’m missing something, the official website for the movie seems to just have the trailer and a gallery of posters along with a button to buy tickets. There were also the usual social profiles that offered promos and links over the last few months.

Advertising and Publicity

In a surprise move, the first teaser was attached to Hobbs and Shaw when it was released in early August. That teaser was not immediately released online, generated more questions about the movie – still in production at the time – than it answered, but it certainly created a good amount of buzz.

A brief look at the still-secret film was shared with attendees of CCXP in Brazil in December of last year.

As the first trailer was being released a massive ad buy took place, including a big digital ad on Times Square signage.

The second trailer received a similar but different big stage, debuting and screening hourly in Fortnite, an attempt to gain the attention of that game’s players. Some of Nolan’s previous films were also screened within the game environment.

A video was released in mid-August by Skyscape, a company that trades in the history and techniques of spycraft throughout the ages. Narrated by Hayley Atwell, the video digs into the mysteries surrounding the word “tenet” that date back to ancient times and some of the places it has appeared along with what those appearances might mean.

Initial U.S. screenings were scheduled for three days beginning August 31 at select venues like Chicago’s Music Box Theater and others. Tickets went on sale for those previews went on sale on 8/21.

Rapper Travis Scott teased a song he created for the film, one that was previewed before its scheduled debut during TNT’s broadcast of the Mavericks/Clippers game on 8/21. The song was released online that day and is featured in the final trailer.

Commercials reportedly began running in select markets as recently as mid-August. That included one from IMAX that encouraged audiences to see the mind-bending action on the biggest screen available.

Washington, Pattinson, Debicki, Branagh and others praised Nolan in a behind-the-scenes featurette that explored how massive the movie is, what the primary story themes are and how it was all made.

Media and Press

Casting and other details came out last year in fits and starts, adding to the mystery of the project while building anticipation.

Because shooting had just begun there wasn’t footage to show, but Warner Bros. still included the film among the upcoming releases it promoted to CineEurope attendees in June of last year.

A first look photo was released just before the first trailer came out.

Around May the movie began to become something of a lightning rod with regard to the state of movie theaters. In the weeks prior some states had begun to open up the economies a bit more, releasing some of the pandemic-restricting rules, including on theaters. It seemed likely, then, that Tenet would become the first major studio release since almost all screens were closed, and theater owners were hoping built up anticipation could push it to a $100 million opening weekend.

Nolan even publicly stated that he hoped that would be the case, reiterating his commitment to theatrical releases. And Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff made similar statements, name-dropping this movie specifically, all in an attempt to both set audience expectations that it would not be coming to streaming and to reassure theater owners the studio was not abandoning them entirely.

But rosy predictions and wishful thinking may not be enough to convince people who are still skittish about public gatherings to sit in the dark with dozens of strangers, even if theaters put social distancing guidelines in place. And it became clear WB was going to need theaters to be open in at least a half-dozen major markets to make it worth moving forward. NATO was reported to promise WB that 90 percent of theaters would be open by mid-July, but what that assurance was based on wasn’t immediately clear, especially considering not only public hesitancy but also the logistical complexities of bringing workers back on and ramping up operations that have shut down for months.

Around the end of May the scale of the production began to become the focus of the press, including interviews with Nolan where he talked about the massive practical effects employed. At the same time Washington commented on the fan theory that this was some kind of sequel to Nolan’s Inception.

One theme that was consistent in the press through June was that the cast wasn’t much more in-the-know than the audience. A profile of Washington had both him and Pattinson talking about how little they understood the mind-bending nature of the story, with similar comments made by Branagh. Nolan, though, stated he thought the cast got what was happening. He also spoke about helping editor Jen Lame get the rhythm of the story down and more.

A lot of previous ground was covered in an EW cover story package that included fresh looks at the film along with the usual comments about its groundbreaking nature. Debecki revealed a few new details about her character in another interview while also talking about working with Nolan and more.

Overall

Let’s address a few open questions and issues.

