2017 was a rough year for Hollywood at the box office. Based on actual tickets sold, it was the worst theatrical summer since 1992 and the worst overall year since 1995.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi closed out the year on a strong note, bringing in $522 million domestically to quickly become the highest grossing film of 2017, surpassing Beauty and the Beast. There were other strong holiday releases. Families turned out for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The Greatest Showman overcame disappointing reviews to gross almost $50 million so far. And Pitch Perfect 3 ended the trilogy with a good theatrical showing.
Still, it wasn’t enough to reverse the growing trend that moviegoing just isn’t what it used to be. Theater owners are scrambling to make moviegoing a premiere, luxury event focused on effects-heavy blockbusters, while people increasingly prefer to view literally everything else from the convenience of home.
The weak box office comes, though, in a year that had some of the most interesting and unique movie marketing in recent memory. These campaigns may not have always led to massive success, but many were innovative and inclusive in making a pitch to an audience of moviegoers that’s increasingly female and non-white. They sold mysteries to be unlocked and discovered, or simply promised a good time at the theater.
So, presented in no particular order, here are some of 2017’s most memorable movie marketing campaigns.
The Lego Batman Movie
At every turn, Warner Bros. promoted The Lego Batman Movie as being both part of the character’s 75-plus year legacy and something completely unlike what had come before. After the character, voiced by Will Arnett, broke out in 2015’s The Lego Movie, it was inevitable he would get his own movie. The campaign made it clear it would be more than just a cash grab (cough, Lego Ninjago Movie, cough) but something with humor that would appeal to all audiences and be a welcome, lighthearted change from the super-dour Dark Knight of Batman v Superman the year before.
The first trailer for Get Out dropped just a few months out from its February 2017 release and largely took people by surprise. What was this horror movie written and directed by Jordan Peele, best known as one half of Key and Peele? The campaign kept many of the story’s twists and turns hidden, turning the movie into as much of an event as any superhero franchise blockbuster. Not just that, but it prompted numerous discussions about racial attitudes, in part because the protagonist, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is shown dealing with the kind of subconscious racism and resultant microaggressions from white people that are all too common. All that wound up making the movie 1) the highest-grossing debut film based on an original screenplay of all time, 2) the second highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time and 3) the most profitable movie of the year, making $175 million on a budget of just $4.5 million.
It’s pretty likely you missed Colossal when Neon released it in April. The story follows Gloria (Anne Hathaway) as a woman whose life is not all together by any means who one day realizes she somehow controls a giant kaiju that randomly appears in Tokyo. It wasn’t a massive campaign, and it certainly didn’t reach a mass audience. But it sold a quirky, original film accompanied by strong word of mouth earned from festival screenings, which praised both its heart and dark sense of humor.
One of the best of 2017, the Wonder Woman campaign ran on all eight cylinders from the moment the first trailer dropped at Comic-Con 2016. In selling the first solo film featuring a female superhero, Warner Bros. not only brought the action audiences expect from the genre but also a clear presentation of the character as one motivated by love and compassion. Anyone not moved by Diana’s proclamation to protect the innocent or who didn’t get chills as she walks alone out of the trench to face the opposing army on her own is … just wrong. They’re just wrong. It was a ray of hope in a world that needed a woman to lead it.
Quite a few “women cutting loose” movies came out this year, including Rough Night, Fun Mom Dinner and the sequel A Bad Moms Christmas. None out-performed Girls Trip, about a group of black women heading to New Orleans for a weekend of partying. While certainly sold as an ensemble including Regina Hall, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith, it was Tiffany Haddish who broke out, something entirely predictable from the trailers, which showed her playing the one most committed to having a good time. It ultimately became the top-grossing comedy of 2017, outperforming movies featuring much bigger names to show audiences will turn out for representation.
When Okja was screening at the Cannes Film Festival, it was mired in controversy because Netflix was not planning to give it a theatrical release. That prompted the discussion of what constitutes a “real” movie to move beyond the realm of wonks and into the mainstream. It also showed that Netflix was serious about acquiring and distributing prestige films, not just small indie movies that other studios had passed on. The campaign leveraged positive word of mouth and a traditional trailer, but that all came after a mystery-laden push involving fake corporate promotional videos featuring the corporate CEO played by Cate Blanchett.
As I wrote about previously, the marketing of IT used a mix of nostalgia, terror and experiential tactics to bring in audiences that were hungry for horror. The campaign included plenty of hooks not only for fans of Stephen King’s original book (and those who watched the 1990 TV adaptation through the fingers over their eyes) but for modern audiences who expect more jump-scares along with their creepy clowns. With the “29 Neibolt Street” experience in Los Angeles, a Comic-Con VR execution and more, it’s clear that taking people inside the story worked well.
There perhaps hasn’t been any movie campaign that’s received as much as postmortem discussion and debate as the one Paramount mounted for mother!, the latest from writer/director Darren Aronofsky. The trailers sold the story of a husband (Javier Bardem) and wife (Jennifer Lawrence) moving into a new house where strange things quickly start happening as a psychological drama, and the posters presented a kind of strange, interpretive art installation. It was a massive push for a movie that had zero chance of ever attracting a mainstream audience. Even the niche was largely turned off by the terrible word of mouth that pegged it as difficult, inaccessible and dense. Regardless, the campaign was so strong and brand-consistent that it was hard to ignore.
The Big Sick
Kumail Nanjiani may not be a household name even now, but the critical and financial success of The Big Sick certainly helped move the ball forward. After years on Silicon Valley and countless roles playing the second best friend of a lead in a comedy (as well as numerous scene-stealing moments on Portlandia), Nanjiani hit the big time with a movie cowritten with his real-life wife Emily V. Gordon about how the two of them met and how a sudden illness wound up bringing them closer together. The movie presented a unique take on the romantic comedy genre that was no less notable because it featured an interracial couple.
The Disaster Artist
At first blush, The Disaster Artist seems made specifically for cinephiles specializing in endless discussion of obscure film trivia. Or, as they’re more commonly known, film Twitter. There was an element of mainstream advertising to sell the movie to a larger audience, but much of A24’s campaign appealed mostly to those already familiar with the famously bad The Room, the making of which is chronicled in the film. That began with a teaser trailer showing writer/director/star James Franco recreating one of the movie’s most famous scenes and continued with a billboard that recreated the same kind of outdoor ad Tommy Wiseau used to promote The Room in 2003.
BONUS! Justice League
The campaign was fine, though it couldn’t overcome the film’s reputation as a muddled, troubled production or the word of mouth that labeled it a bloated, confusing mess. But it gave us the GIF below, so it wasn’t a complete loss.