How Universal Pictures has sold a movie about one of culture’s most famous lackeys
Renfield, out in theaters this weekend from Universal Pictures, stars Nicolas Cage as Dracula and Timothy Hoult as Renfield, Dracula’s long-serving and long-suffering servant and whipping boy. Set in present day New Orleans, the story focuses on Renfield’s attempts to break free of the Dracula’s thrall because he’s fallen in love with Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), a local human police officer. But the century-spanning relationship between master and servant is complicated and cutting ties isn’t so easy.
Ben Schwartz, Shohreh Aghdashloo and others costar as the people who get sucked into the drama.
The movie is directed by Chris McKay and written by Ryan Ridley, with a story by Robert Kirkman, so let’s take a look at how it’s been sold.
announcement and casting
The project, with McKay as director and Cage as Dracula, was announced by Universal in April 2021.
Hoult’s casting in the role of Renfield came a few months later, in August, with Schwartz, Awkwafina and Adrian Martinez joining over the next couple months.
Cage commented on the experience of playing Dracula a few times over the course of later 2021 and early 2022.
A release date was set in March 2022, with Universal marking the end of production a month or so later.
There was one more interview with Cage where he called this a “pop-art Dracula” story.
the marketing campaign
With the beginning of 2023 came the launch of the marketing campaign. That included a poster showing Dracula – here made to look very similar to Max Schreck as Count Orlok in Nosferatu – hovering over a skittish-looking Renfield. It pretty effectively communicates the dynamic between the two in a simple manner.
The trailer (45m YouTube plays) released at the same time opens with Renfield bursting into a support group and declaring he needs help getting out of a toxic relationship. As he struggles with what he’s asked to do for his master he saves Quincy from a group of armed robbers at a local restaurant. Eventually the support group Renfield has found discovers he’s not exaggerating the hold his boss has over him or how much power he has. It’s all very funny while bringing in plenty of straight horror elements.
Both Hoult and Cage appeared on exclusive Empire Magazine covers in February, with a story about the movie and what audiences could expect in the issue.
The final trailer (18m YouTube plays) hit at the end of March, flashing back to Renfield’s first day as Dracula’s assistant. We get a lot of the same moments seen in the first trailer, but this time there’s more of Renfield’s attempts to push back on Dracula’s constant dark needs, as well as Dracula’s unwillingness to let him go so easily.
A short featurette has Cage, Hoult, Awkwafina and others talking about the insanity of the story as well as the action and horror aspects of the film.
The Overlook Film Festival at the end of March served as the movie’s world premiere, with the stars and others in attendance.
Hoult appeared on “The Tonight Show,” “GMA” and other shows to talk about the movie and what it was like to make a horror comedy with Cage.
One of the TV spots from earlier this month begins with Cage and Hoult in character recreating the meeting of Dracula and Renfield from the Boris Karloff-starring movie before segueing into footage from this movie.
a professional presence
One aspect of the marketing needs to be broken out for special consideration.
Universal’s marketing team decided to go all-in on the idea of Renfield being a lowly assistant in the present day and so created a Tumblr blog for him where he complains about how demanding his boss is. They also mocked up a LinkedIn profile where he’s marked himself as being open to new opportunities, set up a Hotmail address where he is out of office on an errand for his master and even used Twitter’s “pinned conversations” feature as a way to interview applicants looking to be hired by Dracula. Finally an AR lens for Meta’s suite of networks added Dracula to the background of your camera in the same way he appears on the poster.
These are all very fun and certainly extend the joke of Renfield hoping to be on his way out from under Dracula’s thumb.
For the most part they all work, but the Tumblr blog may be a step too far as it runs afoul of my feeling that character profiles are extremely hard to pull off and often tripped up by the need to advertise the movie directly instead of consistently staying in-world. It’s a solid effort, it just can’t avoid the usual pitfalls that break the illusion.
A few minor quibbles like those directly above aside, this is a fun campaign that may have no chance whatsoever of reaching a theatrical audience. Not that there won’t be people who are interested in it, it’s just going up a combination of two big factors:
- It’s in the fuzzy middle between genres that tends to fall through the cracks. At times it appears to be a straight comedy, at others it’s very much a horror picture. But the lack of clarity as to which category it really belongs in could mean some who are on the fence opt out because of uncertainty.
- It’s opening against the unexpectedly powerful Super Mario Bros., which will likely continue to dominate the box office, with Renfield projected to eke out just about $10 million.
Still, if you’re into movies that take big swings and play around with established concepts (I am among those), this should appeal to you.
picking up the spare
How production designer transformed an abandoned hospital into one of the film’s key locations was covered here. There was also a feature on costume designer Lisa Lovaas and more comments from McKay on the story’s themes and messages.