Many films were delayed this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and companies had to come up with new marketing strategies as well as ways to release them. In this research, we take a look at case studies for the movies Mulan, Antebellum, and Tenet.
Marketing Strategies Used to Promote the Film
- The release of Mulan, just like many other films this year, was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. To market the film, a poster was released in July last year that showed Mulan holding a sword in civilian clothes and a reflection of her in battle clothes in the sword. A second poster was released in December the same year by Art Machine, a marketing agency, and this time around the poster showcased Mulan in an action pose looking both confident and deadly.
- Another series of posters by a different marketing agency, Ignition, came out in January 2020 with all of them showing Mulan being reflected in the sword or other weapons. They continued the theme of reflecting as well as forming an identity based on what one will become. Disney even decided to tie the film’s release to the Chinese New Year and put out a poster designed in the resemblance of a Chinese tapestry.
- When it was still believed that Mulan would come to theaters despite the pandemic, RealD 3D posters were released portraying Mulan in different artistic depictions such as guiding her horse into the battlefield and standing triumphantly on the battlefield among others. After it became clear the film would not go to theaters, a batch of new posters specifically for Disney+ came out in August with not only new dates but also a Disney+ messaging instead of ‘in theaters‘.
- A total of three trailers were also released to market Mulan. In July 2019, the first trailer was released and it got 29.2 million views on YouTube while the second trailer which was released in December got 18.3 million views. The final trailer released in early February performed poorly when compared to the others as it got 4 million views on the same platform.
- Disney also created a site for the film on its website, despite not creating sites for its other releases. The site contained marketing materials as well as “family activities like movie-themed snack recipes and a PDF activity packet to download.”
- TV advertising for Mulan started in January 2020, where a commercial recapping the film’s story was aired. Another wave of TV commercials took place in late February, and between these waves of TV advertising, the film also got commercial airing during the Super Bowl broadcast.
- Featurettes showcasing Liu Yifei’s training to become Mulan, how the characters represent elements of the Chinese culture, and the director talking about how she assembled workouts among others were also released. A video of athletes talking about how the personify Mulan’s attributes such as bravery and loyalty to excel in their sports was also released.
- After Disney pulled the film out of its theatrical release calendar in July because of the unpredictable environment caused by coronavirus, a new phase of marketing campaigns for the film began. The new campaigns included the call out that Mulan would be available to “Disney+ subscribers with Premier Access” exclusively after which it was clarified that it would be available to “Disney+ subscribers who unlock Premier Access.” Online ads including the “Premier Access language and linking to a Disney+ sign up page” started appearing in mid-August.
- In addition to media and press appearances such as Christina Aguilera appearing on Jimmy Kimmel to perform the soundtrack, Disney also released promotional videos to motivate people to purchase or stream the movie.
Mulan’s Box Office Numbers
- In its debut in Chinese theaters, Mulan made $23.2 million, which was on the low end and brought the movie’s total international box office to $37.6 million according to Bloomberg. On its second Friday after it was launched in China, Mulan declined by 82% earning only $1.47 million, and based on these numbers, Forbes wrote that the movie will barely make $45 million in China. However, Bloomberg stated that while 91% of theaters in China were open, they were restricted to half capacity because of COVID-19, and this might have attributed to the film’s low numbers.
- According to The Numbers, although Mulan had a $200 million budget, the film had only made a total of $58, 413,561 in theaters as of September 22, 2019, with $36.2 million coming from China. Currently, the film is ranked at position 10 in the 2020 Worldwide Box Office.
- However, while Mulan did not perform as expected in theaters, especially in China where it was expected to earn between $30 to $40 million on its first weekend, it might be a premium video on demand (PVOD) hit. According to Forbes, Mulan allegedly earned between $80 to $90 million in its first week of PVOD release. The article further said that if the film earns around $250 million in global PVOD, this would be equivalent to $500 million in global theatrical grosses, which would be a decent result.
Why Mulan has not Met Expectations
- Other than being released amid a pandemic, one of the reasons why Mulan did not perform as expected in China is the controversy that surrounds it. CNN Business reported that Disney publicly thanked a government agency that is accused of abusing human rights in Xinjiang for the role it played in making the movie, and this caused an online uproar. In addition to calls for boycotting the film, several human rights advocates are also asking Disney to publicly announce any agreements it made with the Chinese government for it to be allowed to film in the region.
- Isaac Stone Fish of the Asia Society said, “It’s deeply disturbing that Disney thought it was okay to partner with, and also thank, government departments, specifically propaganda departments, and a public security bureau from a region in China that is complicit with genocide.”
- Pro-democracy activists in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan also asked people to boycott the film because of remarks that Liu Yifei made in August 2019. Yifei’s post on Weibo read, “I support the Hong Kong police. You can all attack me now. What a shame for Hong Kong.” One of the posters for Mulan was edited to show an image of Yifei with a communist sign on her forehead and her post on Weibo on the side with the hashtag #boycottmulan and circulated online.
- Other allegations such as the film using Chinese stereotypes and Japanese ‘ninja gestures‘, characters speaking bad English because they are Asian, and a mix-up of Chinese elements are also some of the reasons why Mulan did not perform as expected.
