the gray man – marketing recap

How Netflix has sold an action-thriller with an A-list cast

The Gray Man movie poster from Netflix
The Gray Man movie poster from Netflix

The Gray Man arrives on Netflix this week with the hopes the movie will kick off a franchise based on the novels of the same name by Mark Greaney. The talent behind the film certainly helps make that case.

Ryan Gosling plays a CIA mercenary known only as Sierra Six. When Six discovers a handful of secrets the agency wanted to remain hidden he goes on the run, hunted by fellow CIA operative Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) along with others. But Six has the help of a handful of people, including sympathetic agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) and others. Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page, Alfre Woodard and others also star.

Adding to that, the movie is directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, the brothers behind the last two Avengers movies as well as the previous Netflix original Extraction.

announcements and casting

Other studios have been working on a version of the film for over a decade, but the Russos became involved in 2015 as screenwriters.

It wasn’t until July, 2020, though that Netflix announced the movie was going into production with the Russos now directing and Evans and Gosling attached to star. de Armas joined in December of that year, with others cast in early 2021.

Henwick talked briefly about the project while promoting other things in 2021.

Netflix shared a handful of stills in late April to give people their first real look at the film.

Footage from the film was included in Netflix’s 2022 feature film preview.

the marketing campaign

In early May Empire featured Gosling and Evans on the cover of its Summer Preview issue. Both, as well as the Russos, were interviewed in the issue about what attracted them to the project, what their character’s motivations within the story are, the process of filming and more. That issue also revealed Netflix already had two related projects – a sequel and a Lloyd Hanson-focused prequel – being written in anticipation of the first movie proving a success.

A series of characters posters came out in mid-May featuring the main cast, each with some foreign skyline behind them. The orange and blue color scheme creates a sense of dark mystery, as if they’re hiding from the light.

The first trailer (14.8m YouTube views) came out later in May. it starts by helpfully establishing that Sierra Six is “The Gray Man,” an unofficial operative for off-the-books missions. Why he goes rogue is unclear, but Hansen is soon on his trail, an assignment he considers to be a lot of fun given Six’s reputation in the clandestine world. There’s lots of gunfights, a few car chases, and Six referring to Hansen’s “trash stache”, so it’s filled with both action and humor.

Netflix quickly released a video of the Russos talking about that trailer and breaking down how it was assembled and how it is designed to get the audience’s interest.

The company also began offering “Lloyd’s Trash Stache,” a fake mustache inspired by Evans’ look, in its online store.

Six fights his way through a hallway of bad guys before being confronted by Lloyd in the first clip.

The Russos then participated in an interview about the movie for Netflix’s Geeked Week in mid-June.

Another set of character posters showed off the rest of the impressive cast.

The theatrical poster features, surprisingly, only Sierra Six, who is seen kind of blowing away as the outline of his form becomes less defined from left to right. It’s not bad, but not showing either of the other two lead characters is an interesting choice, even if Six is the title character.

The movie’s premiere event was held in mid-July, just ahead of release, with most of the filmmakers and cast in attendance. While there Gosling and the Russos made it clear the “trash stache” line is an accurate representation of their thoughts while the directors shared their love of working with Evans and more.

An interview with the Russos had them talking about the long process of getting this movie made, what it was like to work with Netflix again and some of their thoughts on Marvel’s future along with some other projects they’ve been involved in.

A behind-the-scenes featurette came out a week before the movie’s release that had everyone talking about their characters, the story and the epic nature of the action that audiences will experience. That was followed by a video of the Russos showing off their production offices, but that was less about this film than it was a walk down memory lane of their various Avengers and Captain America movies.

Tag Heuer partnered with Netflix on a campaign for the company’s Carrera watch, which Gosling apparently wears in the film. That campaign included banner ads featuring Gosling.

Tag Heuer / The Gray Man banner ad
Tag Heuer / The Gray Man banner ad

Those in San Diego this week for Comic-Con can take part in The Gray Man Training Program, an experiential set-up recreating the tram sequence from the film, asking participants to try and get through the obstacle course in one piece. The Netflix booth on Friday will also be promoting the film.

overall

There are two points of primary focus in the campaign Netflix put together:

  • The “trash stache.” It is admittedly a great line and, after causing waves when it was part of the first trailer, was fully embraced by everyone. It came up in numerous interviews, featurettes and more. When a product is created for something as random as this you know it’s achieved a certain level of popularity.
  • The Russos themselves. This is another example of how directors in many instances are used as brand proxies when the movies themselves aren’t part of a franchise or based on wildly popular existing IP. Half the elements of the campaign above are just the directing brothers, whether it’s their experience working with Marvel Studios, their love of Chris Evans or something else the audience is expected to relate to.

While there’s lots of fun action and humor featured in the marketing, there’s also no consistent brand identity that’s been established, which may be even more noticeable if/when additional films are being sold to the public.

There’s also the unfortunate coincidence (?) of Gosling’s press tour for this movie being overshadowed by the recently released pictures of him as Ken in the upcoming Barbie movie. Those pics are so over-the-top and meme-worthy they became a frequent topic of interviews with Gosling at the expense of The Gray Man.