Firestarter, out this weekend from Universal Pictures in theaters and on Peacock, is another adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name.
This version stars Ryan Kiera Armstrong as Charlene “Charlie” McGee, a young girl who one day finds she has developed pyro-telekinesis, able to start fires with the power of thought. That makes her a danger to those around her, including her father Andrew (Zac Efron) and mother Vicky (Sydney Lemmon). It also makes her a person of interest to a government agency known as “The Shop”, personified by agents and assassins played by John Beasley, Michael Greyeyes and Gloria Reuben.
An earlier adaptation was released in 1984 with David Keith, Drew Barrymore, George C. Scott and others. This time around Universal partnered with Blumhouse Pictures for a version that promises to be just as terrifying as the original movie as well as the book both are based on.
announcement and casting
Universal and Blumhouse, along with Akiva Goldsman, announced their plans for a fresh adaptation of King’s book back in 2017. After a few missteps, Keith Thomas was named director in late 2019, with Scott Teems writing the script.
Efron and Greyeyes were cast over the course of 2020, with Armstrong joining in mid-2021 just as production was getting underway.
the marketing campaign
If you recognize the first poster, released in early February, that’s because it’s virtually identical to the one-sheet for the 1984 film, just with Armstrong instead of Barrymore. As such it’s pretty simple, conveying the basic idea that the story involves a young girl and fire. Copy at the top makes an additional appeal, calling out Blumhouse as the company behind the well-received The Invisible Man. It also makes sure to note the simultaneous theatrical/streaming release date, the copy here amounting to an announcement of those plans.
The trailer (18.8m YouTube views) opens by showing Charlie beginning to lose control of her powers in the middle of class, causing the temperature to rise, water to steam and metal to become hot to the touch. Her dad wants her to learn to keep those emotions buried deep down, but that’s impossible and an outburst gets the government’s attention. Now on the run, Andrew tries to teach Charlie how to harness her abilities, but the more control she gains the more she gives into the righteous feeling she gets when hurting others, especially those chasing them.
Around that same time, Universal announced horror legend John Carpenter, along with others, had composed the film’s score.
A TV commercial-like video (likely used as pre-roll on YouTube and probably on Peacock as well) came out in mid-April, about a month out from release. It boils (sorry) the trailer down to a few key dramatic moments to show the audience what they can expect. More spots like this continued to come out over the next few weeks.
Just a couple weeks ago Universal promoted the movie to exhibitors at CinemaCon, leading to an awkward moment on stage.
Over the last week or so there have been pre-roll ads placed in front of YouTube videos as well as online banner ads like the one here that lead clickers to the page where they can find out more about where and how to watch the movie.
Efron promoted the movie when he appeared on “Kimmel” recently.
The marketing here is…fine. It communicates what it needs to and includes multiple nods to the first film, which is a legitimate choice to be made versus trying to carve out and create a brand new identity for this new adaptation.
What I can’t quite grok, and which the campaign largely ignores, is that Zac Efron is now playing dad roles. That seems like a cultural turning point we should have collectively marked, or at least been made more aware of as it happened.
How Universal sold the latest experiment with Bayhem
[ed. note: yep, this came out last week, the schedule just didn’t pan out as planned]
The logline for Ambulance, which hit theaters last week, really doesn’t matter as it essentially boils down to the fact it was directed by the one and only Michael Bay. But for the sake of completeness, let’s fill in the rest of what the movie’s about.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Will Sharp, a military veteran desperate to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for his wife’s surgery. Out of legitimate options, Will reaches out to his adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), who enlists Will in a bank robbery he’s planning that could net them $32 million. But the robbery, of course, goes sideways and the two find themselves on the run in a stolen ambulance with an EMT (played by Eiza González) still on board while pursued by both the FBI and LAPD.
So with the thinnest of premises in place and a director known less for his storytelling skills than his ability to keep the action going at all costs (including to common sense), let’s see how this was sold in advance of last week’s release.
announcement and casting
News of the movie’s production, along with the lead, broke in late 2020 with Bay directing. But that was only after he had passed on the film a few years earlier. Now, though, he eyed it as a good project to get him out after a bit of Covid-relaterd quarantine.
Gyllenhaal and Eiza González were cast in late 2020, Abdul-Mateen II joined a short while later, replacing Dylan O’Brien, who had previously been selected to play the more legitimate of the two brothers.
A couple months later its release was delayed by Universal to February, 2022.
the marketing campaign
The first trailer (22.5m YouTube views) was released in late October of last year, opening with Will explaining to Danny he needs money for his wife’s surgery. Danny takes that as an opening to get Will’s help with a bank robbery offering an even bigger payday. That heist goes south quickly, leading the two of them to go on the run to avoid the police, taking a cop wounded in the shootout hostage in the ambulance they’re escaping in.
