How do you send a message to avid gamers—of all generations—that your movie isn’t just a spoof of their favorite genres, but is in fact a celebration of them?
That was the assignment given to Los Angeles agency Petrol by the marketing team behind 20th Century Studios’ upcoming movie, Free Guy. The theatrical release stars Ryan Reynolds as a character in an open-world video game who becomes self-aware shortly before the game is slated for cancellation.
The agency pitched the idea of creating loving homages to classic and modern video games, inserting Free Guy’s characters into cover art and iconic imagery from franchises like Street Fighter, Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. and Minecraft.
The results have been a hit with fans spanning a wide swath of ages, but getting to the finished products required no small amount of brainstorming, craft and approvals.
Below, you can check out comparisons of the posters and the images that inspired them, along with the story behind how it all came together:
Jeremy White, vp of international digital marketing for studio parent company Disney, brought in Petrol to help with social media marketing in advance of Free Guy’s Aug. 13 release. Before joining Disney, White had worked for video game publishers including Activision, where he’d collaborated with Petrol’s gaming-focused team.
“When Free Guy came up, he thought, why not tap—humbly, in his words—the best video game marketing company to bring their knowledge into the theatrical space,” Petrol president and chief creative officer Alan Hunter told Adweek.
Their mission was to create visuals that get gamers excited about the movie in an authentic and fun way. Hunter described the brief as “How do we show gamers that Free Guy is not just a movie about video games but is really rooted in video game culture?”
The agency’s creative team created a list of about 20 iconic moments in video game packaging and marketing, then began refining from there.
The team wanted to ensure that the art reflected decades of gaming history instead of being solely retro or rooted in today’s most popular titles.
“You can see in the choice of covers, that it spans across generations,” said Ben Granados, Petrol’s evp and chief strategy officer. “So for those who don’t know the Mega Man cover, some of the 40- to 50-year-olds might not know Among Us. Gaming does unite the world across all generations.”
While running a campaign like this through the “likeness approval” process can sometimes be grueling, Petrol’s leadership said Free Guy’s talents, especially Reynolds, were easy to work with and even helped champion the concept.
In the end, Hunter said, the biggest obstacle was the amount of work needed for each execution. With each homage, the team aimed to recreate the original art as closely as possible.
“We had to do it through the lens of pre-digital,” he said. “Most of those things were done when either Photoshop was just coming around, or some were even oil and acrylic paintings. There was a desire to do a lot more than we were able to do, but they’re so labor intensive, we weren’t really able to do that.”
In addition to the above concepts created by Petrol, a Disney internal team also created this Grand Theft Auto homage: