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.

Mank

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.

Mulan

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

Tenet

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

HONORABLE MENTION – Emma

Just for this GIF.

News of the World – Marketing Recap

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.

The Posters

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 Trailers

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.

An exclusive clip was given to MovieClips.

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.

Overall

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. 

There were more interviews with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, composer James Newton Howard and costar Zengel.

King of Staten Island – Marketing Recap

How Universal is selling a personal story from an “SNL” cast member.

king of staten island poster

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.

The Posters

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 Trailers

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.

Overall

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. 

There were further talk show appearances by Davidson, Burr and Apatow the elder. 

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.

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.

Overall

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.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – Flashback Movie Marketing

abbott costello meet frankenstein posterIt’s been a bit over three years since Universal put a stake in the studio’s Dark Universe, an ambitious project announced in the buildup to the release of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. So confident was Universal in the prospects of that movie, which costarred Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, the leader of a shadowy group of supernatural investigators and enforcers, that it cast Javier Bardem and Johnny Deep in addition to Cruise, Crowe and Sofia Boutella.

Universal has tried a few times in the last several years to get a franchise based on its classic monsters up and running. The recent news that director Paul Feig would be taking on an original concept called Dark Army and the recent Invisible Man shows there’s life in the idea, but it may not be the “shared universe” that has long been envisioned.

That’s not quite true, though. 72 years ago Universal Studios had all of their biggest monsters appear together in a single motion picture, showing that in some manner they all existed in the same universe. The landmark movie in question is the cinematic classic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Comedy + Horror

By the time 1948 came around, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had been working together for a dozen years, first in stage shows, then on radio and then on television. In 1941 they made the transition to films, with Universal signing the pair to a deal that resulted in two to four movies released each year until 1950. Meet Frankenstein, then, stands as their 21st feature inside of just seven years.

With the stars playing a pair of railroad baggage clerks – Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Costello) – who are pulled into a situation where Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is trying to stop the delivery of boxes to a museum. When the two damage the crates, they are enlisted to complete the delivery themselves, eventually discovering it was Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) being transported. Talbot is revealed to be a werewolf, and it’s up to Chick and Wilbur to survive while trying to stop the monsters from being loosed on the city.

Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolfman are, of course, all characters that had become standards in Universal’s classic monster lineup reaching back to the 1920s. The studio, then, saw a chance to revive the Abbott and Costello team whose luster was beginning to wear off with a host of characters that were also nearing the end of their shelf lives. On the latter point, the appeal is heightened given Chaney Jr. and Lugosi both reprise their roles.

Selling the Movie

“It’s a grand new idea for fun!” the audience is told on the primary one sheet. Dracula, The Monster and Wolfman are chasing Chick and Wilbur as they all run away from a decrepit and spooky looking house. While everyone’s bodies are shown with the same painted look, their faces are actual photos superimposed on the image, a common tactic at the time. It’s a fun painting that puts the title in the white (actually yellow) space around which the characters are running.

A number of lobby cards were sent out by Universal to show off stills from the movie and increase its appeal among the audience. One set features painted-in colors shows one of the primary monsters each. Notably, it’s only Wilbur (Costello) of the comedic stars that appears on this set, either unaware of the threat looming around him or in the thrall of a monster. There’s also one that has Wilbur attempting to woo Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert). Others rearrange the elements from the poster to emphasize the monsters.

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All of those that contain film stills are framed on the left by a strip showing Chick and Wilbur at the bottom urging the audience to keep quiet, the monsters placed above them as looming dangers.

As is often the case with trailers from this era, this one features lots of corny puns and phrases as on-screen text amidst scenes from the movie. “Jeepers! The creepers are after somebody” and “The laughs are monstrous” are two examples of the wordplay being used here. Abbott and Costello are billed as “the nation’s top comics” as we get the gist of the plot, with them encountering the various monsters and getting into assorted hijinks as they seek to escape the dangers lurking around every corner.

Before their partnership dissolved and their film career ended, Abbott and Costello would go on to “Meet” more monsters like The Invisible Man and others, but this stands as one of the greatest of their output, perhaps the last great one they would release.