A poster showing an ambulance’s rear doors with two massive bullet holes in it came out at the same time, the image making it clear the title is very literal and not a metaphor as well as conveying the kind of action and danger the story will contain.
The next poster came out in February and this time shows the three main characters, their huge heads arranged above the ambulance they spend so much time in, which is being pursued by various elements of law enforcement.
That was followed by the first TV commercial, which focuses on the drama between the two brothers and interestingly *not* the chaos that results from their impromptu chase across the city of Los Angeles.
A handful of new images from the movie were included in an interview with Bay about how he choreographs the massive action sequences he’s best known for. Right after that a profile of Gyllenhaal came out that had him talking about the experience of shooting a Michael Bay movie along with comments from Abdul-Mateen II about how the actor would occasionally seize the camera and start filming things himself as well as how Gyllenhaal made sure everyone on set was doing alright.
A series of character posters was released in early March that makes sure to highlight the L.A. location as a character in and of itself.
An IMAX-exclusive poster offers a variation on some of the earlier design themes.
Bay’s creativity and how that influences the process of shooting those big explosions and other sequences were covered in a featurette that included comments from many of the coordinators, drone pilots and others responsible for actually pulling those shots off.
The director along with the primary cast were in attendance at a red carpet premiere in Paris later in March. That was followed by similar events in Berlin, London and elsewhere, each accompanied by a round of interviews and other press activity.
An interview with Abdul-Mateen II and Gyllenhaal focused on how they bonded on set, a theme that kept coming up at this point of the campaign. That just reinforced how great Gyllenhaal is in junket settings when bantering with his costars, something he’s demonstrated repeatedly in recent years.
MovieClips debuted an exclusive featurette with the cast and crew talking about Bay’s skill as a filmmaker as well as the details of the story and the emotional stakes the characters have in the movie. Similar ground was covered in a Dolby Cinemas featurette.
Another trailer (10.5m YouTube views) came out toward the end of March that skips some of the emotional setup for Will in favor of cutting straight to the action. We see lots of the moments between Will and Danny as they navigate the situation they’ve found themselves in, all while Cam is stuck along for the ride caring for a patient in the back of the ambulance. There are some interesting moments, but the primary message is that there’s lots of gunplay and other violence, all set to the sound of grown men shouting at each other.
Additional TV spots like this were released that cut down the trailer footage in various ways to help sell the different aspects of the movie.
A movie-themed version of “Grand Theft Auto” gameplay was streamed on Twitch.
Just last week the stars and others came out for the red carpet premiere in Los Angeles. Once again the theme of the conversations with the stars was working with Bay and how they adapted to his unique energy on set and similar topics.
Just as she’d done in previous interviews – and a featurette – Gonzalez talked about how she hopes her role and performance as an EMT in some way honors the kind of work first responders do every day.
How he worked to cut through the chaos to focus on character was the subject of an interview with Abdul-Mateen II. A joint interview with him and Gyllenhaal was again about working with Bay and being pushed by the director to break out of what they may have expected.
USA Network aired a short exclusive featurette/commercial that mixed comments from the cast with high-octane footage. There was also a solo featurette with Abdul-Mateen II where he expanded on his character.
Gyllenhaal hosted “Saturday Night Live” just as the movie was opening. That came after her and Abdul-Mateen II appeared together on “Kimmel” to promote the film while Gonzalez showed up there on her own.
Tracking estimates prior to opening had projected $10m for the weekend but it failed to clear even that bar, leading to lots of hand-wringing over the future of original action movies at the box-office and so on. But the lukewarm critical reception, as represented by the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes rating, likely led many people to choosing the family film in theaters over the action-oriented one.
What jumps out most from the campaign is how so much of it is devoted to everyone praising Michael Bay as if he’s some sort of impassioned but relegated artist. He has a reputation as being somewhat difficult, sure, but this feels like a kind of effort to trigger a Baynaissance of sorts, which is odd considering he’s been one of the most reliable box-office performers of the last…30 years? And as much as everyone can talk about his craft, this is still what Bay is best known for, which is why all those flipping cars and such are stil so central to this movie’s marketing.
How Universal has marketed star-packed action drama.
The 355, out this week in theaters, is a magnificent case study in the power of wish fulfillment.
Before going into that, the movie stars Jessica Chastain as Mason “Mace” Browne, a CIA agent who, when a top-secret weapon goes missing, assembles an international team of fellow agents to go after those who stole it before it can be used.
