nope – marketing recap

How Universal has sold another smart horror film.

Nope movie poster from Universal Studios
Nope movie poster from Universal Studios

Writer/director Jordan Peele returns with Nope, new in theaters this weekend. The movie stars Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer as OJ and Emerald Haywood, siblings who work the family farm with their father Otis Sr. (Keith David). When Otis Sr. is killed by a mysterious object that falls from the sky, the brother and sister enlist the help of a tech salesman (Brandon Perea) and a documentary filmmaker (Michael Wincott) to help prove the existence of UFOs.

Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Wrenn Schmidt and others also star in the film, which is projected to earn $45-55 million in its opening weekend.

Peele’s films always feature intriguing campaigns, so let’s take a look at how this one has been sold.

the marketing campaign

Universal announced the movie – then untitled – and gave it a 2022 release date in November of 2020. Palmer and Kaluuya were cast in February of 2021, with Yeun joining a month later.

The first poster came out in late July, serving also as the official announcement of the film’s title. Suitably ominous, it shows a small town nestled in a valley of hills, a small cloud hovering overhead. In a twist, that cloud has a string of flags tailing from it, as if it swallowed up event decorations somehow.

The release of the first trailer was teased in early February of this year with a spot that set the stage by using footage from Get Out and Us to establish Peele’s bonafides before offering a brief glimpse at the new movie.

That trailer (23m YouTube views) was released on Super Bowl Sunday and starts off with Emerald and OJ shooting a commercial for their horse training ranch. One night strange things start happening in the area around their ranch that have them and the other locals nervous and constantly looking toward the sky. What it is isn’t shown or even hinted at, but it clearly has the potential to cause lots of problems.

A commercial that cut down the trailer and teased audiences to go find it for even more aired during the Super Bowl as well, indicating Universal feels the mix of sci-fi/horror and Peele’s popularity had the potential to bring in a mass audience.

Another poster showing a horse and other objects being lifted into the night sky came out in early March.

A new still of Kaluuya accompanied a suitably vague interview with Peele, the director trying to sell the premise of the film without getting into specifics of the story.

Peele appeared on stage to talk about the movie when Universal showed off footage as part of its presentation at CinemaCon in April 2022. Later on, in June, it was among the movies Universal put on display to attendees of CineEurope.

Basketball star Steph Curry starred in a commercial that aired during the beginning of the NBA Playoffs.

In early June a featurette was released that starts off with Peele admitting the script he wrote then felt like it was going to be more than he could handle as a director, assembling a team to help him realize the vision. That’s about it for background, though, as it then just shows some of the finished footage along with behind-the-scenes shots.

The second trailer (13.8m YouTube views), which debuted in early June exclusively on Twitter Movies, starts off with Otis Sr. being killed by falling debris, prompting his kids to try and prove the existence of something strange happening in the clouds. They enlist the help of both Torres and Hoist in their quest, but things don’t go as smoothly as they hope. There’s a shot of a classic UFO at the end, but who knows how that fits in with the context of the story.

Another commercial puts shots of all the characters saying “nope,” “oh hell no” or some variation thereof to a catchy beat to show how they react to the danger they’re now confronted with. Additional spots, some of which wound up being used for online promos and pre-roll ads, arranged footage in slightly different ways to make the movie look alternatively terrifying, kind of funny or a mix of the two.

The IMAX logo appears reflected in the eye of a horse on an exclusive poster for that format that also touts how the film was shot with the company’s own cameras.

Peele’s talents as a writer, director and collaborator are all touted by the cast and crew in another featurette that focuses on the technical aspects of shooting what is a bigger production than his previous efforts. One more has Kaluuya and Palmer, along with Peele, talking about how the dynamic between the siblings plays a huge part in the structure of the story.

An extended commercial aired during the BET Awards broadcast at the end of June, this one again rearranging footage previously shown into something new to hit a specific vibe.

A UFO beams up a horse while flowers hover in the sky on the Dolby Cinemas poster, this one featuring a design looking like stitching on a pair of jeans.

At the beginning of July Peele shared the website for Jupiter’s Claim, the old west theme park seen in the trailers and commercials, that’s filled with easter eggs about the film’s story. Around that same time news broke that Jupiter’s Claim was scheduled to become a permanent part of Universal’s backlot tour, with the addition opening the same day the movie hits theaters.

The process of shooting with IMAX cameras was the subject of another featurette that once again covered how ambitious the project was for Peele and how he enlisted cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to help him figure out how to pull it off.

An interview with Peele had him talking about being part of the Black Horror genre and how he wanted to do something more with this movie to help it still be part of that while not being exploitative.

Kaluuya collaborated with fashion designer Jide Osifeso on an exclusive line of movie-inspired apparel.

Around the same time, people were invited to check out the virtual reality experience created by Horizon Worlds for Oculus. People who did so were given access later on to an exclusive clip from the film.

Media appearances began at this point, mid-July, with Peele on “GMA,” Yeun on “Kimmel,” Palmer on “The Tonight Show,” Kaluuya on “First We Feast” and more.

