Movie marketers think of their work as a form of storytelling. They start by introducing the characters, usually by way of a poster or first-look shots. Then they build suspense with a teaser and start laying down exposition with media profiles, TV appearances, and full-length trailers. We’re now seeing what happens when this narrative, designed to turn a movie lover into a ticket buyer, is interrupted by a yearlong “To be continued….”
“It can seem like coitus interruptus,” said Peggy Rajski, dean of the film school at Loyola Marymount University and an Oscar-winning short-film director. “How long can you sustain peak excitement?” Rajski believes movie fans are primed to return to theaters as soon as they can, especially for big spectacle films. “But you cannot keep teasing, teasing, teasing.”
Many theatrical films veered onto streaming services over the past months, but a handful have remained, much like the public itself, in lockdown, awaiting the moment when it will be safe again to venture out to the multiplex. A few of these titles—the new James Bond film, the Top Gun sequel, and Marvel’s Black Widow movie prominent among them—were agonizingly close to their premieres when coronavirus struck, with tens of millions in advertising already spent. Those movies have created a new challenge for Hollywood: To build awareness again, you have to make people forget.
“There’s a lot of power in going quiet and coming back in a way that gets people excited,” says Asad Ayaz, president of marketing at Walt Disney Studios. “You don’t want to oversaturate. You don’t want anything to feel like it’s been around for a long time. There’s a lot of advantage in going dark until the time is right.”
Disney has pushed Black Widow steadily forward on the release calendar, saving it exclusively for theaters even as other films, such as its live-action Mulan and Pixar’s Soul, debuted via the Disney+ streaming service. Originally set for May 1 of last year, Black Widow shifted first to November 2020, then to May 2021, which proved to be overly optimistic. Recently, it moved back again to July, and now it will premiere in both theaters and for Disney+ subscribers who are willing to pay a premium for it. The trailer has been obsessively dissected by fans, and glossy covers featuring Scarlett Johansson have appeared on magazines. Normally, those would be successes—except that they happened nearly a year ago.
“We started a campaign, the campaign was off to a huge start, and we had an amazing response to our materials,” Ayaz says. “Then when the film moved and we no longer had a release date, we made the very clear strategic decision to pause. We paused the campaign. We wanted to wait to see how the world recovered. We did not want to over-market the movie in any way. We also didn’t know how long the delay would be.” The sudden halt saved some of the footage that might otherwise have been squandered. “We have some really fun ideas that were for the second half of the campaign that haven’t even come out into the world yet,” he said. “Largely, we’re going to look to refresh.”
“You can relaunch anything…. But when you’ve already SPENT $30 MILLION, and you’ve got to start that cash register up again, IT’S PAINFUL.”
Movie fanatics yearning for more teases, more photos, and more details during this downtime may not realize that marketing teams often have limited resources, not in terms of budgets (which can rival the cost of the movie itself) but in terms of clips, photos, and interview availability with the stars. Rationing has always been part of the process. One veteran marketing executive explains that filmmakers usually release only a few scant minutes of a movie to help sell it—and sometimes they’re the best scenes, which makes them even more valuable. “You want to save those things for when they’re going to actually matter,” says the executive. “What you don’t want to do is waste all your assets. We once put out a trailer and two or four 30-second TV spots for a big movie. And then four film clips. Then someone came in one day and said, ‘We need to have exclusive clips for cell phones,’ and I literally started crying. I was like, ‘We only have seven minutes of material.’ ”
That makes austerity the only sensible course for studio marketers right now, says the source. Those who have already revealed their best material will have to spend more money to rejuvenate it: “You can relaunch anything. You won’t get the editorial coverage [of a trailer] because it’s already been out, but there’s no reason you can’t buy your way into the world. But when you’ve already spent $30 million or $20 million, and then you’ve got to start that cash register up again, that’s when it’s painful.”
Another studio marketing expert points out that it’s important that moviegoers continue feeling anticipation with postponed films, even if that means resurfacing material that has already been out. “The trick is keeping it in the back of people’s minds instead of the forefront, which is not something movie marketers are used to doing,” he says. “You have to keep the engine warm, even if you’re just circling around the block.” That becomes more difficult as the months pass.
Top Gun: Maverick originally aimed for a debut in July 2019 but was postponed for a year due to production issues attributed to its complex flight sequences. That delay landed it squarely in the peak of the pandemic, which forced it to be shifted again, to December 2020—and then again to July 2021. If that date holds, which remains to be seen, its first trailer, which Tom Cruise introduced at San Diego Comic-Con in 2019, will be two years old.
The danger is not just that a film might feel stale to moviegoers, but that the teams tasked with generating the hype will burn out. One project supervisor at a company that develops movie trailers says the downtime has led to endless tinkering, which can deplete creativity: “We were working on [movies] off and on throughout the year, never knowing when they were going to come out. We kept rushing to finish, only to be told that a film was moved back. You don’t know if what you’re making is for real—or is it a drill again?” Just like the assets themselves, enthusiasm can be a finite commodity. “You’re not mailing it in, but it’s not as fresh to you, so it is harder to have the same energy on it that you had a year ago.”
No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s 007 finale, was originally planned for late 2019 but found itself moving inadvertently into the pandemic due to production delays. As 2021 started with vaccinations underway but infections still spiking, EON Productions and distributor MGM pushed it a third time due to the virus, now to October. That announcement in late January inspired countless jokes on Twitter: Looks like there’s plenty of time to die.
Stephen Bruno, chief marketing officer at MGM, said the loyalty of 007 fans has kept the character vital over six decades, and he thinks it will endure this extended delay. “We never take that passion for granted,” he says. “We’re constantly assessing the global theatrical landscape and had to make difficult decisions to move to later time frames, when theatrical moviegoing is expected to be more widely available. We make those decisions with the fans, exhibition, and our promotional partners in mind every time. There is no perfect formula to this unprecedented moment unfortunately.”
Rajski, the Loyola dean, is among those still dying to see No Time to Die. “I have a special affinity for the Bond films, and Skyfall was the third date with my husband,” she says. “I still remember when I saw the Bond trailer. I was ready to race out the door and go see it. And even though that now had to be over a year ago, I still remember that feeling of like, Oh my God, I can hardly wait to see this movie.” For now, waiting is exactly what she’ll have to do.
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