west side story – marketing recap

How 20th Century Studios is selling a new adaptation of a classic musical

West Side Story movie poster
West Side Story movie poster

Years ago there was a rash of movies that updated Shakespeare plays, Jane Austen novels and other literature classics for modern times, changing the dialogue and settings as appropriate.

West Side Story, out this week in theaters, is the latest film adaptation of a classic of this subgenre, deftly updating Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet for the 1950s, with the original movie released in 1961.

This new version comes from director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner but still features the same greatArthur Laurents book, Leonard Bernstein music and Stephen Sondheim lyrics.

Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort star as María and Tony, respectively, star-crossed lovers from different backgrounds, she part of the Puerto Rican community and he a part of the white community. Their love is tested by the racial tensions in the New York City neighborhood as exemplified by the rivalry between the Sharks (the Puerto Ricans) and Jets (the whites) street gangs.

announcement and casting

There had been news about the movie, particularly around casting, for a while leading up to Spielberg’s first real comments in October 2018 about how this version would adhere to the stage musical.

Casting news and various small updates followed over the next several months, starting with Elgort. Throughout early 2019 more additions were made, including Zegler, David Alvarez, Ariana DeBose and others. Notably, Rita Moreno joined not only as a member of the cast but also as a producer on the film, helping to guide the story’s development.

marketing phase one: not tonight, tonight

Disney used the social media app Weibo to release a special poster designed in the style of Chinese tapestries to celebrate Lunar New Year in 2019.

A first look photo showing the Jets and Sharks released in mid-June of 2019, with a photo of DeBose as Anita released a month later.

The first real look at the movie came in an April 2020 feature with a batch of new photos along with comments from Spielberg about why he chose this project, what it was like working with the cast and lots more.

A profile of DeBose in October of last year mentioned this as one of two breakout roles for her in the last year or so.

In September, 2020 Disney announced it was pushing the release date back an entire year because of Covid-19 related delays and theater closures.

marketing phase two: something’s coming

A brand identity that would last throughout the campaign was established on the first poster, released in April. It doesn’t show much outside of the title treatment, displayed here as white bricks seen through a black background.

The first trailer (3.1m YouTube views), which debuted during the April broadcast of this year’s Academy Awards, makes the case for the movie based on it being visually gorgeous. It focuses on the cinematography and staging of the story and less on the story itself, seemingly assuming some level of familiarity on the part of the audience. It’s relatively short and doesn’t feature any dialogue and just a few lyrics, but the impact is certainly felt.

A “Special Look” came out in late July that functions like a short trailer or extended TV spot. Little dialogue is featured along with the music, but it definitely reinforces the fact the movie will look incredible.

It was mid-September before the full trailer (6.6m YouTube views) was released, debuting on “Good Morning America.”. It offers the basic outlines of the story we all (hopefully) know, that Maria meets and falls in love with Tony despite them coming from different cultural environments. That causes tension in her family and others as those opposing forces get ready for a clash. Notably, it specifically calls out the racial hatred that powers one side, which is angry over how “other” people keep taking over their territory. That’s an important message to highlight in this day and age.

That was followed by another poster, this one using the same title treatment but pulling the camera out to show the rest of the building wall and, importantly, the shadows of Tony and Maria who are standing on a neighboring building.

The movie received an important endorsement when Sondheim appeared on “The Late Show” and praised the work of Spielberg and Kushner.

A TV spot came out shortly after the trailer debuted that cut down the story to its broad strokes, still featuring those bright visuals as well as “Tonight.” Another focuses more on Maria and her attempts to fit in in America and make a life for herself.

Ziegler was interviewed about how surreal it was to work with Spielberg on the film.

A bit of behind-the-scenes footage is seen in another “Sneak Peak” released at the end of October. Two more posters – one showing Maria and Tony dancing the other with Bernardo and Anita dancing – came out at the same time.

Tony has a choice to make in a TV spot from early November that highlights not the romance of the story but the dangerous choices everyone is about to make and the danger those choices will create. Another spot brings the focus back to Tony and Maria and their doomed love.

