‘The Creator’ Looks To Turn Moviegoers Into Believers: How Disney Marketed Gareth Edwards’ Original Sci-Fi Pic

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“No one is really creating original sci-fi blockbusters anymore, it’s an endangered species.”

Such was the wise insight from Gareth Edwards at the special screening of his latest movie The Creator last week. This from a filmmaker who has run the gamut from the half-million-budgeted 2010 indie Monsters to the $265 million-budgeted, billion-dollar-plus grossing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which despite any headlines about reshoots with Tony Gilroy truly had Edwards’ fingerprints on it down to its The Day After end-of-the-world finale.

In a weekend crowded with two other wide releases — Paramount/Spin Master’s Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie and Lionsgate’s Saw X — and movies’ profiles significantly dimmed by the lack of actors’ promotions during the SAG-AFTRA strike, the $80 million New Regency-financed The CreatorTrue Love is hoping to break through. While box office projections in the high teens, which is the same as Paw Patrol 2, it’s a rock-paper-scissors battle between the titles.

John David Washington in 'The Creator,' a sci-fi action thriller from 20th Century Studios

How is that? They’ve both had the loudest campaign in recent weeks. Disney amped up and pivoted its campaign for 20th Century Studios’ The Creator after an exciting response out of press screenings. The Creator isn’t some fall asleep cci-fi movie at 2 hours and 13 minutes ala Regency’s Ad Astra back in 2019, rather an action-filled fast-clip pic with the ambience of an Oliver Stone sci-fi movie in its West vs. East war and prescient topic of AI. Quite frankly, even though My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 weighs in at 92 minutes, that movie feels like a slog next to the rock ’em sock ’em robots of The Creator.

If Disney can get The Creator to bust past $20 million, that would be a celebrated win internally at the studio.

Overseas is also a vital component on this thinking man’s sci-fi movie; the genre typically sees 60% of its global gross from overseas (i.e., Gravity, The Martian, etc). Duly note that while there was the perception that Regency lost its shirt on the gritty $70M-budgeted Viking thriller The Northman in 2022 ($12.2M domestic opening, $34.2M domestic final and $69.6M wordwide gross), we’ve learned through many sources that film actually approached breakeven thanks to overindexing on Premium VOD. New Regency has always prided itself on gambling on ambitious filmmakers. Sometimes they hit (the three-time Oscar winning, half-billion-plus-grossing success of The Revenant) and sometimes they don’t (David O. Russell’s pandemic-priced absurdist period comedy Amsterdam, which opened to $6.4M, bottomed out at $14.9M domestic and just over $31M WW off a $80M budget that yielded a $108M-plus loss.

Tracking is bullish on Lionsgate’s Saw X this weekend for a $20M start, but gosh, we’d be damned if that movie does well. It just hasn’t been everywhere and loud in its marketing as Paw Patrol 2 and The Creator, with Lionsgate known to be frugal in its marketing spend: Tracking totally missed last weekend’s Lionsgate title Expendables 4, which the studio put at $15M-$17M before the movie opened at No. 2 to $8M. Ouch.

Last-minute reviews for Saw X put the movie at 83% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and the hope is that Latino and Hispanic moviegoers might show up for the movie. Heading into the weekend, The Creator and Paw Patrol 2 have the best presales with more than $1M apiece.

Still, with a movie that The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw calls “intriguing, stimulating, exhilarating,” and with the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, why keep The Creator on this weekend? First of all, the movie was originally set to launch October 6 before Disney announced at CinemaCon it was moving the title up a week to get access to Imax screens. Also, at this point in the fall, there’s typically a riveting sci-fi movie delivered to audiences, i.e., 2013’s Gravity ($55.7M opening) and Regency/20th’s The Martian ($54.3M). Also given the sublime sci-fi aesthetic of The Creator, it could notch key below-the-lines slots in the Oscar race. That’s why Disney and Regency stuck to their date.