The idea of a shared universe isn’t in and of itself problematic and can be pulled off successfully, but you have to have an idea around it that’s more than just “a way to make a bunch of money.” It has to be clever and entertaining, as this movie illustrates.

The Hunt – Marketing Recap

How Universal is selling a movie with a metric ton of societal baggage attached.

the hunt poster 2There is a lot to say about The Hunt, and a lot that has already been said, including by me. The situation is this:

When a pair of mass shooting incidents happened in less than 24 hours in early August, ESPN pulled ads for the movie from its network citing fears they would be seen as insensitive. That was followed shortly by Universal pausing the entire ad campaign it had begun executing in support of the movie. Just a couple days later the studio took the movie off its release schedule entirely, something the producer and director had some thoughts on, basically that they hope the film would come out at some point, that the story was intended as satire and so on.

So what’s the movie actually about? Betty Gilpin plays Crystal, a woman who, along with several others, wakes up somewhere she doesn’t recognize among people she doesn’t know. What seems disturbing takes a turn for the terrifying when it turns out they are being hunted by other people, elites who kidnap individuals at society’s edges for just this purpose. They try to not only survive but fight back and exact some justice on those who are using them as playthings.

It seems like a decent premise for a societal satire with horror elements, but as the above shows it quickly became seen as an attack on MAGA-types. Hence the drummed-up controversy.

Now that it’s about to hit theaters, tracking estimates a $10 million opening weekend, which isn’t bad given the genre it exists in, even if it shows all that additional earned media and other conversation didn’t translate into increased interest. Still, early reviews have been mostly positive, especially for Gilpin’s performance.

The Posters

Last July brought the release of the first poster (by marketing agency LA), which is designed like a warning sign that’s been posted at the edge of a property. It tells any visitors that hunting season is now open, but that only designated people may be hunted. That’s a twist on the usual message that hunters are the ones requiring licensing or designation.

After the pause in the marketing was lifted, a new poster tells audiences “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.” That’s a nice nod to how the controversy around it was sparked by a thin slice of the marketing and an even thinner slice of the actual film. Also nodding in that direction is that the original release date is crossed out and a new one added. Some of the more vitriolic responses to that controversy are plastered around the edge of the poster, a pig at the bottom for…reasons.

The Trailers

The first teaser trailer (since taken down) is actually presented like a commercial for The Manor, where the story and action take place. We hear pleasant narration about how The Manor offers a unique hunting experience, only to see at the very end that experience entails hunting human beings.

Late July brought the first real trailer. It opens as Crystal walks into a general store to ask for help but winds up shooting the proprietors, who were about to kill her. Turns out everything here is a lie, that she and a group of others are being hunted by members of the 1% who pay for the privilege. Crystal keeps surviving even as others are picked off, with the trailer ending on a confrontation between her and Athena, the woman who dreamed up this idea as a way to exert the dominance of the wealthy.

Both of those trailers were taken down from studio channels in August, when the movie was pulled from Universal’s schedule.

The movie is billed as “the most talked about movie of the year” in the trailer (14.8 million views on YouTube) that came out in February, when a new release date was announced. That spot opens with Crystal and the others joining together and arming up to defend themselves against the “liberal elites” that are hunting them for sport. It becomes more apparent as the trailer goes on, though, that the situation may not be what everyone assumes, with Athena saying “It wasn’t real!” and “We were joking” at various times. What is clear is that the story is a satire of social identity, one that likely has a twist not conveyed here.

Online and Social

For a movie this outlandish it’s surprising more isn’t done on the official website. There isn’t even any additional recognition of or attempts to have fun with the delays and other topics, which is a shame.

Advertising and Promotions

In mid-February Universal announced the movie was back on and revealed a release date along with new marketing materials. In that announcement, Lindelof rightly points out that massive assumptions were being made about the movie based on less than five minutes of footage and a vague story description.

Some online advertising has been done, and spots like this have been used as pre-roll and social media ads as well as TV commercials, boiling the story down to its basic elements.