The theatrical poster indicates how the Tony/Maria romance is the central selling point of the film, specifically their singing “Tonight.” It shows the pair on the fire escape where they sing their love to one another, making sure the audience knows this will be the centerpiece of the movie.

More commercials – some of which would be repurposed as social ads or video prerolls – continued to be released. Another behind-the-scenes featurette was built around Spielberg toasting the first day of filming but focused on the work that went into preparing the music, sets, choreography and other aspects of production before the camera actually rolled.

Character posters were released showing individual looks at Maria, Tony, Bernardo, Anita and Valentina (the character played by Moreno).

An extended spot debuted during the American Music Awards broadcast. Spielberg talks about how making West Side Story has long been a dream of his, as well as how unfortunately the story of racial divisions is still timely, in another featurette.

The movie’s red carpet premiere was held in New York City at the end of November, with the cast and crew all in attendance.

While on the red carpet Kushner shared how he turned to a Puerto Rican friend to make sure his Spanish language dialogue was accurate to that community at that time, with more and more people weighing in to the point it became a regular group discussion. Spielberg and members of the cast also reflected on Sondheim’s contributions and legacy since he had passed away just days before the event.

Reactions from that premiere screening praised the movie as a whole and especially the performance of Zegler in her film debut and DeBose. Spielberg’s first outing helming a musical was also called out as a highlight.

Unsurprisingly given it’s been featured in almost every asset to date, the first clip is an extended look at “Tonight.”

Dolby and IMAX exclusive posters feature slightly different arrangements but both take a more artistic approach to one-sheet design, using painted images of the characters and locations to create a retro feel appropriate to the era the story is set in.

Moreno talked about returning to the story 60 years later when she appeared on “The Tonight Show.” Zegler promoted the film on “GMA” and “Live with Kelly and Ryan” among other media stops.

Brian James D’arcy, who plays Officer Krupke, was interviewed about this movie specifically as well as his thoughts on remakes. Kushner later spoke about how intimidating the project was when he agreed to take it on.

AMC Theaters shared exclusive video interviews with the cast.

A few videos were released that had Spielberg offering his thoughts on Zegler, who he calls the high bar no one else cleared during the audition process, and DeBose, whose charisma and talent he praises. Another focused on Moreno, from how it was Kushner’s husband who had the idea to cast her in a role originally created for a man to how she shared stories of the original production during filming to the part she played in conveying a real Puerto Rican experience to everyone on set.

Alvarez was profiled for how his career includes a break while he served in the U.S. military.

Another premiere event was held just recently, this one in Los Angeles.

The movie got a final push when the AFI named it one of the 10 best movies of 2021.

overall

It’s interesting, if not a bit maddening, that this movie is being held up as an indicator of whether or not non-franchise blockbusters have any future at the theatrical box office. That issue has been very much up in the air this year, with the answer too frequently being “No, not really.” But asking it overlooks the fact that, as an adaptation of a perennially popular musical that was already made into one a cinema classic, it doesn’t really fall into the “original idea” bucket even if it’s not a comic book or YA novella adaptation.

The movie certainly comes with the endorsement of critics, as represented by its 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But tracking estimates an opening domestic weekend of $12-17m, which would be just slightly above the $11m opening of In The Heights last June, a result that was roundly considered disappointing. Yes, the winter yardstick for success is different than that used in summer, but still…

Putting all that aside, 20th Century Studios has mounted a very good campaign that:

  • Has a strong brand identity throughout the effort, as exemplified by that white brick title treatment
  • Knows the audience is there to see the two leads sing “Tonight” to each other and so uses that footage every single chance available
  • Highlights, especially in its back half, the role GOAT Rita Moreno played in guiding this film through production and the respect paid to her by everyone from Kushner to Zegler and all in between
  • Communicates consistently that this isn’t a period piece locked in amber for 60+ years but one that is both respectful of tradition and updated a bit to make it timely and relevant to modern audiences

Finally, it manages to look and feel like something that is both a big screen musical and all that entails while also looking like a Spielberg film, no doubt thanks to the cinematography of the director’s long-time collaborator Janusz Kamiński.