It’s a simple enough premise and the appeal is only enhanced when you consider the other agents Browne recruits are played by Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger and Fan Bingbing.
With that, as well as the fact the movie is directed by Simon Kinberg who cowrote the screenplay with Theresa Rebeck, established, let’s look at how the project came to be and had been sold to the public.
announcement and casting
While Chastain had pitched the idea to Kinberg while the two were shooting X-Men: Dark Phoenix, the first real announcement about it came when Chastain brought the *concept* of the movie to Cannes 2018. While there she essentially assembled the cast in an attempt to get someone interested in producing or financing it.
The actresses did their part too, basically presenting it as a done deal should someone be brave enough to step up and get the ball rolling. It was a nervy, risky move that generated a lot of attention and interest in the audience, at least, and one of many female-led projects at Cannes or coming out around that time. Rights were eventually bought by Universal.
The lead up to the movie included features like this that profiled Chastain as both an actress and advocate, particularly within the #MeToo movement.
Reports emerged in April that Fan Bingbing, who had been out of sight for months, was still going to be in the movie. A few months later Chastain announced production had officially begun. In August of 2019 Universal finally gave the movie a release date.
Most of the primary cast was in place from the outset, but Kruger replaced Marion Cotillard in mid-2019 as production was getting underway. Sebastian Stan and others were added over the course of that year.
the marketing campaign: phase one
With an initial release date set for January 2021, marketing got underway in October 2020 with the release of a poster that has the members of the assembled spy team standing side by side, each in front of the flag of their respective countries. And, as someone has pointed out on Twitter, it’s the rare one-sheet that actually has the actor standing under their own name.
Can we just appreciate the poster for The 355 for actually having the right names above the right actress pic.twitter.com/iRRGZJs6RU
A couplebatches of character posters that break out each one of the leads came out at the same time.
The first trailer (7.4m YouTube views) – debuted by Chastain when she appeared virtually on “Late Night” – also came out then. Mace, we see, is being given an off-the-books project by the security service she works for and sets out assembling a crack team of experts to get the job done. Together they have to stop some very bad people from doing some very bad things, but their mission puts not only themselves but those they love back home in danger. Still, they manage to kick an impressive amount of butt.
A TV spot debuted right after the first trailer came out, showing not only the mission the agents in this movie are engaged in but also offering a bit of backstory behind the “355” designation.
Most of the cast appeared on Entertainment Weekly’s “Women Who Kick Ass” panel at New York Comic-Con, which happened just days after the trailer’s release. They talked about how unique an all-female action movie is, the fun they had doing the stunts and lots more as they promised audiences a good time at the movies.
In November 2020 it was announced Universal was delaying the film by a full year, pushing it from January 2021 to the same date a year later.
the marketing campaign: phase two
As a result of that delay things went dark on the campaign until almost exactly a year after the marketing had first kicked off with the release of the second trailer (14.7m YouTube views). It covers much of the same ground as the first, but with a few tweaks and more of a focus on the objective of the team as well as the team itself.
An interview with Chastain had her talking about how the movie addresses the idea of female secret agents within the framework of the action movie and how the idea evolved over time. That story also included a new still and other looks at the film.
Short character introduction videos like this started coming out in early December.
Also in early December, Universal held a promotional event/party (seemingly sponsored by Stella Artois) in Miami with lots of music and movie-branded swag available to attendees.
Additional clips also came out over the last couple weeks showing various action sequences involving different characters.
The campaign’s continued emphasis on the action of the movie isn’t different from any other ensemble picture in this genre, so that’s chalked up to a tried and true tactic being executed here.
On the one hand, that’s all well and good because it means it’s not being sold substantively differently from similar movies featuring all-male casts.
On the other hand, by fitting the movie into such a well-used format it doesn’t allow the biggest unique selling point to really shine through.
I’d almost rather have seen something unusual be done here because it would have provided a stronger hook, though it’s not assured that audiences would turn out no matter what the messaging was. That’s reflected in the $5 million the movie is projected to bring in this weekend as Spider-Man once again dominates theaters and Covid continues to sweep through the country, disrupting much of everyday goings-on.
How Universal is selling the sequel to a movie that was a sequel that ignored the previous sequels to the original well I’ve gone cross-eyed…
2018’s Halloween got, by all accounts, better reviews than it was expected to, going on to bring in $255m at the domestic box office. Now the sequel to that film, Halloween Kills, is finally being released.
