The Marketing Mavens Behind Pennywise and the 'It' Red Balloon, 'Handmaid's Tale' Stunts and More

7:00 AM 11/23/2017

by Pamela McClintock and Michael O'Connell

Warner Bros.' marketing machine, led by Sue Kroll, and Rebecca Daugherty's inclusion of Taylor Swift in ABC-Disney TGIT promotions are among the this year's headline-making film and TV campaigns.

The Marketing Mavens Behind Pennywise -Publicity- H 2017
Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Hollywood's marketing wars are fiercer than ever thanks to the proliferation of content. Movie studios still wage the richest campaigns — think $150 million or more for a tentpole — but television networks are stepping up their efforts to combat the likes of Netflix and Hulu, whose on-the-ground stunt for The Handmaid's Tale made global headlines. Warner Bros.' marketing machine, led by Sue Kroll, made a huge comeback in 2017 with Dunkirk and the horror blockbuster It. In regard to budgets, more is being spent on digital, but television ads remain a necessary evil. "Budgets have shifted to new platforms," says Universal's Josh Goldstine, "but money is never a substitute for good ideas." Here are Hollywood's marketing executives of the year.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • Larry Baldauf, Michelle Hooper

    Translating the complex themes of Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri into something a consumer could grasp was a daunting task. Hooper and Baldauf immediately succeeded with a trailer that left no doubt as to what the story is about. Over the Nov. 10 weekend, the film, starring Frances McDormand, scored a glowing theater average of $80,542 when rolling out in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Baldauf and Hooper are also in the midst of promoting Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water (Dec. 1) and an Oscar campaign for Battle of the Sexes.

    IN THE PAST YEAR, BUDGETS HAVE Baldauf: "Continued to be what we can't talk about."

  • Myles Bender, Tyler Dinapoli

    Bender and Dinapoli cleverly sold Megan Leavey, a bomb-sniffing canine war drama starring Kate Mara, to members of the military, animal lovers and true-story enthusiasts, while the all-audience trailer set the stage for a tale about two outcasts. The movie earned $13.4 million domestically, one of the best showings this summer for an indie release.

    THE MOST INNOVATIVE THING I SAW IN 2017 Bender: "The Stranger Things Super Bowl spot. Opening with the classic, well-known Eggo commercial immediately sparked recognition for people of a certain age, and keeping the upside-down motif running throughout the spot and having it reflected in social media — an upside-down tweet, for example — displayed a consistent vision."

  • Bob Berney

    Promoting romantic comedy The Big Sick was deja vu for Berney, who handled My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002). Both are based on true stories, but in the case of The Big Sick, the tale also includes the love interest going into a coma, a tough sell. Released in late June, Sick is the year's most successful indie film to date ($53.8 million worldwide).

    THE MOST INNOVATIVE THING I SAW IN 2017 "The campaign for The Shape of Water. Using those sexy materials to show a relationship between a girl and a fish-man was amazing. That's a hard sell and they did a great job."

  • Stephen Bruno

    In charge of promoting all original Netflix content, Bruno stands apart from his rivals in handling both television (Stranger Things, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black and The Crown) and movies. He was the mastermind behind the mysterious "Netflix Is a Joke" billboard campaign promoting the giant streamer's stand-up comedy lineup and, borrowing a strategy from his days as marketing chief for The Weinstein Co., took awards hopeful Okja to the Cannes Film Festival in May to generate headlines.

    THE MOST INNOVATIVE THING I DID IN 2017 "'Netflix Is a Joke.' Our brand is so strong we can poke fun at ourselves."

  • Donald Buckley

    When promoting the Twin Peaks revival, Showtime's marketing team had star Kyle MacLachlan in their corner. The actor was game for all manner of marketing — including serving coffee at a social media stunt during 2017's SXSW festival in Austin. All of the attention didn't translate to big ratings, but it did improve the bottom line. Showtime boss David Nevins credits the Twin Peaks launch with driving record numbers to his OTT streaming service.

    I COULDN'T DO MY JOB WITHOUT "Data. Greater transparency into viewing behavior, advertising receptiveness and successful creative messaging through analytics have reshaped the promotional narrative."

