The Magical Marketing of Moonlight

By  · Published on October 25th, 2016

Director Barry Jenkins and A24 prove that a good story and great marketing make for a solid movie opening.


They said movies are dead or dying. They were wrong.

This past weekend proved to be a wonderful reminder of why we go to the movies. Yes, this weekend’s offerings were mostly specialty box-office films but wasn’t it great to see something else at the cineplex besides grown men and women in spandex costumes saving the world (again)? Amidst a crowded release weekend of titles like Ouija: Origin of Evil, The Accountant, The Handmaiden and Certain Women, A24’s release of its first fully financed production Moonlight is particularly notable for its successful opening and creative yet understated marketing campaign.

Moonlight is directed by Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film is a poignant exploration of masculinity, sexuality and identity revolving around the coming of age of a black man growing up during the 1970s “war on drugs” era in Miami. The film had a tiny budget of about $5M but managed to rake in a remarkable per-screen-average (PSA) of just over $100,000 per theater in a limited release across four theaters, according to figures from Box Office Mojo. These numbers are impressive especially when compared to bigger budget new releases like Boo! A Madea Halloween (Budget: $20M; PSA: $12,600; Theaters: 2,260) and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Budget: $60M; PSA: $6,000; Theaters: 3,780).

Moonlight achieved box-office success thanks in part to good storytelling and a strategic yet understated marketing campaign. Here are some interesting things to point out in the film’s successful marketing – Indie (or otherwise) filmmakers and producers, take note:

Telluride group photo. Spot the future Oscar winners!

Coordinated festival strategy

Moonlight had its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend which was great timing and location for the indie film. The Colorado festival is known as a launching pad for films bound for the awards circuit, including Best Picture Oscar-winners such as 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire. Jenkins also has a deep history with the festival beginning in 2002 as a student filmmaker, which made it the perfect place for his second feature debut. Jenkins curated the fest’s short film program and served as moderator at screenings. He actually met his Plan B producer Dede Gardner during the first public screening of 12 Years a Slave at Telluride which had Jenkins serve as the emcee.

Following Telluride, Moonlight screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival, which are equally notable stops for Oscar hopefuls. Like Telluride, these festivals are where many film critics, journalists, industry insiders and tastemakers congregate to see indie and studio films, review them, tweet about them, love them, hate them and, basically, create early buzz. The film earned solid reviews coming out of screenings at all these festivals, creating awards hype and much anticipation for its October 21 release.

Beautiful artwork and a captivating trailer

For the rest of us normal people who can’t attend fancy festivals in Colorado or Toronto, we rely on the marketing materials released by the distributor to learn more about an upcoming film. These materials may vary but they typically include the trailer, key art (read: poster) and photography.

The trailer was a hands-down showstopper. In his review of A24’s trailers including Moonlight, Max Covill wrote that the Moonlight trailer let the actors shine and it “only teases at the larger plot and encourages audiences to learn more about the picture.” Indeed, the trailer gave just enough of a taste of the film’s gorgeous cinematography by James Laxton and strong showings by actors Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders, André Holland, Tre’ Rhodes, Alex R. Hibbert and Janelle Monáe.


The key art is another important component of a film’s marketing campaign. In the case of Moonlight, it is truly eye-catching and beautiful. The subdued design matches the film’s sophisticated yet minimalist tone. Its strong color choices, visible title and evocative imagery look great in print, desktop and mobile (very important in these social media/mobile times). In the main one-sheet poster, the collage of three different faces hint at what this film is about ‐ one man’s story, told through various stages of his life. Getting that idea across in one simple image is what we call great marketing, my friends. Bonus points for not using a generic font like Impact for the title treatment (you’d be surprised how many movies use that font or something very similar in their title treatments, or logos).

Photos or screenshots? TBH can’t really tell but they’re all pretty great (A24).

Along with the key art and trailer, photography from the film can tell a lot about a movie. For Moonlight, many images were released throughout the internet in reviews and other pieces about the film. Sometimes it’s hard to know which images are officially released by the film company, and which images are simply screenshots by fans or blogs. Regardless of where it came from, the images that came out of this film are powerful. The point of great movie marketing photography is to tell the story of the film in a single shot, and hint at various scenes and themes over a series of shots. The photos tease the audience into wanting to learn more about the movie, and eventually it gets them to actually buy a ticket and watch it. These photos accomplished that goal.

Rave reviews and recommendations on social media

The most visible asset in Moonlight’s marketing campaign was its use of stellar reviews and quotes. You can see the quotes used everywhere ‐ in ads, trailers, posters, the website and even tweets. Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf wrote: “this film is the reason we go to the movies.” The Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang said: “it doesn’t say much; it says everything.” These were used in various marketing materials for the film. Quotes from critical voices like these are a goldmine of publicity opportunities for a film. For a small movie like Moonlight, good quotes can help make it bigger and more credible.

Besides positive critics reviews, celebrities came out in support of the film on social media. Fans did too. Though critics may hold greater pedigree in terms of reviewing movies and reflecting movie tastes, in the social media age there ain’t nothing like your favorite friend or famous person telling you why you need to see this movie.

A good story and well-timed theatrical release

Perhaps Moonlight’s greatest asset is its most simple ‐ a good story. Its poignant tale of reflection and experience relates to different people in different ways depending on age, sex, gender, race and so forth. The point is that the story seems to have somehow found a way to connects to everyone, without sacrificing plot or inserting spectacular action sequences ‐ or at least that is what seems to be the case based on reviews and social media chatter, a.k.a. word-of-mouth. Good word-of-mouth is a sign of a good movie that deserves to be seen in a theater, and it’s often the best publicity you can’t ever buy. Matched with a well-timed theatrical release ‐ right after the lackluster summer season and before the major studios begin pushing their big budget awards movies ‐ and Moonlight now has solid awards positioning and high potential for a healthy box-office return.

It is also worth noting that Moonlight comes a time when race and gender discussions have become increasingly political (see: #BlackLivesMatter, #OscarsSoWhite, #nastywomen). But instead of shoving keywords like “diversity” in our faces or on the one-sheet, the film’s campaign chose to highlight its simple but relatable story instead. “This is the story of a lifetime,” reads the poster. Sometimes an easy, warm-hearted premise like that is enough to get audiences to watch a movie.

Moonlight expands into theaters over the next two weeks before going wide on November 4th.

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Writer. Audio/Creative Producer. Columnist, Film School Rejects.