2020’s Nine Most Intriguing Movie Campaigns

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.

Yifei Liu GIF by Walt Disney Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Assistant

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.

Birds of Prey

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.

Harley Quinn Smile GIF by Birds Of Prey - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Invisible Man

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.

Universal GIF by The Invisible Man - Find & Share on GIPHY

Trolls World Tour/Scoob!

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.

Zac Efron Animation GIF by SCOOB! - Find & Share on GIPHY

The New Mutants

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.

Angry X-Men GIF by 20th Century Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY


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.

Coming Robert Pattinson GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Happiest Season

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.

Christmas GIF by HULU - Find & Share on GIPHY


Just for this GIF.

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.

Trolls World Tour – Marketing Recap

How Universal is upending the distribution game while selling its animated sequel.

trolls poster 4

In any other year, the release of Trolls World Tour would be (let’s be honest) only somewhat notable. The first movie was a solid hit, grossing $153 domestically and $346 million worldwide, and that insufferable song was everywhere, but if we were still living in the normal world it would largely be drowned out by Black Widow, Mulan and a few other releases.

This is not, of course, the normal world. Instead of releasing the movie in theaters among a host of others, Universal is sending the movie straight to video on demand while most all other releases have been pushed later in the year because all the theaters are closed.

That being said, the story of the movie is pretty standard fare for a sequel, seeking to create familiarity while at the same time expanding the world significantly. Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake return to voice Poppy and Branch, respectively, two music-loving trolls. They discover theirs is just one of many troll tribes, each one centered around a different style of music. Their world is threatened when Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) seeks to assemble an instrument that would wipe out all other kinds of music, and it’s up to Poppy and Branch to stop her.

With such an unusual – and slightly controversial – release plan in place, you might think the marketing from Universal would have undergone a big shift. Quite the contrary, the campaign has remained largely the same, still selling a bright musical adventure with tunes meant to get stuck in your head for months.

The Posters

The initial poster (by marketing agency BLT Communications) is very much a branded announcement one-sheet, showing Poppy wearing a tie dye shirt and sporting a concert badge showing the movie’s title treatment on a lanyard around her neck. It’s bright and colorful, meant to reestablish the brand for the audience.

A series of 21 posters showing hands of various colors raised in a familiar rock-centric configuration was released at about the same time the movie was announced on Universal’s schedule in June of last year.

In November what was more or less the theatrical poster (by marketing agency Leroy and Rose) came out, with many of the primary characters from the various tribes clutching a single guitar.

Another poster series were released in December (by Empire Design) showing the characters dancing and jumping in front of bright and sparkly backgrounds.

In January another singular one-sheet came out pitching this as “The happiest movie ever!” which is quite a claim to make.

A few other small sets of posters featuring some of the minor characters came out over the course of this year as well.

The Trailers

Poppy’s gentle rendition of “Sounds of Silence” is interrupted by blaring guitars as the first trailer (23 million views on YouTube) opens. It turns out there are other trolls, each with their own type of music. Uniting all six strings will destroy all except rock (of course) so it’s up to Poppy and the others to travel around and stop those who are trying to do just that.

In November the second trailer (11.7 million views on YouTube) came out, opening with a DJ dance party being rudely interrupted by the Hard Rock Trolls. Finding the queen of that clan is out to remove the music from all the other trolls, Poppy and Branch set out to stop her, discovering what makes all the other kinds of music the various troll factions represent special.

The third trailer (41 million views on YouTube) from March sells the same basic idea, showing off a few more of the musical sequences and other gags, most of which are based around songs.

Online and Social

The official website for the movie is fairly standard, with basic information and content available. Notable, though, is that instead of a prompt to buy tickets as would be found on most sites this one features a “Where To Watch” button offering the various VOD stores it’s available on.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Early footage from the movie was included in Universal’s CineEurope pitch to exhibitors in mid-June of last year, acting as the official announcement the movie was in production.

Just like with the original, music once again played a major role in the marketing of the movie. Timberlake released “The Other Side” with SZA in late February, with a lyric video for the song showing footage from the film coming out shortly after that. In early March a lyric video for “Don’t Slack,” Timberlake’s collaboration with Anderson.Paak, was released. An official video for the song starring Kendrick along with Paak and Timberlake came out in early April, just before the movie was released.

A Giphy-powered sticker pack was available for Instagram users to add to their Stories.

When the Covic-19 pandemic caused most every theater to close, Universal pivoted by announcing it would release the new movie directly to VOD on the day it was scheduled to hit theaters. That caused a number of tidal waves to emerge in the industry, with exhibitors – through NATO – essentially saying this is a grudge they intend to hold on to tightly, especially since every other movie from Universal and other studios had simply been delayed, not pulled from theaters completely.

For some reason, a 10-hour looping video of Smooth Jazz Chazz (Kenny G) was released, maybe to calm everyone’s nerves. That was followed by a video of the cast performing “Just Sing” from the soundtrack.

Because everyone who was newly working from home was using Zoom to participate in video meetings, Universal put out some movie-themed backgrounds that could be uploaded as custom backgrounds for those Zoom calls.

The K-Pop and Reggaeton clans engaged in a dance battle in a clip given exclusively to Fandango’s MovieClips.

Last week a new clip of the Trolls singing a medley of pop hits from the last ~20 years came out, with the stars talking about their characters and the story at the end. Kendrick and Bloom were also joined by a couple young fans to engage in a whisper challenge.

