Even a dumpster fire can yield some interesting results.
If compiled, the articles, think-pieces and hot takes written between March and December of 2020 on the present and future of movies and theater-going would fill volumes rivaling the collected works of Marcel Proust, though they would be far easier to summarize.
A year unlike any other certainly proved even more disruptive to aspects of the film industry – production, distribution and exhibition alike – than anything like MoviePass or other threats once held to be dire could have dreamed. No one could have engineered a scenario where over 90 percent of the nation’s movie theaters would close for months at a time, studios would shut down filming on major motion pictures and so on ad infinitum because of a virus outbreak around the globe.
All of that, as well as the pivot by studios and media owners to streaming, upended, delayed or otherwise altered a great many movie marketing efforts. That doesn’t mean 2020 didn’t have plenty of interesting campaigns, though. It just means in some cases what made them “interesting” or otherwise notable was a little different than what would have qualified in prior years.
More than anything else, 2020 was a year of unexpected firsts. WarnerMedia finally launched HBO Max and offered a number of original films before announcing it would be home to its entire 2021 theatrical release slate. Disney rushed Onward over to Disney+ before later using it for titles like Hamilton and Soul that otherwise would have gone to theaters and for Mulan as a test for a new pricing model. Paramount sold off many of its titles to Netflix or Amazon. Apple released a handful of original features while trying to provide Apple TV+ with some momentum. Universal essentially reinvented and reinvigorated PVOD.
So, with all that said, these are some of the most intriguing movie marketing campaigns of a year for which “intriguing” is such an understatement as to almost be irresponsible.
Why It Made The Cut: Many campaigns for period films include some element or another meant to evoke the era the story takes place in. No movie takes that as far as Netflix’s Mank, where the whole campaign was designed to seem as if the film were being released in the late 1930s/early 1940s, just like Citizen Kane. Trailers were cut and narrated in the style of that period, posters were designed to look similar to the kinds of one-sheets seen then and more. It shows something unique can be created if the marketing team goes all-in on a concept.
Why It Made The Cut: The campaigns for many movies that had their release plans changed dramatically saw subsequent alterations made to their marketing campaigns. Few were as innovative as Disney’s shift of Mulan. Not only was the film sent directly to Disney+ (as well as limited theaters), but the introduction of a “Premier Access” PVOD tier to that streaming platform set this one apart from the others. By all accounts this experiment was a success, one that may be replicated with other titles in the future. It also essentially set the stage for what Warner Bros. would wind up doing with HBO Max beginning with Wonder Woman 1984, though Disney remains committed to sending its Marvel Studios titles exclusively to theaters.
Why It Made The Cut: Few films felt as timely as The Assistant, which came out at the same time Hollywood was dealing with not only the continued fallout of Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace due to sexual harassment and assault but also the burgeoning protests by assistants in the industry over lack of adequate pays and other mistreatment. While other campaigns made big, flashy statements to audiences, this one played it so quiet and understated it sometimes fell off the radar, but kept coming back to show how powerful the story and performances were.
Why It Made The Cut: Before May of last year, Warner Bros. and DC Films seemed to be actively apologizing for the dark, dystopian tone (not to mention storytelling shortcomings) of earlier films from Zack Snyder and David Ayer. The campaign for Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) was part of that, presenting a new take on the best character to come out of Suicide Squad that freed Harley Quinn from the male gaze and other traps. In contrast to some of those earlier movies, this campaign was funny, bright and full of women taking their power back. It was also one of the last major fully-theatrical campaigns of the year before things got weird.
Why It Made The Cut: Universal’s unsuccessful effort to launch its Dark Universe film franchise on the back of 2017’s The Mummy is legendary as a case study in corporate hubris. That made the campaign for The Invisible Man so notable as it not only looked like a powerful and compelling story in its own right but also was the first example of the studio’s new approach of making smaller movies driven by creative filmmakers, not the dictates of a shared cinematic universe.
Why It Made The Cut: These two kid-targeted movies were some of the earliest efforts by their respective studios into the burgeoning world of premium video-on-demand, an avenue theater owners had kept off-limits for a decade. Most notably, each represented early adoption of the studio-hosted watch party, encouraging fans to engage in a communal but remote viewing experience anchored by Twitter chats. While Trolls World Tour was a first-mover, Scoob! in particular went all-out for its watch party with downloadable party packs, recipes and other items for those at home to use as part of the event.
