Over the course of the global pandemic, Universal Pictures was the first studio to bypass theaters and release select films via streaming, strike the only deals with major exhibitors to shorten the theatrical window, and introduce a new hybrid window that straddles theaters and homes.
That’s why 2020 will be remembered as a year full of bold moves for the trio of Universal marketing executives Variety is honoring with this year’s Marketing Visionary Award presented by Spotify: president of worldwide marketing Michael Moses, co-president of domestic marketing Dwight Caines and president of international marketing Simon Hewlett.
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It would be an understatement to say COVID-19 upended their business as the plans for dozens of movies scheduled over dozens of months to run in thousands of multiplexes worldwide had to be completely rethought. It was like nothing Moses experienced over the two decades he’s been promoting movies at Universal.
“It’s not unique to our business, but our business definitely felt it in in some pretty dramatic ways, as we’ve seen and are still undergoing,” he says.
Universal demonstrated its flair for the dramatic early on during the pandemic with the decision to take “Trolls World Tour,” an animated film scheduled to hit theaters in early April, and make it available to stream instead via premium VOD. It was a move that required Universal’s movie marketers to rethink just about everything about a marketing campaign that had already begun for “Trolls,” which would need to be re-pitched to consumers unfamiliar with being able to watch a movie intended for theaters at home for $19.99 a pop.
“We had to reconfigure our media balance, the mix between linear TV and digital,” recalls Caines. “We had to collaborate with our home entertainment colleagues to get up to speed on the retail partners who would help facilitate those transactions in the home. And we had to figure out how to make our publicity activity promotable. How were we going to take away the live in-person events, premieres and junkets and and facilitate those remotely? So a lot to do in a short period of time.”
Universal’s PVOD challenge extended overseas as well. “As the pandemic shut down countries around the world, we were literally on the eve of our first wave of international campaign launches for ‘Trolls World Tour,’” said Hewlett. “This meant some nimble replanning and pivoting our theatrical campaigns into PVOD campaigns in certain markets. In each of these PVOD markets, our territory and head office teams adapted quickly, rebuilding our target audience pools and redesigning the structure of our media campaigns to accommodate an event launch.”
One way Universal got attention for “Trolls” was with an audio-marketing campaign with Spotify for a “Harmonizer” digital experience on the streaming-music platform that allowed for customized playlists.
“I think the one of the things that we continue to talk about is, especially when we’re trying to be a premium choice, is how do we eventize the movie,” says Caines. “And so innovation is something that we always lean toward.”
The “Trolls” PVOD release was also practically a declaration of war against exhibitors who have been fighting any and all experimentation with PVOD for many years. But Universal wasn’t about to be deterred after its “Trolls” gambit proved successful, earning approximately $100 million in its first three weeks of streaming. Other PVOD releases followed from the studio, including Judd Apatow comedy “The King of Staten Island” and horror flick “You Should Have Left.”
“There was a little bit of a public war, and some grenades launched our way, that we were in some ways diminishing exhibition in the theatrical experience,” says Moses. “But then by proving over the course of the summer that different-sized and audience-driven movies can work in this space, it actually opened the door that had been somewhat shut for a long time to discuss with exhibition to more accurately address how the consumer behaves in this day and age.”
Discussions between Universal and the country’s largest exhibition chain, AMC Theatres, led to a first-of-its-kind deal in July that reduced the traditional 75-day window of exclusivity theaters enjoyed for films to a 15-day option. Cinemark followed AMC in November with a similar deal with Universal.
While its competitors have kept virtually all of the titles scheduled for release in 2020 in deep freeze until next year, Universal has a slew of films coming to the theaters the pandemic hasn’t shuttered in the coming months, including romance “All My Life” and the Tom Hanks-starrer “News of the World.”
Moses believes this will allow for a more efficient marketing strategy than the traditional double dose of spending studios typically lavish on theaters and home entertainment separately.
“I see a lot of these other movies that are going to have to do re-starter campaigns when they come into the home,” he says. “And that’s a costly proposition. And so we really believe that this is going to be increasingly the new normal, not just for us, but hopefully for the industry.”
One way Universal is no different than rivals like Warner Bros. or Disney is that it isn’t willing to bet on any kind of new release strategy for its biggest franchises. Blockbusters like “F9” and “Minions: Rise of the Gru” have been pushed to 2021, and their release dates could very well need to be delayed again if COVID-19 proves as persistent as many experts fear it could be in the U.S.
That uncertain state of affairs is one reasons Moses believes the traditional, extended arc of the average movie marketing campaign will be condensed by all studios who need to stay nimble. “I don’t think you’ll be seeing year-long campaigns that begin with a teaser and take a long journey,” he notes. “I think they’ll be much more compact. We’ll all be living in a more crowded, competitive atmosphere.”
Caines knows the competitive picture all too well, having come to Universal in 2018 after an earlier stint at Sony Pictures. One of the reasons he wanted to come to the studio was that its efforts on the inclusion front resulted in a great diversity on both sides of the camera long before it became a more urgent concern in Hollywood in 2020.
“I remember even seeing how provocative that ‘Get Out’ campaign was before I joined the company,” he recalls. “And it just floored me because I was like, ‘Wow, that is a risk that nobody’s taking.’”
With a focus on spreading the word on Universal films overseas, Hewlett has worked with Moses dating back to 2006. But 2020 will be his last year at the studio, having opted to exit after Universal decided to retool its marketing operations so that his job entailed working alongside Moses and Caines in Los Angeles instead of his home base in London.
Says Moses, “We’ve got a really flexible and agile group. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by people who are as smart and seasoned as they are.”
(Pictured up top from left to right: Moses, Caines, Hewlett)