It takes a quiver of skill sets to mount a marketing campaign for a film or a TV series. But what’s the secret sauce that will turn a compelling story into an overpowering success?
As is evident from the examples below, it doesn’t matter whether the project is based on existing IP (“Avatar,” “Barbie,” “Night Court”) or new material (“Oppenheimer,” “Beef,” “Jury Duty”). What does matter is the strategy behind the campaign and how well it is executed.
The marketing mavens profiled here obviously know how to drive viewer engagement — putting butts in theater seats and pulling eyeballs toward smaller screens. The methods they use vary wildly but are all grounded in a solid connection with a show’s potential viewers, playing on their passions, their memories and, not infrequently, on their FOMO.
Methods range widely. They include re-releasing earlier iterations of the property (“Andor,” “Avatar”); innovative tie-ins with companies such as Airbnb (“Barbie”); provocative trailers (“Beef”); surprise escape rooms (“Glass Onion”); and celeb posts on Instagram and TikTok (“Jury Duty”).
Other campaigns appealed to nostalgia (“Night Court”); created elaborate teaser campaigns (“Oppenheimer”); purchased expensive Super Bowl Spots (“Poker Face” “Guardians of the Galaxy”); and offered consumer products such as coffee mugs and sports jerseys (“Ted Lasso”).
The list goes on, and every new, successful project brings with it new ways of promoting it via a host of innovative and breakthrough initiatives that remind viewers what’s coming up and what they’ll be missing out on if they don’t get in on the action and see what their friends are seeing and talking about on social media.
For editorial questions, please contact Peter Caranicas at [email protected].
Senior VP, marketing
VP, creative advertising
Senior VP, creative advertising
2016’s feature film “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” was a $1 billion+ grosser with a robust fan base. But six years is a long time in the fantasy-adventure space. So when it was time to promote “Andor,” the Disney+ prequel series, “we knew we needed to reacquaint our audience with this story,” Stankevich says, “and reinvest them in the journey.” The strategy included re-releasing the original film in Imax theaters, with special “Andor” content attached. This “allowed us to connect the series directly to the film and position it as a streaming event,” she says. Previewing episodes 1-3 cross-network with ABC, Hulu, Freeform and FX broadened the reach. Custom social media content energized “Star Wars” fanatics — “our best ambassadors,” enthuses Stankevich — who could appreciate that, in the words of George Lucas, “we wanted to tap back into the tone and energy and grounded intensity” of “Rogue One.”
Avatar: The Way of Water
Senior VP, marketing
Senior VP, creative advertising
Bridging the dozen years since “Avatar” smashed box office records, says Stankevich, “meant that we had to approach the campaign a little bit like a brand-new property,” considering that much of the target audience was barely born when the Pandora mythology first hit movie screens. The first trailer at CinemaCon whetted potential viewers’ appetite, while a September, 2022 re-release of the original film brought them up to speed in 4K/3D style. “Avatar Day” global events — one taking over New York’s Times Square with 40 simultaneous digital screens — built November momentum. And, just as important, there was something the marketers didn’t do: “We were very intentional to not show behind-the-scenes and making-of content prior to release,” Stankevich emphasizes, so the pic could be showcased in final form on the big screen, rather than be deconstructed in advance.
Exec VP, worldwide marketing
Exec VP, creative advertising
Exec VP, worldwide marketing
Senior VP, global publicity
The massive box office success of “Barbie” was driven by a marketing push that cost a reported $150 million and included everything from commercial tie-ins with Progressive Insurance to an outdoor campaign featuring pink bus benches and a real-life Malibu Dreamhouse mansion rented out as an Airbnb. Somehow, Warner Bros. managed to get more than its money’s worth, as demonstrated by the Barbie selfie generator it released in conjunction with the first-look trailer; 2 million people used the generator in the first 24 hours and it went on to rack up more than 100 million engagements. “I think it took off in such an interesting way because people were able to tap into their own identity of Barbie and engage with it in a way that was really personal,” says Nussbaum.
