How Sony has sold a period drama about African warriors.
Viola Davis stars in this week’s The Woman King, in theaters this week from Sony Pictures. Davis plays General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie, an all-female group of guardian warriors in the kingdom of Dahomey. Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim costar as the latest generation of warriors to be trained by Nanisca, with John Boyega as the nation’s king. The Agojie must be trained to help fight against the latest threat to their people: The expansion of French colonizers deeper into the African continent.
If the concept of the Agojie sounds familiar, it’s because the real life defenders were the inspiration for the Dora Milaje in Christopher Priest’s “Black Panther” comics run, a group that of course later appeared in several installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the movie was written by Dana Stevens, who developed the story with producer Maria Bello. Let’s take a look at how it’s been sold.
announcements and casting
The movie was announced in July, 2020 as Prince-Blythwood’s follow-up to the massively successful The Old Guard on Netflix.
News of Davis’ casting was followed in September 2021 by Boyega joining the project. Lynch was cast shortly after that, right in the middle of her getting rave reviews for her role in No Time To Die. Lawson, Tiffen and others joined shortly after that.
the marketing campaign
Davis offered the first real look at the film in February of this year when she posted a couple stills showing just how fierce she looks in costume.
Both Prince-Blythwood and Davis made an appearance on stage at Sony’s April 2022 CinemaCon presentation to promote their film. Davis was also given the event’s first-ever Trailblazer Award for her body of work.
A few weeks later Empire Magazine shared a first look still from the film.
Prince-Blythewood talked about the movie when she appeared at the American Black Film Festival in June, with the director debuting the trailer there for the festival’s audience before it went out to the general public.
More photos along with an interview with Davis came in Vanity Fair at the beginning of July.
Also in early July came the first trailer (10.4m YouTube views), which opens with King Ghezo warning of a new evil coming that must be fought with the Agojie. Nanisca convinces the king to fight back against the threat of the Europeans looking to expand their influence. We see the kind of training the Agojie go through and just how effective they are in combat, all of it adding up to a powerful trailer.
Banner ads on YouTube drove people to the film’s official website when the trailer debuted.
Later that month the announcement came that the movie’s world premiere would happen at the Toronto International Film Festival. Davis was later slated for a conversation as part of the film’s screening at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival in mid-August.
The first poster came out a bit later. It shows Nansica alone with her weapon held high, standing in what seems to be a fiery conflagration blazing all around her.
Bello was interviewed about her love of the African continent and how that played into developing this story.
A short vignette has Davis and Prince-Bythewood talking about the real life warriors portrayed in the film and how they’re surprised they didn’t know more about this before.
Trainer Gabriela Mclain spoke in this interview about how she put each one of the primary cast through their paces in preparation for such physically-demanding roles that required they *look* the part of fearsome warriors.
That training was the subject of another short featurette.
Mbedu was interviewed about the film’s incredible cast and more.
Cutdowns of the trailer started running in late August as TV spots and online promos, including pre-roll ads.
The second poster, released at the end of August, has the entire main cast of characters assembled and staring intensely at the audience amidst the same fiery background seen earlier.
An Essence cover story featured a conversation with the main cast about the story and what it was like working with everyone else. That was followed by a THR cover story with Prince-Bythewood and Davis in part covering the battles they had to take part in just to get the film made for reasons that are likely obvious.
Davis went on to make appearances on “GMA”, “The Tonight Show”, “The View” along with others to promote the film and talk about how unique the story is in today’s marketplace.
It’s not very surprising that there’s little in the way of overt reference to how the real life Agojie inspired the fictional Dora Milaje given the competing studios/companies in play. But that connection is very much there for anyone who’s paying attention.
Outside of that, the major message of the campaign is not only that this is a powerful film about an incredible group of warriors but that the existence of those warriors isn’t as well known in the general public as, say, the 300 Spartan warriors at the Battle of Thermopylae. If you pull on that thread more than a bit you’ll likely discover reasons that include racism, the fact that Europeans are clearly not the good guys in that story and so on.
But the story is being told in a big, bold fashion now and that’s what’s important. And the campaign has been moving, driven by the personal investment of Prince-Bythewood, Davis and others, including Bello, who seems to have taken the smart path and sat out most of the publicity and let others, particularly women of color, take the spotlight.
How MGM and Universal have sold the capstone of the latest James Bond era.
It’s impossible to even begin discussing the marketing for No Time To Die, the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, without putting in the context of two realities.
