These Are the 8 Best Movie Marketing Campaigns of 2018 (So Far)

From Wakanda to Cruise, a bevy of interesting work

Henry Cavill's buzzworthy reload is part of this year's best so far. Paramount Pictures
Headshot of Chris Thilk

2018 has been a weird year for movie marketing. Overall theatrical ticket revenue is up, but actual ticket sales are down, with the increased revenue coming mainly from a handful of early-year releases. A handful of titles have been sold off by the studio that produced them to Netflix when it was determined the movies had limited box office potential. MoviePass’s organs continue to shut down one-by-one even as AMC Theaters and others launch their own subscription ticketing service.

Amid all that, a handful of campaigns have really jumped out as being notable both for their creativity and their ability to drive audiences to theaters. Some of these are for significant blockbusters, others are for smaller films that might not have played near you. But all are worth paying attention to for the ways they helped the movies they supported stand out in people’s minds.

Black Panther

You can’t create a list of the most successful/interesting movie campaigns of 2018 and not include Black Panther. The marketing sold what should have been just another Marvel Cinematic Universe release as an event that couldn’t be missed, even more so than Avengers: Infinity War that came out just a couple months later.

What Made It Special

  • Large chunks of the campaign — from earned media to the trailers — emphasized the soundtrack produced and curated by Kendrick Lamar. His music was all over the push and helped reach the target audience in a real and powerful way.
  • The film was positioned even more as coming from director Ryan Coogler than from Marvel Studios. Coogler was front and center throughout the publicity campaign, talking to the press about the story and what it meant to helm the first Marvel or DC movie featuring a black hero and cast.
  • It was evident that the movie’s enormous success profoundly influenced the last few months of the campaign for Infinity War. Suddenly that film’s marketing featured a lot more scenes in Wakanda and included a lot more focus on T’Challa and the other characters.

A Wrinkle In Time

Ava Duvernay made history here by being the first black director to helm a studio film with a budget over $100 million. The box office take for the movie, based on the popular book of the same name, just cleared that same number but it didn’t even matter because the whole affair had everyone excited.

What Made It Special

  • Oprah, for one thing. The multi-hyphenate starred in the film, was a producer and utilized her significant fan base to hype up the movie.
  • The campaign made no bones about its multiethnic cast. Storm Reid, who played Meg, was a big part of the marketing, as were Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon and others.
  • While the campaign did hit a “chosen one” theme, it made it clear Meg would not be saving the day by shooting arrows or embracing her mutant powers. Instead, it was math and science that helped her get her dad (Chris Pine) back.

Annihilation

Writer/director Alex Garland’s follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Annihilation was sold as a science-fiction mystery starring Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and others. The movie didn’t fare well at the box office, and Paramount sold overseas rights to Netflix when it became clear it had little potential for success there.

What Made It Special

  • One of two campaigns this year along with that of Ocean’s 8 that featured predominantly female casts that never once mentions that fact in the trailers or other marketing materials.
  • Again, the inclusive nature of the cast was worth noticing and came up quite a bit in the publicity push and was noticeable in the trailers.
  • It did what it could to capitalize on how, post-Thor: Ragnarok, everyone loved Tessa Thompson.

Ready Player One

The campaign for Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg and based on an immensely popular book, was not well-received by many. It was quickly derided and dismissed as “Nostalgia: The Movie” as trailers and posters that went out of their way to reference as much of 80s pop culture as possible were released.

What Made It Special

  • That pushback was surprising in that weaponized nostalgia has been part of movie marketing for decades now. Perhaps this took it just a tad too far for people not to feel exploited by the effort.
  • A mixed-media activation including VR experiences and a recreation of the stacked trailers where characters live was brought to SXSW and San Diego Comic-Con to really bring people into the world of the movie.
  • It’s the only campaign this year to use both Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and Van Halen’s “Jump” and is therefore unequivocally the best campaign of the year.

A Quiet Place

Director and star John Krasinski offered mainstream audiences an excuse to check out a horror flick by wrapping it inside a family drama, telling the story of how people have learned to survive in near silence following an invasion of aliens who attack at any sound.

