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