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.
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
This is the toughest category to discuss on its own, since two of the three movies here easily fit elsewhere as well.
First, Ghostbusters got a marketing push that's in line with the campaigns for Independence Day: Resurgence in that it was a return to a franchise that had been on the shelf for a while. While many people called the trailers weak in terms of comedy, my concerns were more that it relied too heavily on nostalgia for the 1984 movie of the same name and didn't work to establish its own identity strongly enough. But at the same time, it showed it was an original movie and not just a shot-for-shot remake of the original.
So, the problem with the campaign wasn't that it wasn't funny, it's that the studio literally could not decide how to effectively sell it. Better to market it as a Kristen Wiig/Melissa McCarthy movie than trying to play up the tenuous connections to the original.
The campaign for Legend of Tarzan was … not great. This is an iconic character of literature and culture, and he was turned into, based on the marketing, Yet Another Bland White Superhero. Swinging through the trees like Shia LaBeouf, Tarzan was shown to be almost completely devoid of motivation for his actions. The campaign was confusing, bouncing between time periods without any explanation.
Most distressingly, it emphasized two topics that are somewhat dated for 2016: 1) The Exceptional White Man who will bring justice to and save the uncivilized jungle, and 2) The Female Lead Without Her Own Agency, with Margot Robbie's Jane being shown as a damsel in distress who may be full of attitude but who needs a man to save her.
The best campaign in this category was for Pete's Dragon, because while the movie shares the name of a previous movie, the two couldn't look more dissimilar. It was sold with a campaign that, like that of Dory, emphasized familiar themes that would resonate with audiences of all ages, not just a simple story that's only appropriate for either kids or hard-core fans of the first movie.
• Original Stories
OK, let's address the elephant in the room right off the bat: Yes, Suicide Squad was drubbed in the press and yet has cleared the $300 million domestic box-office mark. No, it's not a great movie, but it's also not as bad as some critics have said. This is the movie that's being held up as the biggest piece of evidence for why the summer of 2016 was just the worst, because if this is what audiences want, then maybe we just need to wall off the suburbs so the indie-loving city-dwellers aren't infected by their multiplex-visiting neighbors.
Without diving too deeply into the movie itself, those hitting theaters opening weekend would be forgiven for feeling that the ad campaign pulled one over on them by emphasizing the Joker so heavily when he's barely in the movie (a fair criticism). But what then explains its continued success? There must have been something, some attitude, that resonated with audiences and kept people buying tickets.
Then there's Lights Out, another horror/thriller that seemed to tap into a desire among genre audiences to see something new and wholly original. The marketing push here played up the primal fear that lay behind the story, which involves the spirit of a dead woman that only appears when the lights come out. Trailers played up the originally of the story as well as the scares, weaving some interesting new elements—that one of the characters is actually complicit in the spirit's haunting—to sell and present the movie in an interesting way, which was enough to make it a decent success.
Finally there are comedies, specifically two movies. First, there is Central Intelligence with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Kevin Hart. This is another movie that fits into multiple categories, at least if you subscribe to my theory that all Hart movies take place in the same multiverse and will one day culminate in an epic crossover where only one can survive. Putting that aside, the campaign sold the audience exactly what they wanted—a bunch of crazy stunts, with Hart as the reactionary straight man to Johnson's self-assured operative. This may not even have had a story, just a series of comedic set pieces.
Bad Moms, on the other hand, clocked a successful box-office run by selling a largely female audience on the prospect of a perfect movie to see with their girlfriends, giving them an excuse to hang out and let themselves off the hook to try to be the perfect mom that all the TV ads and magazine articles tell them they need to be.
Are there big lessons to pull from this summer's marketing efforts?
You could point to the success of original stories and say "Don't pander to the audience," but that's contradicted by the Joker bait-and-switch that Suicide Squad pulled off. You could say "Stick to what works," but the failure of Alice, Independence Day and others would show that's not a guaranteed approach, either.
What seems to be clear is that those movies that had a defined audience in mind had campaigns that worked pretty well more often than not. The best horror movies reached people who wanted something original by selling something original. Comedies worked by reaching audiences who were looking for material that spoke to them on some level. The best other blockbuster campaigns, à la Captain America: Civil War, spoke directly to the fans that have become invested in the characters (something that largely can't be said for the X-Men franchise) and showed them what the stakes were for those characters in the new movie.
So, the lesson becomes something that should be familiar to most anyone in the marketing world: Do what you need to do to reach your audience with a message that will resonate with them. It's just that hard.