President, creative, strategy & digital, FX multi-platform marketing
The first season of “The Bear” ended with its characters in flux, with a sign on the door announcing the closing of one restaurant and promising that a new one would open soon. The marketing team played up that cliffhanger angle in its campaign for Season 2, starting with a trailer that aired during the Oscars in March 2023. “We had that moment where everybody’s thinking, well, what are they going to make?” explains Gibbons. “So we came back and showed them the restaurant deconstructed, like you’re walking in on the middle of an operation with the surgeon long before you feel the results.” They continued to amplify the message with spots during other significant TV cultural moments such as the NBA and NHL finals, leading up to its June premiere.
Netflix’s team set out to sell “Beef” as an edgy, must-see dark comedy. Gillyard explains that this meant balancing an “elevated and artful” campaign while still pursuing a wide viewer base. “We achieved this by making our marketing materials in-your-face, bold, and fresh,” she adds. The unsettling trailer featured Smashing Pumpkins song “Today,” teasing the series’ music. “We took a creative swing to have our primary key art be conceptual and illustrated,” Gillyard adds. “This swing became worthwhile — and highly loved and celebrated by press and fans. Social media executions included stars Ali Wong and Steven Yuen explaining the show in brief; later posts revealed some of the series’ deeper themes of loneliness and disempowerment.”
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Audiences craved a “Knives Out” sequel. “Glass Onion” lived up to their expectations while featuring a new cast, new settings and a lighter tone. “We had to honor what the fans loved so deeply about the first movie, but signal a new approach,” says Neflix’s Helfgot. He and his team took the campaign global, with “Killer Getaways” in Phuket, Thailand, and Copenhagen, Denmark; TV spots that ran in all global markets; and an interactive online mystery game with both digital and physical puzzle boxes echoing those in the film. Fans were entertained by surprise screenings with the film’s talent and escape rooms in Los Angeles, Spain and Italy. Custom content put the actors and characters on Instagram. Fans were inspired enough to make “Glass Onion” Netflix’s 8th-most-watched English-language film, with 136.3 million views.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Senior VP, marketing
Senior VP, creative advertising
VP, digital marketing
With fan memories of the first two installments still fresh, Stankevich felt the marketing department “needed to pay a suitable homage” to the franchise and its treasured characters. A Super Bowl spot (ranked No.2 on the day) set the tone, paying off with 179 million online global views. “We started the campaign in a very emotional place,” Ibsen notes, and “then progressed into comedy … seeding nostalgia for the original films.” Sandoval tips his hat to TikTok and “a comedic and beloved cast that was really willing to lean in and celebrate this film with unique content.” “As with any sequel,” says Stankevich, “there’s a balancing act between drawing on the elements that have built your success in the past, and not allowing your materials to feel like something audiences have already seen.”
John Wick Chapter 4
President, worldwide marketing
Co-president, worldwide marketing
“Marketing is a team sport,” says Moore, but when she and J.P. Richards started marketing “John Wick Chapter 4,” they were new to Lionsgate — building trust with each other and with the “John Wick” team on the fly. The John Wick franchise “remains very cool while having a very unique mystique to it,” says Richards. With that in mind, they aimed to keep the film a bit mysterious and adopted a “risky” fan-first strategy. Initiatives included star Keanu Reeves doing an AMA on Reddit and a fan-first text program offering news and exclusives to drive word-of-mouth. The strategy drove the film to a No. 1 opening in more than 75 territories and a gross of more than $434 million — almost $100 million more than “Chapter 3.”
Head, Amazon Freevee
Director of business & marketing
Head of integrated marketing & strategy
Head of social & performance marketing
Freevee chief Pirozzi says the team took an organic approach with the mockumentary series, amplifying social media from accounts both internal and external. “This isn’t a marketing team executing a one-size-fits-all campaign,” he explains. “It’s about responding first to the sort of story we’re telling, then to the response of fans,” which included posts from celebs such as Demi Lovato, Anna Kendrick, Jennifer Garner and Seth Rogen. “We just continued to double down and give people more things to talk about.” The “chair pants” worn by juror Todd (played by David Brown) inspired some of the biggest viral moments, but Pirozzi says his favorite was the “America’s boyfriend” hashtag applied to the show’s one non-actor, Ronald Gladden, who’s unaware that the case he’s sitting in judgement on is a complete fake.
