The Evolution of Mission: Impossible’s Marketing

Spectacle – that one key sequence that has the audience holding their breath and white-knuckling the arm rest – has been a feature of the Mission: Impossible movies since the franchise’s inception in 1996. That first movie, directed by Brian De Palma, featured Ethan Hunt (played by Tom Cruise) being lowered into a heavily-monitored room where he can’t make a sound, touch the floor or come in contact with any surface save the terminal he’s trying to access. Suspended by wires and attached to a harness, Hunt spins and pivots to keep his balance before the rest of his team can pull him back up.

That set the stage for future movies, all of which have included that one moment, each one attempting to up the ante from the previous film.

For as much as the franchise has become defined by these standout scenes, it’s notable that the marketing has not always used them as key selling points for the audience. That value proposition only came into usage after 2006, splitting the franchise’s marketing messages into two distinct periods.

Mission: Impossible 1-3: The Spy Movies

At first the franchise was being sold as one belonging squarely in the Spy Movie genre.

For the 1996 original Mission: Impossible, the trailer featured plenty of action, yes, but it’s almost all in service of the mission that forms the core of the movie’s story. We get who the team is and that Hunt is the best of the best, as well as that he’s been betrayed by someone inside the organization. Likewise the poster here is downright stoic, looking more like the cover to a John le Carre novel than a modern action movie. Similarly, an interview with director Brian de Palma talks more about the “chess-like” sequences of the movie more than the difficulty of the stunts, selling it as an intricate spy story.

Director John Woo talked about reestablishing Hunt as a character in the buildup for Mission: Impossible II, someone with a more fully-fleshed out persona and background, though because it’s Woo there was of course a good amount of discussion about the stunt sequences. Even in the trailer the focus is more on the action in general than one or two key set pieces, something represented on the poster that shows Hunt running while surrounded by flames.

In the trailer for Mission: Impossible III there’s a real effort being made to make the story personal for Ethan Hunt, explaining that he’s out to protect someone he loves in addition to bringing the bad guy to justice. The theatrical poster shows Hunt in the middle of the action, but not in any sort of outsized or grand way, just as though he’s infiltrating a building or something smaller.

Mission Impossible 4-6: The Set Piece Movies

It may seem crazy now, but Mission: Impossible III opened soft. At the time, expectations held it would gross over $50 million but came in with an opening weekend of only $48 million, something attributed in part to the public’s backlash against Cruise in the wake of the time he jumped on Oprah’s couch and attempted to explain therapy to Matt Lauer.

At the time Paramount’s marketing head Rob Moore declared instead of viewing it as a disappointment it was better to compare the movie favorably to 2005’s Batman Begins because both movies, he said, “resurrected a dormant franchise.” That’s an interesting way to position the third entry in a continuing series, likening it to a full character reboot that sought to undo the damage done by a previous film.

Which is to say, the stage was set for Ghost Protocol to *actually* revive the franchise in a new and interesting way five years later. In the trailer for that fourth film you see at the very end that the studio has begun to identify the big set piece as a key hook for the audience, offering an extended look at the scene of Hunt dangling outside a Dubai hotel. That sequence, of course, received a featurette of its own to take audiences deeper into it and show the danger Cruise was putting himself in. And it was used as the key image on the IMAX poster.

The same formula is used in the trailer for Rogue Nation, which ends with the sequence of Hunt hanging off the outside of a transport plane. That shot, as Scott Mendelson pointed out at the time, wasn’t even integral to the story but part of the opening Bond-esque establishing sequence, meaning a significant chunk of the marketing, including the IMAX poster, was devoted to something largely unrelated to the majority of the movie. There were featurettes from Paramount devoted to the car park sequence and a key motorcycle chase as well as an interview with Cruise where he talks about the stunts and story.

What Changed?