First, the campaign is pretty great. It sells a slick spy thriller wrapped in a time-twisting sci-fi adventure, James Bond meets “Legends of Tomorrow.” Many of the hallmarks of Nolan’s brand of filmmaking are present, from the slick production values to the stylized lens everything is viewed through. Nolan’s movies are known for being layered mysteries the audience is asked to wade through and that’s exactly what’s being sold here, with few of the story’s details being revealed while lots of great set pieces are shown off.

But the question remains whether the combination of the strength of the campaign and pandemic cabin fever will turn out enough of the audience to make Nolan and WB’s insistence on a theatrical release for the $200 production worth the hassle. They’re aiming for the sweet spot on three overlapping groups: 1) Those interested in the movie on its face, 2) those living in areas where theaters are open for business and 3) those willing to put health concerns aside and endure the frustrations of spaced seating, mask requirements and more that are in place at theaters.

Reports of ticket presales are imperfect measures to gauge actual intent, and overseas results are no more helpful given most countries outside the U.S. have done far better in getting the pandemic under control. So we wait and see if Tenet will provide the way out of the darkness industry insiders and others have been waiting for.

Picking Up The Spare

Regal Cinemas released a new interview with Washington and another with Debicki and then the both of them. IMAX put out their own interview as well. 

Washington appeared on “Kimmel” when Samuel L. Jackson was cohosting.

Christopher Nolan has some thoughts about what lessons should or shouldn’t be learned from how the movie fared in theaters during the pandemic. 

Artemis Fowl – Marketing Recap

How Disney is selling its latest potential franchise artemis fowl poster 2starter.

When Disney greenlit Artemis Fowl, a movie adaptation of the hit 2001 novel, it likely had aspirations of it starting a whole new Harry Potter-esque franchise that would diversify the studio’s top-tier brands outside of Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar. The company’s massive marketing machine could come around the movie and propel it to box-office success, opening the door for sequels covering the rest of the books in the series.

Those hopes might still be in place but the scale might be reduced a bit as the Covid-19 shutdown of the last few months means Artemis Fowl is debuting not on theaters but on Disney+.

The story is focused on the young Artemis Jr. (Ferdia Shaw), the latest in a long line of criminal masterminds who is being groomed by his father Artemis Sr. (Colin Farrell) to one day take over the family business. When Sr. goes missing, Jr. sets out to find him and discovers the job entails more working and dealing with fairies, trolls and other magical creatures than he anticipated. Artemis has to navigate dangers he never imagined with the help of a few trusted allies.

Despite the change in release platform, Disney’s campaign for the movie – directed by Kenneth Branagh – still clearly has the goal of starting a franchise of films that can work for years and span stories.

The Posters

artemis fowl poster

It’s “Time to believe” according to the first teaser poster (by marketing agency LA) released in November of last year. Below that copy we see Artemis’ face, mostly hidden in the shadows of blue and green lighting, with some kind of strange language reflected in the lenses of his large glasses. It nicely hints at his intelligence as well as the mysteries he’ll be uncovering.

The second poster (by marketing agency BLT Communications) came out in March and still reflects the targeted theatrical release date. For the imagery it pulls the camera back for a design that’s very familiar for the “franchise film with a star-studded cast and lots of effects” genre. The supporting characters are arranged around Artemis and a handful of locations are hinted at while in the background a huge vortex is opening that is clearly supernatural and represents the kind of dangerous journey our young adventurer will be embarking on.

An updated version of that poster was released in April to highlight the new Disney+ release strategy and date.

The Trailers

The teaser trailer (6.2 million views on YouTube), released in November, sells a magical journey for young people. A raspy narrator talks about why they were driven underground to avoid the humans as we see a decrepit mansion followed by some sort of incredible city filled with floating vehicles and more. Along with that there’s adventure, archery and more as the dangers Fowl faces become evident.