The Last of Us
Exec VP, originals marketing, HBO and Max
VP, HBO originals marketing
In September 2021, the “Last of Us” marketing team implemented a “breadcrumb” strategy, dropping a first-look photo of the main characters (played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey) that visually referenced the PlayStation game that inspired it, effectively reassuring its fans the series would be a faithful adaptation. A year later, after a further scattering of photos and footage, they released the first full trailer; choosing a date when the zombie virus reaches critical mass in the game’s narrative. “That really poured gasoline on the campaign, and we were off to the races from there,” says Giannusa. The work paid off: in January, the show became HBO’s second-biggest premiere in a decade, reaching more than 10 million viewers in two days across linear and OTT platforms in the U.S.
Chief marketing officer
The key to the campaign was the creepy dance performed by the titular robot before she hunts down and kills one of her victims. First, the marketing team made sure it was featured prominently in the trailer, then they inspired a frenzy of social shares by dispatching a team of women dressed as M3GANs to do the dance live everywhere from the Hollywood premiere and the halftime show of a Rams vs. Chargers game to the Empire State Building and the “Today” show in New York. “We knew that was going to be a memorable and repeatable thing,” says Moses. “The challenge was finding perfect balance of being in the culture enough, but not so much that people got their fill of M3GAN before going to the movie.”
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One
President, worldwide marketing & distribution
Danielle De Palma
EVP, global marketing
EVP, international marketing communications
EVP, domestic publicity
“Once again, Tom Cruise and the filmmaking team outdid themselves,” boasts Weinstock about the performance of the highest grossing “Mission: Impossible” feature to date (excluding China). His Paramount marketing team played its own key role in that success, particularly in its use of social media to highlight key action scenes months in advance, and throw a spotlight on the many global premiere events. “We also benefited from the incredible synergy with Paramount Global,” Weinstock notes, particularly in a half-hour “Creating the Impossible” featurette “that had a global presence across all owned-and-operated platforms.” Not to mention “Mission: Impossible” marathons running on linear broadcast in primetime, which reminded audiences how crazy they’ve always been for the franchise and drummed up enthusiasm for this latest and biggest installment.
Senior VP, NBC brand strategy & audience growth, NBCUniversal Entertainment
The NBC marketing team took advantage of the fact that the series is a continuation of the sitcom of the same name that ran for nine seasons between 1984 and 1992, creating spots highlighting the return of John Larroquette as narcissistic assistant D.A. Dan Fielding and his quirky interplay with Judge Abby Stone, played by Melissa Rauch, who has her own following from “The Big Bang Theory” (2007-2019). It further played up the nostalgia angle with a tie-in campaign on NBC-owned classic television cable channel Cozi TV, referencing memorable courtroom scenes from other beloved shows. “Sometimes, as marketers, we want to over-engineer what we do,” says Walker. “We kept it simple and focused on what our audience would want, which is a nod to a simpler time and easy laughs.”
Chief marketing officer
A period piece about a nuclear scientist is not an easy sell. Fortunately, the “Oppenheimer” team was working with a film by Christopher Nolan, who is a marketable brand unto himself. “Any time he puts out a film, it’s a true theatrical event,” says Moses. Universal positioned the movie more like a thriller, juxtaposing the violence of Oppenheimer’s imagination with more traditional elements of his life story. A year ahead of its release, the first teaser trailer was released exclusively in theaters with the movie “Nope,” and the campaign built steadily from there with progressively more detailed trailers and poster art, “expanding the aperture slightly more, but not so wide that we didn’t leave room for discovery of the film,” says Moses. As for the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon: “That’s something that took off on its own volition.”
Senior VP, consumer & content marketing
VP, content marketing
The campaign for “Poker Face” keyed on protagonist Charlie Cale’s (Natasha Lyonne) ability to detect when people are full of it, so to speak. “We took that sort of everyman, no B.S. point of view as our marketing platform, and we brought it to life with a range of activities,” says Fox. Those included a 1-866-NOBLSHT hotline, which played fans a personalized message from Lyonne (as Charlie), and a Super Bowl spot in which she reveals the truth behind other ads airing during the game. The theme carried over into its awards campaign, which included a “BLSHT Day” on June 10 in Los Angeles; people were invited to hit the road like Charlie and follow a map to ten local hot spots, including Amoeba Music, Wanderlust Creamery and Civil Coffee.
