black and white image of Ryan gosling in blade runner 2049 movie

When marketing makes a movie flop

— Matt Urquhart 

Blade Runner 2049 released earlier this month to rave reviews across the board. Critics clambered over each other to shower the film with as many accolades as possible, with some even hailing it as the greatest sequel of all time.

And yet, this has not translated to box office success. General audiences seem unfazed by the 5-star reviews, preferring to save their money for the umpteenth Marvel movie or live-action Disney remake. The movie cost an estimated $150 million to make and was expected to make around $45-$50 million in the US on its opening weekend – but it slumped to an unexpected $31 million.

So the billion-dollar question is: why? What stopped audiences from flocking to their local cinema to see what was billed as one of the big-hitters of the year?

Don’t rely on nostalgia

For film buffs, the marketing could be seen as a masterstroke, with trailers and TV spots being purposefully vague, drawing on the atmosphere and beautiful visuals to really sell the movie.

Unfortunately, they may have misjudged their audience.

The marketing leaned heavily on nostalgia, which ultimately narrowed the audience reach and relied solely on the hope that fans of the original film would flock to the movie.

The short films that filled in the 30-year gap between the original film set in 2019 and this movie, set in 2049, was a creative way to build hype for the movie, but once again only for people in the know. General audiences had no idea these shorts existed and therefore the creativity was wasted.

Do we show too much?

There has been a constant complaint in recent years that trailers give away too much of a film’s plot, leaving little motivation to buy tickets to see the entire thing. In the case of Blade Runner 2049 – it went too far in the other direction, giving away nothing at all, instead focusing on setting the tone of the movie.

The average person is unwilling to part with their money if they aren’t sure they will actually enjoy watching the movie. It is too much of a gamble with the price of tickets nowadays for people to take a punt on a movie that they know is almost three hours long with no inkling of the plot.

So what can we as communicators learn from this? Firstly, although we know that nostalgia sells, it has to be used as one element of a larger marketing campaign and not entirely relied upon. We have to make sure to cater to a wider demographic in order to maximize outreach and engagement. By leaning on nostalgia you may well just be preaching to the converted and not grabbing the attention of anyone else.

We only need to look at another sci-fi epic – Star Wars – to see a stellar example of a great film campaign.   

When Episode 7 was building up to release in 2015, old and new fans alike were frothing at the mouth to see it. In much the same way as Blade Runner, the trailers didn’t give much away in terms of plot. They both used nostalgia to draw audiences in, with the shots of the Millennium Falcon and Han Solo prominently featuring.

However, what Star Wars did right was introduce new, diverse characters that would attract a different crowd to the die-hard fans. Disney allowed the young cast to use social media during filming, which drove excitement from the general public without knowing anything about their characters.

Blade Runner’s vague trailers may have been a response to the oversharing trailers of recent years, but it went too far in the opposite direction. While tone and atmosphere intrigue – plot sells. Provide enough narrative to get people wanting to see more.