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It’s a legitimate milestone for an entertainment franchise to hit 50 years of more or less uninterrupted cultural relevance. The James Bond series hit that mark and now we have Star Trek joining the hallowed halls of those hitting the half-century mark. That’s right, it’s been 50 years since the first episode of “Star Trek” hit the airwaves and the franchise has been active pretty consistently ever since, making the jump to the big-screen in what would now be seen as yet another in a long line of theatrical TV show adaptations and continuing on screens both big and small.

After all that time there’s quite a bit of activity around the franchise these days. A new show will debut on CBS’s stand-alone streaming service in the next year and, of course, there’s Star Trek Beyond hitting theaters this week. The third outing in the rebooted universe that started with 2009’s Star Trek, this entry reunites Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock along with the rest of the crew of the USS Enterprise. The gang is out and about, beginning their five year mission into deep space but almost immediately crosses paths with a new threat that tests their mettle as a group and makes their question whether or not they’ll ever return home again.

The Posters

The first teaser poster, which debuted at the 50th anniversary fan event, goes hard on the action aspect of the movie. The Enterprise is shown swooping away from the camera, leaving a colorful wake as it rushes through the sky, moving past the giant “Beyond” that’s placed in the middle of the image.

A series of posters was released showing most of the characters on individual one-sheets, each one with some distinctive color – in the case of the Starfleet officers it corresponds to their rank and role – with the Starfleet insignia burning bright on one side and the swarm of ships streaming down, clearly the source of conflict here.

An IMAX poster really played up that feature, with the Enterprise zooming upward out of a cloud bank *and* from the “IMAX that dominates the center of the one-sheet.

The theatrical one-sheet took the same sweeping elements that have been on previous posters and used it to highlight much of the main cast. So while it sweeps down from left to right we see within that sweep – which is made up of the tiny things seen attacking the Enterprise in the trailers – Kirk, Uhura, Jaylah and others. Toward the bottom there’s a shot of Kirk on a motorcycle, which combined with the dramatic motion of the rest of the design is meant to tell the audience there’s a lot of action here, that they’re not going to be bored.

The Trailers

The first trailer definitely set a tone that differentiated this entry from the previous movies. It starts off with Pegg’s Scotty wandering around a ship making some sort of crack about the music that’s playing. We see lots of quick-cut action here but are able to get the gist, which is that the crew of the Enterprise has been captured after their ship was destroyed. So they’re stranded on a strange planet but surrounded by enemies, whose motivations are not made clear in this spot.

It’s a fast and loose trailer that, as I said, is markedly different from the previous movies. When it was released it got two basic reactions from fans: 1) That director Lin was obviously trying to bring his Fast & Furious aesthetic to the Star Trek franchise with lots of hanging off of cliffs, motorcycle chases and so on, or 2) That this was finally going to bring some fun back to the movie series by focusing on weird aliens and showing some sort of sense of humor as compared to the dour first two movies. The trailer not only raised some eyebrows among fans but even got co-star Simon Pegg to come out and publicly say he didn’t care for it but that fans should believe the movie is going to be great.

The next trailer starts out with a shot of the Enterprise as Kirk talks about the sketchy reasons he joined Starfleet and Bones telling him he needs to find out who he is. The action starts to ramp up as someone else talks about getting lost in the vastness of space. Then things really take off as a swarm of projectiles attacks and destroys the ship as the crew takes off in escape pods, landing on a strange planet. After that it’s one action sequence after another as the crew, their allies and adversaries run, jump and shoot their way out of various perilous situations.

It’s a much better trailer than the first, for no other reason than it doesn’t try to be as clever or hip as the first. So gone is the odd editing and forced musical cues, replaced by shots that sell the movie as a funny action adventure, which may be need after the somewhat ponderous nature of the second movie. Even better there are no willful misdirections as to the story or plot.

A third trailer played more or less like the second one, but a bit more somber as Kirk narrates like he’s entering a log file about this being the end of the Enterprise, but not the crew. Lots of action shots, most of which we’ve already seen, follow as we see the scattered crew do what they need to to survive.

The main appeal of the third trailer, at least to most people, is the debut of “Sledgehammer,” the new ballad from Rihanna that will appear on the soundtrack. That song actually provides a great backdrop to the action that’s on display, adding a mournful, melancholy filter to the whole thing.

One last trailer dropped just before release. Clocking in at just a minute long, it’s about setting up the adventure, showing the Enterprise under attack and focusing on the dialogue between Kirk and Bones about how much the former wants to get back into space and the latter just sees untold danger. It’s fun but doesn’t add much to the overall effort.

Online and Social

When you load up the official website you first get the third trailer – the one with Rihanna’s new song – playing automatically. That’s a good thing since it reminds you not just of the action of the movie but also the emotion that goes into it.

But, once that’s done, you find that’s about it on the site. There’s a section for “Partners” and links to the social networks but nothing else. It’s shocking a major studio release gets what amounts to a single-page site that offers nothing about the film other than a single trailer.

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So since there was little to no effort on the core site, let’s see what was happening on social media. Unfortunately there’s nothing to write home about there either. On both Facebook and Twitter it’s the same promotional updates with countdown images, prompts for when the cast is on TV or doing online Q&As and more along with trailers, photos etc.

Advertising and Cross-Promotion

TV spots appear to have started running after the release of the third trailer, with commercials like this one that emphasized the fun, rolicking action of the movie. Others would be more emotional, mirroring the bittersweet tone of that third trailer. So the TV campaign tried to bring a bit of everything from the movie to appeal to multiple audiences.