  • Jill Cress

    Remaking National Geographic Channel into a prestige player may have started with a programming overhaul, but getting the word out there has been Cress' job. She went as big as one possibly can in 2017, buying a resonant and pseudo-viral Super Bowl spot for limited series Genius. The show went on to earn 10 Emmy nominations, unprecedented for the network.

    THE MOST INNOVATIVE THING I SAW IN 2017 "The Handmaid's Tale Emmy For Your Consideration stunt, which had women dressed up in the traditional red uniforms and strolling the streets of Los Angeles."

  • Rebecca Daugherty

    The 10-year ABC-Disney vet was promoted to the top marketing post at the flagship network in July in the midst of an intense push for medical drama The Good Doctor with near-unprecedented commercial buys — including ads during college football and preseason NFL. It worked. All of the awareness around the Freddie Highmore vehicle made it the most watched drama on TV this fall, with an average 17.5 million viewers.

    MOST INNOVATE THING I DID IN 2017 "We leveraged three Taylor Swift songs from her newest album to promote the new season of TGIT [Thank God It's Thursday] and our fall lineup. We garnered 1.2 million views in about eight hours."

  • Stephanie Gibbons

    The standard bearer of TV marketing, Gibbons appears to have it all — ad-supported cable's most envied roster (Emmy breakout Atlanta included), a litany of kudos for her work (see recent 2017 Clio for TV network of the year) and atypical creative collaborations from network talent. Gibbons and Ryan Murphy's annual campaigns, print and commercial, for his American Horror Story franchise are credited with helping to keep the anthology's ratings thriving for seven seasons.

    I COULDN'T DO MY JOB WITHOUT "Suspending judgment on all that has come before. Marketing content and consuming life during the last five years has savagely ripped almost every assumption out of my consciousness. I'm wide open."

  • Josh Goldstine, Michael Moses

    Hollywood's marketing deans turned Get Out into a mainstream hit by reaching far beyond the usual horror crowd. Trailers for Jordan Peele's acclaimed thriller played before more serious fare, including Denzel Washington's 2016 film Fences. And once critics started extolling the movie, ads touting reviews for Get Out popped up on some of TV's most popular shows such as The Bachelor.

    THE MOST INNOVATIVE THING I DID IN 2017 Goldstine: "My part to help dispel the myth that movies with African-American leads can't do international business."

    IF I HAD A DO-OVER CAMPAIGN, IT WOULD BE Moses: "To run a completely different campaign on any movie in a parallel dimension and compare results."

  • Josh Greenstein

    Greenstein and his top lieutenants helped Sony get back on the map with Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million). The campaign included a first-ever partnership, with sister company PlayStation providing exclusive content and reaching more than 90 million people. TriStar's Baby Driver was another box-office win ($227 million) after premiering at the SXSW Film Festival. But the biggest challenge of 2017 is yet to come: Reworking the campaign for All the Money in the World after Ridley Scott dumped Kevin Spacey from the finished movie and began reshoots with Christopher Plummer in time for a Dec. 22 release.

    IN THE PAST YEAR, BUDGETS HAVE "We have budgets?"

  • Lisa Gregorian

    Toplining marketing for Warner Bros.' diverse TV projects, which range from ABC's The Bachelor to almost every drama on The CW, Gregorian has one of the biggest marketing budgets in Hollywood. She's also an unofficial queen of Comic-Con, trotting out nearly a dozen panels for the Warner Bros.-friendly crowd every summer.

    THE MOST INNOVATIVE THING I SAW IN 2017 "The Fearless Girl statue in NYC. The best ideas are simple but resonate emotionally."

  • Rick Haskins

    His network launching a mere two new series each fall, Haskins' workload is different from his contemporaries. But he's burdened with the not-so-enviable task of luring The CW's young audience to linear TV. So when 2017 breakout Riverdale hit it big on Netflix over the summer, his fall push, outdoors and online, was to remind new fans that season two episodes were actually on The CW and not the streamer. The result? An unprecedented 60 percent ratings surge.