Kaluuya was the subject of a feature cover story that had him talking about how his career is going, what changes he’s making as a result of the success he’s had, reuniting with Peele and lots more.

Banner ads like the one below were run on Spotify and other websites, sending traffic to the movie’s official website where they could find out more, including how to buy tickets.

Nope movie banner ad
Nope movie banner ad

The cast and crew were all in attendance at the movie’s world premiere earlier this week, where they talked about working with Peele, the spectacle of the film and what kind of inspiration they all drew from.

SKYY Vodka introduced a new drink inspired by the movie, announced with a campaign including a TV spot featuring movie footage that then gives way to someone sipping a drink on a farmhouse porch.

Icee and Razer were also promotional partners, the former taking advantage of how their frozen drinks are prominently featured in the film (as hinted at in some of the trailers and featurettes) and the latter running a sweepstakes awarding winners autographed machines as well as other co-branded swag.

overall

You have to hand it to Peele, who appears to have created something unique and engaging. Like the director’s previous films, it seems like it has a social message accompanied by a fascinating story.

What’s even more notable is that Universal has sold it in an effective and consistent way, keeping the focus on the siblings at the core of the story while also positioning Peele as a brand in and of himself, taking advantage of the raves his earlier films have earned to give this one a sense of familiarity.

There are shades of M. Night Shyamalan here in how the film has been sold, but with one big exception: The characters are the primary selling point in this campaign, not the promise of some big twist that will leave audiences shocked. So it comes off as Shyamalan-esque but without the self-aware attributes that have become part and parcel of the marketing of that director’s films.

What Happened to First Man?

The $16.5 million grossed by First Man for Universal this past weekend is…underwhelming. In fact it’s a significant disappointment considering the movie was touted as a massive story about…wait, what was it about again?

Much of the post-game analysis in the entertainment press has focused on whether or not the controversy surrounding whether or not the movie featured significant enough placement of the American flag. A dust-up following press screenings had conservative commentators claiming the filmmakers omitted a shot of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) planting the flag after taking his first steps on the moon. Gosling, along with director Damien Chazelle, spent much of the time since saying there was plentiful usage of the flag elsewhere, just not in one scene.

What’s been overlooked is that the marketing campaign Universal ran never actually managed to answer that initial question: What is this about?

It’s something I was never able to quite figure out. The campaign certainly emphasized the reteaming of Gosling and Chazelle, playing off the popularity of La La Land a couple years ago. And there were a lot of big dramatic shots of Gosling as Armstrong looking very serious and very somber about the risks he was taking as he, with the rest of NASA, prepared to take the space program to the moon.

But what exactly is Armstrong looking so serious and somber about? That’s never really explained.

At best we get the sense he’s conflicted about his responsibility to exploration and his commitment to the mission, the risks of which mean he may not be able to live up to his responsibilities and commitments as a father and husband.

Even that message is muddled, though. The trailers were largely free of dialogue, choosing to emphasize the visuals more than the characters. So we never see hear Armstrong explain or rationalize why he loves his family so much but his mission more.

Another factor that may have triggered audience apathy is that we’ve seen this story before. The Right Stuff, “From the Earth to the Moon” and other dramatizations have covered similar ground and, because the marketing was presented mostly dialogue-free, it didn’t actually promise anything new was being added to the pop culture understanding of Armstrong or his mission.

Some of that was covered in the press coverage following festival and other screenings, but if you aren’t someone immersed in Film Twitter, odds are good you missed a lot of it, which means you missed a fair amount of background material.

Finally, there’s the fact that we may actually be all full up of stories about the stoic sacrifice of white men. The last major movie about the early days of NASA was 2016’s Hidden Figures, which told a story about the agency’s lunar mission much of the public was largely unfamiliar with. When Hidden Figures went wide the first weekend of January 2017, it played in 1,000 fewer theaters but grossed $6 million more than First Man. That was not only because it did break new ground in its story but it also opened up the trip to the moon, something that remains a touchstone in American history, to a whole new audience by showing the diverse nature of the team that made that mission possible. Women and people of color were suddenly a much bigger part of that story, whereas the contributions of white men have been covered quite well over the years.

It’s possible First Man could have legs and turn into a decent hit for Universal, but opening on 3,600+ screens doesn’t give it anywhere to expand to if word of mouth does indeed kick in. And the competition isn’t going to lighten up. If it couldn’t go up against the second frames of Venom and A Star Is Born it may not have the strength to take on the opening of The Hate U Give and Halloween.

There may have been some in the audience who took a pass because they believed the conservative commentators who blew what seemed to be a non-issue regarding the placement of the American flag at face value. But a confusing, emotionally-distant marketing campaign coupled with subject matter that seems out of touch with current societal trends certainly didn’t help make a convincing argument that this was a better way to spend time and money than, say, seeing Beautiful Boy in theaters or watching Private Life on Netflix.