Picking up roughly right where the first movie left off, this one again pits Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) against the masked homicidal maniac Michael Myers, who is still bent on killing her and everyone around her. That list includes Laurie’s daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). It’s up to the three Strode women to try and bring Myers’ rampage to an end.
But of course this isn’t the end, and everyone knows it, as Halloween Ends, the final part of this trilogy, is scheduled for this time next year, all of which have been or will be directed by David Gordon Green. Until then, let’s see how this installment has been sold.
announcement and casting
That this movie – as well as the third installment – was coming was announced by Blumhouse during San Diego Comic-Con in 2019, with McBride, Green and Curtis all slated to return.
Shortly after that announcement the producers spoke about how unexpected this whole ride was. McBride and Green were interviewed about some details of the story, letting audiences know more or less what they could expect. Curtis talked about the movie in an interview last October, touching on the relevancy of the story to the current era.
At that same time a very short behind the scenes tease of what Green and the cast were shooting.
Originally scheduled for October 2020, the release date was shifted a full year last July, with Green and producer John Carpenter issuing a statement explaining to fans why they felt the change was necessary to preserve the film and its intended presentation.
A short teaser was released in conjunction with that statement showing the Strodes being taken away from the scene of the fire while hoping that fire is allowed to continue burning in order to end Myers’ threat. Another came out on Halloween of 2020, promising the film would be coming out that time a year later while showing that things are far from safe for the citizens of Haddonfield.
An interview in late 2020 with Green had him assuring fans the filmmakers were not simply going to retread the story of the first film.
Curtis rightfully earned the title of Greatest Of All Time Scream Queen at the MTV Movie & TV Awards in December 2020.
The first full trailer (10.5m YouTube views) wasn’t released until June of this year, starting with the immediate aftermath of the previous movie. Michael has, of course, survived, with a body count following everywhere he goes. Laurie and her family are determined to end him, but he’s getting stronger the more he kills, setting up yet another confrontation between the two characters.
Myers’ cracked, scorched mask is the sole element on the first poster, also released in June. Embers swirl behind him, with the whole thing creating a very dark and gritty tone for the film.
In June of this year the movie’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival was announced along with Curtis’ receiving of a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Carpenter previewed “Unstable” from the movie’s soundtrack in August.
At Venice in September Curtis talked quite a bit about the series’ continued appeal, her award and how the movie’s message of evil being something not easily dispatched is relevant to the modern world.
Universal then announced the movie would debut day and date in theaters and on the company’s Peacock streaming service.
TV advertising began around that time as well, with spots like this that cut down the trailer while showing it’s not just the Strodes who are out to put a final end to Myers but the whole town, with the three core women leading the charge.
The final trailer (8.5m YouTube views) was released in late September. It shows that Myers is out once again on Halloween, terrorizing the residents of Haddonfield. He survived the fire Laurie set, but this time it’s not just her and a few others that have had enough but the whole town.
Early October brought a featurette that had the cast and crew talking about returning to the characters and story, whether their absence has been long or short. A second short featurette had Curtis talking about how the fight against Myers is multigenerational. In a third video everyone promises audiences that this is a *very* different movie and that the audience can expect lots of shocks.
The film screened at Beyond Fest earlier this month, with the cast and crew in attendance to answer fan questions and generally get folks excited.
A new poster released just over a week before the movie came out shows all three Strode women standing defiantly as their house burns in the background. There were also breakout character posters for Karen and Allyson.
Twomore behind-the-scenes videos have Green talking about the technical difficulties of shooting this movie, including some of the more complicated effects sequences.
While this isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, the marketing campaign Universal has put together is cohesive, makes strong appeals to the target audience and spends only as much time as necessary connecting this to past films while keeping the focus on what’s new and upcoming. Those are all strengths. And you have to stand up and applaud how Curtis commits to the project, selling the movie with conviction and making sure to call out her costars and others.
Initial reviews haven’t been strong, with a paltry 54% on Rotten Tomatoes at the moment. But tracking projects a strong opening weekend total of $35-55m, which may not be Bond numbers but certainly indicates strong audience interest. Whether or not the hybrid theatrical/streaming release impacts those projections will, I imagine, be watched with great interest.
How Universal is selling a sequel to a horror classic with a contemporary twist
Candyman, believe it or not, is a direct sequel to the 1992 movie of the same name, taking the now standard approach of ignoring or at least discounting the two previous sequels. The movie stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy, an artist who moves into Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighborhood with his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris). That neighborhood, now gentrified from its public housing roots, still has memories of the Candyman, a mysterious supernatural entity that could be summoned by those who say his name five times in a mirror. When Anthony begins exploring the long-dormant spirit in his artwork he not only unleashes the killer but also begins to chip away at his own sanity.
announcement and casting
While a fourth installment in the franchise had been rumored and in various stages of development since the early 2000s, it wasn’t until 2018 that things finally started to move forward. It was at that point that Jordan Peele came on as producer and Nia DaCosta as director. Both developments were positively received, especially in the wake of Peele’s breakout hit Get Out.