It’s also coincidental that this is the second of two Sondheim-related projects to come out in just a few weeks, the first being Tick…Tick…Boom!, which featured the late writer (as portrayed by Bradley Whitford) mentoring a new generation of musical theater creators. So that celebrates the future he was instrumental in shepherding while this celebrates one small part of his legacy.

Why Is Everyone Suddenly Concerned About Steven Spielberg?

There was a really weird media narrative that cropped up just prior to the release of Ready Player One that focused on the career of director Steven Spielberg. That trend, exemplified by but not limited to this Indiewire story, started worrying that the director *really* needed a box-office hit.

Even as stories like that acknowledged he has a track record over 40+ years of filmmaking that’s unparalleled (he recently became the first director to cross the $10b global revenue mark) there was a distinct wringing of hands over whether or not anyone would keep letting him make movies if he didn’t release something popular. While it’s true that his films of the last 10 years haven’t always been high-grossing, they continue to do well and are usually critically-acclaimed and receive awards nominations.

These stories all seem to come from a belief that anyone in Hollywood would say “…nah” to Steven Spielberg, a position I find hard to fathom.

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How About Something New?

I’m not opposed to the idea, as floated by director Steven Spielberg, of a woman taking on the fedora of Indiana Jones. This doesn’t sound like a gender-swapped reboot of the character after Harrison Ford takes the character out for one last spin, but a continuation of the universe with a woman at the helm. Sounds cool and I’m actually all for it.

Surely, though, there are at least a dozen screenwriters hanging around Hollywood who have scripts sitting in a folder for *new* female action heroes that aren’t tied in some way to a legacy male character. One or two of those have to be decent, right? Why can’t we get one of those?

This is the same problem I’ve had with the comics industry for several years. Both Marvel and DC have long histories of introducing female characters who are derivative of male characters. In some cases, they’re given their own agency and motivations, but too often “Like X, but a girl” is the beginning and end of their character development.

I want to be clear here that this is not me trolling female fans who love these characters. I’m 100% in favor of more characters who aren’t white guys. As someone who’s been a Hawkeye fan since the early 1980s I can say I love Kate Bishop and want more stories featuring her. And from what I read the character of Rori who was inspired by Iron Man to become her own armor-wearing hero was great. More of all this.

But how about more characters with no ties to those who have come before, ones that have their own backstories and motivations for doing what they’re doing?

The idea of a female character taking over for Indiana Jones when he rides off into the sunset (which he literally did at the end of The Last Crusade) is fine, but how about a swashbuckling adventurer with no connection to Henry Jones Jr. in a story set in 1890 San Diego, someone out for fortune and glory during the Gold Rush?

Derivative characters are fine, but they seem like a half-measure. Let’s stop rebooting the same handful of existing female action heroes that have been around for a while (a la Tomb Raider) or making new ones that come with the baggage of male predecessors already around their shoulders. Instead, let’s ask for more original characters that are free of what’s come before and are able to stand on their own.

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

Ready Player One – Marketing Recap

ready player one poster 2Based on the hit book of the same name, Ready Player One is finally ready to hit theaters. The story follows Wade (Tye Sheridan), a high school student living in 2045 Columbus, OH amid “The Stacks,” a series of makeshift apartments built out of stacked together campers, trailers and other vehicles. That’s the only kind of living space most people can afford due to extreme poverty, lack of natural resources and other societal problems that have cropped up. The only place he and his friends go is The OASIS, a virtual world that’s free to use and which is where school is held, work is done and fantasies played out.

The creator of The OASIS James Halliday (Mark Rylance) has died and left behind an unusual legacy: He’s hidden the key to controlling The OASIS somewhere within the world itself. While Wade can’t afford the fancy gear others can, he has studied Halliday obsessively, including the genius’ fascination with the pop culture of the 1980s and 90s. So he sets out to see if he can find the key, literally an “easter egg” Halliday has placed behind a series of puzzles and riddles.

