free guy – marketing recap

how Fox Disney has sold an action-comedy about life inside a video game

Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer star in this week’s Free Guy, directed by Shawn Levy. Reynolds plays Guy, an NPC (non-playable character, i.e. background cannon fodder) in an open-world video game created by Antwan (Taika Waititi). When two of Antwan’s developers insert new code into the game, Guy becomes self-aware, realizing he lives in a video game. Millie (Comer), one of those developers, uses her avatar to explore the game and help Guy save the game before Antwan, who doesn’t care for the updates or the attention Guy’s self-directed actions has attracted.

The movie, which has a solid 86% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, was one of the last developed by 20th Century Fox before it was acquired by Disney a couple years ago. It finally hits theaters this week after a number of delays and a marketing campaign that has acknowledged those delays with winking humor.

announcement and casting

The movie had been in various stages of development at Fox for a few years, with Levy and Reynolds signing on in 2018/19, finally moving things forward. Comer joined in 2019, leading to production getting fully underway.

comic-con and the first marketing attempts

As the movie had its official coming out with a well-received panel at New York Comic-Con in October, Fox released a “Meet the Cast” video that had everyone talking about how excited they were to work with the others. It included Reynolds and Waititi claiming they have never worked together before, while Comer and Keery try to correct the record, a nice bit of fun that’s in line with the public personas of both actors.

Unfinished footage from the film was also shown off to NYCC attendees, while a sizzle reel of the panel and press activities from the convention was released shortly after it ended.

Guy takes on a traditional super hero pose on the first poster (by marketing agency LA), standing with his shirt opened to show what’s underneath, which in this case is just another shirt and tie. It’s meant to communicate his ordinary nature, that he’s not a hero and doesn’t have hidden abilities and thanks to Reynolds’ expression that comes off as genuine.

Reynolds and others traveled to Brazil in December to appear at CCXP, where they showed off the trailer and other footage while working to get the audience there excited for the film.

December 2019’s first trailer (14.4m views on YouTube) starts off very dramatically, identifying the film as coming from the same studio that brought audiences Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King (twice) before showing someone skydiving into an epic action sequence. It’s then that we meet Guy, a normal guy who takes all the violence and chaos around him in stride until he starts wondering if there’s more to life than constantly being held up at the bank where he works and being shot at all the time. Putting on a pair of glasses shows him the reality of the world around him and leads him to the realization he’s in a video game, but has the freedom to be the hero his world needs.

There’s more going on the second poster, released in December, as we see Guy strolling blindly down a city street that’s filled with the chaos of bombs being dropped, cars exploding and more. It conveys nicely the idea that he’s a character incapable of recognizing, much less impacting the events happening around him.

Another entry in the self-deprecating part of the campaign came in January with a video of Reynolds and Comer talking about the craft of acting, with Reynolds increasingly frustrated by how Comer is consistently referred to in the context of the awards she’s won.

Disney used the social media app Weibo to release a special poster designed in the style of Chinese tapestries to celebrate Lunar New Year.

delays, delays and more delays

Originally scheduled for summer of 2020, it was among the titles Disney delayed in a big announcement last April as the severity of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. and elsewhere was becoming clear.

When that announcement was made, Reynolds and others took it upon themselves to release an unfinished, watermarked clip of Guy in his apartment watching the news, all of which is horrible. The clip was meant to be both relatable given reality at the moment and to just keep the movie in everyone’s mind and includes the new date followed by a 🤞, which is a nice touch.

While there was a Total Film feature story on the film that included comments from Levy, Comer and Reynolds and a steady stream of new photos and other minor updates, things were quiet until October of last year.

That’s when the second trailer (2.6 million views on YouTube) came out, teased ahead of time in a video with the cast covering their bases by throwing out a number of potential release dates. It differs from the first trailer in a couple areas. First, it frames Guy’s epiphany that he and everyone he knows is living in a video game as a result of his crush on Milly. Second, it shows the chaos a free-range Guy has within the game and how it affects the real world, especially on the company that makes the game.

That second trailer gained more headlines for racking up over 55 million views in the first 24 hours following its release.

Another poster, this one showing Guy standing on a rooftop above the chaos of the city, came out at the same time.

At that point Disney was aiming for a mid-December release date, hopeful the pandemic would be receding into the background by then. The studio’s optimism was short-lived, though, and in November the movie was taken off the 2020 release calendar, with no new date announced until a month later.

ok for real this time

Fast forward to March 2021, when another video came out with Reynolds announcing a new (and eventually final) release date, though still in a way that played into the ridiculousness that had come before.