Media and Publicity

The press portion of the campaign never had a chance to get started in 2019 before things went off the rails and the movie was pulled from Universal’s schedule. As the new release date was being announced it started up (in part because of the small window before release). Interviews with Blum and Lindelof had them venting their frustration over the movie being judged without being seen and how they didn’t feel there was much that was controversial about the story.

Another interview with Blum allowed him to share his belief this could be just as big a cultural impact as Get Out was a couple years ago. Zobel shared his relief that the movie was finally coming out in a profile that recapped the developments over the last several months and vented his frustrations at all the twists and turns that have occurred.

Overall

Much like the recent Sonic marketing, you can’t judge the campaign along traditional standards given not only how Universal stopped things entirely for several months but that the controversy around the movie has shaded the lens it’s viewed through.

In that way those, like Trump, who vented about a movie they hadn’t seen and had little information on achieved a level of success. They made it impossible to discuss the film or its marketing without acknowledging on some level their arguments and therefore lending them an air of legitimacy.

While Phase 1 of the campaign was interesting – selling the movie well as a class-based comedic satire – Phase 2 was more about playing along with the joke and acknowledging the reality of the situation. That works just as much as it doesn’t, sometimes coming off as too clever by half.

A case could be made that the revived campaign would have been a bit stronger if it had simply ignored the trolls and made its case, continuing the path started in the first wave of marketing. As it is it’s fine and still sells an intriguing film, but one that shows a bit of rust around the edges.

Picking Up The Spare

Additional interviews after the movie hit theaters including Gilpin on finally being given an action role, Zobel on the unintended parallels between the story and its temporary cancelation and Lindelof on how certain individuals drastically misinterpreted the themes of the movie.

There were even more profiles of Gilpin that called out her performance in the movie and her new action-oriented identity.

Another interview with Zobel allows him to explain more clearly how not actively engaging with trolls was a deliberate choice to not enflame the situation unnecessarily.

The Invisible Man – Marketing Recap

You can read my full recap of the marketing campaign for The Invisible Man at The Hollywood Reporter.

Online and Social

You see the same “He’s standing right behind you” vanishing artwork used in motion form on the movie’s official website. That’s the most interesting thing about the site, though, as it only has minimal content and no other features to speak of.

Media and Press

Comments about the story from Whannell accompanied a first look photo that came out in early November just before the release of the first trailer.

Things went largely quiet until just before release. As that approached there were interviews about how how director Leigh Whannell and Moss worked to update the story to make it relevant to modern times and how the production and costume teams made the most of the limited budget to increase the tension. Those topics were covered again at the movie’s premiere while Jason Blum made the overt connection to the empowerment of the #MeToo movement.

Whannel was very much the focus of a good amount of the press, commenting on how he stopped Universal from spoiling any more of the story in its marketing and how modernizing the story meant making the monsters less mythical and more realistic.

In an Esquire interview, Moss revealed Whannel actively sought her input on the script to make sure the female perspective on what happened in the story was accurate and didn’t overlook anything. Moss later appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the film and lots more.

Universal released a fun “prank” video featuring Moss and Jackson-Cohen a few days ago.

Overall

Much different vibe than what’s on display here.

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Picking Up The Spare

Moss admitted on late night that she may have overdone it when she offered to do her own stunts in the movie.

How the production achieved a slick look on a limited budget as well as how he ignored test screening feedback was covered in this interview with Whannel. Also on the production front, the creation of the invisibility suit was the subject of this interview with designer Alex Holmes.

Jackson-Cohen talked about his character and how he got involved with the project here.

Interesting theory from producer Jason Blum that competition from streaming is what causes traditional studios to spoil so much of their movies in the marketing.

Another profile of Moss had her talking about the early on-demand release and more.

Big Game, Few Trailers

Studios are sitting on the sidelines of this weekend’s Superb Owl.

