Here Are the Winners and Losers of This Summer’s Movie Marketing

Jason Bourne, Finding Dory and more

It's September, which means a few things: School is back in session. Squirrels are starting to hunt for and bury their winter food. We're all pulling hoodies out from the back of our closet. Pumpkin-spice has reemerged from its summer hibernation.

And the summer movie season is officially in the rearview mirror.

The last few weeks have seen the entertainment press engage in all sorts of hand-wringing over the state of the movie business. The overall box-office picture is being painted in broad terms of super-hits or super-flops, people are openly questioning whether movies still matter in 2016 and more, as the press and others try to make sense of a world where their full-throated recommendations of select movies are ignored by fans in favor of, well, anything else.

Before you go to your local Walgreen's/CVS/Duane Reade and start stocking up on the Halloween candy that's already on store shelves, let's take a look at how the four big categories of movies were sold to audiences this summer. Specifically, let's look at the movies making up the summer's top 20 releases, as tracked by Box Office Mojo.

(Note that these aren't perfect breakdowns, with lots of movies fitting into multiple categories. Go with me here, though, and allow some wiggle room.)

• Animated Movies

2016, more than any other year, was when we started asking if animated movies necessarily equate to "kids" movies 100 percent of the time. Of course the answer is, and always has been, no. But that was borne out with particular clarity thanks to the unexpected success of Sausage Party, the Seth Rogen comedy about sentient hot dogs and other denizens of the supermarket. With its R-rating and decidedly adult subject matter, Sausage Party was clearly marketed at grownups with its collection of red-band trailers and sexual-innuendo laced campaign.

The extent to which other animated features were trying to reach adults wasn't much less, though. Both The Secret Life of Pets and The Angry Birds Movie got campaigns that were ostensibly targeted at kids but which spent significant energy trying to reach an older audience. That was largely through jokes that mean more to adults than to kids, including references to older movies and themes that won't resonate with children but will with their parents. The goal, it seems, is to tell the older crowd that they'll actually enjoy movies they're going to be dragged to anyway.

Finding Dory, the summer's overall box-office winner, is the exception. That campaign was sweet and emotional and almost completely devoid of cynicism and "hip" factor. Instead, it sold the movie as one that would make you laugh and pull on your heartstrings in a way that's completely sincere. Sure, it benefited from being a sequel and so it was able to draw on known characters and situations. But even moving past that, the marketing sought to reach all audiences, not through winking gags but through a story that was appropriate for all audiences.

• Sequels

This is a big category, the biggest of the year, with nine of the top 20 movies from the summer release season. That included two superhero movies (Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse), two entries in franchises that had taken significant time off (Jason Bourne and Independence Day: Resurgence), two horror flicks (The Purge: Election Year and The Conjuring 2) and lots more. Interestingly, the tactics of most of the movies here broke into some familiar categories.

Captain America and X-Men both featured teams of previously friendly superpowered individuals facing off against each other, and that was the dominant theme in both campaigns. Not only did trailers show teams locked in combat and tense conversations about how someone didn't really want to do what they were doing, but the promotional tie-in partners extended that to their efforts.

Candy and other consumer goods companies used "X vs. Y" on cobranded packaging, ran sweepstakes along those lines and more. The American public has already voted like five times this year, and November is still a ways off, though significant questions about possible voting fraud via M&Ms purchasing are still out there.

Meanwhile, pop-culture nostalgia reigned when it came time to selling Jason Bourne: No One Mention Jeremy Renner and Independence Day: Resurgence. Both worked to bring back dormant franchises and give them a shot in the arm, and both relied heavily on making sure audiences remembered what it was that made earlier entries popular. Bourne kept telling us "You know his name" like it was Sam Kinnison yelling at us in American History class, and ID: R kept promising even bigger global upheaval alongside characters who trotted out slightly modified versions of their 1994 one-liners.

If there's any originality in sequel marketing, it came in the horror genre. The Purge: Election Year in particular sold a new take on the familiar concept of a single night that allows the entire country to blow off steam. OK, it did that by turning the franchise into Escape from New York, but let's judge on a curve here. At least the marketing wasn't constantly reminding us of previous movies, instead selling a more or less original story.

Similarly, The Conjuring 2's campaign tried to sell something new. In this way, these two campaigns show that horror audiences, unlike fans of other genres, want something different, not just more of the same.

(Let's not discuss Alice Through the Looking Glass or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. It … it just hurts, and the box office for both shows there was no appetite for movies that had nothing of interest to say.)

• Remakes and Reboots