MORTAL ENGINES: A baffling movie marketing case study

I follow artist Ian McQue on Twitter, and recently he posted about his work on the Mortal Engines series:

I’d heard the title “Mortal Engines” before, probably in relation to the fact that it was a book series, but didn’t know anything about it. I kinda conflated it in my mind with “Moral Instruments”, which is a different YA book series I also knew very little about.

But when Ian started posting illustrations like these:

…I became very interested. Old-timey-looking stuff and flying machines! Two of my key interests!!

Ian kindly responded to my above tweet and recommended the books as a good read, so I got the first volume from my library.

It was good! I liked it! It had lots of airships zooming around, which, as stated earlier, I enjoy.

Ian did the cover to a recent edition of the book too:

If you haven’t read it, the book (series) centers on the idea of “traction towns”, which are giant cities on tracks that roam around a post-apocalyptic wasteland and consume each other for sustenance. The main city in the story (featured on the cover there) is London.

I had the vague sense that there was a movie too, but I’d mostly missed it. So I looked it up! Here’s the trailer:

Looks pretty exciting, right? Here are a couple of shots from the movie — interesting, scope-y shots:

All right, fine.

Cool book, cool movie maybe. What’s the point?

The books originally came out when it wouldn’t be surprising that YA titles would miss me entirely, but the movie came out less than a year ago.

I was a bit curious why this movie never crossed my radar even a little bit.

And then I realized — I had seen the poster in a theater lobby.

Here’s the main key art for the movie, the most commonly distributed poster (and the cover of the tie-in edition of the book):

Here are some other posters:

The last one is definitely more interesting and/or typcical, but I’m mainly only seeing it with international logos on there — I don’t think it was heavily featured in the US marketing campaign.

The two character posters have at least a little daylight in them (and there are a couple more in that basic style, with other characters), but in particular the close-up of the face communicates nothing about the movie. So it’s no wonder I’d skimmed past it without being interested.

The decision to make the main poster look like that puzzles me. Absolutely nothing that seems interesting (to me) about the movie is on the US posters — even granting that one of the posters shows a bit of the city.


1. The movie’s target audience is fans of the books, and with the close-up of the Hester Shaw character in the red scarf, they’re saying “IT’S A REAL LIVE PERSON” — emphasizing the fact that the thing you recognize (the title) has now been adapted into a movie.

2. The things that I like — weird airships and so on — don’t test highly on posters for general audiences, because most people aren’t dumb nerds like me. (But could the face close-up really be that much better?)

3. They were trying to sell this to a teenage female audience, and they felt the action stuff skewed too male.

4. They just honestly, legitimately felt this was the most compelling image to sell a movie about enormous carnivorous cities on tank treads??

I should also not gloss over the fact that this was marketed as a “girl power” movie in a post-Hunger Games movie environment. And there were some character close-up posters for Hunger Games. But there were a lot of action shots too.

In my research, I also came across this — an art contest in the leadup to the film’s release:

To amplify the launch of the film in December 2018, Universal Pictures is creating an art activation campaign leading up to this film’s release, and they want to collaborate with you!

Artists, designers and illustrators from around the world are invited to create one-of-a-kind static artwork for Mortal Engines inspired by the latest imagery, trailers, book series, and the film’s themes.

“Art activation campaign.”

I’m pretty against this sort of thing on principle, but there totally were some good submissions — at least representing a wider variety of approaches.

(In fact, it looks like the IMAX one above — with the icon of the tread in the background — came from this contest as a submission.)

All of this made me think of other times when poster art chose to rely heavily on close-ups of faces. Did they work? What do each of these posters communicate, I decided to muse about, and is it plausible that a studio could believe each would be enough to sell a movie?

MINORITY REPORT: “Tom Cruise is in this movie. There’s a tech theme, and probably a theme about secrets and hidden information? Steven Spielberg directed it.” (Note: This is also an international poster, not the main key art that was used to sell the movie domestically.)

UNDERWORLD EVOLUTION: “This is a sequel to a movie that, if you saw it, you know what this one is also about. And this time, there is snow.” (There was also an additional, more action-y poster for this film, too.)

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA: “This movie is DEFINITELY about a geisha. It will be largely about that and all that implies. There is no need to also include pagodas and tea sets and Mount Fuji in this image. If you recognize the title, you might know that it’s based on a book that was very popular and successful.”

SCREAM: “This is a horror-style movie. But we have taken the liberty of explaining the twisty premise of the movie as a very lengthy tagline. At the bottom you can see this is also a Wes Craven movie, and we are foregrounding that it is already ‘highly acclaimed’ and a ‘thriller’ so you know it’s not a throwaway spoof movie, like the many that will follow in its wake.” (This was also accompanied by a full cast poster, among others.)

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: “This is going to be creepy and probably involve death. Maybe you recognize the book title? If we try to include some plot hints such as implying it’s about cops and a serial killer, is that really MORE interesting than just being creepy here?”

BLACK SWAN: “This movie has Natalie Portman in it, and you know it’s gonna be weird, and maybe creepy? It’s a fancy film that has been to festivals, and it’s directed by Darren Aronofsky. So just prepare for something weird and probably creepy. Won’t it be wild to see Natalie Portman be creepy?”

SALT: Okay this one is worse than Mortal Engines.

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