In the four years between 2006’s Mission: Impossible III and 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol the movie industry changed dramatically. Those changes are reflected in the different approaches taken by Paramount.

mission impossible 3 pic

First, two years after M:I III, the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched and took over everyone’s thinking. Suddenly it wasn’t enough to put out a series of sequels in a series, studios needed to become brand managers, shepherding IP in a new and different way. That at least in part explains the change from numeric numbering to the adoption of subtitles in the naming of each movie. Future movies could no longer be generic, they needed to be unique and convey that to the audience.

Second, Tom Cruise fully became the Tom Cruise we now think of, for both good and Ill. MI: II in 2000 unofficially kicked off a new phase of his career, one where he mostly stuck with action films and only occasionally popped up in dramas or random comedic cameos. As a box office tracking analyst said in 2015, “His star power and the movie are inextricably linked in a way that very few stars and their movies can boast. In a world where concept normally trumps star power, Cruise literally is the concept.”

Third, IMAX became much more of a mainstream theatrical brand. 2008 marked the introduction of IMAX Digital, which made exhibition much more cost effective than the film-based process had been. That innovation led to the massive expansion of IMAX screens from a few hundred to the current 1,300+. So the incentive was to not only see these large-scale action sequences that put Tom Cruise in danger, but to see them on the biggest digital screen available, something reflected in the format-exclusive one-sheets for the later films.

imax logo

Fourth, marketing costs continued to rise dramatically, powered mostly by increased TV advertising rates. The advertising and marketing budget for the 1996 original was reported to be over $24 million, though Paramount disputed that number. In 2015, Paramount was said to have spent roughly $12 million just on Rogue Nation’s TV campaign.

While much has changed, one thing that’s remained the same is that the marketing has consistently sold the mission Hunt and his team are engaged in executing, even more so than the villains. That offers an interesting point of contrast between this series and the Bond films, where the bad guy is often positioned as the embodiment of the mission. It’s not that they’re missing from the campaigns, it’s just that they’re often secondary in importance.

So the Mission: Impossible franchise offers an illustration into how the mindset of Hollywood not only makes movies but sells them to the audience has evolved from the Pre-MCU era to the new one, where intellectual property – especially IP that will play well both domestically and overseas – rules the industry.

Title Branding in An Age of Franchises

In his new book The Big Picture, writer Ben Fritz chronicles how, over the last decade, Hollywood has become less a place of rampant creativity and more one concerned with intellectual property management. The rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the revitalization of Star Wars, the continued presence of the X-Men and more all serve as examples of studios embracing the franchise model, churning out new series installments in a way that will satisfy audiences both foreign and domestic.

While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, most studios have more or less consistently adopted a title format that reads Brand Name: Subtitle. That’s a substantial change from 20 or 30 years ago when most sequels just had a “2” or whatever number slapped on the end of the title to demarcate it as something new.

From an outside perspective it seems as if around 2010 studios realized the numbered installments were working against the goal of encouraging people to turn out, making it seem as if the movies were just another sequel they could skip with nothing identifiably unique about them. By switching to subtitles, the movies are more clearly laid out as something individual and different, like chapter titles that convey the theme of that section while still falling under the larger franchise umbrella.

Still, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Not only do the branding tactics sometimes vary from studio to studio but even within one studio’s release slate you can see different approaches being taken. Here are some key examples as to how this year’s biggest have – or haven’t adhered to that recent conventional wisdom.

Star Wars

star wars logoTo quickly recap, 1977’s Star Wars really was just “Star Wars” when it was originally released and continued to be thus for years. The release of The Empire Strikes Back really introduced the episode numbering to the series, though the three movies of the Original Trilogy were pretty much just known by their episode titles. Things got a bit muddled when the Prequel Trilogy came out and suddenly everything was “Star Wars: Episode # – Chapter Title.”

