Just over a year ago, Universal Pictures gathered the cast of “F9: The Fast Saga” in Miami during Super Bowl weekend for what co-host Maria Menounos called “a massive concert celebration.” The list of performers, including Cardi B, Wiz Khalifa, Charlie Puth, Ozuna and “F9” co-star Ludacris, was impressive. Livestreamed across the world, the event clocked in at nearly two hours — all to launch the first trailer for the next installment of the global franchise sensation.
The stunt worked like gangbusters. The 3-minute, 50-second trailer racked up more than 439 million views over its first five days on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, revving up a frenzy of anticipation for the movie’s debut over Memorial Day weekend.
Two months later, the coronavirus shut down the country, Universal pushed “F9” for a year, and the immense marketing machinery designed to catapult the movie into one of the biggest theatrical events of the year was quietly switched off and rolled into a garage.
Now, with the Memorial Day 2021 debut of “F9” looming, Universal — like every other studio — faces yet another unprecedented challenge in the COVID-19 era: how to market global tentpole movies in a post-pandemic (or, really, still-pandemic) landscape in 2021 that it already marketed in a pre-pandemic 2020.
“There is a certain spoilage from any film sitting on the shelf for very long,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “They just become stale after a while, and nobody even really wants to talk about it.”
Just about every studio is confronting this issue. Paramount’s “A Quiet Place Part II” had screened for critics, and its cast had walked a red-carpet premiere, before the horror sequel’s March 2020 release was ultimately pushed to September 2021. The campaign for the latest James Bond movie, “No Time to Die,” was in full swing before the shutdown in advance of its April 2020 premiere, including the release of Billie Eilish’s title song; now MGM isn’t slated to debut the film until October 2021. Last September, to promote the first trailer for “Dune,” Warner Bros. hired Stephen Colbert to interview director Denis Villeneuve and the cast — including Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Josh Brolin and Oscar Isaac — over Zoom. One month later, the studio pushed the sci-fi epic from December 2020 to October 2021.
And just days before the pandemic put the film industry into total lockdown, Disney released what it billed as the “final trailer” for the latest Marvel Studios feature, “Black Widow” — capping off a campaign that included a teaser trailer, a “special look,” a Super Bowl ad and a “legacy featurette,” all of which have amassed more than 78 million views on YouTube alone. Originally set to open on May 1, 2020, “Black Widow” is scheduled to premiere May 7, 2021 (though that could certainly change again), and Disney is contending with the prospect of restarting a marketing campaign that launched in December 2019.
“I think a lot of people probably think that ‘Black Widow’ has already been released, or should have been released by now,” says Bock.
The studio did make one crucial early decision, however, that should ease its efforts: After “Black Widow” was initially rescheduled to November 2020, Disney shut down all promotion for the movie and hasn’t restarted it since.
“The last thing you want to do when you’re in this situation is to overmarket with your campaign or oversaturate with your materials,” says Disney president of marketing Asad Ayaz. When the new campaign does begin, Ayaz says his team will introduce original materials that will take a fresh approach to selling the movie.
When the campaign can launch, however, remains unknowable. To get a sense of how tentative the marketing landscape has become over the past year, consider that for this year’s Super Bowl, Universal quietly purchased a 30-second ad for “F9” during the pregame show rather than during the game itself, with the vague tagline “In Theaters Soon.” But the studio isn’t releasing any more major ”F9” materials until the COVID-19 vaccine outlook becomes much clearer.
“We haven’t put out a second trailer yet, which will really be the indicator that our campaign is restarting,” says Universal chief marketing officer Michael Moses. “We won’t do that until we’re absolutely certain of what our ultimate destination is. It’s all a little bit of a game of get ready and wait.”
Nobody wants to say it out loud, but once again, “Tenet” is the cautionary tale here: The hopscotching release dates for the Christopher Nolan thriller last summer forced Warner Bros. to rework its marketing a few times over, with some posters even containing the wrong release date. To avoid that fate, insiders say no one wants to pull the trigger until a release is set in stone, with as little as three to four weeks’ advance notice if necessary.
“In a typical world, you would say, ‘I need at least six months before release to mount a full campaign,’” says Moses. “In this world, we are all trying to retain as much flexibility for as long as we can.”
There are at least a couple silver linings to selling a global tentpole in a pandemic. “People aren’t seeing trailers every time they go to a movie because they’re simply not going to movies regularly,” says Moses. “There’s not the chance to wear out your welcome. We simply can’t have that old feeling we sometimes got of ‘Ugh, I’ve seen that same trailer 40 times.’”
Instead, studios have shifted their resources online, where data-rich portals allow for more efficient, targeted campaigns. “You’re no longer trailering movies on the big screen in movie theaters and promoting them in lobbies,” says Ayaz. “You are now promoting online at a much larger scale.”
Disney’s recent campaigns for “Mulan” (which debuted on Disney Plus via the company’s Premiere Access PVOD
model) and “Soul” (which went straight to streaming) have also underlined the shifting metabolism for global marketing campaigns. “For a theatrical film, you’re building to the opening weekend, and then you have some sustain afterwards,” says Ayaz. “For a Disney Plus launch, the post-launch campaign is as important as your pre-launch campaign.”
The goal, everyone still agrees, is to get back to a purely theatrical model for global tentpoles. But with so much uncertainty about vaccinations and safety, studios’ campaigns will need a wider scope than just an individual film.
“Part of our job collectively is to remind people of that experience that you can’t replicate in isolation on your couch, that comes from communing with others in front of a big screen and feeling that group catharsis,” says Moses. “I think we all hope and believe that there’s going to be the one big movie that defibrillates the inertia and gets people back into theaters. What is that movie and when does it come? We don’t know. But we need to be ready for it when it does.”