Wade and his friends Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) aren’t the only ones searching, of course. In addition to the millions of other OASIS users there’s also Innovative Online Industries, a massive corporation headed by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who want to monetize The OASIS and turn it into big business. So Wade and his team are not only out for fame and glory, but also to make sure The OASIS remains the world of escapism and connection people like him so desperately need.

Oh…the movie is directed by Steven Spielberg. Did I not mention that?

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The Post – Marketing Recap

the post poster 5The Vietnam War still looms large in the collective American psyche, an instance where the cause being fought for was more muddled than usual. So too, the tendency of powerful figures to use whatever tools available to silence dissent and maintain their secrets is as old as time. Both of those realities came together in 1971 when former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked what came to be known as “The Pentagon Papers” to The New York Times in 1971. While the Times published a number of stories on the documents, which contained a classified analysis of the Vietnam War, it wasn’t until later that year when The Washington Post picked up the story that things really heated up.

The Post, the new movie from director Steven Spielberg tells that part of the story. Meryl Streep plays Katherine “Kay” Graham, publisher of the Post from 1969 to 1979. When she’s informed by editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) that he intends to publish reports based on The Pentagon Papers it sets off a whirlwind of corporate and legal action. The Nixon administration moves to stifle that reporting, just as it did for the Times, citing national security concerns. Graham and Bradlee, then, must weigh the threat of being arrested for treason against their duty to inform the public of the real reason behind the Vietnam War.

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Revival Marketing)

Sony Pictures is celebrating the 40th anniversary of a modern science-fiction classic as it rereleases Close Encounters of the Third Kind to theaters this weekend.

The movie, director Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to his breakout film Jaws, tells two stories that eventually converge. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is a husband and father who works for the local electrical utility. When widespread outages are reported he goes out to investigate and winds up having a mysterious experience he can’t quite remember or make sense of, but which is with an expedition of aliens that are circling Earth. Meanwhile, a team of scientists and others are investigating a series of mysterious incidents, many of which involve the return to Earth of people, ships and more that have gone missing over the last 50 years. Those two stories come together as mankind makes meaningful contact with alien visitors for the first time.

To promote the release, Sony has engaged in a decent marketing campaign.

That started with a cryptic teaser titled “This Means Something,” which is a call back to a line Roy repeats throughout the movie as he seeks to figure out what happened to him and why he can’t get the image of a particular mountain out of his head. There was no footage shown, just visuals of an air traffic control display that are played while we hear dialogue from a key scene involving air traffic control and reports coming in from planes in the air. Familiar music plays at the end and we’re asked to visit WeAreStillNotAlone.com, which is just an email newsletter signup conversion form.

Later on, a new trailer for the re-release starts out with the traffic control team dealing with the pilots who are reporting a UFO of some sort. We see shots of Roy’s truck shaking before he has his own encounter with the visitors followed by other scenes of him and others seeing the ships and trying to find out what’s happening. After having the different kinds of contact explained to us we’re invited to “Make contact…again.” The pace of the trailer picks up to make it seem like an all-out action movie, which isn’t totally accurate if you’ve already seen it. Still, it sells you on the idea of experiencing the film on the big screen, which is an attractive option.

There was also a new poster created. It uses one of the most famous, iconic images from the movie, showing the alien ship descending down on Devil’s Tower. The “40th anniversary” event is touted at the top while the same title treatment from the original release is used further down, followed by the value proposition that it’s been digitally remastered in 4k.

Activity on the movie’s Facebook page has also ramped up during this campaign. The page had previously been used only intermittently to occasionally share random stories about the movie or Spielberg but had been largely dormant since November 2015. In the last couple months, though, it’s been sharing the marketing materials as well as offering fan art contests and other reminders of the upcoming theatrical showings.

Sony’s been advertising the event online and on social media as well, with short videos that let people know it’s returning to theaters.

It’s certainly not at the scale of the marketing of a current release (though it’s actually more substantial than many campaigns) but it has gotten people talking about the movie again, which is a good thing. Whether or not the re-release comes off as successful remains to be seen, but the more people who appreciate what I consider to be one of Spielberg’s top three movies, the better.