Warner Bros. Bets on College Nostalgia for Melissa McCarthy's 'Life of the Party'

Warner Bros.
There are hints of 2003's 'Old School' and 1986's 'Back to School' in the marketing for Melissa McCarthy's 'Life of the Party.'

The marketing campaign for the comedy included a university-centered premiere contest, trailers heavy on back-to-college jokes and posters highlighting the star power of the lead actress.

Melissa McCarthy arguably has been one of the most consistently successful comedic actors working in Hollywood, and she's hoping to extend her run with the breezy summer comedy Life of the Party

One key to her consistency in drawing an audience is her commitment to playing within a certain vein of modern comedy, one that's less interested in making the audience laugh out loud than it is is making them feel a kind of humorous empathy with characters. She's used a combination of her impeccable comic timing, sincerity and gonzo attitude to great effect in a number of roles during the past decade. Eight of her last nine movies have all grossed over $65 million and six have broken $100 million domestically. 

All of her characters — from her breakout as Megan Price in Bridesmaids ($288 million worldwide) to Dr. Abby Yates in Ghostbusters ($229 million worldwide) — share a number of traits: They're brash and unapologetic about how they're living their lives while also being riddled with insecurities and uncertainty. McCarthy clearly feels this is where her comedic strengths lay. 

In Life of the Party she plays Deanna, newly divorced and regretful she never finished her college degree. So, seeing an opportunity, she enrolls at the same university her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) is attending, leading to some mother-daughter bonding, the fulfillment of a dream and some belated sowing of wild oats.

Ahead of the review embargo for the film lifting on May 10, one day before its nationwide release, let's check in on how Warner Bros. has been selling the title. 

The Posters

McCarthy looks like the squarest suburban mom on the first one-sheet. She's smiling at the camera while the tassel attached to her graduation cap obscures her face. "Old school meets new life" is a copy point that conveys almost nothing about the story.

The second poster has McCarthy dancing at a party, her permed-up mom character clearly out of place amid the hot young coeds surrounding her. "Give life the old college try" is the copy at the top.

Both posters rely mostly on our existing appreciation of McCarthy to act as the biggest value proposition. The essentially static images that go heavy on the message of Deanna being kind of a hot mess are fine and they certainly convey that aspect of the character, but that's as deep as they go. The second poster recalls Will Ferrell's 2003 back-to-college comedy Old School from DreamWorks Pictures, which had "All of the fun of college. None of the education" as its tagline. 

The Trailers

Deanna is obviously going through some stuff as the first trailer (3.2 million YouTube views) opens. She's throwing away all sorts of furniture and other items, breaking wedding photos and taking off her wedding ring before lighting the whole pile on fire, something that goes kind of wrong. Cut to her announcing to her daughter and all of her daughter's sorority sisters that she's re-enrolled in college to fulfill her long-delayed dream. While there's certainly awkwardness that ensues, Maddie and Deanna also bond, with the mom getting a makeover and embracing her newfound freedom.

The second trailer (2.9 million views) offers much more of the story, showing how Deanna comes to find herself at the crossroads that leads to her heading back to college. A lot of the same awkwardness between her and Maddie is on display here, but there's also a bit more of how Deanna is enjoying her newfound freedom.

Deanna is shown to be a genuinely loving and caring mom who's just out of practice when it comes to cutting loose and having some fun. Most of the humor is derived from just the ridiculousness inherent in seeing a grown woman act like this.

If you're of a certain age, you might see this as a kind of gender-swapped version of Back to School, the Rodney Dangerfield classic about a father joining his son on campus to finish his degree. That's not what this is, of course, and there are some obvious differences between the stories, but it's in the same ballpark.

Advertising and Publicity

Online ads used variations on the key art as well as short video snippets in their attempts to sell people tickets and raise awareness of the movie. Thirty-second commercials like this one were shown on TV and repurposed as social media ads on Twitter. Those ads skipped over much of the story to cut straight to the bits of the movie featuring McCarthy acting like a mom severely overdoing it in her attempts to be cool.

On the publicity side, the big beat came out of a web contest run by Warner Bros. to find a college campus on which to hold the movie's premiere, or "one lucky college town in America!" as the ad copy reads. Colleges were encouraged to get out the vote on social media by having people use a hashtag for that school. Ultimately, Alabama's Auburn University won, a result not all that surprising given that the school has a strong social media history and following, with more than two dozen runner-up schools. 

Overall

What's not clear in the campaign is a message about the tone of the movie. Does this have something deeper to say about how women are asked to put their own dreams on hold to raise a family, only to be abandoned by a husband who's grown tired of his "boring" life? 

The marketing as a whole sells a story that's heavy on jokes about Deanna's late, somewhat awkward and frequently embarrassing (at least to her daughter) awakening. McCarthy is right in her comfort zone here as a woman who sometimes forgets she doesn't need to say everything out loud but who also refuses to feel bad because she's out there getting hers at long last. Most all of that is conveyed in the trailers, with the posters that feature "Kooky Character Here" as selling points. 

Later this year McCarthy will branch out into drama with Fox Searchlight's Can You Ever Forgive Me?, playing the part of real-life author Lee Israel, famous for having forged letters from famous literary figures. For now, though, she remains on safe territory with Life of the Party

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer with 15 years of experience in the social media and content marketing industry.