For Hollywood, the pandemic was a reminder that studios still need movie theaters to turn a profit on big blockbusters. So the marketing campaigns for this summer’s biggest films are not only selling the movies. They’re selling the theatrical experience, as well.
Moviegoers got the first taste of what this pandemic recovery marketing will look like from Marvel Studios, which last month released a sizzle reel of its upcoming films, including the first footage of Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals.” But along with that footage came narration from the late Stan Lee extolling his love of “being with people” and connecting it to experiencing a movie in the theater together by showing footage from an opening night screening of “Avengers: Endgame.”
Other studios also have plans to rally around beleaguered cinemas. At Universal, which is getting set to release the next “Fast & Furious” film “F9,” franchise star Vin Diesel has been at the front of a marketing campaign encouraging fans to support their local theaters. In China, where “F9” will be released this weekend, Diesel’s co-star John Cena has been making similar promos on social media in Mandarin.
“It’s just common sense that studios need to be part of the campaign to bring people back to theaters,” one distribution executive told TheWrap. “All it can take is one good night back at the movies to make people feel safe in the theaters and bring them back to being regular customers. But studios need to offer something special to increase interest, regardless of what plans they have with the theatrical window or with PVOD and streaming.”
Studios on Wednesday pledged to unite with exhibitors in their effort to resurrect the box office during a press event titled “The Big Screen Is Back,” with studios showing off their upcoming films with guests like J.J. Abrams and Arnold Schwarzenegger urging everyone in Hollywood to get behind the movement to get theaters back in business after countless multiplexes were forced into bankruptcy.
Rolando Rodriguez, chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners and President/CEO of Marcus Theaters, says he’s been encouraged by NATO’s recent discussions with studios and says he thinks that the films being offered this summer will allow his industry to show its resiliency.
“It has been so gratifying to see agencies, talent, executives and studios rallying together to send a message to the world that the big screen is back,” he said. “I believe that our film partners recognize that right now we have to think differently about how they advertise these films. All of us have an inherent responsibility to communicate with our customers about the safety of our theaters and about the exciting product that we have.”
In a sense, the theater-focused marketing that studios are angling towards this summer isn’t too different from the sort of ads that were common in the days before social media, with excited testimonials from opening night audiences just as they walked out of the theater.
Blumhouse CEO Jason Blum knows all about those sorts of ads. His studio got a lot of mileage out of them with its first landmark hit, “Paranormal Activity,” with ads showing night-vision footage of theaters filled with moviegoers screaming in terror at the found-footage horror film. Blum says it doesn’t surprise him that films like “Spiral” and “A Quiet Place — Part II” are among the first films leading the charge this summer.
“I don’t think there’s any other genre that benefits so much from the theatrical experience more than horror,” he said. “So much of the enjoyment of it comes from sitting in a dark room with other people. It’s just not the same when we’re alone, and it would probably be worthwhile for studios to really emphasize that difference.”
Paramount, which will be releasing “A Quiet Place — Part II” on May 28, has been planning special events to help encourage a strong turnout on Memorial Day weekend. The studio is partnering with Cinemark to host a live Q&A with director John Krasinski that will be simulcast on opening night at all of the chain’s locations nationwide. Krasinski will also be traveling to theaters in six cities during the film’s first week to greet fans.
Paramount marketing heads Marc Weinstock and Mary Daily said that they want to create something truly unique for opening night audiences, many of which they believe will be making “Quiet Place — Part II” their first post-pandemic movie night out. But once the film is in theaters, they predict the word-of-mouth will be enough to give not just “Quiet Place” but the rest of the box office enough momentum to start seeing stronger turnout, especially as COVID-19 restrictions continue lifting.
“We’ve found that with a film like ‘A Quiet Place’ that just hours after the first screenings there are people all around the world talking about it on social media, which has basically supplanted audience reactions spots,” Daily said. “We feel that once people come back to theaters and see this movie, which is so designed to be a theatrical experience, we will have the momentum we need through word-of-mouth to bring others back to theaters in the weeks ahead.”
And in an indication of the everlasting optimism surrounding the film industry, Weinstock expressed confidence that moviegoing — at least in the United States — will follow the path set by China and largely return to normal by autumn. While he acknowledges that there is still the constant possibility of a vaccine-resistant COVID-19 variant becoming a threat as other countries struggle with vaccination campaigns, he said he believes that as long as the U.S. continues on its upward trend, box office recovery could be quicker than some think.
“It’s a lot like sports games and how there was such pent-up demand, and the movies that we and the rest of the industry have are so strong that once people feel comfortable in theaters again, the recovery could become faster than some expect,” he said.