If the fact that the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs are just days away from playing in Super Bowl LIV this Sunday kind of snuck up on you, you’re not alone The former’s fan base doesn’t, in my experience, extend much past the eastern-most BART station, and the latter’s is primarily made up of those who insist their barbeque is superior and so exhibit questionable judgement already.

Horrible regional stereotypes aside, Fox’s upcoming broadcast of the game has been commanding ad prices reportedly hitting $5.6 million and have, according to the network, been sold out since November. Those companies buying up commercial time include the usual mix of consumer, technology, auto and other brands, along with a couple politicians.

Where movie studios once dominated the Super Bowl ad field, this year apparently continues the trend of fewer and fewer films being advertised during the game itself. Universal and Disney are said to be the only studios participating as others sit out, whether that’s because the cost is too high, they don’t have movies that would benefit from such a huge platform or simply because they don’t want to.

Those making the cut are only partially known, including Universal’s Fast & Furious 9 and Minions: The Rise of Gru. What Disney has planned is less clear, though the story mentions a number of titles that could make an appearance, all of which are franchise entries in some way.

It is somewhat surprising that Warner Bros. isn’t bringing a spot for Wonder Woman 1984, or that Sony isn’t promoting Ghostbusters: Afterlife or Morbious. A handful of other titles could potentially get a boost from advertising during the game, but most are either too far out, are in the Disney mix already or don’t have the kind of brand recognition that would fit with the game’s demographic.

Also playing a role are two important factors: Studio’s total TV advertising budgets continue to fall from year to year as dollars are redirected to other media and tactics, and 2020 is expected to be a relatively weak year at the box office. That’s not good news for theaters or television networks, both of whom rely on Hollywood to churn out movies people want to leave the house to see.

With that, as well as the falling attendance numbers at theaters, in mind, studios are opting out for the same reason many have decided Comic-Con is no longer the valuable promotional tool it once was. Audience attention has become too fragmented, so a partnership with an esports championship league or New York City-based immersive experience makes more sense. Or perhaps a bigger return can be had by having the cast of a movie rotate through Jimmy Kimmel’s show during a week of broadcasts. All of these have proven to be popular tactics for high-profile films in recent years, including many that have forgone Super Bowl advertising.

While the exact lineup of movies remains, in large part, to be seen, I’d be surprised if Universal didn’t have a spot for Top Gun: Maverick somewhere. And if Netflix sneaks in at the last minute it could use that time to promote the sequel to To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and other streaming releases, or even tout current Oscar-nominated offerings like The Irishman.

Whatever happens on the movie advertising front, it’s clear the game won’t matter much at all.

Dolittle – Marketing Recap

How Universal is selling the revival of a decades-old character for modern audiences.

dolittle posterIn the last 12 years, since he came roaring back to the top of the movie industry with 2008’s Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. has only starred in seven non-Marvel Cinematic Universe features. His Tony Stark has been so integral to the MCU he’s needed to cameo or be part of a lot of what’s come out since then. That’s meant his schedule has been pretty much booked.

Now that his Avenging days are behind him for good, he’s seeking to expand a bit and is hoping this week’s Dolittle is the vehicle to help him do so. Downey stars as the Doctor of the title, an eccentric character who, as you should know already, has the ability to talk with animals. Pulled out of his reclusive life, Dolittle embarks on a quest with his animal and human friends to find an exotic cure for the ailing Queen Victoria.

(Part of me can’t believe I typed the above without irony.)

Unsurprisingly, the studio has relied heavily on Downey’s presence to sell the movie, but the campaign is one that’s so muddled and often confusing it’s hard to tell what’s happening. Still, tracking reports are estimating an opening weekend of $35-55 million. Reviews, which just started coming out, haven’t been of a nature that betting on the high end would make a lot of sense.

The Posters

The title character sits surrounded by his animal friends on the first poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts). “He’s just not a people person.” we’re told, but the main selling point is simply Downey and the promise of him engaging in all sorts of hijinks with a bunch of CGI creatures.

Each of those animals is given their own opportunity to shine on a series of posters released a few weeks later.

