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.

Hustlers

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.

Joker

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.

Knives Out – Marketing Recap

A good old-fashioned whodunit with an all-star cast comes to theaters hoping for success.

knives out poster13The $25 million tracking estimates for the opening weekend of Knives Out may not seem massive. Such a box office total would signal failure for most movies. While that number indicates audiences might be recovering from seeing Frozen 2 last weekend and saving their movie-going dollars for Star Wars next month, it might still be enough to not only win the weekend but show there’s life in the concept of a non-franchise movie featuring a sprawling ensemble of popular actors.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, the movie stars Christopher Plummer, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Laketh Stanfeild, Daniel Craig and quite a few others. Craig and Stanfeild play investigators summoned to the mansion of Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) after his mysterious death, which just so happened to occur at his birthday party for which the entire family had gathered. All under suspicion and each with their own motives as well as alibis, the sometimes ungrateful children must remain in the home while the killer among them is rooted out.

As Johnson has made clear in numerous interviews, it’s a throwback to the kind of murder mystery films from the 50s and 60s that became staples of broacast television reruns in the 70s and 80s. And while the predictions may indicate some weakness in terms of audience appetite, the 95 percent “Fresh” rating it sports on Rotten Tomatoes shows critics have roundly embraced its entertaining eccentricity.

The Posters

knives out posterA magnifying glass with a knife for a handle sits atop the title treatment on the first poster (by marketing agency LA, as are the rest of the posters), released in July. The cast list is presented below along with the copy “Everyone has a motive. No one has a clue.” All those elements, along with the “whodunnit” at the top along with the typeface used combine to sell a classic mystery movie, one where everyone will be suspected at some point and is working against the others as the police try to solve the crime.

“Nothing brings a family together like murder” we’re told on the series of character posters released in September. Each one presents the character in question in a different part of the house where the action takes place and presents them with a description of their role in the family or the investigation, very much in the vein of an Agatha Christie story.

The entire cast is assembled on the theatrical poster from October, with the Harlan’s children and others arranged behind him. This time the tagline betrays a much more playful attitude, reading “Hell, any of them could have done it.” It’s a great way to upend audience expectations and communicate the fact that this is a fun time at the theater, not a scary horror film of any sort.

The Trailers

The first trailer (12.4 million views on YouTube) was released in early July and establishes the premise right away, that Thrombey family patriarch Harlan was killed following a party celebrating his 85th birthday. The detectives sent to the estate to investigate understandably suspect an attendee is responsible and so ask everyone to stay put until they find who did it. From there it’s all about the mystery as we see the Thrombey’s aren’t exactly a tight, loving family and each could have their own reasons for not only killing the old man but wanting those around them to go down for the murder.

Everyone’s “waiting for the big reveal” in the second trailer (6.5 million views on YouTube), released in September. This one is even more loose and fun than the first, focusing on the infighting of the family members as Blanc and the other investigators seek to uncover who killed Harlan and why. The whole cast gets a turn to shine as the movie is presented as a breezy and entertaining whodunit with a house full of suspects and motives.

The final trailer (388,000 views on YouTube), released in October, is short but to the point. Specifically, it sells the movie not on the story but on the positive reviews that have come out so far, positioning it as a rip-roaring good time and the most entertaining film of the year with a top-notch cast.

Online and Social

In contrast to many recent efforts, the movie’s official website features good information that heightens anticipation of the film. In addition to the usual marketing content, the front page of the site lets you click on the faces of the main characters, allowing you to see the poster they’re featured on along with a bit more background and some photos to download. It’s not much, but it’s something and a nice element to include given the cast. In acknowledgement of the film coming out around Thanksgiving there are also place cards with each character and their defining trait that can be printed out for your holiday table, including one with Johnson labeled “The murder mystery master.” Last month there were pumpkin design stencils available as well.

Advertising and Publicity

While there had been plenty of press coverage around casting and other production updates, the first real promotion came when Lionsgate brought Johnson and members of the cast to CinemaCon in March to get the ball rolling. An extended scene was shown two months later at CineEurope.

In July it was named among the films screening at the Toronto Film Festival as part of the “Special Presentations” lineup, a screening that brought almost universal praise for the story, direction and performances. Later it was named the London Film Festival’s Gala movie and had a Fantastic Fest screening announced in August. In October it screened at the Chicago International Film Festival, with appearances by Johnson and Shannon.

The Get Your Cut contest was announced in September, encouraging fans to hunt for clues and hidden messages scattered throughout the posters and trailers in an effort to win $250,000, positioned here as part of Harlan’s fortune he put aside for fans. A later message from Harlan’s personal attorney (played by Frank Oz) and a recording from Harlan himself continued promoting the contest.