First, that this is clearly being sold as the last time Daniel Craig would star as the British super-spy. When he took over the role in 2006’s Casino Royale it was clear the franchise was headed in a new direction, one whose more realistic tone was seen as a direct response to movies like The Bourne Identity that featured more graphic violence and a flawed, human hero. Craig has hinted at leaving before, but this fifth outing seems to really be his last.
Second, that the movie’s release has been greatly impacted by events in the real world. Fears over the spread of novel coronavirus lead the studio in February 2020 to cancel the movie’s planned premiere in China. Things escalated after that when the planned release in April of last year was shifted to November by MGM, the studio citing an abundance of concern over audiences being exposed to what was then known as Covid-19 in theaters. That came after a Bond fansite launched a petition encouraging MGM and Eon to make that change.
Doing so meant the studio and producers stood to lose around $30 million in sunk costs, but the movie bombing because people were avoiding public spaces like movie theaters had the potential to be much worse financially in addition to being a public health nightmare.
With all that as context, we now come to the moment at hand. Here’s the official synopsis for No Time To Die:
In No Time To Die, Bond has left active service and is enjoying a tranquil life in Jamaica. His peace is short-lived when his old friend Felix Leiter from the CIA turns up asking for help. The mission to rescue a kidnapped scientist turns out to be far more treacherous than expected, leading Bond onto the trail of a mysterious villain armed with dangerous new technology.
What’s promised, though, is an end to the story begun 15 years and four films ago. That’s relatively unusual for the Bond franchise, to have a single storyline run through multiple installments, and it’s made the marketing of the movie that much more emotional and interesting. Let’s dig in.
announcements and casting
A lot of news came in one fell swoop as it was announced MGM and Annapurna would team up for distribution, having wrestled the rights away from Sony, that Danny Boyle would direct, that Craig would return for another go and that it was already scheduled for release. Boyle’s involvement wouldn’t last much longer as it was announced in mid-August he had departed the film due to the frequently-cited “creative differences.”
That set off plenty of speculation about who might be considered as a replacement, a decision the studio wanted to make quickly to keep things on track. Eventually Fukunaga was picked to sit in the chair, a decision that most everyone approved of given his talents shown in previous films.
There was a bit of coverage of the movie when it was revealed Craig had specifically requested Phoebe Waller-Bridge do a pass on the script to punch things up and bring an original take to the story and tone. A few weeks later in late April the cast and some of the locations were announced via livestream, though the title remained secret.
After months of being known publicly as simply “Bond 25” the official title was announced in mid-August 2019. In October the movie’s Instagram account marked the end of principle photography.
It was all the way back in October 2019 – two solid years before the eventual release – that the marketing of the latest James Bond film began, back when the world was pure and you could go to the theater relatively certain you wouldn’t contract a deadly virus.
That’s when the first teaser poster was released, though it, like the character posters that followed in December, have all been subsequently updated to replace the “April 2020” date that was quickly obsolete.
Costars Lynch and de Armes were jointly profiled as part of THR’s “Next Gen Talent” feature, with the pair talking about the complicated process of joining the world of Bond and what it meant to be part of the team trying to modernize the character for new times and new audiences. A bit later Waller-Bridge was interviewed about how she came on to provide some help with the script and what she encountered when she joined. She offered more clarification on what she positioned as her limited role later on.
Just as has been the case with the previous two movies, Craig proclaimed this would be his very last outing as Bond while on the publicity circuit for last year’s Knives Out. Given how often he’s said this in the past, it remains to be seen if he’s serious this time or just negotiating through the press.
The first official still from the film was released in early December at the same time as the initial trailer. That release was also accompanied by the entire cast appearing on “Good Morning America” to celebrate the moment.
Also in December came the first teaser trailer (21.4m YouTube views). As it opens we see Bond is living peacefully in Jamaica, but is brought back into the fold to face an increasingly dangerous world. Nomi, a new 00 operative, isn’t thrilled about retrieving the relic from seclusion but the two pair up regardless, eventually reuniting with Moneypenny and Q as well. After encountering Madeleine, Bond interrogates Blofeld, eventually leading to a face off with Safin. Along the way there are just the sort of shots of well-choreographed action and adventure that are synonymous with the franchise.
With that April 2020 release date still kinda sorta realistic, more marketing efforts continued to pop up.
TV advertising began in early February of that year with a Super Bowl commercial that promises secrets will be unveiled that will “be the death of” Bond. In fact the spot sets the expectation that major changes will result from what happens, teasing that this might indeed by the last outing for this incarnation of 007. A commercial that aired during the NBA Finals is more basic, selling it as a big-screen action flick with a familiar character.
