'How to Train Your Dragon 3' Bets on Familiar Formula in Marketing

The Dreamworks Animation film, which sits at 98 percent fresh with critics on Rotten Tomatoes, sticks with a campaign focusing on franchise mainstay characters.
Dreamworks Animation
'How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World'

The How to Train Your Dragon franchise comes to a close with DreamWorks Animation's third installment, The Hidden World. In addition to the previous two movies, the series has expanded with animated series and short films on Cartoon Network and Netflix, keeping the characters and premise active and alive between feature entries.

This time around the story finds Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his trusty dragon Toothless once more needing to unite their friends and allies to save both the dragons and humans of Berk, their island home. Problems relating to overpopulation and the actions of dragon hunter Grimmel (voiced by F. Murray Abraham) are threatening everyone, leading Hiccup and friends to seek out the mythical hidden world of dragons where they can live safely on their own.

As of Feb. 19, The Hidden World has already grossed over $175 million overseas ahead of its U.S. bow. And a 98 percent Rotten Tomatoes score also bodes well, but the movie arrives amid the slowest winter box office period in almost a decade, one where sequels in particular aren’t performing as well as expected. Here's a look at the rollout of the film's marketing. 

The Posters

It’s a colorful setting on the first poster, which positions Hiccup between Toothless and the female Nightfury. The second poster shows a bearded Hiccup riding Toothless over the water, the reflection of his younger self visible below. We’re back in the colorful jungle for the third poster, this time with the two Nightfurys flying into action, Hiccup pointing the way. 

The Trailers

The first trailer (9 million views on YouTube) came out in June of last year and picks up one year after the events of the last story. Vikings and dragons now live in complete harmony. Hiccup and Toothless, along with Astrid, discover a hidden dragon world that includes a female Nightfury. Along the way they encounter a dragon hunter who has captured or killed every one of Toothless’ kind except for him. So they need to evade the bad guy, help Toothless get a girlfriend, and keep everyone safe.

Themes of destiny and danger are conveyed in October’s second trailer (7.3 million views on YouTube), which makes it clear that the hidden world of dragons is what Hiccup has been searching for his whole life. Some of the same elements of the conflict with the villain are shown, but mostly this one focuses on how Hiccup and Toothless rally the people and dragons of Berk for one final battle, both becoming the leaders they were always meant to be. 

Advertising and Publicity

Dreamworks partnered with Fandango to offer advance screenings in select markets three weeks prior to release, an effort designed to build up some word of mouth when it came time for opening weekend. Those screenings grossed $2.5 million.

A mobile game created by NBCUniversal and Ludia was offered to extend the connection with the film. Snapchat users could access an AR-enabled World Lens to add characters from the movie to their photos and videos. There was also a “Dragons Everywhere” effect people could add using the Facebook Camera.

A TV spot aired in advance of New Year's Eve showed Toothless stealing the Times Square ball before the big countdown. The dragon continued his hijinks by interrupting a press conference with Jayson Tatum, a spot that aired on ESPN. He also showed up during an NHL on NBC broadcast.

Walmart partnered with the studio on a touring VR experience that hit store parking lots in select cities beginning just before the movie’s release and continuing through early April, nicely covering the prime theatrical window. That experience took participants into the movie’s world, where they could interact with characters and ride dragons and, once it was over, exit through the gift shop filled with exclusive merchandise.

The studio partnered with The Ad Council and Discover Forest on a campaign that used the movie’s characters and story to encourage kids and others to get outside and enjoy nature. Outdoor and online ads used a variation on the key art showing Hiccup, Astrid and Toothless riding through the forest into adventure. 

The first look anyone got at the movie was when it was included in Universal’s presentation at CinemaCon, allowing industry insiders and press to see some footage and hear about the story. The movie was also part of the later CineEurope presentation from the studio. It also made an appearance at the Annecy Animation Festival, where director Dean DeBlois talked to attendees about the story.

The Toronto Film Festival hosted a behind-the-scenes presentation on the movie from DeBlois that included comments about the ending the franchise was coming to. It also showed up at New York Comic Con, where the filmmakers talked about the story and showed off a clip that hinted at the mysteries that would be uncovered.

In mid-November a featurette was released that offered a quick recap of the movie series to date, leading right up to the start of this new story. There was another featurette around the beginning of 2019 that showed the process behind creating a movie-themed float featured in the recent Rose Bowl Parade.

A couple clips from mid-January showed Hiccup as a young boy learning about the legends of the dragons, and he and his friends learning an important fact about the adversary they’re on the trail of. A Fandango-exclusive clip showed Hiccup and Toothless in the middle of rescuing other dragons. 

Overall

The ongoing series on TV and Netflix have managed to keep fans of the franchise sated in the years between movies. And while this marketing push includes some new features, it also feels like a movie we’ve seen before. The most engaging aspect of the campaign, the part that does feel fresh, is the dragon romance story with Toothless coming across the Light Fury. As the only major release this weekend, it would seem to have a decent chance of winning the box office race stateside, but many moviegoers appear to already be focused on next week, when Captain Marvel arrives.