- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Ryan Reynolds isn’t just a dude who can act. He’s a dude who can market alongside Hollywood’s best and brightest studio promoters.
During the past year and a half, multiple studios stared down a now-familiar scenario: delaying the release of a tentpole movie and pulling the plug on a marketing campaign, only to try to figure out how to reposition the title many months later. Marketing execs face an uphill climb — not to mention a budget crunch — when this happens, and many projects haven’t quite achieved liftoff at the box office when they finally unspool.
But Disney’s Free Guy, which has grossed more than $111 million globally since its Aug. 13 stateside launch, offers a surprising case study in how to sell a film that’s been delayed multiple times because of the pandemic.
Reynolds worked closely with Disney marketing chief Asad Ayaz, who led the varied campaign for the sci-fi action comedy, as well as with director Shawn Levy and George Dewey, a veteran marketer who is now Reynolds’ producing partner at their company, Maximum Effort. (Dewey was at Fox and worked on Reynolds’ hit Deadpool films.)
Reynolds shot about 75 pieces of marketing content for Free Guy — compared with the usual 10 to 15 for a lead actor — in an effort to set a variety of tones that could match the news cycle at that time. “I think people would presume that to be kinda frustrating, but I love marketing,” Reynolds says. “It’s more opportunity for storytelling, more opportunity to play with culture and mess with expectation.”
The film has quickly transformed into a box office success despite the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. It came in well ahead of expectations when debuting to $28.8 million in North America over the Aug. 13-15 weekend, and then fell a scant 35 percent over the Aug. 20-22 frame, the best hold of the pandemic for a title opening to more than $10 million. It’s also held up well in overseas markets that are open to amass $111.6 million globally, including $58.5 million domestically, in its first 10 days.
Reynolds established himself as a savvy marketer with the release of Deadpool in 2016. The actor spent months huddled with 20th Century marketing execs crafting an elaborate campaign, including taking over the Super Bowl. He also came up with the idea to have Deadpool mimic the legendary Cosmopolitan cover showing Burt Reynolds in the buff. Next he built Aviation Gin into a high-end brand he sold last year to beverage giant Diageo in a deal valued north of $600 million. The actor is credited with harnessing social media to convey his clever and often comedic messages.
“Each time out you have to restart a campaign, you have to make it feel fresh. You can’t let moviegoers feel like they’ve already seen the movie,” notes Ayaz, who took over selling Free Guy upon the Disney-Fox merger. “We wanted this movie to appeal to gamers, but we also wanted it to cross over and become the Back to the Future of this generation.”
Ayaz and the filmmakers had kicked off the first campaign in October 2019 at New York Comic-Con with Levy, Reynolds and star Jodie Comer — that’s when the movie was set to open the following summer, in July 2020.
Free Guy is about a bank teller who discovers he’s a non-player character in a video game and becomes the hero when saving his friends from being deleted by the creator (Taika Waititi). Jodie Comer, Joe Keery, Lil Rel Howery and Utkarsh Ambudkar also star.
When the pandemic forced wholesale theater closures in March 2020, Free Guy was pushed to Dec. 11, 2020. Then it was briefly taken off the calendar before landing on May 21, 2021. But that didn’t work either, and Free Guy ultimately shifted to August.
The final move was announced by Reynolds, who riffed on yet another release date in a spoof video dispatched by Disney. “The No. 1 problem is people think the movie has already come out,” says Ayaz.
Notes Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian: “In traditional times once a release date is ‘locked,’ everything else keys off to that and so studios would only move a film under the most dire or unimaginable scenarios.”
As the finish line neared, the tone of the Free Guy campaign shifted from escapism — Reynolds notes that Donald Trump was president when Disney stated selling the movie — to feel-good. Some of the spots included Reynolds as “the Dude,” a muscled-up version of his bank teller who is created in order to defeat the movie’s villain. Another more meta spot shows Deadpool and the film’s character Korg critiquing Free Guy.
“As we got closer and closer to release we put together some behind the scenes content which left irony behind and explored heart and mirrored the themes of the film,” Reynolds says. “We also produced and banked dozens of comedy spots designed to hijack existing materials — like the Deadpool/Korg piece — or spots which served to promote the cast in unique and slightly preposterous ways.”
“I do think audiences love movies with a big beating heart, some cultural awareness and nothing too cynical,” adds Reynolds, “no matter what the genre.”
A version of this story appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day