Why It Made The Cut: The New Mutants is included here simply because it actually came out after years of delays, rumors of extensive reshoots and other issues. Not only was it finally released – after a campaign that shifted over time from a horror-centric push to one that was more of a conventional super hero message – but it came out theatrically instead of, as many expected, via streaming.
Why It Made The Cut: With so many movies coming out on PVOD or streaming, Tenet’s theatrical release is a bright shining example of a powerful stakeholder intentionally not reading the room. The film’s massively disappointing box-office performance shows there was no audience in September willing to brave theater-going in sufficient numbers, a lesson so well-learned by Warner Bros. it’s cited as being a major reason for the studio’s decision to send #WW84 and eventually all its 2021 releases to HBO Max. It would rather anger directors, agents, production partners and others than go through that again, and with good reason.
Why It Made The Cut: Few films of late have tried so hard – and to a great extent so successfully – to redefine an entire genre as The Happiest Season. Its holiday-centric campaign was perfectly in keeping with the movie’s story, and the emphasis on providing a new take on the Christmas movie category was felt throughout the marketing by Hulu.
How Disney is selling the much-delayed mutant thriller.
Of all the movies to become the first major studio release to hit theaters since mid-March, The New Mutants seems the most unlikely, for a number of reasons.
First, there is of course the fact that so many others – including titles like Mulan and Tenet that have been held up as saviors of the theatrical industry – have been delayed anywhere from a few months to a year to indefinitely.
Second, The New Mutants itself has a long history of having its release delayed. Fox, prior to its acquisition by Disney, originally slated the film for August 2018, it’s also been on the calendar for early 2019, late 2019 and, finally, March of this year. Some of those delays were efforts to avoid other releases like Deadpool 2, some reportedly to allow writer/director Josh Boone to reshoot portions of the film to make it more like his original horror-centric vision instead of the YA story the studio requested.
When the Covid-19 pandemic closed theaters in March, right as the film was about to open, it seemed the movie’s fate was sealed and that Disney would finally punt it to Hulu (a move that had long been speculated on) or PVOD.
But no, that was not to be, as The New Mutants was moved to August, meaning it’s about to hit theaters amid a wave of questions about whether going to the theater, even with the protocols put in place by NATO, is a safe activity to participate in.
With the main X-Men film series now complete and the fate of Deadpool up in the air, The New Mutants is now the sole mutant-based film franchise at Disney. This isn’t the first time the characters have been in that situation, since their 1982 Marvel Comics debut was a spinoff from the successful X-Men comics, an attempt to introduce younger characters to the series.
In this case, the characters and premise are slightly different than what appeared in the comics. Maisie Williams plays Rahne Sinclair, a young woman who wakes up in a strange hospital with no memory of how she got there. Mysterious and unexplained things keep happening as she meets some of the other patients/inmates, including Illyana Rasputin (Anna Taylor-Joy), Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) and Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), each of which has special powers just like Rahne. They slowly come to understand they’re being studied, not helped, and seek to unlock the secrets of the institution and free themselves from it.
It shouldn’t be surprising, given everything laid out above, that the marketing campaign has zigged and zagged over the years, starting and stopping and shifting tone with some frequency. At times it’s been sold as a straightforward horror film, with the characters’ super hero identities conspicuously missing. More recently, it’s those super powers have come more to the forefront, though the thriller aspects of the story have still been prominently featured.
The movie was tracking for an opening weekend of $15-25 million tracking, the lowest in the X-Men franchise, but that was in advance of the March release date, and no updated estimates have been made because so much is in flux. Likewise, there are no reviews to date on the film.
The first poster (by marketing agency Ignition) came out a lifetime ago, in December, 2017. It takes an image from the trailer, specifically a photo of various faces trying to poke through an unexpectedly flexible wall, and makes it the central focus. This would be part of the horror-centric angle that was initially presented to audiences in the early days of the campaign.
Over two years passed before the next poster was released. In this case, 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 January of this year.
Later that month another poster was released that began to more clearly display the characters. This time they’re all shown standing together, but with the movie’s title scratched across the picture, revealing the skulls of each character in a slightly creepy way. Another poster from February has them all huddled in a dark and scary hallway, their eyes all lit up, conveying both the eerie setting and they are all slightly unusual in their own ways.
