knock at the cabin – marketing recap

How Universal has sold the latest big mystery feature

Knock At The Cabin poster from Universal Pictures
Knock At The Cabin poster from Universal Pictures

After a few years of missteps, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan seemed to be getting his fastball back with the success of Split, Glass and Old, all of which combined to help revitalize his reputation as an engaging and entertaining filmmaker. Now he hopes to continue that streak with the release of Knock At The Cabin, an adaptation of the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay,

Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge star as Eric and Andrew, a couple staying at a remote cabin with their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). What starts out as a nice family vacation takes a turn when four strangers accost them, claiming they have been drawn together by visions of coming disasters heralding the end of the world. The only way to stave off the apocalypse, they claim, is for the family to sacrifice one of their own. Tensions mount as the family refuses, even as reports of natural and other disasters begin to come in. Dave Bautista, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint and Abby Quinn play the four predictors of doom.

With all that in mind and with the fact Shyamalan is known for pulling the rug out from under the audience, let’s take a look at how Universal Pictures has sold the movie.

announcement and casting

While everyone knew the movie was happening in advance of this it finally got an official name in October 2021.

Bautista was cast in December of that year, with the rest of the cast added over the next few months.

the marketing campaign

The campaign got started in late September of last year with the release of the first trailer (23.3m YouTube views). Everything looks nice and peaceful as the family starts their vacation until Bautista’s Leonard approaches Wen and the cabin followed by the three others. After they break into the cabin, Leonard explains the shared mission the four of them are on and what the stakes are should Andrew and Eric fail to do what the visitors deem necessary. That’s as far as this spot goes as it’s meant to introduce the story, not share much beyond the premise.

Wen sits in the grass on the poster released at the same time, reaching out to figures we only see in shadow. The copy reading “Save your family or save humanity. Make the choice.” explains more of the story than the trailer does, though it’s a bit clunky in doing so.

A shorter version of that trailer that skips some of the setup and cuts straight to the home invasion came out at the end of November followed by a second poster that this time shows the four visitors, all carrying some kind of heavy weapon, approaching the cabin.

The second trailer (34m YouTube views) was released on Christmas Day. This time there’s a bit more explanation after Leonard and the others break in as to what the family is being asked to do, something that apparently others have done throughout history to avert previous cataclysms. Their skepticism is met with news reports of tsunamis and other incidents around the world, increasing the stakes as they attempt to find a way out of the situation but also guided by visions of their own.

This time the poster accompanying that trailer is a bit more artistic, with four figures shown standing around a small version of the cabin, their size compared to the building lending them a bit more menace. There’s no copy on this one, just the promise it’s coming to theaters.

In early January Shyamalan made an appearance at CES in Las Vegas. In partnership with Canon, he supervised the creation of an immersive VR experience allowing participants to view an action sequence from the movie from the perspective of four different characters.

The gist of the story was shared in TV spots that began airing shortly after that as tickets went on sale.

Another poster used a similar motif as the previous one-sheet, this time showing a massive hand reaching down for the cabin, its fingers separated by the shape of the four intruders.

Bautista opens a featurette released later in January, explaining the premise as Shyamalan talks about what drew him to the story and how he set out trying to make it and mold the characters.

Most of the additional TV commercials just used variations on the trailers, often using the same footage. But one spot, likely intended for broadcast during a basketball game, has Shyamalan playing chess with NBA star James Harden in a cabin until they’re visited by an unexpected guest of their own.

One more featurette has Bautista explaining how this was the most challenging film role he’s taken on to date before the director sings his praises as an actor.

A profile of Shyamalan focuses on this film but also goes into the ups and downs he’s had over the course of his directing career.

The cast and crew assembled in New York for the red carpet premiere last weekend. While there everyone sang the praises of the director and Bautista while being careful to not spill too many details of the story.

Many of the interviews with Bautista only gave cursory attention to this movie and instead focused on his role in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which are coming to an end in the near future. But Aldridge got a profile of his own where he talked about his own history with coming out and what it’s been like for him since then.


If tracking predictions turn out to be accurate and the movie enjoys an opening weekend box office take of around $20 million it would be pretty good, though the negative reviews could push that lower.

As for the campaign itself, it’s fine and certainly accomplishes the goal of telling the audience there’s a new M. Night Shyamalan movie hitting theaters. But it goes too far in an effort to not spoil whatever story twists there are and winds up not establishing enough of a foundation for anyone – at least in my opinion – to even care about the premise. It’s a trap a lot of superhero movies fall into for the same reason and has me lukewarm on the campaign for this movie as well.

old – marketing recap

How Universal has sold the latest twist-heavy film from a singular director

old movie poster

Director M. Night Shyamalan, known for his intricately-structured slow reveals, returns with this week’s new release Old. Gael García Bernal stars as Guy, who’s vacationing with his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and their two children. The family visits a secluded beach but soon discover they, as well as others already there, are mysteriously aging rapidly, with years going by in just minutes. With time running out, they look for ways to escape before it’s too late.

