Movie Marketing Madness: The Great Wall

Matt Damon stars in the new movie The Great Wall as William, a European mercenary traveling through early 11th century China when he and his group are attacked by some kind of monster, an attack only he and one other survive. They soon find themselves taken prisoner inside China’s Great Wall, which is controlled by a secretive and powerful army.

It soon becomes clear that the Wall and controlling army is there for one specific reason: To guard against a horde of alien monsters who attempt to invade every 60 years. The attack on William and his crew signal an attack is coming ahead of schedule. While the army that’s been assembled is mostly prepared for what’s coming, William and others enlist to help fight off this massive looming threat, joining an army that will need every resource at its disposal to defend the country and the world from the alien menace.

The Posters

The first poster is all about selling Damon’s gritty, dirty face. That’s the primary visual element on the poster as he’s shown in extreme close-up, looking off to the middle distance with a grim expression on his face. We get some stats on the size and dimensions of the actual Great Wall but then are asked “What were they trying to keep out?” leading us to believe that it’s something other than what we all learned in high school social studies.

An IMAX-specific poster took a much more artistic approach, showing a flurry of fireballs flying through the air across the countryside. What it is they’re aimed at isn’t clear but it’s clear this is a massive effort that is designed to rain down fury and destruction on the unseen threat.

There were also a huge amount of posters for a dozen of the movie’s characters that were specifically created for the Chinese market, unsurprising given the production and target market. But considering how much of the cast isn’t white (sorry, that’s just realistic) much less not Matt Damon, these would have had zero interest for the U.S. audience.

The Trailers

The first trailer is pretty damn effective. It focuses on, at first, the scale and scope of The Great Wall of China with stats and explanations about just how massive it is. Then it asks if we really know what it was built to keep out. Suddenly a creature snatches a soldier off the wall and from there on we hear Damon’s narration talk about how, after countless battles and wars, he finally has something worth fighting for. As that plays out we see footage of imperial courtrooms, fiery battlefields and more.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVw9YdP1O-0

It’s a great teaser that plays up the mystery of what exactly the forces who built the wall did so for. It never explains what’s going on or what the monsters we see briefly actually are but it establishes that they’re dangerous and that it will take an expert warrior to bring them down.

There are more monsters and we get to them more quickly in the first full trailer, which debuted at New York Comic-Con. We get a bit more of the story about why the wall was built and why the war is being waged. It’s still Damon’s story that’s being followed as we see him offer his services to the battle and hear him talk about how he’d like to finally fight for something, even if others think it’s a suicide mission he’s signing up for.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avF6GHyyk5c

It’s not bad but I’m increasingly not sure what kind of movie is being sold here. It looks, based on this trailer, like it wants to be both a prestige drama and a big, effects-laden monster movie. I’m not sure it can have it both ways.

Online and Social

The movie’s official website is actually a lot better than I was expecting it to be. The front page opens with some full-screen video of clips pulled from the trailer, with a big “Get Tickets” prompt at the bottom of the page followed by links to the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles.

The incredibly complex story of the movie gets boiled down to a simple synopsis in the “About” section. After that “Videos” has the two trailers but nothing else.

There’s a pretty robust “Gallery” of images, only a few of which include Damon. The last link in the content menu at the top of the site is “Share,” which loads up some buttons that allow you to share a link to the site on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

TV spots like this one try to condense the story down to 30 seconds, explaining that the Great Wall was built to keep out a monstrous threat. There are scenes of some of those aliens and some of the spots are more explicit with explaining what they are and where they come from. But the main point is to sell the movie as a big spectacle filled with flaming arrows, fog-strewn attacks and lots of explosions.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrAe5E7EKKw

Legendary’s comic imprint released a prequel graphic novel telling a story that takes place 50 years before the events of the movie, focusing on a young man who joins the protective detail stationed on the wall.

Online and social ads used the trailers, TV spots and key art to raise awareness and drive ticket sales. Outdoor ads used the image of Damon’s gritty face for similar purposes.

Media and Publicity

The first images for the movie were released here along with an interview with the filmmakers where they talked about the Chinese/Hollywood co-production, the sci-fi and fantasy elements of the story and much more. The first trailer was greeted with, predictably, plenty of commentary about how apparently a white guy is necessary to save China, most notably from actress Constance Wu, who was justifiably upset over the casting. Director Yimou quickly reached out to the press explaining that no, Damon’s character is not the Great White Hope of the story, that he’s one of four heroes in the movie and the only one who’s not Chinese. While this may be true, Damon’s presence as the biggest (American) star has given him an outsized presence in the marketing, leading to this assumption being pretty easy to arrive at. So even if the movie doesn’t have this problem, the marketing does.

That issue kept coming up, leading Damon to talk about how people really needed to see the whole movie before making a judgement as well as conversations elsewhere about the difference between “whitewashing,” which is having white actors play characters who either shouldn’t be or who were originally not, and the white hero narrative, which is where an enlightened white man comes in to save another ethnic group for some reason. At New York Comic-Con Damon and others kept addressing this issue as well as trying to just talk about the movie as a whole and what makes it unique and interesting. And he kept talking about it (when he really shouldn’t have), eventually blaming the whole controversy on “clickbait” as headline writers tried to present a benign issue as outlandish.

How the studio had created a massive campaign for the Chinese market was the subject of this story, which talked about the unique opportunities and challenges in selling it there. And the general theme of how important a play to the Chinese market this was continued to be the focus of the press. That continued to be a central theme as the motives of the studio, be they accurate representation at best or pandering to the Asian market at worst, for undertaking such a venture were examined.

Damon made the rounds of the talk shows both in the morning and late night to have fun, talk about the scale of the movie and keep up awareness and conversations

Overall

I don’t usually make box-office predictions, but I have a hard time imagining how this campaign has or will reach a target audience, at least in the U.S. With such an emphasis on the Chinese market, it almost seems like the studio wasn’t quite sure what to do to try and reach a U.S. audience and so by default Damon became the face of the campaign, which makes sense. But while that works on paper, we see how that has turned out poorly in terms of the public conversation.

The whole marketing effort has been focused on the spectacle but it’s conveyed very little about the actual story, which seems like part of the reason the movie doesn’t seem to be lighting very many conversations on fire. The trailers, posters and website are all concerned primarily with selling the mystery of the beasts that are attacking the Great Wall and building up the mythology behind that wonder’s construction. But the idea that the spectacle alone is going to bring people in seems off at the moment and while I’m sure the movie will succeed in China, I don’t think its’ U.S. fortunes are going to be all that great.

Want to get Movie Marketing Madness via email? Sign up here. Then connect with MMM on Twitter and Facebook.