An IMAX-specific poster has the nascent team standing outside the institution they’re being kept in, with Magick (Illyana) at the front with her sword at the ready. For Dolby Cinemas, they’re arranged like fingers in a bloody handprint on a concrete wall. The Cinemark XD poster arranges their faces in a darkly contrasted photo that’s reminiscent of a teen drama from the 1980s. Finally, the Fandango one-sheet, released about two weeks prior to the movie hitting theaters, takes the concepts back to something more simple, showing all the main characters standing in what’s clearly some sort of cell, with the shadow of wire grates appearing on their faces and the wall behind them.
It’s hard to overstate how odd the first trailer (12 million views on YouTube) from October, 2017, is. There are no character introductions, no sense of what the story might be or anything else. Just a slowed down version of “Another Brick In The Wall Part 2” sung by a children’s choir and footage that sells it as a horror movie. There are even standard horror cliches like strange-colored IV bags, faces that try to protrude from walls and more. It mentions mutants a couple times, but other than that this isn’t notable at all and could easily be selling any of a dozen generic horror films featuring a young cast that are released every year.
In early January of 2020, over two years after that initial spot, the second official trailer (8.2 million views on YouTube) was released as Disney finally gave the movie a locked-in release date. It starts out by showing Dani is the audience’s entry point into the story, having been sent to a mysterious facility after surviving a tragedy that killed the rest of her family. She’s there with other mutants like her, most of whom we meet during a group therapy session. The hospital isn’t what it appears to be, though, and seems to be more interested in torture than healing.
Where the first trailer seemed to be selling the movie as something like The Ring, this is more of a traditional super hero movie, albeit with an apparent focus on psychological torture being conducted on adolescent mutants. That’s a stronger message and allows the trailer to present a more coherent and intriguing story to the audience. But, strangely, it was the last full trailer released.
Online and Social
Very odd that the official site for the movie is so stark and bare, featuring only the most basic of information about the film. It’s not like there hasn’t been time to work on it, but there are no character introductions or anything else to be found here.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
It was surprising, given the ups and downs the movie has experienced, when it was among those Disney showed off to exhibitors and press at CinemaCon 2019, two years after it was first included by Fox at the show in 2017. The studio maintained it would be getting a theatrical release – dispelling rumors it was being shunted to Hulu or another streaming service – and was still on track to hit theaters this year.
Things went quiet for a good long while then until March of this year, about a month before the planned April release date. At that point a TV campaign began that included spots focusing on Dani’s story as she’s taken to the mysterious facility and slowly learns the truth of what’s happening to her and the others, as well as how dangerous mutants are and how they need to work together to escape and survive.
That last spot in particular seemed to mark a new approach to the campaign, one that leaned more fully into the idea of super heroes instead of just positioning the movie as a horror film with gifted individuals.
A roundtable with the cast was released on The CW, an attempt to reach that network’s young audience.
Just as things seemed to finally be rolling, another delay – this time because of Covid-19 related theater closures and disruptions – happened, putting the movie’s future once more in doubt. In May a new August release date was announced, but that date was taken as aspirational more than anything else, and our collective breath was not being held. Still, a new phase of the campaign kicked off shortly after that.
In June released one of their “101” videos that gave viewers an overview of the team’s history and members in comics.
A short teaser introducing the characters and some of their powers was released in early July, also announcing the cast and crew would participate in a remote panel as part of Comic-Con @ Home later in the month. That panel ended by showing off the movie’s opening sequence, which certainly sets a chaotic tone as we see Dani in the middle of some kind of attack that ends with her father’s death and her being taken to the institute.
In mid-August the advertising campaign picked back up with spots that showcased the mystery the characters find themselves in the middle of along with the powers each possesses. Further spots teased more of the action and then, 10 days out, began counting down to the movie hitting theaters.
A featurette hosted by the cast allowed them to introduce their characters and their powers along with the basic outline of the story, shown here to be a mix of psychological horror and super hero action. More detailed introduction videos went a bit in depth on Rahne, Roberto, Dani, Sam and the rest of the characters.
On Spotify, Disney has created a “Young and Powerful Playlist,” a collection of songs “inspired by” the movie and curated by both Boone and the cast.
Media and Publicity
There were certainly conversations about the movie before this but the first major press for the movie came when it was announced it was being pushed by several months to 2019. Shortly after that Boone talked about the tone of the movie and how it was going to push the boundaries of the PG-13 rating, as well as how the characters in the story were too messed up to associate with the more “normal” X-Men.