Sponsorships on Pandora and Spotify gave users access to character-themed channels and playlists, each with appropriate musical genre for that character.

Promotional partners for the movie included:

China Glaze, which introduced a line of movie-themed nail polish that were available on their own or in various packages.

trolls world tour china glaze

General Mills, which put movie-branding on a selection of of cereals, yogurts and more, prompting consumers to scan a QR code on those packages to unlock an exclusive movie clip.

trolls world tour general mills

Oreo, which put characters from the movie on packages and gave people early access to the “Just Sing” video. There was also an AR experience that could be unlocked.

Lays, which put out movie-branded bags of Poppables and also ran a sweepstakes whose prize is unclear.

trolls world tour lays

Punky Color, which put out a line of movie-inspired hair color products.

McDonald’s, which is putting movie toys in Happy Meal boxes this week.

trolls world tour mcdonalds

Media and Publicity

There has been, oddly, no discernable press activity for the film, save for one video interview of Timberlake by “SNL” buddy Jimmy Fallon. That may be from some combination of the following real or hypothetical factors:

  • Concern that active promotion by talent would further irritate NATO and its members, souring relations between them and the studios even further.
  • The almost complete stoppage of the late night talk shows in recent weeks, though other celebrities have been able to make it work.
  • No ability to run large-scale events like premieres and other parties.

My guess is it’s a little bit of everything. There’s nothing substantive stopping stars from doing phone or video interviews with the media, so between logistics and business considerations the reality is there’s been almost nothing on this front.


What I can’t really get over is how NATO’s full-on meltdown over Universal’s plans for the movie are so out of proportion for what it is. There wasn’t time to get tracking information on the movie before society crumbled, but it would have been unlikely given the competition it was meant to face that it would have been a massive box office smash.

So I’m left believing that NATO et al simply wanted to use this release as an opportunity to place a stake in the ground, registering their opinion on a VOD strategy they’ve been trying to fend off for a decade. Universal moving first in this direction allowed the group to take a hard stance on the matter without honking off a more powerful studio, a theory bolstered by the stunning absence of confrontational “we won’t forget this!” statement directed at Disney following the news it will bring Artemis Fowl direct to Disney+ later this year.

All of that aside, the campaign here is alright. It’s a big, bright, annoying movie being sold in exactly that manner. The most interesting part of the push is the release strategy, but with no apparent pivot because of that change, it’s not even something that changes the way it’s received or who it’s targeted at.

Picking Up the Spare

Via Adweek, Universal  offered  a Snapchat AR lens that let people turn themselves into one of the movie’s characters. 

Kendrick and Timberlake  participated  in a video chat with hospital patients, an event coordinated by “Today.” 

A number of new featurettes, all of which are of course  very   music centric , have been released in the last few weeks. 
Kendrick made a virtual  appearance  on “The Tonight Show” to chat with host Jimmy Fallon.

It’s Time For Movie Marketing To Zoom Zoom Zoom

Studios and others seize an opportunity to be part of the new work environment.

Everyone who can is working from home right now because they want to be part of the “flatten the curve” solution to the Covid-19 pandemic. At least those who are empathetic and cognizant of the role we all play in contributing to a functioning and healthy society are.

Few companies are benefiting more from that than video conferencing software Zoom, which has become a favorite among companies, schools and others. The company has seen user acquisition in 2020 already outpace all of 2019, despite the fact that Zoom has frequently – and recently – come under fire for being a privacy nightmare, sending user information to Facebook and others as well as being easily hacked.

Despite that, people have glommed onto it, likely because someone started using it and it just kind of caught on and in defiance of other less creepy options available. One of the first tips to be shared by this new wave of users was that profile backgrounds could be changed, leading to people replacing their unkempt bedrooms with the hallway from The Shining or something else fun.

Studios noticed all of that. Even with no releases hitting theaters anytime soon, there’s still advertising and marketing to be done. And so they’ve embraced Zoom.

Both Universal and Paramount have sought to capture some of this market, releasing Zoom-appropriate backgrounds to promote, respectively, Trolls: World Tour and Top Gun: Maverick.

DC Comics also got in on the fun, but as I pointed out on Twitter, the lack of Zoom background featuring Professor Zoom is a tragic and unforgivable oversight.

There are likely others as well.

Why This? Why Now?

As I stated already, this is an attempt to capture a unique moment in society and quite simply be where people are.

By offering these backgrounds, studios get what is essentially a peer recommendation between individuals. When Carl puts the Maverick background behind him, everyone who’s on the call with Carl takes it as him endorsing the film in some manner. It’s the equivalent of him (or anyone else) putting a movie-branded protective case on their phone or wearing a hat with the logo. So they are generating word of mouth.

It’s also, quite honestly, one of the few options available. People aren’t leaving the house as much as they used to so out-of-home advertising would be kind of a bust. And the entire online ad industry is in disarray as many companies pull back their budgets with tough financial times ahead or seek to place the ads they *are* running on “safe” material. The latter is such an issue media companies are asking advertisers to understand Covid-19 news stories aren’t going to damage their brand.

So it’s a great combination of buzzy and cheap with the potential to stick around for a while.

It’s good to see studios adapting to developments so quickly, but disappointing it’s for something with so many issues. Whatever the case, they’re doing what they can to seize the moment and insert themselves into the general conversation.