TV advertising started in mid-October with a deluge of spots – a dozen at first with more coming after that – highlighting different aspects of the family, their motivations, the search for Harlan’s killer and more. While they take slightly different approaches, the commercials reinforce the impression from the trailers that this is a fun star-studded whodunit.

AMC Theaters offered an exclusive interview with Johnson where he talked about the story and working with the impressive cast.

In early November Lionsgate released a series of videos inviting you to “Meet the Thrombeys.” Each one was created to be a promotional video of sorts for that family member’s business. So Joni is selling Flam – which also has a website -, her lifestyle brand, Walt is selling Blood Like Wine Publishing – which also got its own website – and announcing his promotion to CEO and Linda is selling her real estate business, which also has a site. Each one is filled with “slashing” puns to reinforce the nature of the movie.

The first clip, released in early November, shows Ransom arriving at the family mansion and blowing off the investigators already on the scene. A second clip shows the assembled family being asked to stick around while the investigators find the guilty party while a third has Linda confronting Blanc.

knives out online adOnline ads used some combination of the key theatrical art and images from the character posters along with video clips in various units.

The positive reviews the movie had received were used in a final TV commercial that pegged it as a fun experience for audiences.

Johnson extended a “personal invitation…to murder” to the audience in a video designed to play like an old-fashioned movie trailer, the kind that has directors like Alfred Hitchcock. In fact you can see just the kind of thing being referenced in the trailer for Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s another way Johnson is paying homage to the films that inspired him.

Outdoor billboards (by marketing agency Art Machine) used the same art of the assembled family seen in the theatrical one-sheet and outdoor ads. Notably, an alternate version of the billboard design showed the family from the back, each clutching a knife in their hands as if they’re ready to use it on each other at a moment’s notice.

knives out billboardknives out billboard2

Media and Press

An interview with Johnson during the Toronto screening allowed him to talk about his love of the murder mystery genre, what it was like working with such a big-name cast and transitioning from the massive spectacle of Star Wars to the smaller scale of this film. The cast offered their comments on how the movie provided some good alternative to family dinners during its Thanksgiving release window.

In a couple interviews from Toronto, Johnson even started speculating there could be more movies if this one does well. He also spoke with Curtis about how the movie’s story is intentional commentary on issues of wealth and privilege.

The cast shared one of their favorite moments from the few scenes they were all in together. A brief interview with just Evans had him talking about his inspiration, wardrobe and more.

Talk show appearances included Evans and Shannon on “The Tonight Show,” Johnson on “Kimmel,” Craig on “The Late Show,” Curtin on “Today” and more.

de Armes was part of THR’s “Next Gen Talent” feature in November, with the actress talking about her reluctance to join the film as well as how the script is what won her over.

An interview with Johnson had him talking about how this film was just as important to him as his franchise work and how it fits into his overall filmography.

At the movie’s premiere Johnson and the cast talked about their love of murder mysteries and how such stories can be reflections of the current political climate. An interview with the director had him talking about how hard he worked to get the movie made in the time available, how some fortunate coincidences allowed him to assemble the cast he wanted and more. Another had him sharing his mystery genre influences.

EW hosted an early Thanksgiving dinner with Rian and the cast talking about the movie and having a generally good time.

Curtis and costar Katherine Langford appeared on stage to present an award at the recent American Music Awards ceremony.

There were two feature profiles of Ana de Armas, spotlighting her as a breakout star in this movie who is poised for even more fame in the coming months with other projects coming out.

Overall

I’m hooked. As if I wasn’t a big enough Rian Johnson fan after his previous films – including what’s objectively the best Star Wars movie in the series – the way he conveys the fun he had in crafting this movie from beginning to end is infectious. That’s helped, in my own case, by recognizing exactly the type of movies he was inspired by and wanted to recreate here. They’re just the kind that were shown on “Family Classics” on WGN-TV in Chicago in the 80s on Sunday afternoons, the kind your parents would turn on after church while everyone is relaxing.

Everything about the campaign is just fun, showing you don’t need to make every mystery story into some deep, dark examination of the twisted nature of the human soul. Instead, as early reviews have indicated, it’s a lighthearted examination of the twisted nature of the human soul, including elements of class privilege both real and imagined.

Without a recognizable brand for the film’s marketing to latch on to, Johnson has become that brand hook, putting himself front and center throughout the campaign to act as the public face of the movie. That’s summed up nicely in the throwback trailer released last week but it’s seen in all the interviews he’s done and in the way the cast has praised his directorial style and work ethic on set.