A year later Abdul-Mateen was cast, though initial reports had him playing the title role. Those were dispelled when it emerged that Tony Todd would reprise that role from the original, with Parris joining as well.
marketing kicks off, or at least tries to
The beginning of the formal marketing campaign was unfortunately timed for early 2020. In late February Universal offered those who included “candyman” five times in a Tweet an alert when the trailer was released a few days later.
As that first trailer (14.5m views on YouTube) opens, McCoy is moving into the Chicago neighborhood formerly known as Cabrini Green. He becomes obsessed with the local legend of The Candyman and begins depicting him in his art. All this while people in the area begin dying after invoking his name, something McCoy eventually begins to suspect he’s somehow tied to. It’s a suitably creepy trailer that plays up both Peele’s role as producer and DaCosta’s as director, giving the film a nice pedigree for audiences to latch on to.
The teaser poster, released around that same time, shows a honey-covered hook, a bee still clinging to the glazed metal. Audiences are encouraged to “Dare to say his name” on what is otherwise a white background that is still fairly ominous.
It wasn’t too long after that in April that the first release delay was announced as the movie was shifted from its original June date to September.
How black filmmakers were working to tell stories involving racial themes and from their own point of view within the horror/thriller genres was the subject of a substantial profile in August of last year that included DaCosta. She touched on the real life inspirations of some of the story elements and more as well.
In mid-June TV spots started coming out that continued teasing how the movie is about the legacy of Candyman and the role he plays in the community.
DaCosta appeared at the American Black Film Festival to show clips to the virtual attendees.
In September of last year, when the movie should have been hitting theaters, Universal bumped it again, just a bit to October. It was then taken off the calendar completely before the eventual move to August 2021 was announced, a date that actually stuck.
When the delay to 2021 was announced, DaCosta explained why seeing it in theaters was an important part of the intended experience as opposed to seeing it at home through VOD.
An interview with costar Domingo Colman allowed him to talk about how DaCosta was approaching the story and the brutalization inherent in it respectfully, not how it’s often depicted by other filmmakers.
for real this time
The restart of the campaign came in June when a special Juneteenth message from DaCosta was announced. That video, which has her talking about the duality of the holiday and how the same kinds of themes are captured in the movie, was well-done and because of the commonalities between the holiday and the film, seems less opportunistic than some other attempts.
That was followed by the second trailer (27m views on YouTube) in June. McCoy is having the history of Candyman told to him, latching on to that story and the legends surrounding it. That makes it very creepy, even if it sacrifices a bit of the context around the characters and their story.
The poster released at that time shows what is presumed to be Candyman himself from the back, his hook visible as he raises his arm. This time the message to the audience is trimmed down to, simply, “Say it”, assuming we all know what that means.
The director was interviewed about how she has moved from small independent films to this being the first of two major studio releases she’s helming.
TV and social advertising picked back up in the wake of the trailer with videos that continued using the shadow puppet motif to help explain the legend of the spirit that haunts Cabrini Green.
Anthony is trying to convince a reluctant Brianna to summon Candyman in the first clip, released in mid-August.
A profile of Abdul-Mateen identified him as one of the biggest rising stars of the moment thanks to high-profile roles in this movie and a number of others.
Peele and DaCosta talk about their fascination with urban legends – including this one – and their desire to tell a horror story from a Black perspective in a short featurette. Another focused on the real life artists who created the works that, in the movie, come from Abdul-Mateen’s character.
Those same artists are part of a #TellEveryone social impact initiative, details of which can be found on the movie’s website. That initiative included a focus on Black artists, the history and importance of Black horror stories (a subject that got its own featurette) and more. Downloadable lesson-planning materials are offered on that page along with information on where to dive deeper and support related programs.
Anyone brave enough to take the challenge to say Candyman’s name five times online unlocked an exclusive, creepy filter that added swarming bees to their selfies.
Abdul-Mateen and Parris were part of an exclusive video interview from AMC Theaters.
An exclusive Fandango clip expands on a scene glimpsed in the trailer, of a bunch of teenage girls making the mistake of summoning the killing spirit.
One last TV spot includes not just footage from the film but also comments from the cast and crew, who name aspects of the story and the urban legend behind it to demonstrate its power.