News broke in late 2017 that the movie’s release date was being pushed well past what it was originally scheduled for, with it later coming out that the delay was at least in part to do reshoots that would introduce a whole new character to the story. That initial delay, which moved it from 4/13/18 to 2/22/19, was followed by another one to 8/2/19, almost a year and a half after its original release date. That’s a *huge* shift and one that, a report later claimed, was due to nearly half the movie needing to be reworked to bring it in line with studio expectations.
Further insights into the delay said Fox was in part reacting to the success of It with a trailer that was very horror-oriented and the reshoots were designed to bring the movie more in line with that expectation, which was different than what was originally filmed. Interestingly, that gave Boone a chance to do what he originally wanted to, since he had to curb his horror-leaning instincts during the initial filming.
While promoting other projects the cast would occasionally talk about this movie as well. Heaton talked about playing Cannonball while on the press circuit for Marrowbone,
Producer Lauren Shuler Donner commented back in February on the movie’s frequent delays and uncertain future with the Fox/Disney merger, saying she hoped the movie still got a theatrical, not streaming, release. The question release date came up when Williams was out promoting the final season of “Game of Thrones,” with the actor saying reshoots had yet to happen – a year after they were reported to be in the works – and she had no idea when the film might finally come out.
Producer Simon Kinberg dismissed concerns over the reshoots and subsequent delays, saying it was all due to some simple “pick up shots” being needed while actor schedules were difficult to wrangle.
Unsurprisingly, the movie’s fate seemed to be even more in doubt following the severe underperformance of Dark Phoenix at the box office. Disney execs reportedly saw little potential in a theatrical release of the film, fueling renewed speculation it would be dumped to Hulu or killed outright.
With all the reports of reshoots – which were never confirmed to have happened – that had circulated, Boone stated in January that the movie slated for release represented his version of the story.
A new batch of photos and character descriptions were released in mid-February to familiarize audiences with who would be in the movie.
During the Emma media tour, Taylor-Joy spoke about this movie and how she’s handled the delays between production and release. A profile of Heaton included him talking about his hesitancy in joining the movie over concerns he would be typecast.
Boone confirmed the story would feature a full-out LGBTQ love story between two main characters in an interview, setting it apart from other franchise films that promote such elements but then wind up allocating it to blink-and-you-miss them situations and characters. At the time of the Comic-Con @ Home panel, Boone hinted that this could be just the first of a planned trilogy of films that ends with a massive crossover story pulled from a key X-Men comics event from the 80s. He also was interviewed about the long time between production and release and what factors might have influenced that, along with how the movie fits into his overall career.
Williams appeared to talk about this movie and more on “The Tonight Show.” She was interviewed again about the film finally being released and what got her involved in the project.
The shift in tone that the movie’s campaign has undergone isn’t completely surprising given it’s been spread out over almost three years. In that time there have been substantial changes not only in the structure of the studio behind the film, but also in the fate of the X-Men franchise this is part of and, of course, the world in general.
So much time has passed there’s a good chance that the false starts between the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2020 have fallen out of many people’s memories. For all intents and purposes, then, the campaign started fresh around April with the August release date in place.
Using that as the yardstick, this has been a relatively successful campaign, presenting an interesting mix of comic book action and psychological terror. Those themes are consistent through the posters, TV spots and other elements, putting Williams’ Rahne at the forefront but promising lots of other characters with unique powers and backstories to offer audiences.
That there’s no real connection to the X-Men cinematic series to date is obvious but it’s unclear how much that really matters since it’s not what’s being sold here. If the goal was, as has been reported at various points, to present something different along the lines of Deadpool or Logan, the marketing here achieved that goal.
The question then becomes whether the campaign was effective enough to convince people to come out of their homes at a time when public health officials are saying they really shouldn’t do so to see a movie that doesn’t flaunt its connections to a popular franchise and features all-new characters the audience doesn’t already know.
Those are high hurdles to clear, and without more recent tracking or other data it’s hard to tell if it did so. While there may be enough theaters open to support a release like this, there may not be enough people who have been convinced by this campaign to make it a success.
Picking Up The Spare
Two more character introduction videos came out after the movie was in theaters, on for Sam and one for Illyana.
