candyman – marketing recap

How Universal is selling a sequel to a horror classic with a contemporary twist

candyman teaser poster

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.

DaCosta made Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch list in early 2021.

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.”

overall

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.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Marketing Recap

How Netflix is selling a historial, but unfortunately still timely, drama.

The right of citizens to assemble freely while seeking redress from their government is one of those ideas and ideals, like “all Nazis are bad,” that seemed relatively settled and uncontroversial up until about four or five years ago. Those in power, though, often don’t care for it when those who aren’t rise up en masse and point out problems, inequalities or other issues plaguing society. We’ve seen…several…examples of that in recent months.

The Trial of the Chicago 7, out this week on Netflix from writer/director Aaron Sorkin, tells the story of a similar protest from over 50 years ago as well as the aftermath of those actions. Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp, Daniel Flaherty, Noah Robbins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II play, respectively, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale.

Those men all assembled in Chicago for the 1968 Democratic Convention, leading and organizing protests against the Vietnam War, racial inequality and other social issues. Those protests were met with violent pushback from the Chicago police, who used tear gas and other methods on those in attendance. Ultimately the eight were charged with conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot, though the conventional wisdom is those charges were only an excuse to punish those who had embarrassed then Mayor Richard J. Daley, who had denied many of the requested protest permits.

The movie arrives just as the U.S. has seen months of protests – the vast majority of which have been non-violent – over some of the same types of issues, especially the treatment of Blacks by police. Then, as now, those involved have been labeled as agitators or worse. The lack of headline-making charges and trials may only be because many individuals have been disappeared by shady Department of Homeland Security agents, though everyday police have certainly done their part as well.

Then, as is the case now, the whole world is watching.

Paramount originally developed the movie but sold it off to Netflix in July, seeing no other options given the multiple issues caused by this year’s pandemic. While it hits streaming this week, Netflix did give the film – which has a 94% Fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating – a small drive-in release in the last few weeks.

The Posters

Hoffman is walking up the courthouse steps on the poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts), released in mid-September. He’s flanked not only by Chicago PD but by supporters of him and the other defendants. Not only does it label the movie as “Based on a true story” and call out Sorkin’s dual involvement, but the narrative is framed in the copy reading “In 1968, democracy refused to back down.” That makes it clear those being persecuted are on the side of light in this story, while those doing the persecuting are the adversaries. It’s almost a case of those in power exhibiting facist tendencies in trying to quell speech while others take more of an “against facism” approach.

The Trailers

The teaser trailer (809,000 views on YouTube) came out in mid-September and immediately establishes both the setting of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention protests and the resulting trial, which is clearly shown to be an attack on free speech and political thought.

All of that is expanded on in the full trailer (767,000 views on YouTube), released shortly thereafter. On one side you have the establishment that is tired of a bunch of punks telling them how to do their jobs. On the other you have Hoffman and his allies, who are clear in their plans to protest the Vietnam War in Chicago. The resulting trial is shown to be, for all intents and purposes, rigged from the outset as the judge and prosecutor have their thumbs on the scales of justice. But those on trial have numbers on their side, as we hear repeatedly the cries of “The whole world is watching.”

Online and Social

Surprisingly, there was actually a website Netflix created for the film, though it had only the basic marketing information along with details on where those in-person screenings were happening.

Advertising and Promotions

A clip released at the end of last month shows Hoffman testifying in court and making his feelings on the proceedings known. Additional clips came out over the next few weeks.

The singer Celeste released a video for her new song “Hear My Voice” that’s featured on the film’s soundtrack.

Last week Netflix hosted a drive-in premiere screening at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena with Sorkin and others in attendance.

Spots like this distilled the story down to the core drama, especially the courtroom sequences, while highlighting the all-star cast featured in the film.

Media and Press

During TIFF Sorkin talked about how he staged the filming of the movie, including how he felt it could have been a musical.

A THR cover story in the film had Sorkin, Cohen and others from the cast all commenting not only on the film itself and its release strategy but also on the relevance of the story as it relates to the protests happening across the country right now.

Sorkin was interviewed on similar topics, including how his history as a playwright factors into how he crafted the story and shot the movie. More details also came out about how Netflix adjusted its release plans to cope with the pandemic once it acquired the title and how Sorkin was anxious for the film to finally come out, regardless of what format that took, as well as how he worked to create something that was true to the period but also timeless for today.

How Strong prepared for the role was covered in an interview with the actor while Redmayne appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about working with Sorkin. Despite having a prominent role, Cohen seems to have not done much press for the film, maybe because he’s ramping up the marketing for his surprise Borat sequel that comes out soon.

Overall

As stated at the outset, the story here is unfortunately still pertinent to the times we find ourselves in now. That has been reflected in the publicity push more than anything, while the rest of the actual marketing has been more focused on Sorkin and the cast.

What jumps out the most is that both the teaser and full trailers have surprisingly low viewing numbers. Combined they amount to just over 1.5 million views, which is below even what other mid-level dramas have racked up. Perhaps Netflix didn’t use paid advertising to boost those numbers, but even so, for a movie with a cast like this and from a popular writer/director that doesn’t seem to indicate widespread awareness or interest.

Whether or not that would have been different if everything else had remained normal and it were coming from Paramount to theaters is a question without an answer. But at this point its best hopes may lie in getting people’s attention through in-app promotions and recommendations.

Picking Up The Spare

The movie’s costume designer was interviewed about channeling the styles of the era and making them part of the film’s look. 

A new featurette had Sorkin talking about how he developed the story and what inspired him while working on it. Another focused on the real story the film is based on. 

Sorkin also spoke in an interview about meeting the real Tom Hayden and shooting in Chicago. 

Strong was interviewed about reuniting with Sorkin and going all-out in his performance. Abdul-Mateen II spoke about his experience shooting the film and hanging with the cast

Michael Keaton wasn’t a big part of the initial publicity or marketing push but has done a couple interviews since then. 

Netflix bought a paid Trending Topic on Twitter to drive awareness of the film. 

While he was promoting Borat, Cohen also talked more about filming this movie.