Sound of Freedom
CCO, Angel Studios
Head of marketing
Director of growth
Early viewers of the hard-hitting expose of worldwide child sex trafficking emerged from theaters in tears and anguish. “That got us nervous,” Harmon admits, prompting an effort to “change the language from, ‘This is hard to watch’ to ‘Everybody must watch.’” The new approach characterized the film as “Taken” “in real life, a hero movie, a thriller.” That pivot inspired the choice of release date, using the title, and the theme of liberating kids, to tie into Independence Day. With support from social media influencers — and Harmon specifically credits TikTok raves from youth in Latin America, where the movie is set — upstart independent Angel Studios can point to $190+ million domestic and ongoing strength overseas. Harmon praises the commitment of Shelton, Stevens and the entire team: “Their desire to bring this film to the world is their job, but it’s also their mission.”
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Co-head, global theatrical marketing
Exec VP of global partnerships & brand management; head of location-based entertainment
Exec VP, global creative advertising
“Our biggest challenge was convincing people to think of this as a superhero movie and not as an animated movie,” says Misher of Sony’s animated Spidey sequel. To grow the international audience in particular, the film had to be sold as the next Spider-Man movie, not just a family toon. The campaign included an international trailer with the voices and chest-logos of previous live-action Spider-Men in a sequence ending with the animated Spidey, Miles Morales; partnerships with Hyundai and Nike (including Miles replacing Michael Jordan in the “Jumpman” logo), battle royale game “Free Fire” and MMO game “Fortnite,” and immersive takeovers at Burger King locations. The payoff: Domestic gross more than doubled, to $381 million, and international grew by almost 60%, to $308 million.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie
Chief marketing officer, Illumination
VP, creative marketing, Illumination
President, franchise management & brand strategy, NBCUniversal Studio Group
Typically, when a videogame is adapted as a film, its maker simply licenses the title to the studio. But the computer-animated “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” was a three-way collaboration between Universal, animation studio Illumination and Nintendo, with intimate involvement from the original game’s designer, Shigeru Miyamoto. The partnership carried over to the film’s marketing. For Bergen, a key moment of the campaign was the premiere of the first-look trailer during the Nintendo Direct presentation at New York Comic Con in October, 2022, which also featured an appearance by Jack Black, who voices Bowser in the movie. “That trailer was a huge, huge moment, unlocking fan’s confidence and the truly cinematic appeal that this film was going to have,” he says.
President, global brands, franchises & experiences, Warner Bros. Discovery
GM, North America & senior VP, global franchise management & brand product, Warner Bros. Discovery
Senior VP, global creative & product development, Warner Bros. Discovery
“Ted Lasso” streamed on Apple TV+, but a big part of selling the show to the public fell to an arm of the studio that produced it, Warner Bros. Discovery Global Consumer Products. It partnered with brands ranging from Nike to Build-A-Bear to create a line of licensed products spanning the four merchandise categories (convenience, impulse, shopping, specialty goods). Fans could buy everything from foodstuff (e.g., Biscuits With the Boss) to a multitude of items bearing the show’s inspirational message “Believe” (T-shirts, caps, coffee mugs, keychains) and the No. 1 seller, jerseys for AFC Richmond, the fictional British soccer team Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) coaches. “We tried not to make it be just IP slapped on a product, but really integrated in a way that it was meaningful,” says Lifford.
“Wednesday” has attracted more than 252 million views, a tribute to the renewed sense of connection that Gillyard and her team built between fans and the Addams Family franchise. “We tapped into the voice and mindset of Wednesday, not just as a character but also as an outcast icon,” says Gillyard. “In every aspect of the campaign, we asked ourselves, ‘What would Wednesday do?’” An in-character Twitter account had Wednesday interacting with fans and offering her takes on pop culture. Fans could apply to Wednesday’s school and get acceptance letters and uniforms. Ahead of the Thanksgiving launch, the series took over TSA bins at airports. The topper: An animatronic Thing was set loose in Manhattan. Candid video of pedestrians’ reactions went viral, generating more than 50 million views.