Creating ‘The Creator’

The Creator began to come together just before the pandemic. Edwards, who had already zoned in on monsters and spaceships in his love of sci-fi in his other pics, had robots on his mind. He received an invite from Kong: Skull Island filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts to go to Vietnam and soak in the filmmaking scene there. Coming away from the visit, Edwards fused the two concepts of robots warring and notions of Apocalypse Now in his head. The filmmaker told Deadline, “I had engaging visuals of robots fighting in rice paddies.”

The Creator follows the aftermath of a nuclear war in the U.S. that the country has blamed on AI robots. Washington plays spy mercenary Joshua, who is searching for his wife in the East; she’s been missing for five years and believed dead following an attack on a village. She was pregnant at the time. Joshua is also protecting a robotic child during the pic, believed to be the lynchpin in the robots’ war on humans. Edwards co-wrote the movie with his Rogue One: A Star Wars Story scribe Chris Weitz.

Edwards invested in hiring concept artists for a 60-image lookbook. He was being courted to do another movie, but a sudden side trip to New Regency execs had him emoting what he really wanted to make: The Creator.

“Michael Schaefer had been courting me for a year or two, saying that I’d have creative freedom,” Edwards said.

“I didn’t tell my agents (about the meeting). It was very low key with Yariv (Milchan) and Michael. I laid out the visuals and talked through the story,” the filmmaker told us.

Part of Edwards’ plan and the financier’s buy-in for The Creator required shooting all over Southeast Asia, instead of relying on green-screen. The conceit was to lens great real-world footage, then drop or paint in VFX after with ILM.

Watch our interview with Edwards here:

At CinemaCon in April, Disney dropped the first trailer for exhibitors in the room, with marketing’s aim to show off the provocative idea of humanity vs. AI and the beauty of the sci-fi backdrop. The official trailer dropped two months ago and earned 33M views. Some of those in tracking opined to Deadline that the first go-round of the marketing was too abstract, and for a movie with a burgeoning though still relatively fresh star in Washington it needed a bit more kick.

So, Disney delivered the zhuzh with a second trailer that connected more with the character relationships including Washington’s character’s romance with Gemma Chan, as well as the pic’s paternal storyline.

“The creative team, including director Gareth Edwards, is brilliant and we really tried to tease the film’s emotional story while bringing to life its epic, futuristic backdrop through our marketing,” Walt Disney Studios President of Marketing & Chief Brand Officer Asad Ayaz tells Deadline.

Disney, which teams with New Regency on marketing the latter’s movies, also leaned into the urge for moviegoers to see this movie in the most premium experience as possible: Imax, ScreenX, etc. The shift saw the second trailer jump up to more than 39M global views.

But then in the ongoing intrigue of freaky smiling people (Smile) and dancing M3GAN robots making public spectacle of themselves at sporting events, Disney began releasing models dressed as AI robots into the stands of NFL and MLB games — the first during the September 10 L.A. Chargers-Miami Dolphins game at SoFi Stadium. No one could tell if these “robots” were fake or real as they stood on the sidelines and occupied seats in the stands. The physical stunt caught attention, with organic videos of the robot models doing over 5M views on TikTok.

Disney played into more robot and the whole AI of it all with Edwards conversing with an Ameca robot who tried to spoil plot points about The Creator (see below).

Social media metrics company RelishMix says The Creator counts a social media universe of 132M across TikTok, X, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube views. Among the positive chatter, RelishMix says, “There’s a rally behind director Gareth Edwards — citing his movies Godzilla and Rogue One — plus keying-in on the film’s trailer visuals with its high anticipated score by Hans Zimmer, not to mention its concept. ‘Finally, something new and different,’ says one observer.”

Added Ayaz, “Leveraging the core concept of humanity versus technology was essential to introducing fans to this story across all marketing platforms.”

He adds, “Through activations like planting ‘AI robots’ inspired by the film at key sporting events like the Chargers game, screening events and in digital content, spectators got to experience a small part of the world found in The Creator, coupled with an emotion- and stakes-driven creative advertising campaign underscoring the film’s themes, and building buzz ahead of its release.”

The Creator held fan premium screenings Wednesday with previews starting at 6 p.m. today. The pic is booked at 3,600-plus theaters including 390 Imax auditoriums, 600 Premium Large Format screens, 250 4D/D-Box and 90 ScreenX auditoriums. 

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