When Disney relaunched the series it opted to drop the “Episode #” from the title branding but retained the “Star Wars: Chapter Title” format specifically for movies that fit into the Sage, the core stories about the Skywalker family and their allies. Because the studio wanted to expand beyond that constraint it needed some way to differentiate between those movies and everything else that focused on new or ancillary characters. Thus the “Title: A Star Wars Story” branding was adopted that has been featured on 2016’s Rogue One and this summer’s Solo, both of which have more in common with the multimedia Expanded Universe than the central saga.


marvel studios openingDisney/Marvel Studios have tried a little bit of everything with the titles for the 18 movies that have been released in the last 10 years. Let’s look at the studio has taken a number of different approaches to branding the cinematic outings of the heroes:

  • First Movie Named After Character, Sequels Just Numbered: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3
  • First Movie Named After Character, Sequels Just Subtitled: Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok
  • First Movie and Sequels Featuring Character Name and Subtitle: Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War
  • First Movie Named After Character, Sequel Adding Another Character: Ant-Man, Ant-Man and The Wasp
  • First Movie Named After Team, Sequels Just Subtitled: The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War

It’s chaos, but the differing approaches taken don’t seem to be impacting anything. At least they’re consistent within each series and it remains to be seen what system will be in place for sequels to Black Panther, Doctor Strange and other films.


jurassic park logoThere’s been some goofy branding going on with the Jurassic franchise, which this summer gets its fifth installment. The first sequel didn’t use Brand: Subtitle for the title but flipped it for The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The third movie then dropped a subtitle altogether for the simply-named Jurassic Park 3.

When the series was restarted a few years ago it was given a new banner with Jurassic World, a brand name that’s now being continued with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

Mission: Impossible

mission impossible logoParamount has branded the sequels to the 1996 original in a couple different ways that perhaps reflect how the approach to mindset around labeling has changed over the years.

The first two sequels were simply numbered as Mission: Impossible 2 and Mission: Impossible 3. Pretty clear-cut and understandable, telling the audience exactly what to expect, which is more adventures with Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. Since the fourth installment, though, the studio has put numbering aside and decided to go with a series of subtitles, first Ghost Protocol, then Rogue Nation and this summer’s Fallout.


x-men logoFox’s mutant-centric series has taken a fast and loose approach to branding, just like Universal’s rampaging dinosaurs. X-Men was followed by X2: X-Men United, then X-Men: The Last Stand, which eschewed numbering completely but which, in 2006, was a bit early when it came to fully adopting the subtitle structure. Things got weird with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, meant to be the first in a series of stand-alone character-centric movies (not unlike the “A Star Wars Story” films) before settling down with X-Men: First Class, which rebooted the franchise.

Interestingly, Fox’s other X franchise – Deadpool – used a straight numbering for its sequel last month. That was somewhat disappointing since up until shortly before release it was still listed as “Untitled Deadpool Sequel” and it would have been great if that had been the actual title.


bondIt’s worth pointing out that the granddaddy of them all, the great ancestor of these franchises, is of course James Bond. That series is over 55 years old but has never utilized the character’s name in any of the titles to its 24 films. While the 25th has just been announced it’s likely this will follow suit.

There are a number of other franchise and series that have applied different tactics when it comes to sequels.

  • Matt Damon’s Bourne series inserted the name of the character into different declarations of intent until the most recent chapter, which just used the name alone.
  • The Rocky series used simple numbering until Sylvester Stallone revived it in 2006 with Rocky Balboa and then turned the focus elsewhere in 2015 with Creed.
  • The Fast and the Furious series has thrown all rules to the wind, using numbers, variations on the title of the original over the years. Of course Universal whiffed on an 83 mph fastball right at the belt by not titling the most recent installment F8 of the Furious.
  • After sticking with the Brand: Subtitle format for a decade, the Transformers series is throwing it to the side for this year’s Bumblebee, which surprisingly doesn’t have any Transformers branding in the title.

The funny thing is, this isn’t even necessary for any other reason than name recognition among the audience. Using the same name at the beginning of the title made a certain amount of sense when movies needed to be arranged on the shelves of Blockbuster Video for easy discovery by someone on a Thursday night. Batman Returns could be right there next to Batman.

Now, though, it’s part of the story of the movie as a whole.

As long as Hollywood sees value in studios being brand overseers as opposed to incubators for original stories it’s likely this kind of thing will continue. The tactics may change but the need for the movies released to bear familiar, easily marketable branding in some manner will certainly remain.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.