This isn’t about the father, we’re told as the second trailer (4.6 million views on YouTube) from March opens, it’s about Artemis, the son. He’s grown strong, but when his father disappears Artemis learns his father may not have been the good man he believed him to be. He sets out to find him and learns the truth is more complicated, that his father was also protecting the world, and so enlists allies as he dives into a world filled with magical creatures and amazing adventures.

Online and Social

As has become the norm, the movie’s website is kind of a disappointment, featuring only the barest of information on the story along with the trailer, some photos and not much else.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

On St. Patrick’s Day an “Irish Blessing” video was released showing off the action and adventure the movie had to offer. Around the same time came a featurette that had Branagh and others talking about how they approached the story and brought the books to life on the screen.

In the midst of shifting release dates for a handful of movies in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the closure of theaters Disney made the surprising announcement, accompanied by a short promo, that the film would debut exclusively on Disney+.

A “Special Look” came out shortly after that emphasizing the special gear Artemis uses for his rescue mission as well as the friends he enlists for his quest.

Artemis is looking for clues that will lead him to his father’s secrets in the first clip released by Disney in mid-May.

Later that month the first TV spot ran making sure audiences understood this was an epic fantasy adventure they’d be able to stream on Disney+.

Media and Publicity

A first look at Dench and other parts of the movie was part of EW’s 2019 preview issue late last year.

Eoin Colfer, the author of the source book, appeared on “Good Morning, America” in late May to talk about seeing his work come to life and being involved in that process.

Colfer, along with costar Lara McDonnell, did a virtual panel for Book Con to touch on similar subject matter.

Overall

The promotional efforts on display here are quite good, setting a solid tone for the audience and selling a story filled with adventure and mystery. That’s a good message to send as it makes lots of promises that the movie can eventually deliver on.

Of particular note here are the trailers and the advertising elements, which are able to show off the spectacle of the movie. The lack of substantive publicity and press efforts are a bit surprising, though given the turmoil washing through the media world it might be that there are simply no more outlets to interview talent.

What’s most capturing my interest, though, is that unlike many of the movies that have gone straight to streaming or VOD recently, this is a big, live-action flick that, as mentioned before, is clearly intended to kick off a cinematic series. It’s one thing for an animated feature, of which there are plenty for all platforms, as well as for low-budget indies and rom-coms.

So the campaign here is a good one, but it’s selling something that has been almost exclusively a theatrical experience. There’s little doubt it will still be popular on Disney+, but it might not be the kind of streaming experience people are looking for.

Picking Up the Spare

The troubled road the movie took during development is covered here, making it seem as if the final version was always destined to be written off as quickly as possible. 

A series of seven character posters came out just as the movie was hitting Disney+. There was also a new short video promo to mark its availability. 

Branagh was interviewed about the making of the film and the process of finishing it during quarantine. 
The main characters were introduced again in a new featurette.

Murder on the Orient Express – Marketing Recap

Director Kenneth Branagh assembles an all-star cast for this week’s Murder on the Orient Express, an adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie mystery of the same name. Branagh himself takes on the role of Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot, who finds himself on a train running through parts of the Middle East and surrounding areas.

Along on the ride are over a dozen other passengers, not to mention crew. When one of those passengers, Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is killed, Poirot uses the time available to him to investigate who the murderer might be from a collection of society figures and others. Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfieffer, Josh Gad and others all play the assembled passengers/suspects.

The Posters

“Everyone is a suspect” we’re told on the first poster, which is quite a statement considering the impressive cast list that’s on display. The primary image is of a train speeding along the track, with oddly red smoke pouring out of its stack.

The theatrical poster does inside to the interior of the lounge car, the various characters arranged around the inside of that car, some with a drink in hand and all glancing purposefully somewhere.

Each member of the impressive cast, as well as the substantial supporting cast, was featured individually on their own character poster, some shown inside the train and some outside.

The Trailers

The first trailer sets the stage of being set on a train trip through the wilderness. We get some narration about how interesting the forced-collection of strangers into a confined space can be. Seen we hear a passenger has died and we see the roles each passenger will take on. All of them are a suspect and we finally meet Hercules Pirot, who introduces himself as the greatest detective in the world.

