The High Note – Marketing Recap

How Focus Features is selling its story of showbiz dreams.

high note poster 2

The story of The High Note seems to come at music stardom from two ends of the timeline. On the one end Grace (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a massive star who continues to make a living performing the hits from her successful career and whose management wants her to keep on down that road. She, meanwhile, wants to keep growing and putting out new material.

On the other end is Maggie (Dakota Johnson), Grace’s personal assistant who has aspirations of becoming a songwriter and producer in her own right. Stressed by Grace’s constant needs and the frustrations of her own stifled ambitions, Maggie just tries to get through each day. Eventually she and Grace begin to become more entwined in each other’s lives, finding that each isn’t quite what the other expected.

Focus Features’ campaign has emphasized the story’s music industry setting, especially the talents of Ellis Ross in the lead.

The Posters

high note poster

Maggie and Grace stand side-by-side on the first poster (by marketing agency Arsonel), released in February. L.A.’s famous Capital Records building is seen in the circular frame, as are a couple palm trees and the members of the supporting cast. It seems the designers here were going for a look like an old Bill Graham-esque concert poster but couldn’t quite commit to the conceit.

The same basic design is used on May’s second poster, but this time the circle is surrounded by some bright stage lights at the bottom instead of a peaceful Los Angeles scene.

The Trailers

Maggie, we see in March’s first trailer (6 million views on YouTube), is an overworked and underappreciated for music superstar Grace. She keeps Grace’s schedule and everything else but is kept just out of the limelight. When Grace wants to record a new album instead of resting on her laurels as her managers want her to, Maggie sees an opportunity to write and produce as she’s always wanted to. Despite some resistance, the two women eventually team up to revitalize Grace’s career and realize Maggie’s ambition, which brings the two of them together.

What was essentially the same trailer (7.6 million views on YouTube) was rereleased in early May, coinciding with the news of the movie’s revised distribution details.

Online and Social

There are pics, videos and more on the movie’s official website, which at the top makes sure to link to all the VOD platforms audiences will be able to purchase the film on later this week. There are also bios of the cast as well as director Nisha Ganatra

Advertising and Promotions.

Before the movie’s promotional campaign really kicked off, news broke that Focus was taking off the theatrical release schedule and would be making it available through premium VOD platforms in late May, about three weeks after it was originally planned.

An audio track for the song “Love Myself” came out a couple weeks ago while one for “Stop For A Minute” hit YouTube just last week.

At the same time a number of clips were released. One shows Grace wanting to discuss her show, another shows Maggie getting a pep talk from her friend while she talks about her crush. Grace and Maggie discuss the singer’s stalled creative ambitions in a third while the two go over Grace’s hectic schedule in another.

the high note online ad

Online ads used variations on the film’s key art to drive traffic to the website specifically for the on-demand audience.

More clips showed Grace urgently needing Maggie’s help for a non-urgent matter and Maggie sharing her musical aspirations with her friend.

A special at-home watch part was set for this Friday to get people to tune in for a communal event.

Media and Press

Ellis Ross was the central figure in the movie’s press campaign, including lots of interviews that focused on her playing a musical superstar given she’s the real life daughter of Diana Ross, something she was understandably reluctant to do.


While the animated features that have gone straight to VOD over the last couple months have gotten lots of attention, this is the kind of movie that is much more likely to follow that path not just during a theater-closing pandemic but going forward as well. It’s the kind of mid-grade star vehicle that has, over the last few years, not performed well theatrically but has been sought by streaming companies who want to build out their libraries.

Premium VOD offers a middle ground, one where the studio retains control but doesn’t have the pressure of theatrical box-office looming over its head. Not saying these conversations won’t be difficult, but this seems like a perfect example of the middle-ground type of movie that has been lost in the shuffle of late.

That being said, the campaign supports just that kind of release. It doesn’t seem like it would generate a huge amount of interest in driving people to theaters, but it might convince people to buy it to watch this weekend as they remain indoors. It looks funny and uplifting and enjoyable, which is exactly the kind of film that is more likely to do well at home.

Picking Up the Spare

There were more interviews with Ellis Ross about living out her pop dreams, the concerns she had taking on the role and more

Johnson appeared on “Kimmel” to discuss the film as well. 

The movie’s costume designer talked about creating the look of the characters. 

Another clip showed Grace performing while a featurette covered the themes of the story. Some of the movie’s locations were included in an installment of Focus’ “Reel Destinations” series. Ross also appeared in an installment of the studio’s “My First Gig” series. 

