How Warner Bros Beat The Period-Film Curse At The B.O. & Positioned ‘Dunkirk’ As A Summer Tentpole

Warner Bros

Period has become increasingly challenging at the box office, not to mention in recent times marquees have been inundated with World War II fare, particularly films starring Brad Pitt.

But when director Christopher Nolan embraces the historical subject, it’s a different story, and Warner Bros is celebrating a win for its older-male-skewing Dunkirk this weekend with $50.5 million — a figure that not only beat tracking, but the total $40M stateside ticket sales of Pitt’s November WWII bomb Allied. 

Talk about overcoming hurdles. With Dunkirk, here was a British — not American — war film initially without a four-quad demo that broke out and played to older women (24%) and was prized by guys under 25 (90% positive on PostTrak) to become the No. 1 movie. Anecdotally, one of our sources told us he took his 90-year-old mother to the movie and she was blown away. In the weeks to come, demos are expected to broaden given word of mouth.

It’s quite an impressive feat for a war pic in a crowd of summer franchise holdovers like Spider-Man: Homecoming and War For The Planet Of The ApesAnother testament to the Dunkirk campaign was how it triggered a high unaided awareness in tracking. That’s the sector of tracking in which those surveyed cite the title of the movie they’re seeing this weekend without being clued or goaded by a pollster.

Arguably, many Americans aren’t likely familiar with the World War II evacuation of British and Allied forces from a lightning German advance in France from May 26-June 4, 1940. The UK’s Winston Churchill was informed at the time that the Allies would be lucky to get 30,000 men out of the situation; 10 times that number were rescued in a moment known as “The Miracle of Dunkirk.” Dunkirk was also a personal story for Nolan, whose grandfather (Francis Thomas Nolan) was a navigator on a Lancaster bomber and died near Dunkirk in 1944.

Dunkirk is a thrilling, immersive, sensory experience. And so too was the ambition of marketing,” said Warner Bros Worldwide Marketing and Distribution president Sue Kroll this morning about the key to Dunkirk‘s unorthodox campaign. “The entire campaign presented Dunkirk as a visceral thriller and an event experience of magnificent scale and originality as only Christopher Nolan can deliver. The campaign successfully avoided the potential pitfalls of a period war film and instead was sold as a summer movie event.”

Warner Bros

Warner Bros continued to drive that visceral thriller sensibility throughout its campaign. How could we get over that image of all those pan-helmet soldiers being buzzed by a German aircraft? Now, there’s something we never saw in Steven Spielberg’s late July World War II epic Saving Private Ryan, and that was another point that the campaign made: That Dunkirk was unlike any other war movie you’ve ever seen, especially in a summer schedule laden with sequelitis. The movie couldn’t be sold as small. WB’s plan was to open this pic to the widest audience possible, and not to put this under the microscope of the fall film festivals. When Nolan sat down with WB’s marketing department, movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Gravity were referenced.

A  year ago, WB trailered a one-minute teaser of the film on Suicide Squad capped off with the soldiers’ ducking in unison from the falling airplane. The emphasis here was to establish the title Dunkirk and provoke curiosity. Over Christmas a second trailer, a five-minute prologue, ran only in Imax theaters attached to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This also ran in Imax on such titles as Kong: Skull Island and Wonder Woman. This trailer was never made available online or in other formats, further enforcing the need to experience this film on the big screen.

“The creative elements tapped into the key theme — Survival is Victory — and put audiences in the midst of the action and suspense,” says Kroll.

Other ways Warner Bros broke this movie out, giving it an event patina, included an unconventional disruptive media campaign that used 15-second cliffhanger spots, and was aligned to prolific programming, i.e., the second game of the NCAA Final Four. These spots featured death-defying moments such as when a torpedo hits a boat and sends a guy under water and then a blackout. How these spots aired during the game: initially there was a long-form 45 seconds in pre-game, followed by multi-spotting four 15-second spots within the game in a set sequence to help establish the film’s themes. WB then began utilizing long-form 60- and 45-second spots in high-profile TV that would reach a broad audience like network finales/specials (e.g. Blacklist, Designated Survivor, Gotham, Dancing With The Stars, Tony Awards, etc.) and the NBA playoffs and championship series. Warner Bros executed a similar four 15-second staccato stunt in the in-theater trailer run before Transformers: The Last Knight culminating in a final 45-second trailer.


On social, the campaign focused on explaining the importance of Dunkirk via compelling and relatable infographics that gave context to the scale of the events. It also highlighted the vision of Nolan and leaned into the action and suspense. The creative featured the intensity of the action and thriller aspect via sound design, creative framing and innovative editing. A Twitter experience was tied to the anniversary of Dunkirk and inspired by the nine-day timeline of the real-life events. Users were encouraged to tweet to unlock exclusive content throughout the activation as they followed a timeline inspired by Dunkirk.

There was also a Google 360 Experience for Chrome: The interactive adventure allowed users to relate to the visceral experience of fighting to survive and the risks involved in rescues. Users were tethered, one seeking to survive and the other seeking to rescue, to create an engaging experience. An Amazon Alexa program paced users into the Dunkirk experience with rich narration and sound design. Amazon released three levels that tasked users to make quick decisions rusulting in survival or death. In a partnership with Microsoft, Intel and Dell, Warner Bros also created Save Every Breath: The Dunkirk VR Experience, 360 short film that took viewers underwater, into the skies as a pilot, and finally onto the beach as one of the trapped soldiers to await your fate. Warner Bros.also leveraged’s global network of 160 million members to promote the film through their three brands – World of Warships, World of Warplanes, and World of Tanks. The support included $2M in media (TV/digital), and through social channels. Carl’s Jr was a fast-food partner,with 4 million Dunkirk-branded cups, and pop-ups in store and at drive-through in 2,600 locations.

But the biggest draw of all here was Nolan’s name, a brand that brings in an entire fanbase much like J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. The holds on his films are stunning, and with Dunkirk starting at this current box office point, it’s quite conceivable it will churn a 3-4X multiple. Beamed one packager this weekend who has no skin in Dunkirk, “This movie will somehow make money. Don’t ask me how, but I am done betting against Chris Nolan.”

Dunkirk‘s opening beat that of his previous film Interstellar, which cost much more at $165M before P&A and turned a $47M-plus profit.

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