  • HP: Made a big press splash with its announcement it had contributed tech concepts in the movie that, to paraphrase its press release, showcased its vision for the future but with technology it would make available much sooner.
  • Enterprise Rent-A-Car: Ran a significant campaign, its first for a movie partner, involving co-branded signage outdoors and in select locations.
  • Vizio: Gave app users access to the movie’s trailer as well as an enhanced version of the previous film, Into Darkness
  • Microsoft Bing: When people searched for the movie they were presented with storybook-type material as well as a Star Trek trivia game to play
  • Eastern Airlines: Wrapped one of their 737s in movie-themed branding
  • Quicken Loans: Aired a co-branded spot during the Super Bowl earlier this year and drafted off the space theme to help promote their Rocket Mortgage product

Online ads were run pretty heavily, notably following the debut of the third trailer. Banner ads, particularly on YouTube’s front page, and paid Twitter posts touted not only the trailer but also the called out the Rihanna song specifically.

The producers and studio partnered with Omaze.com to offer a series of prizes people could win when they made a donation to the campaign, donations that would go to one or more of a series of charitable causes. So the cast created some fun videos to encourage people to donate. Those videos were also how Elba’s casting was officially announced since he walked out onto the set at the end of the first one, causing the internet to freak out.

Another Omaze campaign was launched just a little while before release that offered fans a chance to support veterans returning from active service and have the chance to win a trip to the San Diego premiere of the movie.

Media and Publicity

Elba was out and about doing press for other movies and would often get asked about Star Trek, questions he would occasionally answer in the most vague way possible, which didn’t stop everyone from dissecting those comments over and over again.

The movie benefited from the fact that it was coming out during the 50th anniversary of the debut of the original TV show, meaning it got ostensible support in the form of show retrospectives, commemorative stamp issues and more. More press would be generated with set visits and so on that revealed various elements of the story and caught people up on where the cast was since the last installment.

As part of the franchise’s 50th anniversary Paramount announced a “first ever” fan event that would include the debut of the final trailer along with cast appearances and more. That event included the revealing of a handful of details and teased a major IMAX debut at San Diego Comic-Con later in the year.

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The cast talked about where this new story was going to find the crew of the Enterprise, which is a little fried but not able to take a much-needed break.

Unfortunately just a month before release Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov in the series, was tragically killed, leading the cast to cancel various events and a pall to generally be cast over the whole campaign for the movie.

While they weren’t tied specifically to the movie but more to the 50th anniversary celebration, two events still gave the movie some nods: First, a massive panel at SDCC with the cast of all the TV shows was announced and second, the original Enterprise was on display at the Smithsonian, with that institution also planning a TV special about the real-life science that has and continues to inform the franchise.

A series of short character videos were released showing a key scene or two about a handful of the characters.

News broke that it would be revealed in this movie that Sulu, portrayed by John Cho, was gay and married with a daughter, making the first openly LGBTQ major character in the Star Trek universe, a nod to the sexuality of George Takei, who played the role originally. While most people saw this as a great move, Takei himself wasn’t thrilled, calling it disrespectful to Roddenberry’s original vision of the character and saying it would have been better if the filmmakers had created a new character to bring this into the world with.  Cho later got a feature story in the New York Times all of his own about his role in Star Trek specifically but also his career in general.

The cast also did the rounds of the morning and late-night talk shows just in case there was anyone left who hadn’t already made up their minds about seeing the movie.

Overall

There’s so much going on here.

First, there’s that disastrous first trailer. It’s just awful, with odd timing, no rhythm and nothing about it that positioned the movie as anything but a tonal trainwreck. It’s especially odd considering how brand consistent the entire rest of the campaign has been. Everything since then is on-point, selling the movie as a rip-roaring thrill ride that takes a premise that wouldn’t feel out of place in the original TV series and expanding it to the big screen, upping the stakes and making sure everyone knows that there’s still plenty of humor thrown in.

But what are those stakes? The campaign tells us that there’s a big bad out there somewhere who’s threatening…what, Earth? He doesn’t like humans, that’s for sure, but there’s never much detail given about his plans. So we’re asked once again to accept the destruction of the Enterprise – something that’s been done at least a few times since Star Trek III – as the main consequence of the crew’s involvement in what might simply be a local matter. Sure, that’s going to make for some entertaining visuals, but “wanton destruction” is a poor substitute for actual story stakes. I have faith in Pegg as a screenwriter so hope there’s more here but it’s not on display in the marketing.

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Then there’s the issue of the campaign largely only showing us footage from what I’m guessing is the middle of the second act through the middle of the third act. Yes, there’s some setup about Kirk wanting to go back into space and the crew beginning their five year mission, but mostly we’re seeing alien battles and starships flying through clouds of attacking vessels. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t provide us with any sort of foundation as to where the characters are now, something that’s an essential part of franchise marketing. The biggest card the campaign plays in this way is in the use of a shot from the first movie of Kirk looking at a starship being built.

It’s not all that bad, though. With the exception of the first trailer the rest of the campaign is remarkably consistent in its brand voice and repetition, hammering how the sweeping visuals, either of the Enterprise itself of the alien vehicles that destroy it. So from that regard the marketing got its act together, figured out what it wanted to sell and made it happen. The lack of a robust website is certainly a misstep – you can’t ignore the desktop web just because some research says everyone is on mobile – but is an outlier in a campaign that became uniformly strong to the very end.

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