What Made It Special

  • Krasinski was out in the press constantly, along with on-screen and real-life wife Emily Blunt, talking about how it really was a family drama at heart, helping to make it accessible to a broader group.
  • There’s almost no dialogue at all in the trailers, which can’t have been an easy proposition for the studio to sell. Those trailers helped set the stage for a situation where the slightest sound could get you killed.
  • Word-of-mouth was incredibly strong, beginning with a screening at SXSW and continuing through release, when your friend told you if you do go see it to not open your candy wrappers in the middle of the movie.

Sorry to Bother You

Oakland hip-hop star Boots Riley’s feature directorial debut captured everyone’s attention, casting Lakeith Stanfield in a story rooted in magical realism as a frustrated man who finds the key to success is to pretend you’re white as long as people can’t see you.

What Made It Special

  • The trailers were almost entirely incomprehensible, offering nothing in the way of coherent narrative of character. They were also awesome and sold a surrealist fantasy that somehow also seemed more grounded than any other 10 movies combined.
  • Once again, “Tessa Thompson is here to save us” was a vital message of the film’s campaign and it’s entirely accurate.
  • Riley was the linchpin of the entire campaign, making media appearances left and right to talk about the racial, economic and other aspects of the story, presenting it as a vital part of the cultural conversation.

Mission: Impossible — Fallout

Consider the fact that the Mission: Impossible franchise has been going for 22 years, and yet this is only the sixth film in the series. That’s unusual in this age of “get a bunch of sequels out there now” thinking. Star Tom Cruise needed a hit after The Mummy failed to launch the “Dark Universe” umbrella for Universal and he got it here.

What Made It Special

  • The entire campaign — the whole thing — was premised on our desire to see Cruise do his own death-defying stunt. “Tom Cruise is willing to die for your entertainment” was the core message sent to audiences.
  • Amid all the discussion of how the movie’s success proves Cruise is our last big movie star who can defy franchised brands, it’s worth calling out that Cruise is a franchised brand, one that promises certain things (stunts, running, more running, a few intensely-delivered quips) to the audience.
  • No seriously, it was all about the stunt work. Whatever information was offered about the story, it was only in service of getting to the point where the marketing team could once more spotlight Cruise’s HALO jump or willingness to learn how to fly a helicopter.

The Death of Stalin

Let’s face it, the idea of political satire might seem a bit trite and even old-fashioned in the current US political climate. But the campaign for the movie from Veep creator Armando Iannucci used a high-profile cast to sell a dark comedy set in Russia as various government officials vie for power following the untimely passing of its totalitarian leader.

What Made It Special

  • We never get straight-up satire anymore, so the campaign was a breath of fresh air in many respects, even if some of the palace intrigue and backstabbing seemed all-too real.
  • The movie’s Twitter account continued utilizing a conceit first introduced in a teaser trailer, taking the voice and style of Soviet propaganda. It labeled those praising the movie as being loyal citizens, vaguely threatened people who didn’t and even presented schedule changes as not being changes at all.
  • It reminded everyone that Steve Buscemi is one of the great underrated comedic talents of our time.

So that’s what has passed. What releases are coming later this year that could make another best-of list?

The Paul Feig-directed A Simple Favor has run a campaign filled with glamour shots of stars Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively that are pulled right out of 1960s fashion catalogs.

Bohemian Rhapsody will tell the story of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, but the campaign has to overcome initial criticism it is downplaying Mercury’s homosexuality as well as his AIDS diagnosis.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse doesn’t look like any other superhero movie around and, based on the first trailers, might be better than any of the live-action Spider-Man films to date.

Under the Silver Lake promises a trippy, twisted mystery that takes its protagonist through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, like The Long Goodbye for Millennials.

Venom, based on a character utterly tied to Spider-Man but disconnected from the current Spidey shared by Sony and Marvel Studios, could either be the first great villain movie or an unmitigated disaster because why is Spider-Man seven feet tall, wearing a black costume and OMG what’s with that tongue?

We’ll just have to see how things play out.


@ChrisThilk chris.thilk@gmail.com Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategy consultant in the Chicago suburbs. You can find him at ChrisThilk.com, where he shares his thoughts on content marketing, media and movie marketing.
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