The Dolby poster uses the same tagline seen before but pulls the camera out a bit to show Dolittle marching in a line with a menagerie of animals. For IMAX the poster shows the whole collection of humans and animals involved in the story, including some of the settings seen. It also makes an interesting design choice, with some of the animals bleeding out from the frame that is within the confines of the one-sheet. That’s a different approach than on other IMAX posters, which fill the frame or which make it clear that what you’re seeing is more than you otherwise would.

The Trailers

Aside from a fairly awful cover of “What a Wonderful World,” the initial message sent in the first trailer (22.5 million views on YouTube) from October is that the movie comes from the same producers behind such effects-heavy fairytale adaptations as Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent. Dolittle and his friends are about to embark on a “perilous journey” and we see footage of them getting into various tight situations, but always seeming to come through them.

The “official” trailer (853,000 views on YouTube) is exactly the same as the initial version but just a bit shorter and with a new ending that reveals the dragon the crew encounters on their journey.

Online and Social

In addition to the trailers and other content, the official website is actually fairly nicely stocked. There’s a pleasant little game and some coloring pages to download, both of which work to make it clear the movie is targeting a younger crowd.

Advertising and Publicity

The movie was part of the studio’s presentation to exhibition executives at CineEurope in mid-July 2018. Things then went quiet until October 2019 when the trailer was released and the new titled – shortened from the original The Voyage Of Doctor Dolittle – was announced.

During the recent holiday season, a couple videos were released with Downey sitting in a “Masterpiece Theater”-esque chair and encouraging people to see the film.

Downey appeared in a promotional video from December that had him running the auditions for his animal costars, all of whom use lines from other films to try and get their parts.

Sia’s song for the movie’s soundtrack, “Original,” was released last week.

A series of videos came out earlier this week that introduced all the animal characters in the story, showing the actor who provides their voice and with a brief overview of who they are provided by Downey.

Online ads used the key art, especially the photo of Dolittle with the animals arranged behind him, along with video snippets. Preroll and other video ad units – including presumably TV commercials – used short versions of the trailer to try and get people’s attention.

The premiere was held last weekend, with the stars and others in attendance.

Promotional partners for the movie included:

  • Circle K, though no details could be found on what was involved.
  • FAO Schwarz, which promoted the movie with in-store ads and signage during the recent holiday shopping season.
  • Amazon, which partnered with the movie to get people to make donations to Toys For Tots through their Alexa devices.
  • dolittle nwfNational Wildlife Foundation, which ran a sweepstakes and otherwise used the idea of the movie and its animal characters to get people to become conservation advocates.
  • Frontier Airlines, which ran a sweepstakes awarding the winner a trip for four to the movie’s premiere.
  • Nature’s Path, which put movie branding on some of its product packaging and donated money raised to animal conservation programs.
  • Procter & Gamble, but once more details aren’t available on this promotion.

Media and Press

There wasn’t a whole lot of press activity for the film, which may be because of the delays and other issues it encountered. But in the weeks before release, Downey appeared on a handful of late night and early morning talk shows and did a couple interviews here and there. Many of them turned to questions about how he feels leaving the MCU, but that’s to be expected.

Overall

There are moments where things seem alright. But for the most part, the campaign presents the movie as one to dread, the kind of effects-heavy disaster with big aspirations but a messy, incomprehensible story.

One reason for that dread is that the story isn’t mentioned at all – AT ALL – in the campaign. None of the trailers, posters or ads explain what it is, and even the official synopsis is sparse on details. So audiences are asked to sign up for an unknown quantity based solely on the idea of enjoying Downey and some talking animal hijinks. Considering outside of the MCU Downey doesn’t have a great theatrical track record in the last decade that’s a dicey bet to place.

Picking Up the Spare

I had missed this feature on the extensive and messy reshoot process the film underwent.

Downey finally did a few talk show appearances to promote the film, though his heart didn’t seem to be in it. There was also an interview on why he chose this to be his first major post-Marvel project, though it likely wasn’t intended to be so.

More here on the behind-the-scenes problems and various relationships that lead to the final production.