Total Film shared a first look at the villain played by Rami Malek, with the actor adding a few comments while continuing to keep the actual identity of the character he played a secret. Malek would later present at the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony.
Costar Latasha Lynch received a profile where she was quizzed on 007 history and talked about the character she plays. Ana de Armas also got her own Vanity Fairprofile a short while later.
Pop superstar Billie Ellish was announced as the performer of this movie’s title number in January, just before she swept the major categories at this year’s Grammy Awards. At the same time it was revealed Hans Zimmer was composing the film’s score. The audio of the title track was released in mid-February, earning a fair amount of praise. Ellish performed that song at the Brit Awards just a short while later and talked about writing the song when she appeared on “Good Morning America.”
In January a THR feature focused on longtime Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, including their thoughts on the future of the character. A little while later EW ran a cover story on the movie that offered a handful of interviews with the cast who teased what audiences could expect and addressing some of the issues – Boyle’s exiting the project, Craig’s occasional reluctance to continue and more – that have been part of the narrative to date.
Additional TV spots continued to come out throughout February of 2020, all showing off the action audiences could expect from the film. There was also an exclusive IMAX poster of Bond on a motorcycle, an image pulled from the trailers and commercials that had already come out.
A short featurette narrated by Fukunaga had the director talking about where Bond as a character is when the story opens and how this movie will deliver on audience expectations for this final chapter of Craig’s Bond.
still not quite the time to die: marketing phase two
At this point everyone pumped the brakes as it became clear the Covid-19 pandemic was going to be serious and disruptive. That’s when, in early March 2020, the announcement came the movie was being delayed from April to November of that year.
MGM, Universal and Bond producers, Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, announced today that after careful consideration and thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace, the release of NO TIME TO DIE will be postponed until November 2020. pic.twitter.com/a9h1RP5OKd
Not everything came to a stop though. Craig still hosted “Saturday Night Live” in March as planned, still promoting the movie while addressing the delay in his monologue as well as in subsequent sketches. It also needs to be noted that his hosting turn resulted in one of the most viral Twitter accounts/trends in recent years, something the actor only recently became aware of.
There was a big interview with Ellish where she talked about writing her song, how she got involved with the producers and more. Similar ground was covered in a later interview.
Craig then was profiled in both the UK and US editions of GQ.
Unlike some others, Fukunaga said in July he was not using the extra time afforded by the delay in release to continue fiddling with the film.
An official James Bond podcast was launched in late September featuring interviews with the cast and crew.
A second trailer (18m YouTube views) – teased the day before release – came out in early September and continues making the case for this being an essential endpoint for this era of the Bond franchise. Bond is up against a very personal foe, one that has drawn him back into the game, and has to work with Nomi to stop a massive threat. There are lots of dramatic moments and music along with the requisite running, jumping and shooting that are hallmarks of the series.
A new official poster, this one simply showing Bond armed, well dressed and ready for any kind of action, was released as well. Another shows Bond in more tactical gear lurking through a dark hallway.
Shortly after that there was a new featurette released with Malik and Fukunaga introducing us to Safin and explaining what some of his motivations are.
The official video for the song was released in early October. A month later in November Ellish’s song was nominated for a Grammy, despite the film the song is attached to being pushed to the next year, eventually winning the Song Written for Visual Media award.
A blow was dealt to the fall 2020 box-office picture when, at the beginning of October, Sony announced the movie was being booted to April, 2021. The news wasn’t wholly surprising, of course, as Covid-19 continued to sweep across the U.S. in particular. What *was* surprising was a report emerging in late October that MGM had openly explored selling the movie to Apple, Netflix and other streaming companies, hoping to get somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 million. That price tag was apparently too high, with the talks fizzling out without a deal being made. Additional details came later on how much of a financial drain those delays were becoming to the studio and its partners.
An additional delay was announced at that point, moving the release date from November 2020 to April 2021 because the pandemic situation – particularly the availability of movie theaters in major markets – had not improved sufficiently, as we all now know.
Craig appeared on “The Tonight Show” in early October of last year, shortly after the latest delay was announced, to discuss the movie and rationalize the change in release dates. Ellish also showed up to both discuss and perform her title song.
Of course the studio and producers marked the passing of Sean Connery, the original on-screen Bond, in November. Comments from Craig as well as the other actors who have portrayed the character came in as well.
Producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli: “We are devastated by the news of the passing of Sir Sean Connery. He was and shall always be remembered as the original James Bond whose indelible entrance into cinema history began when he announced those unforgettable words —
In an interview from last November, Lynch talked about the attacks she’s been subjected to since taking on the role, primarily from those who don’t feel a woman – much less a woman of color – should play any sort of leading part in the Bond franchise.
ad break: the promotional partners
Promotional partners for the movie include:
Heineken, a returning Bond sponsor, which released an extended commercial in January that playfully shows Craig having difficulty navigating his own life as people constantly mistake him for his super spy alter ego. A later commercial pokes fun at the frequent delays of the movie while also playing up the quality of its beer in a spot titled “Worth the Wait.”
Nokia, which released a long-form commercial featuring Nomi using the company’s devices to engage in surveillance and gather evidence on a mission.
Land Rover, which launched a campaign for its Defender SUV, selling it with the same kind of attributes – unflappable, able to adjust to any situation etc – as are normally associated with Bond himself.
One big problem with these product placements is that many of them, while cutting edge and new at the time the film was made and meant to be released, are less shiny and may even be outdated a year later. The money those companies paid, then, becomes a much poorer investment, even if the reasons why are largely outside of most individual’s control.
finally time to die: marketing phase three (for real this time)
What would eventually turn out to be the final release date change came in January, when the movie was moved to October, 2021.
In March Ellish found herself in a wholly unprecedented situation, winning a Grammy for her “No Time To Die” theme song to a movie that hadn’t come out yet.
In the wake of the news that Amazon was buying MGM in May, Broccoli issued a statement assuring audiences (but actually exhibitors) that the movie would not go to streaming as so many other delayed blockbusters had but would receive a theatrical release around the world.
Another interview with Lynch had her talking about the role she plays as a black woman on screen, especially in big titles like Bond and others.
Things really started to ramp up in August, beginning with the release of the final trailer (13.5m YouTube views). It starts off with scenes and dialogue from Casino Royale, counting off and showing some of the people he’s encountered, missions he’s been on and more since then. Despite the talk of the world being different and enemies being “in the ether” as opposed to across the room from you, the latter is exactly what we get, with Bond facing off against Safin for the fate of the world.
In September came the announcement of “Being James Bond,” a retrospective documentary on Craig’s time with the character and franchise.
TV advertising also restarted last month with spots like this that featured the banter, the action and the overall vibe of the movie and franchise as a whole.
The new agents played by Lynch and de Armes are introduced in a featurette. There was also a new IMAX featurette that had Fukunaga talking about shooting for the big screen.
Tickets went on sale in mid-September, the occasion marked by a new TV spot.
Additional profiles of and interviews with Craig continued to come out, many of them pulling out newsworthy comments and other elements from the “Being James Bond” documentary on Apple TV+ or from the podcast episodes. The actor talked about his time with the character, what it will be like to watch whoever succeeds him in the role and lots more, including the fact that, despite the multiple times he’s almost walked away, he’ll ultimately miss it.
Additional interviews with Lynch had her talking more about how she wanted to make her character unique and real.
There was also a profile of Fukunaga that, among other things, made it clear that the entire fate of the global box office and theatrical industry is on his shoulders. A similar profile of the director covered why he signed on to the project to begin with and how he’s handled the long delays.
All that really culminated in late September when the official premiere was held at London’s Royal Albert Hall with the cast, crew and lots of other celebrities (and royalty) in attendance.
Malek talked about the movie when he appeared on “Kimmel” just days ago.
overall: was it indeed worth the wait?
This movie should have been in theaters 18 months ago. That’s somewhat astounding, no less so because there was virtually no conversation about it being diverted to other platforms to get it out sooner, even with pressure coming from brand partners.
As it is, it arrives with a projected $60-70 million opening weekend and a solid 84% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes representing the largely positive reviews the movie has racked up so far.
It also comes after a marketing campaign that has been the very definition of stop-and-start.
After at least three attempts to get the ball rolling and build momentum toward release, what’s surprising is that the campaign has been remarkably consistent throughout. From the first elements in late 2019 through pre-roll ads that have run today, they keep hitting the idea that Craig’s Bond is about to hit the end of the road he began when he became a 00 in one of the best opening sequences of the entire franchise.
It remains to be seen whether that will be enough to get audiences interested enough to head to the theaters. The improved performances of Shang Chi and Venom 2 in the last few weeks are good indicators, but as the THR story above mentions, the Bond series has always skewed a bit older and that could make a bit of difference.
Also acting as an X factor is whether whatever interest there was two years ago has remained in audiences after multiple delays, not to mention [gestures broadly at everything else that’s happened since March, 2020, including 700,000 dead Americans]. It may be that some people have been waiting so long they figure it’s not worth it to go to the theater and they’ll just hold out for on-demand or other home video.