The marketing campaign has focused on explaining that premise, largely because hooking audiences to come see the twists in the last act is the primary value proposition for any film from Shyamalan. With middling reviews giving it a 60% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and projections for a $12-15 million opening weekend at the box-office, let’s take a look at some of the details.

The Posters

The first poster, released last September, hints at time being a major factor in the story by showing human beings falling through an hourglass like grains of sand. The “It’s only a matter of time” copy unnecessarily underlines that hint.

That theme is made even more explicit on the theatrical poster, released in May. This one shows a woman relaxing on the beach, her face hidden by her hat but her legs and arms visible. One side of her body, we see, is much more gaunt and aged than the other, further indicating to the audience that there’s some unnatural force at work in the story. A motion version came out at the same time.

The Dolby poster shows an aerial view of the beach, with some kind of shape visible in the lines formed by the waves and sand.

The Trailers

When the first trailer (23.2 million views on YouTube), released in May, begins, we see that some vacationing families decide to defy requests to not visit the beach near the resort they’re staying at. That choice has dramatic consequences when after a series of strange events they find they are aging years in just minutes and can’t escape, leading everyone to make some very difficult choices. It’s full of tension but not silly and works to create anticipation and wonder about what power is behind what’s happening.

Online and Social

You’ll find only the basic marketing content on the movie’s official website, including a photo gallery that has a handful of behind-the-scenes shots. There were also social media profiles for the movie.

Advertising and Promotions

Shyamalan announced the movie and debuted the first key art in September, 2020.

Shyamalan briefly spoke about the movie in early 2021 when he appeared on “The Tonight Show.”

The first look at the film came in a Super Bowl spot that aired in early February. Understandably, there’s not a whole lot of the story in that spot but it does have enough elements to hint at the kind of story audiences can expect.

After the first commercial debuted during the 2021 Super Bowl, the director appeared on Entertainment Weekly’s Instagram to discuss the movie.

While the movie didn’t screen there, did sit down for an interview at the 2021 Tribeca Festival.

Clips that hint at the mystery of what’s happening on the beach and the confusion of the characters began hitting in mid-July.

Shyamalan talked about the movie when he appeared on “Late Night” in July.

Clips like this started coming out earlier this month, but none offered much in the way of detail as to what the overall story was.

The second key art was used for outdoor ads like this as well as online ads that drove traffic to the official website where people could buy tickets.

A special movie-themed escape map was added to Fortnite where people had to collect needed resources and put together the clues to get out of that area.

Surprisingly, the cast talked about how this movie doesn’t rely on the typical Shyamalan twist at the film’s premiere earlier this week.

How Shyamalan worked with his daughter on the film was the subject of a short featurette released just before the movie came out. He also discussed how he doesn’t think he makes horror but something more akin to drama in this spot.

Another featurette, this one exclusive to Fandango MovieClips, has the cast and crew discussing the concept of time and how it relates to the movie. The director discussed how sound and other elements help create fear and uncertainty in a Dolby-exclusive video while he and the stars all appeared in a Regal Cinemas video.

Shyamalan discussed how this movie fits into his overall filmography and more in this interview. He also spoke more in this profile about what drives him creatively and what some of his film influences are and have been.


M. Night Shyamalan movies are always sold on the idea that the audience won’t believe what lies just beyond what they see in the trailers and this campaign doesn’t significantly deviate from that formula.

The concern with that approach is that it can hold so much back there’s little for the audience to actually comprehend. Put another way, there’s a minimum level of context needed for the audience to grasp the broad outlines of the story and why they should care about the characters.

Universal’s campaign for Old, in my opinion, *just* crosses that tipping point. That could mean that, whatever the merits of the movie itself, it may simply be too obscure a proposition to motivate people into making this choice. Not that the campaign isn’t well-executed from a technical standpoint – it is – but it’s right at the cusp of holding too much back to maintain the sense of mystery associated with the filmmaker.

Glass – Marketing Recap

My full recap of the marketing campaign for Glass is up at The Hollywood Reporter, but you can read below for the elements not included in that column.

Online and Social

The official website from Universal does a decent job of offering most of the basic content and information about the movie but never really takes visitors any deeper into the story.

Media and Publicity

A feature profile of Shyamalan covered lots of territory, focusing on how he fell from favor after the initial wave of popularity and buzz but has emerged even stronger than before. Similar topics were covered in another interview and another after that. The connection between this and the earlier movies was reinforced when the director revealed it would feature unused footage from Unbreakable, though he also put the kibosh on further sequels set in the shared world.

Everyone started showing up on late night TV and elsewhere in the last couple weeks, including Jackson and McAvoy. The latter was also announced as the host of an episode of “Saturday Night Live” a couple weeks after the film hit theaters.


glass gif

Picking Up The Spare

Star Anya Taylor-Joy had a few late-breaking profiles like this where she talked about her experiences on-set with the cast and crew.