Differences Between Mulan’s Marketing and Other Disney Films
- We could not get a credible source directly outlining the differences between Mulan’s marketing and other Disney or Niki Caro’s films. However, some differences were evident as we analyzed how the film was marketed. According to Cinematic Slant, after it was evident that Mulan could not go to the theaters, Disney created a site for Mulan despite the fact that it did not “create sites for other Disney+ releases.”
- Additionally, since Mulan could not go to the theaters like how other Disney moves normally do when they launch, Disney was forced to ditch the RealD 3D posters that were meant for a theater experience and released a batch of new posters specifically for Disney+ with new dates as well as a Disney+ messaging instead of ‘in theaters‘.
- New campaigns with the call out that Mulan would be exclusively available “Disney+ subscribers who unlock Premier Access” and online ads including the “Premier Access language and linking to a Disney+ sign-up page” were also released.
Marketing Strategies Used to Promote the Film
- The marketing of Antebellum started in November last year when P + A, a marketing agency, released 3 posters that featured the same image of a butterfly stuck to a background while bleeding down a wall. However, while the image was the same, the backgrounds had different colors symbolizing the “impression of a changeable reality of some kind.” Another poster released in early March this year showcased the same butterfly but this time it was placed over Henley’s mouth with her face conveying a sense of alarm presenting the audience with a mystery. According to Forbes, Lionsgate’s marketing for Antebellum appeared to be aggressively mysterious and cryptic.
- Trailers were also used in the marketing of the movie. The first trailer which focused on creating an air of mystery and suspense was released in November 2019, and it had 6.8 million views on YouTube. The second trailer was short, and it had 180,000 views on YouTube after it was released in March this year. After a new release date was announced in May this year, the third trailer was released and it debuted on Jimmy Kimmel Live. It got 5.7 million views on YouTube. Finally, after release plans for the movie changed again in early August, a fourth trailer was released, and just like the second one, it did not get many views as it only had 142,000 views on YouTube.
- In addition to trailers and short clips, Antebellum’s official website also had a story synopsis and a photo gallery among other major marketing materials. The website also communicated that VOD options were available and provided social network profiles that offered updates in the build-up to release.
- Several clips that offered the important aspects of the film, a snippet of music from the film and short videos that were used as online promos are some of the marketing strategies that were used to market Antebellum. Janelle Monae who plays the role of Veronica Henley in the film appeared in Jimmy Kimmel Live, Good Morning America, and The Late Show among other interviews to push the movie. Cinematic Slant stated that it was smart for Lionsgate to put Monae at the center of the marketing campaign not only because she is the “lead role but because she brings with her a strong fanbase and public persona.”
Antebellum’s Box Office Numbers
- Because of the pandemic, Lionsgate decided to skip a domestic theatrical release of Antebellum for PVOD priced at $19.99. Joe Drake of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group said, “While the theatrical experience will always be the heart of our business, we are thrilled that we are able to seize the opportunity to match Gerard and Chris’s urgent and immediate film with a release strategy befitting this moment of extraordinary change.”
- According to The Numbers, as of September 21, 2020, Antebellum had made $1, 464,417 in theaters with $592,355, $494,038, and $309,585 coming from France, Spain, and the Netherlands respectively. The film is ranked at position 76 in 2020 Worldwide Box Office.
- While we could not get credible sources directly stating whether Antebellum has been successful or met expectations, for a film whose budget was approximately $15 million, we can assume that it has not performed very well. Additionally, there have been plenty of negative reviews and criticisms since the movie was released. The success of the movie is now dependent on PVOD numbers and the good thing about a PVOD release is that Lionsgate will not have to share the film’s revenue 50-50 with theaters so even if PVOD revenue will be lower, it will still keep a higher share.
Why Antebellum has not Met Expectations
- The postponement of release dates and releasing the film amid a pandemic might be the major causes of why Antebellum did not perform well in box office numbers. The criticisms that the movie received during the weekend it was released could also be a reason why it did not meet expectations. An article by Forbes stated that while the film had lush cinematography, it did not make up for “Black people being brutalized and humiliated by white people for most of the movie.” Forbes further stated that Antebellum can pass for a “stereotypical Lifetime movie where the female protagonist spends 90% of the movie being victimized, but it’s empowering because she kills her assailant/abuser/etc. just before the credits roll.”
- Negative reviews such as “Lacking a strong point of view to grant interiority to its characters, its approach to horror and social commentary becomes deadened,” “Antebellum is ultimately a travesty of craft and filmmaking with a perspective that hollows out the Black experience in favor of wan horror,” and “It is a grossly miscalculated waste of talent, resources, and time” can also highlight why the movie did not meet expectations.
Differences Between Antebellum’s Marketing and Other Lionsgate Films
- Antebellum directors, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz stated that they created the film to be enjoyed as a communal experience in the theater, but they are still happy that they got an opportunity to “pivot it to a different kind of communal moment.” Because of the shift in how the movie was released, Lionsgate had to not only create awareness for the new option but also find an audience.
