How Universal sold the latest experiment with Bayhem
[ed. note: yep, this came out last week, the schedule just didn’t pan out as planned]
The logline for Ambulance, which hit theaters last week, really doesn’t matter as it essentially boils down to the fact it was directed by the one and only Michael Bay. But for the sake of completeness, let’s fill in the rest of what the movie’s about.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Will Sharp, a military veteran desperate to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for his wife’s surgery. Out of legitimate options, Will reaches out to his adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), who enlists Will in a bank robbery he’s planning that could net them $32 million. But the robbery, of course, goes sideways and the two find themselves on the run in a stolen ambulance with an EMT (played by Eiza González) still on board while pursued by both the FBI and LAPD.
So with the thinnest of premises in place and a director known less for his storytelling skills than his ability to keep the action going at all costs (including to common sense), let’s see how this was sold in advance of last week’s release.
announcement and casting
News of the movie’s production, along with the lead, broke in late 2020 with Bay directing. But that was only after he had passed on the film a few years earlier. Now, though, he eyed it as a good project to get him out after a bit of Covid-relaterd quarantine.
Gyllenhaal and Eiza González were cast in late 2020, Abdul-Mateen II joined a short while later, replacing Dylan O’Brien, who had previously been selected to play the more legitimate of the two brothers.
A couple months later its release was delayed by Universal to February, 2022.
the marketing campaign
The first trailer (22.5m YouTube views) was released in late October of last year, opening with Will explaining to Danny he needs money for his wife’s surgery. Danny takes that as an opening to get Will’s help with a bank robbery offering an even bigger payday. That heist goes south quickly, leading the two of them to go on the run to avoid the police, taking a cop wounded in the shootout hostage in the ambulance they’re escaping in.
A poster showing an ambulance’s rear doors with two massive bullet holes in it came out at the same time, the image making it clear the title is very literal and not a metaphor as well as conveying the kind of action and danger the story will contain.
The next poster came out in February and this time shows the three main characters, their huge heads arranged above the ambulance they spend so much time in, which is being pursued by various elements of law enforcement.
That was followed by the first TV commercial, which focuses on the drama between the two brothers and interestingly *not* the chaos that results from their impromptu chase across the city of Los Angeles.
A handful of new images from the movie were included in an interview with Bay about how he choreographs the massive action sequences he’s best known for. Right after that a profile of Gyllenhaal came out that had him talking about the experience of shooting a Michael Bay movie along with comments from Abdul-Mateen II about how the actor would occasionally seize the camera and start filming things himself as well as how Gyllenhaal made sure everyone on set was doing alright.
A series of character posters was released in early March that makes sure to highlight the L.A. location as a character in and of itself.
An IMAX-exclusive poster offers a variation on some of the earlier design themes.
Bay’s creativity and how that influences the process of shooting those big explosions and other sequences were covered in a featurette that included comments from many of the coordinators, drone pilots and others responsible for actually pulling those shots off.
The director along with the primary cast were in attendance at a red carpet premiere in Paris later in March. That was followed by similar events in Berlin, London and elsewhere, each accompanied by a round of interviews and other press activity.
An interview with Abdul-Mateen II and Gyllenhaal focused on how they bonded on set, a theme that kept coming up at this point of the campaign. That just reinforced how great Gyllenhaal is in junket settings when bantering with his costars, something he’s demonstrated repeatedly in recent years.
MovieClips debuted an exclusive featurette with the cast and crew talking about Bay’s skill as a filmmaker as well as the details of the story and the emotional stakes the characters have in the movie. Similar ground was covered in a Dolby Cinemas featurette.
Another trailer (10.5m YouTube views) came out toward the end of March that skips some of the emotional setup for Will in favor of cutting straight to the action. We see lots of the moments between Will and Danny as they navigate the situation they’ve found themselves in, all while Cam is stuck along for the ride caring for a patient in the back of the ambulance. There are some interesting moments, but the primary message is that there’s lots of gunplay and other violence, all set to the sound of grown men shouting at each other.
Additional TV spots like this were released that cut down the trailer footage in various ways to help sell the different aspects of the movie.
A movie-themed version of “Grand Theft Auto” gameplay was streamed on Twitch.
Just last week the stars and others came out for the red carpet premiere in Los Angeles. Once again the theme of the conversations with the stars was working with Bay and how they adapted to his unique energy on set and similar topics.
Just as she’d done in previous interviews – and a featurette – Gonzalez talked about how she hopes her role and performance as an EMT in some way honors the kind of work first responders do every day.
How he worked to cut through the chaos to focus on character was the subject of an interview with Abdul-Mateen II. A joint interview with him and Gyllenhaal was again about working with Bay and being pushed by the director to break out of what they may have expected.
USA Network aired a short exclusive featurette/commercial that mixed comments from the cast with high-octane footage. There was also a solo featurette with Abdul-Mateen II where he expanded on his character.
Gyllenhaal hosted “Saturday Night Live” just as the movie was opening. That came after her and Abdul-Mateen II appeared together on “Kimmel” to promote the film while Gonzalez showed up there on her own.
Tracking estimates prior to opening had projected $10m for the weekend but it failed to clear even that bar, leading to lots of hand-wringing over the future of original action movies at the box-office and so on. But the lukewarm critical reception, as represented by the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes rating, likely led many people to choosing the family film in theaters over the action-oriented one.
What jumps out most from the campaign is how so much of it is devoted to everyone praising Michael Bay as if he’s some sort of impassioned but relegated artist. He has a reputation as being somewhat difficult, sure, but this feels like a kind of effort to trigger a Baynaissance of sorts, which is odd considering he’s been one of the most reliable box-office performers of the last…30 years? And as much as everyone can talk about his craft, this is still what Bay is best known for, which is why all those flipping cars and such are stil so central to this movie’s marketing.