Parris discussed the film when she appeared on “Late Night.”
One of the issues the campaign has frequently worked to overcome is that, because of Peele’s involvement, he sometimes overshadows DaCosta. But the featurettes and other elements make sure to include her as often as they do him to make sure she gets as much attention as she deserves as the film’s director.
Other than that, Universal and the filmmakers have taken pains to make sure that this is positioned as more than just another sequel to a classic horror film. Instead it’s touted as a cultural event, part of a long legacy of urban legend building as well as a reflection (if you’ll pardon the term) of society and the trauma it inflicts on Black citizens.
Despite that, your reaction to the marketing will likely be dependent on your taste for horror films in general. Some will work past their aversion because the campaign promises a deeper story while others will pass because it’s just not their genre of choice.
How Universal has sold the latest twist-heavy film from a singular director
Director M. Night Shyamalan, known for his intricately-structured slow reveals, returns with this week’s new release Old. Gael García Bernal stars as Guy, who’s vacationing with his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and their two children. The family visits a secluded beach but soon discover they, as well as others already there, are mysteriously aging rapidly, with years going by in just minutes. With time running out, they look for ways to escape before it’s too late.
The marketing campaign has focused on explaining that premise, largely because hooking audiences to come see the twists in the last act is the primary value proposition for any film from Shyamalan. With middling reviews giving it a 60% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and projections for a $12-15 million opening weekend at the box-office, let’s take a look at some of the details.
The first poster, released last September, hints at time being a major factor in the story by showing human beings falling through an hourglass like grains of sand. The “It’s only a matter of time” copy unnecessarily underlines that hint.
That theme is made even more explicit on the theatrical poster, released in May. This one shows a woman relaxing on the beach, her face hidden by her hat but her legs and arms visible. One side of her body, we see, is much more gaunt and aged than the other, further indicating to the audience that there’s some unnatural force at work in the story. A motion version came out at the same time.
When the first trailer (23.2 million views on YouTube), released in May, begins, we see that some vacationing families decide to defy requests to not visit the beach near the resort they’re staying at. That choice has dramatic consequences when after a series of strange events they find they are aging years in just minutes and can’t escape, leading everyone to make some very difficult choices. It’s full of tension but not silly and works to create anticipation and wonder about what power is behind what’s happening.
Online and Social
You’ll find only the basic marketing content on the movie’s official website, including a photo gallery that has a handful of behind-the-scenes shots. There were also social media profiles for the movie.
Advertising and Promotions
Shyamalan announced the movie and debuted the first key art in September, 2020.
Shyamalan briefly spoke about the movie in early 2021 when he appeared on “The Tonight Show.”
The first look at the film came in a Super Bowl spot that aired in early February. Understandably, there’s not a whole lot of the story in that spot but it does have enough elements to hint at the kind of story audiences can expect.
After the first commercial debuted during the 2021 Super Bowl, the director appeared on Entertainment Weekly’s Instagram to discuss the movie.
While the movie didn’t screen there, did sit down for an interview at the 2021 Tribeca Festival.
Clips that hint at the mystery of what’s happening on the beach and the confusion of the characters began hitting in mid-July.
Shyamalan talked about the movie when he appeared on “Late Night” in July.
Clips like this started coming out earlier this month, but none offered much in the way of detail as to what the overall story was.
The second key art was used for outdoor ads like this as well as online ads that drove traffic to the official website where people could buy tickets.
A special movie-themed escape map was added to Fortnite where people had to collect needed resources and put together the clues to get out of that area.
Surprisingly, the cast talked about how this movie doesn’t rely on the typical Shyamalan twist at the film’s premiere earlier this week.
How Shyamalan worked with his daughter on the film was the subject of a short featurette released just before the movie came out. He also discussed how he doesn’t think he makes horror but something more akin to drama in this spot.
Another featurette, this one exclusive to Fandango MovieClips, has the cast and crew discussing the concept of time and how it relates to the movie. The director discussed how sound and other elements help create fear and uncertainty in a Dolby-exclusive video while he and the stars all appeared in a Regal Cinemas video.
Shyamalan discussed how this movie fits into his overall filmography and more in this interview. He also spoke more in this profile about what drives him creatively and what some of his film influences are and have been.
M. Night Shyamalan movies are always sold on the idea that the audience won’t believe what lies just beyond what they see in the trailers and this campaign doesn’t significantly deviate from that formula.
The concern with that approach is that it can hold so much back there’s little for the audience to actually comprehend. Put another way, there’s a minimum level of context needed for the audience to grasp the broad outlines of the story and why they should care about the characters.
Universal’s campaign for Old, in my opinion, *just* crosses that tipping point. That could mean that, whatever the merits of the movie itself, it may simply be too obscure a proposition to motivate people into making this choice. Not that the campaign isn’t well-executed from a technical standpoint – it is – but it’s right at the cusp of holding too much back to maintain the sense of mystery associated with the filmmaker.
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 Universal has sold a period drama about the power of news.
Tom Hanks stars in News of the World, the latest film from writer/director Paul Greengrass. Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a retired soldier who now travels across America’s 19th century western frontier telling settlers and others stories from the rest of the country and the world. While in Texas, Kidd encounters Johanna (Helena Zengel), a young white girl who has been raised by a Kiowa tribe and is now being returned to her remaining family. The two encounter all the dangers the rural west has to offer as they try together to make it to their destination.
First reactions started coming out a few weeks ago, mostly positive, and the movie currently sits at a very good 86% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Universal’s campaign for the film has been as serious and dramatic as you would imagine given both the subject matter and those behind and in front of the camera. Let’s take a look.
Capt. Kidd and Johanna both stare off into the middle distance with the cloudy frontier sky behind them on the poster (by marketing agency BOND), released in October. It’s a simple but effective image that shows off the main selling points of the film, particularly Hanks in a dramatic role. The “Find where you belong” copy is a little vague but is likely intended to communicate the journeying elements of the story.
The first full trailer (9.4 million views on YouTube) was released in late October, introducing us to Capt. Kidd as someone who visits remote towns to share news from elsewhere in the country. In that capacity he meets a young woman who has been raised by Native Americans after her white family was killed. But keeping her safe will be difficult given not only his own unfamiliarity with children but also the robbers and other bad people who were plentiful in the American West at the time.
Online and Social
You’ll find the basic marketing content on the movie’s official website, including the trailer, synopsis and more.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
The first footage from the film came in a TV spot released in early October. That footage shows Kidd and Jane setting out on their journey, including some of the dangers and problems they’ll face along the way.
A short featurette with Hanks talking about the story of the film and the arc of his character was released later that month, just after the first trailer came out. AMC Theaters had another exclusive featurette that touched on the political and social climate the movie’s story takes place in.
Short videos like this were used as pre-roll and on social media.
Media and Publicity
While it wasn’t the first press for the movie, the news that it was among the first titles to be set loose by Fox in the wake of its acquisition by Disney was noted by many. Universal was the savior who likely rescued it from oblivion, eventually setting a Christmas 2020 release date.
Vanity Fair debuted the first stills from the movie in October along with some quotes from Hanks and Greengrass.
A profile of Zengel included comments from Greengrass along with her talking about getting the role and working on set with Hanks, who appeared on “The Late Show” last week.
I want to feel like this campaign was effective, mostly because I’m intrigued by the story and a fan of all involved in making the film. But the marketing seems like it could have happened in any year – particularly during awards season – and there’s little here that offers a sense of urgency or immediacy to what’s being presented.
What I mean is that here at the end of The Year of Our Lord 2020, we’ve all been through some stuff. So the story of the film, that Capt. Kidd is hoping to make something of himself and create an informed and entertained citizenry in the wake of a divisive and deadly conflict is more than a little timely. Hitting that element of the story could have made a stronger impact instead of seeming like a potential awards contender from any year.
That’s not to say it’s a bad marketing push, just that it could have been recalibrated to be a bit more relevant to the moment it’s being released in.
Picking Up The Spare
Greengrass was interviewed about working with Hanks again and more here.
More clips like this continued to come out post-release.
How Universal is selling a personal story from an “SNL” cast member.
Pete Davidson is…an acquired taste. He has as many detractors as he does fans and has come under considered criticism for a number of choices made in his past. Still, by all regards he remains popular, at least enough to remain on “Saturday Night Live” for a number of years as a prominent cast member.
Now he is working to expand even further into feature films with The King of Staten Island, not only starring in the film but also writing it. Davidson plays Scott, a slightly fictionalized version of himself. Scott suffers from a kind of arrested development, showing no drive to grow and move out of his mother’s Long Island basement. Part of Scott’s ennui comes from losing his firefighter father nearly 20 years ago, just as Davidson lost his own on 9/11/20. When his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) begins dating another firefighter (Bill Burr), Scott finds the status quo challenged but also an opportunity to finally grow as a person in unexpected ways.
Universal’s campaign has leaned into Davidson’s established public persona while also asking audiences to question what it is they actually know about him as well as relying on the popularity of director Judd Apatow, who also helped Davidson as a writer.