In May Disney CEO Bob Chapek confirmed the movie would receive an exclusive 45-day theatrical run instead of going to streaming simultaneously or shortly after that theatrical run.

There’s a bit more of the non-video game world that is impacting Guy’s existence in the next trailer (4.8m views on YouTube, released in early June. Other than that it hits many of the same beats as previous spots.

The whole cast shows up in a very typical action ensemble design on the poster released at that time. Differentiating it from something like an MCU entry is the upbeat and naive look on Guy’s face as he stands over everyone in the hero spot.

An interview with Comer in June had her talking about entering the world of action movies, working with Reynolds and more.

Lil Rey Howery, who plays Guy’s best friend in the game world, appeared at Essence Fest to promote the movie.

News came in late June that the movie would screen at the Locarno International Film Festival in August.

In mid-July Reynolds released a video that has Deadpool and Korg from the MCU reacting to the latest trailer. The mashup makes sense given Disney and Fox are now a single entity and that the movie stars both Reynolds and Waititi, who plays Korg.

Traditional 30-second spots began airing in mid-July that recapped the story and its visuals. Longer commercials obviously had more room to breathe but stuck to the same basic message.

Later spots expanded on what had come before while also pulling primarily from footage the audience has already seen. Of note, it was being positioned as the movie event of the summer, which may be a bit hyperbolic but what else are you going to do…

The first clip shows Guy and Millie pulling off a big fight in a nightclub. That clip really shows off the interplay between the two leads as well as the basic level of humor audiences can expect. Another has Guy being confronted by the police for breaking many of the game’s rules.

All the main characters got posters of their own (by marketing agency BLT Communications).

Guy and Millie have a meet cute over a Mariah Carey song in another clip. How important that song is to the movie and its story (it’s featured in nearly all the trailers and TV spots) was shared by Reynolds in an interview at the movie’s premiere.

Just how much Waititi riffed while on set was covered in a short featurette that had Levy, Comer and others praising his performance.

the comer and reynolds show

While it had been part of the campaign since the very beginning, the last few weeks featured a focus on Comer and Reynolds’ chemistry with a series of videos that had them playing off each other, often at Reynolds’ expense.

First, the two appeared in a promo video debating whether or not this qualified as a “date movie” especially in light of the social distancing of the last year and a half.

They then squared off in a test of their Canadian knowledge, the joke being that Comer is British.

These were fun largely because this is Reynolds’ brand in particular. For the last several years he’s consistently broken the fourth wall in his movie campaigns, so this makes a lot of sense and delivers what audiences have come to expect when he has a new movie coming out.

Individual videos had Comer and then Reynolds introducing their respective characters and having some fun with international translations of the movie’s title.

wrapping up the campaign

In early August Reynolds shared a video that had him showing off the massively bulked up physique he achieved in just a week, one that means he can no longer fit into the Deadpool suit but which allows him to appear as Dude in the movie.

A TV spot released just after that video came out showed off Dude and how he’s used by the game’s designers to try and reign in Guy.

Dolby and IMAX posters offered slightly different takes on what had come before, but they both still communicate how Guy is the lone calm in the center of endless chaos.

The movie’s premiere was held in Los Angeles last week, with Reynolds, Comer, Levy and others in attendance. At that premiere the cast and crew spoke about the unique approach they took to construct the world of the movie and more.

Comer made an appearance at the London premiere event as well.

Levy was the subject of a much-shared profile that dove into how he’s one of the most successful and hard-working comedy directors in Hollywood but has at the same time flown largely under the radar in terms of outsized press and attention. Many of the cast and crew praise Levy and his work ethic in that piece.

Overall

There have been so many campaigns over the last few months that have tried to be the end-all-be-all in jumpstarting theatrical moviegoing. Some have been more effective than others depending on where in the latest sub-cycle of the Covid-19 pandemic we are and what the audience’s appetite for breaking out of their new view-from-home norm might be.

The Free Guy campaign doesn’t make that kind of statement as explicit as the push for, say F9, but it’s still there lurking beneath the surface.

What may set this apart from what’s come before is that most of those earlier releases have been either thrillers or franchise action films while this one is clearly a comedy. That’s a different kind of communicable experience than just watching super heroes beat up bad guys or cars be pulled around by giant magnets. The campaign has played into that with its frequent tweaking of Reynolds’ and the focus on Waititi’s improv antics.

While the $15-18 million that’s predicted for the film’s opening weekend box-office may not be all that impressive compared to some other recent movies, it may actually represent a much more accurate look at how people are feeling about theaters since this one isn’t available for streaming simultaneously.