More stories about the movie’s backstory and history, including reports that Fox was massively unhappy with the first script from Boone and almost spiked the project entirely. Meanwhile, Bob McLeod, who created the characters for Marvel, took issue with not only how they appeared on screen – though he praised the actors – but also with the fact that Fox/Disney couldn’t even spell his name right in the credits.
Boone took a potshot at Disney by claiming the gay love story in the film was much more substantial than the one barely seen in The Rise of Skywalker.
Another clip/commercial came out that shows Illyana confronting something creepy happening in the hospital. Additional spots encouraged audiences to “find yourself” and more. IMAX also put out a promotional spot for the big screen format and released a brief exclusive interview with Boone.
The announcements are coming fast and furious now.
It’s been just over a week since MGM announced it was delaying the release of the latest James Bond film, No Time To Die, in response to concerns over the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Moving it from April to November meant taking a financial hit of around $30 million, but that was seen as preferable to putting public health at risk.
Within the last 24 hours there have been a number of other such announcements. Paramount has pushed out the release of both The Lovebirds andA Quiet Place Part II to later this year. Universal has made an even bigger move, shifting the release of F9all the way to next year, while Disney finally broke its silence and announced Mulan and The New Mutants were being postponed, though Black Widow is still scheduled as planned.
The reasons why are understandable and rational. Many cities and states have begun not only canceling their own events but encouraging private organizations to shut down mass gatherings. The NBA, NHL and MLS have both suspended their seasons. All of this is to, as they say, flatten the curve of what’s now understood to be a pandemic and slow the infection rate.
It’s interesting that this is all happening at this moment given there have been two recent cases of movies coming out after long delays, though the reasons weren’t quite as severe as this. Sonic The Hedgehog was moved several months when the initial trailers were met with poor audience reactions resulting in reworked special effects. And this week The Hunt hits theaters after a controversy over its subject matter cased Universal to pull it from the schedule late last year, waiting until the fire had died down a bit.
In both cases, the marketing campaigns were restarted when the studio put new release dates in place, after the situations in question had been resolved in some manner. And so they provide some template as to what may happen when the Covid-19 situation infection rate slows in the U.S..
Given all of these were as little as a week and as much as a month out from release, their marketing campaigns were already well underway. TV spots were running, online ads were driving ticket sales, talk show appearances were booked and happening and other promotional events were being organized.
These campaigns are big trains that don’t just come to an immediate stop. No doubt there will be a few lingering commercials and ads seen in the next few days as programmatically-bought campaigns run out the clock.
What Comes Next
Given the examples offered by Sonic and The Hunt as well as X-Men: Dark Phoenix and other movies that have come out long after they were originally meant to, it’s reasonable to assume a few things about the campaigns that will need to be relaunched:
First, expect them to restart about a month out from release. That’s the period in which a movie’s standard marketing push shifts into high gear, looking to lock down moviegoer intent and capture the general audience’s attention.
Second, expect all new marketing assets. The relaunch of the campaign will likely kick off with a new trailer, or at least a reworked version of an existing one, and a new poster or two that feature the new release date. These will be essential to educating the audience about what to expect and drive renewed interest.
Third, expect a new round of press and publicity. Many of these movies, especially a tentpole like F9, have already been featured in cover stories and their stars profiled in various interviews. So while Vin Diesel, Emily Blunt and others have already made the talk show rounds they might have to do so again in the weeks leading up to release. Again, this is an essential part of generating awareness.
All of that being said, there are some moments that will be impossible to replicate. The Lovebirds was scheduled to screen at SXSW, as were scores of other films, until that event was canceled. And yesterday CinemaCon, which has frequently served as a platform for studios to roll out first-look footage and appearances from major stars, was ixnayed.
It may be that such big promotional moments have simply vanished and are no longer available, so the studios may have to create their own pop-ups or simply write them off.
No Time To Die and F9 were two of this spring’s biggest releases, but others remain (as of this writing) on the schedule, but there may not be enough product in the market for theaters to remain open even if they want to. More announcements could be imminent, with additional campaigns paused and restarted. Given the pace that’s emerged in sporting leagues suspending their seasons, nothing would be surprising at this point.
There are things the studio teams can do, but they all mean asking audiences to take a second bite at the apple, hoping their attention hasn’t moved on to other subjects at a later date. Also a concern now is if the infrequent ticketbuying that’s already become evident becomes even more common with so many streaming options available.
Whatever happens, we’re looking at marketing schedules that are timed with surgical precision be thrown into disarray that’s only moderately controlled.