  • Sue Kroll, Blair Rich

    Call them the killer duo. Warner Bros. won the Clio award for studio of the year after Kroll successfully sold Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk as a suspenseful thriller versus just a war movie. Dunkirk earned a far-better-than-expected $525.9 million at the worldwide box office. Rich, who is in charge of New Line titles, is the envy of the town for the It campaign, anchored by the now-infamous red balloon and Pennywise. The duo also is lauded for Wonder Woman ($821.8 million globally).

    THE MOST INNOVATIVE THING I DID IN 2017 Kroll: "We really had to find a path to introduce Dunkirk in a way that completely dispelled any notion [audiences] had about a period war film."

    Rich: "We turned [It's] red balloon into a pervasive symbol of menace everywhere."

  • Tim Palen

    Also an accomplished photographer, Palen always has been a maverick (he once used real blood for a poster plugging a Saw film). He didn't shy away from making director Mel Gibson the centerpiece of the campaign for gritty war film Hacksaw Ridge, which earned $175.3 million globally and returned Gibson to the Hollywood fold, along with snagging two Oscar wins. And Lionsgate won the Clio for best integrated campaign for La La Land.

    IF I HAD A DO-OVER CAMPAIGN, IT WOULD BE "I would do over La La Land because it was so much fun."

  • Jesse Patrone-Werdiger

    The executive continues to lure the most elusive demo of all — younger moviegoers — to the art house with marketing campaigns that rely heavily on flooding digital platforms. Lady Bird, marking Greta Gerwig's feature directorial debut, is A24's latest win, following Oscar winner Moonlight and It Comes at Night.

  • Terry Press

    Press, who spent years as marketing chief of DreamWorks, guides the campaigns for CBS Films' titles, which are distributed by Lionsgate. She and her team persuaded YA fans to watch The Maze Runner star Dylan O'Brien in action pic American Assassin without alienating older males. The movie, also starring Michael Keaton, earned $62 million globally, one of CBS Films' best showings.

    THE MOST INNOVATIVE THING I SAW IN 2017 "Russia's campaign to destroy the fabric of America. And It. They are both about clowns."

  • Alexandra Shapiro

    Basic cable almost never launches a hit like The Sinner, but that's what USA did in 2017. The limited series fetched an average 4 million viewers over its eight-episode run, something it did on the heels of Shapiro's most aggressive campaign of the year. A monthslong ramp-up included sampling (starting at the Tribeca Film Festival), a coordinated social media push with star Jessica Biel and aggressive data to target live audiences to tune in.

  • Chris Spadaccini

    Taking the top marketing post at HBO in 2016, Spadaccini also inherited Game of Thrones — arguably the biggest TV show in the world. After an aggressive pitch for its penultimate season, one that was hard to escape, the drama returned with north of 30 million viewers per episode. What's more: Spadaccini's team saw its interactive tie-in for drama Westworld win an Emmy, one of the record 29 that the pay cable network walked away with in 2017.

    IF I HAD A DO-OVER ON A CAMPAIGN, IT WOULD BE "Our Game of Thrones date reveal stunt on Facebook Live [in which the season seven premiere date was in a block of ice]. I would have chosen a thinner block of ice."

  • Ricky Strauss

    He juggles Hollywood's most powerful brands: Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, Pixar, Disney Animation and Disney's own live-action studio, home of Beauty and the Beast, the year's top-grossing film to date ($1.26 billion). He positioned Beauty as a musical for everyone and not just young princess fans. Strauss and his team strategically waited to drop materials for the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi to build anticipation. They didn't have that luxury with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, since they had to reintroduce the franchise (the Force Awakens campaign began a year out).

    THE MOST INNOVATIVE THING I DID IN 2017 "One of them was when James Corden [of The Late Late Show] dressed up as Belle and sang songs with some of the cast. The broadcast stunt became a YouTube sensation" [with more than 9 million views].

  • Joe Whitmore

    The master of creating special content won a top Clio for the "Common Ground" spot for Arrival. The promo, targeting non-sci-fi fans, put two people in a room who didn't speak the same language but shared a common loss. And for Daddy's Home 2, scoring one of the top comedy openings of the year, he paired special content, such as stars Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell talking about football, with regular TV spots.

    IF I HAD A DO-OVER CAMPAIGN, IT WOULD BE "Baywatch. I'd have used the opportunity to get beach fitness tips."