It’s short but it’s to the point, selling the all-star cast being involved in a murder mystery.

The second trailer is no less focused on the cast being a major selling point but also has more of the story to offer. A conversation between Pirot and the gangster played by Depp provides a framing device to show how the detective’s investigation expands to involve everyone aboard. That’s good, but there’s also a lot of shots here of trains derailing and other action sequences that seem designed to assure audiences it won’t all be thinking. I get the sense the studio is trying to dumb it down a bit, at least here in the marketing.

Online

A photo of the room Ratchett was killed in is used on the front page of the movie’s official site, which has a notable domain name, the victim’s own feet visible at the bottom of the image, which keeps bouncing around like the train is still moving.

Some of the objects scattered around the Crime Scene are clickable, bringing up a closer look and a text box where you’re supposed to write notes about that piece of evidence. Those Clues were scattered throughout the marketing and publicity campaign and are assembled in that section of the site, though with no further guidance or hints as to what they might be. The Suspects section then has pictures and names for all the passengers and others on the train who are being investigated and evaluated for their role in the murder. By logging in to the site (using your Facebook credentials) you can track your progress in solving the mystery.

There are also links encouraging you to Get Tickets as well as follow the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

The first TV commercial sells a high-tension thriller involving multiple suspects trapped in tight quarters, making sure to show off the all-star cast and with music that adds to the suspense and sense of urgency involved in finding the real killer in a sea of motives. Further TV spots would hit slightly different beats but all sell the same basic idea.

Some of those commercials wound up being used as promoted posts on Twitter and pre-roll spots on YouTube. Other online ads used the key art of the star-studded cast as well as short video clips.

There were also at least a couple brand that helped with promotional efforts. Godiva released a number of movie-themed collections of chocolates and other sweets and ran a sweepstakes awarding a train trip through California’s Napa Valley. HSN meanwhile offered a bunch of fashion items inspired by both the look of the movie and the time period the story takes place in.

Media and Publicity

While there was certainly coverage of the movie during production, the first big push was kicked off by a cover story in Entertainment Weekly that included first look photos of the cast, comments from Branagh about the production and the ensemble that was assembled and much more. That came around the same time as a big press event in London where the cast was brought together and talked about the movie while the studio showed off a bit of footage.

A first look photo in EW’s fall movie preview was accompanied by a brief interview with Branagh where he talked about how he had the cast shoot one of the movie’s most difficult sequences on the very first day of filming. A later feature profile of Pfieffer focused on this and other upcoming or recent movies that mark the return to regular work for the actor, who talked about shooting such a star-studded production and why she’s taken a few breaks over the last decade. The New York Times did a similar feature interview.

Later on there was a profile of Branagh that talked about the big year he’s having in a number of films and stage productions, this included. The director/star also did the media interview rounds on TV and in print to talk about the movie and taking on such a well known story.

Overall

First off, it has to be noted that like this week’s Daddy’s Home 2 this movie features some problematic casting, particularly as the media’s attention is turned to sexual harassment and toxic masculinity in the entertainment and other industries. That Johnny Depp is not only in the movie but featured so prominently in the marketing (though not in the publicity) shows there are no real consequences for domestic abuse or other behavior if you’re white, male and popular enough at the box-office.

Perhaps that’s why so much of the publicity has focused, with the exception of Branagh, on both Ridley (partly in conjunction with her Star Wars notoriety) and Pfieffer, who’s enjoying a much-needed career resurgence.

Putting that to the side, the rest of the campaign sells a movie that may be based on an old musty book today’s young people may have seen on their grandmother’s family room shelves but never picked up as a slick, colorful, energetic thriller. From the neon lighting that’s shown on the posters to the Imagine Dragons tracks used in the trailers and the pacing of the TV spots, the studio is working hard to liven up the story and make it appear to be the polar opposite of a dry, slow thriller. It’s action-packed, the campaign promises, and filled with stars you’ve already enjoyed.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.