- Lionsgate’s D2C & Data Manager, Elizabeth Kim, said that used social, programmatic, and OTT to look for its new audience and while it normally targets men between ages 25 to 54, the first PVOD released attracted a large female audience. Kim also revealed that they ran a social media awareness campaign for a couple of days targeting customers on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube platforms and the performance was phenomenal. Compared to other times, they used any algorithms within the platforms that they could to improve conversion.
Marketing Strategies Used to Promote the Film
- Before the release of Tenet, three posters came out, all carrying a common theme of war-like scenes in the background, accompanied by a feel of split realities. The first poster was released in December 2019 by a marketing agency called BOND, while the second one that got released in July this year was by Concept Arts. The third poster which displayed the director’s name and mentioned some of his previous hit films such as Inception and Dunkirk was released by IMAX later in July.
- Trailers are a great way to market movies, and this was no different for Tenet despite the pandemic. Three trailers were released to market this movie with each revealing a bit more than the one before it. The first one which was released in December 2019 had 24 million views on YouTube, and it left the audience itching to know more thanks to its brilliant and enigmatic nature. The second trailer with 28.7 million views on YouTube was released in May and it debuted on Fortnight, where it screened every hour with the aim of capturing the attention of the wide gaming community. After the release plans were finalized, the final trailer which further revealed more details of the movie as well as the final release date was released in August and had 9.8 million views on YouTube.
- Advertising and publicity was another strategy used to market the film. A good buzz was created when a surprise teaser which was attached to Hobbs and Shaw got released in August 2019.
- Notably, each trailer had an accompanying advertising and publicity strategy. A big ad buy including a large digital ad at Times Square signage was put out when the first trailer was being released. On the other hand, the second trailer had hourly fortnight screening. In August when the third trailer was released, Skyscape released a video which enlightens the audience on the mystery surrounding the word ‘Tenet.’ Popular rapper, Travis Scott, also “teased a song he created for the film, one that was previewed before its scheduled debut during TNT’s broadcast of the Mavericks/Clippers game on 8/21.” According to Variety, Warner Bros. also relied heavily on internet videos and social media to support the film’s campaign.
Tenet’s Box Office Numbers
- It goes without saying that Tenet’s sales are far from what it could have been in an ideal situation without the pandemic. With many theaters closed, sales from films have dropped drastically. Tenet was set to be one of the biggest movies of the summer, but the conditions under which the film were released was unprecedented, making analyzing the performance of the film more difficult than usual. Nevertheless, the film appears to be performing within the expected range domestically. Released in September in America, the film was expected to gross about $24.5 million over the Labor Day weekend, and it ended up earning around $20.2 million.
- The film has had better fortunes internationally as restrictions seemed to have been eased at the time of the release. Warner Bros. reported that their international sales reached a total of $129 million after two weeks. The film was also reported to have done $30 million within the first three days in China, which is a new record for Christopher Nolan, the film’s director.
- In a statement, Toby Emmerich, the chairman of Warner Bros., credited Nolan with the ‘success’ of the film. David A. Gross, the Principal of Franchise Entertainment Research, described the turnout of the film as fair. He added that the film would have done $50 million on its first weekend was it not for the pandemic. Nevertheless, while the film might not get wildly successful if theaters remain closed, most analysts agree that it will beat the $500 million mark that it needs to make a profit.
- Despite the low sales, Tenet is already the fourth bestselling movie of the year. Moreover, considering that it had the biggest opening in the movie industry since the pandemic, Tenet can be considered as a success in these unprecedented times.
Why Tenet Can be Considered Successful
- One of the reasons for the success of Tenet is because it was highly anticipated from the start as people looked forward to seeing a more outstanding performance by Nolan as he has had tremendous success as a director, and has captivated his audience numerous times before with films such as Dunkirk, Inception, and the Batman trilogy among many others. He has emerged to be a filmmaker who can capture audiences with any concept, and this might be why Warner Bros. was comfortable giving him a $200 million budget.
- However, there has been a lot of talk about how the film did not meet expectations, but these are unprecedented times in the film industry, and movies are not expected to perform as they would have in normal situations. People are taking health precautions amid the pandemic, causing the film to do dismal numbers in theaters, thus driving the talk of Tenet’s failure.
Differences Between Tenet’s Marketing and Other Warner Bros. Films
- We could not get credible sources directly outlining the differences between Tenet’s marketing compared to any other Warner Bros. or Nolan’s films. Tenet has had a more traditional marketing strategy, unlike Mulan, which introduced new marketing strategies after canceling domestic theatrical appearances and switched to PVOD. However, the president of WorldWide Marketing, Theatrical and Home Entertainment at Warner Bros said, “What our traditional campaign would look like is not what this campaign looks like.”
- In an interview, Rich said, “With the world still grappling with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Warner Bros. needs to think beyond the concept of corralling moviegoers to a single opening night.” The executive also mentioned that although the film trailer is running on TV, it is mainly in live sports broadcasts. Moreover, it is not yet known whether the film will do the traditional 70-day run before transitioning to on-demand videos.