Universal Trolls Theaters, Theaters Demand Tax Be Paid

The future is in play, right now.

Over the last week or so there has been an escalating war of words between Universal Pictures and a handful of theater chains? The object of their disagreement is just what role each party has to play in the continued business model of the other.

The inciting incident in this particular fracas, the equivalent of Archduke Franz Ferdinand being assassinated, was the release of Trolls World Tour a few weeks ago. Universal made the unusual – even unprecedented – decision to release it straight to premium VOD early last month because all the theaters were closed, a result of precautions taken in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic still sweeping across the nation and world. Not wanting to lose the momentum of the marketing campaign that had already been running with a delay, the studio opted instead to break ground it and others have been eyeing for a while.

Before the release, NATO made it clear theater owners would hold a very large grudge for a very long time against Universal for making such a move. There wasn’t much that could be done to stop the wheels that had been put in motion at the time, but it was apparently necessary to make public statements like this in order to communicate the displeasure of NATO’s members at having been called, essentially, irrelevant.

Since then it has called out the success of this strategy, touting positive sales numbers for a digital release and appeared in the Top 10 titles on Amazon Prime when it was first available.

More recently it’s gotten very awkward. Here’s a short recap:

Universal: This has turned out very well, to the tune of about $100 million.

NATO: Shut up! People love the theatrical experience.

AMC: We’re so put out by this we’re refusing to play any Universal movies in the future after theaters reopen.

Regal Cinemas: Same, and every other studio needs to make sure it doesn’t even think about shortening the theatrical-to-video window.

Universal: We intend to make premium VOD something we consider regularly along with theatrical release.

Today it made good on that promise, announcing The High Note would no longer be getting a theatrical run but would instead be going to premium VOD later this month.

As Julie Alexander pointed out on Twitter, there’s a lot of context that has to be considered among all this rhetoric. Namely, that studios have wanted to experiment with premium VOD for a decade or so, but theaters have always pushed back, using their power to draw mass audiences as leverage. But, as other people have said, their refusal to even allow that experimentation or be part of the solution means they have effectively locked themselves out of conversations they could be benefitting from right now. And the leverage they once had has diminished as ticket sales – which is different from ticket revenue – declines year to year. Theaters are in a much worse negotiation position than they were a decade ago.

Universal was first through the door and as such seems to be drawing the bulk of the fire from opponents of this new tactic. Warner Bros. isn’t too far behind, though, as it announced last month its animated Scoob! will skip theaters as well. And Disney is going one further by pulling Artemis Fowl from theaters and putting it on Disney+ in June.

Some have argued that the Great Recession didn’t kill theaters even though VOD was a viable option at the time. That’s true, but streaming wasn’t nearly the powerhouse it is today, and it certainly wasn’t the case that each company had its own platform it was working overtime to monetize and turn into a Netflix-killer.

In other words, the landscape today is very different, and the closure of movie theaters may be an even more drastic moment that was originally foreseen. Studios may finally realize that theatrical release is optional, not necessary, especially for films that don’t seem to care much potential for awards consideration.

What will be interesting to watch is how, if at all, the marketing changes for these direct-to-VOD releases. Will they have the same level of promotional partnerships as their theatrical cousins? Will they receive similar advertising spending and media planning? Trolls was an aberration in that the campaign was already so far along, but we could see outside companies pull their support if they know the movie isn’t going to theaters. Or deals could change to become more contingent on what release a movie is ultimately given and how it succeeds. In other words, it could become much more like the entire rest of the advertising world, where results are what matter.

Theaters are likely past the point where they can significantly alter the future of how studios will approach their release strategy. The bluster that’s been going back and forth in the press is more about negotiating upcoming contracts than anything else, as it’s not quite plausible a massive chain would outright refuse to play films from a studio like Universal. But AMC had to say something in order to assure stakeholders – including the banks holding the company’s massive debt load – it wasn’t going gently into that good night.

No one, least of all myself, wants to see theaters disappear. But they have gone from the only game in town to the best game in town to merely one of the games in town, with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. The label “direct to video” no longer carries the derogatory connotations it once did, largely because of the investments made by studios into quality material.

While there are a number of unknowns still floating out there, what seems to be clear is that this isn’t the end. Studios can’t keep punting releases down the calendar indefinitely, as eventually there will be too much backlog for theaters to handle. And those releases will be so tightly packed the studios will be tripping over their own feet. More premium VOD titles will be announced, and the theater chains will fall farther behind the times as audiences become more used to this kind of offering.

The future, in other words, will not wait for anyone to catch up with the present.