Scott stands atop his car with all the unearned confidence of your average white 20-something on the first and only poster (by marketing agency P+A), released in late April. The tattoos that cover his torso speak to Scott’s only occupation as a tattoo artist while the scene shown in the background establish the suburban setting, though it doesn’t get more specific than that. The biggest call to action appears at the top, which displays Apatow’s name and previous films prominently, indicating Universal thinks his involvement is a major draw for audiences to latch on to.
The first trailer (6 million views on YouTube) came out in early May and introduces us to Scott, a grown man who still lives with his mother and has successfully avoided responsibility his whole life, in part because he hasn’t moved past his firefighter father dying almost 20 years ago. It’s clear Scott is a fun guy to hang out and get high with, but not much more than that. When he has to begin caring for the children of his mom’s new boyfriend, he starts to grow up a bit and get his life in order.
Online and Social
In addition to the basic information and material about the movie, the official website has a section devoted to “Critical Acclaim” where visitors can get a sense of the positive reviews the film has already accumulated, all the way back to its festival screenings. The focus of the site, and what’s found on the front page, is offering a variety of ways for people to download the film on-demand since that is its new distribution method.
Advertising and Promotions
After accumulating quite a bit of buzz in advance, the movie’s public debut was scheduled for the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, but that was spiked when the festival was canceled because of the Covid-19 outbreak. It was later scheduled for the Tribeca Film Festival.
In late April the decision was made to pull the movie from the theatrical release schedule and push it over to Premium VOD, just as Universal was doing with a number of other titles. That announcement was accompanied by a staged video call between Apatow and Davidson. Another call, mostly about drugs, followed a little bit after that.
A featurette released in early May featured members of Davidson’s real life family as well as those in the cast and Apatow talking about the origins of the story, how the star examined his real issues and more.
About the same time a clip came out with Scott’s sister encouraging him to be nice to their mother.
A few days ago another staged call came out, this one with Davidson and Burr talking about the imminent on-demand release of the film.
The story and characters are condensed down to their major elements in a TV spot that introduces us to Scott and the world around him but skips touching on some of the struggles he faces.
Media and Press
Shortly after the first trailer debuted both Apatow and Davidson appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie and how some of Davidson’s “SNL” castmates helped play a role in making it happen.
In the last week or so there’s been significant activity on the press front. Davidson appeared on “CBS Sunday Morning” to talk about the real-life parallels in the movie and on “Kimmel” to make a bunch of jokes and talk about the story.
Additional appearances were made by Bel Powley, who plays Scott’s casual girlfriend, on “Late Night” and Apatow on “The Late Show.”
An interview with Apatow had him going in-depth on his working relationship with Davidson and how he helped the actor create a narrative out of his experiences. Burr also shared his experiences on the set and what it was like working with Davidson.
Both Apatow and Davidson were interviewed on NPR about their collaboration, which was also the subject of an NYT feature. Costume designer Sarah Mae Burton discussed her process in creating a visual look for Scott and other characters that seemed everyday without overtly reminding audiences of the actor wearing the clothes. Apatow was also interviewed with his daughter Maude, who plays Scott’s sister and has appeared in many of her father’s films along with others.
Entertainment Weekly hosted a video roundtable interview with Apatow and most of the cast to talk about making the film and what it meant to them.
In the interest of full-disclosure, my tolerance for Davidson is generally fairly low. I fall into the camp that feels he’s not nearly as funny as he thinks he is, making his popularity somewhat perplexing to me.
Unfortunately there’s not much in this campaign that dissuades me from this feeling. The press work he and Apatow have done tries to iron out some of those wrinkles, but it’s not enough to change my mind, and my guess is I’m not the only one. Even Apatow’s involvement isn’t enough to significantly pique my interest.
That being said, Universal’s campaign isn’t bad and works with the strengths it has and, admittedly, Davidson has a substantial fanbase. So offering a movie featuring a slightly askew version of the star working through some personal issues probably has a good amount of appeal for many people. But given the personalities involved, your mileage will almost certainly vary.
Picking Up the Spare
Maude Apatow was interviewed about the movie and making her own way in an industry where her father is a dominant force.
An exclusive preview was shown on HBO. A number of new featurettes have been released, covering Davidson’s connections to much of the rest of the cast, a look at how heroes make for good stories and the involvement of Davidson’s grandfather.
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:
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, announcingThe High Note would no longer be getting a theatrical run but would instead be going to premium VOD later this month.
More direct-to-premium-VOD from Universal. Studio's specialty division, Focus Features, sends "The High Note," starring Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross, to digital on 5-29 instead of theatrical as previously planned.
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.