How Universal Studios is selling a big screen adaptation of an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical with no discernible story.
Here’s the official synopsis for Cats, directed by Tom Hooper:
A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.
What the hell does that even mean? It’s some sort of twisted cat-themed snuff film where a group of felines play God and choose who deserves to live based on what, dancing ability? Overall popularity? Fur texture? What kind of messed up dystopian power dynamic is in place here?
Regardless, Universal is hoping to capture the same audience that made The Greatest Showman a massive hit two years ago. To that end it has enlisted an all-star cast that includes Taylor Swift, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Idris Elba, Judi Dench and others to dress in cat costumes and in tomcat tomfoolery in what’s being sold as a bright, glitzy spectacle. They’re all lead by newcomer Francesca Hayward in a movie tracking somewhere around $15 million for opening weekend and with a lowly 17 percent “Rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The “You will believe” copy used on the first poster from July (by marketing agency Concept Arts) seems relatively generic for a movie with such a specific brand identity. A cat is shown walking toward a set of ornate doors, light glowing from the inside. Hooper’s name is prominently displayed not once but twice along with the names of the director’s previous popular films and the impressive cast list.
The second poster didn’t come out until November, showing Victoria (Hayward) with her back arched in dance as feathers fall all around her and honestly I don’t know what’s happening here. Whatever it is, the movie is labeled “The most joyful event of the holiday season.” Another poster (by marketing agency BOND) from early December has just Victoria’s head lit from behind.
The first trailer (13.3 million views on YouTube), released in mid-July, certainly fulfills the promise of showing off the look of the movie and the fact that it features a variety of human-shaped cats. Only the barest of information about the story is offered here as the focus is on the all-star cast while Hudson’s performance of “Memories” plays in the background the whole time.
In November the second trailer (8.6 million views on YouTube) caused a lot of buzz by showing more of the story of how it’s the night where the cat who deserves a new life is chosen as well as that the cats are actually cat-sized, with human-scaled objects around them. Other than that, the same flashy film is on display here, but it’s conspicuously devoid of any of the musical numbers.
Online and Social
The movie’s official website has all the usual marketing materials, but when you first load the site the front page is an interactive version of the neighborhood where the story takes place. Clicking the characters that appear in the scenery lets you play Cats-themed games and explore more about the characters and the world they inhabit.
Notably, the “Story” section doesn’t actually discuss the story of the movie at all. Instead it’s about establishing the movie’s credentials, including mentioning the musical it’s based on, the star power involved in making it and so on. Even the studio can’t explain what’s going on, or doesn’t think the audience will care.
There are Twitter, Facebook and Instagram profiles, of course, But in a clear sign Universal understands what the target audience is looking for and actually does online there’s also a Giphy profile promoted here, something most movies fail to do.
Advertising and Publicity
There had been lots of conversations and updates about the movie before April, 2019, but when Universal showed off a batch of behind-the-scenes footage at CinemaCon things really kicked off as buzz and anticipation grew. More footage was shown two months later at CineEurope.
In mid-July a first look featurette was released that included comments from many members of the cast, including Swift and others, about what drew them to the project and what their history with Cats was. It showed some behind-the-scenes footage as well as a few brief glimpses at the film itself. The timing of that featurette was meant to set the stage for the first trailer, released just a few days later.
Another short behind the scenes featurette came out in September that had the cast talking about moving and dancing like cats. In October another video was released that focused on Swift writing an original song for the film with Weber. A lyric video for that song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” came out the week before Thanksgiving.
Red carpet premiere events were held in New York and Hollywood earlier this week, with those events streamed live online for those who couldn’t attend in person. Those came at the tail (I’m so sorry) end of an international press tour that had the cast and crew talking about the elaborate production.
There were pre-roll ads and TV spots, all of which eliminated whatever pretenses were made to explain the movie’s threadbare story and just focused on the fact that you could see Swift and other dancing around in cat costumes. Outdoor ads used imagery pulled from the key art and more while online ads did likewise, often with video elements added in.
Promotional partners included:
- Harry and David, which offered a line of movie-themed gift baskets you could send to someone you…have…feelings? about/for.
- Kate Spade, which created a line of accessories inspired by the movie.
- Piper-Heidsieck, which offered a limited edition champagne in a movie-branded bottle and box.
- Pure Barre, which offered those who bought tickets to the movie a free fitness class.
- Wolford, which ran a sweepstakes awarding the winner a free custom body suit like those seen in the movie as well as a private screening and promoted similar products they sell.
Media and Press
A short after CinemaCon, the movie’s choreographer was interviewed about the production and what it was like working with some of the bigger, more unexpected talent on the set.
Elba and other members of the cast talked about the movie earlier in the cycle while promoting other projects.
An interview with Hooper following the first trailer’s release allowed him to comment on people’s reactions while clarifying that some of the graphics weren’t quite finished yet, so everyone should calm down a bit.
The influence Swift’s father had on her portrayal and new song was covered in this interview.
At the premiere the cast and crew spoke more about making the movie as well as the controversy that has swirled around the movie, based mostly in how it used computer effects for some of the costumes and other effects, something that’s apparently a big deal.
Cats is horny.
Picking Up the Spare
A good recap here of the problems that bedeviled the filming lead to Universal making the unusual move of sending a new version of the movie to theaters with updated effects.