Matt Damon stars as Paul Safranek in Downsizing, the latest movie from writer/director Alexander Payne. Set sometime in the future, Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) agree to undergo a procedure called “Downsizing” where they are shrunk down to just a few inches tall. It’s an increasingly popular choice, driven by concerns that full-sized people are using the planet’s resources too fast and that shrinking – and thereby requiring less food and water – is the key to responsible environmentalism.
The decision they make winds up taking a turn when, at the last minute, Audrey backs out. That leaves Paul irreversibly shrunk and on his own to adjust to his new reality. In the tiny town he moves to he meets a number of interesting new people, including Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) and Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). Both of them influence how he adapts to the strange new world he finds himself in.
The first only domestic poster immediately makes it clear that the movie’s title is a literal thing, showing Damon as just a tiny figure in the middle of a white background with “[actual size]” underneath him. That’s paired with a tagline that explains “We are meant for something bigger,” which hints the story has something perhaps unexpected for the audience, a journey of self-discovery.
A brief teaser debuted just before the movie screened at TIFF that didn’t offer much in the way of story or plot, just a few quick shots of the various characters and a couple bits of dialogue about getting out and exploring the world. It ends with a shot of the shrinking procedure, but what leads to that is unclear.
The first full trailer opens by setting out the premise, which is that a group of scientists want to solve overpopulation by shrinking people. Paul is struck by the potential this has to change his life for the better. There’s a whole new society being set up for people making this decision that includes new housing, restaurants and more, all of which makes it a very attractive option. Still, the small world has its own challenges and eccentricities that he and Audrey have to grapple with.
It’s being sold here as a light-hearted social commentary. There are hints that there are messages about consumerism, the impact our consumption patterns has on the world around us and more. But it’s also clearly just being positioned as a quirky dramedy with some charming stars at the fore.
The next trailer shows the the dreary and boring nature of the lives Paul and Audrey lead. They decide to go ahead and get small but this one shows that Audrey doesn’t go through with it, leaving Paul on his own in a new world. He cuts loose and gets crazy as a result, eventually also helping others to understand why they made the same decision he did.
I like that we’ve finally gotten more of the story here, showing that there are some real issues Paul is going to face and a journey he’s going to have to go through.
Online and Social
The URL “http://downsizingmovie.com/“ actually redirects automatically to the movie’s Facebook page, one of three social network profiles listed in the descriptions on Youtube for the trailers alongside Twitter and Instagram.
Each of those profiles in turn links to a ticket sales-focused site that has a map of area theaters where the movie will be – or currently is once it opens – playing. That site has some content but not much. There’s just a “Videos” section with the trailers, clips and a featurette. There’s also a “Synopsis” section that has a brief write-up on the story and the names of Payne and the cast.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
A short “Exclusive Look” was released in late September that was used in advertising on Twitter and as pre-roll on YouTube. It doesn’t do much that’s different from the first full trailer, just in a more condensed way and only with footage we’ve already seen.
TV spots like this one sold the basic premise of the story, explaining what downsizing is and why characters are making that choice. They very much sell the movie as a quirky comedy, hoping it looks like a fun, lighthearted option for the holidays.
Online ads used elements of the key art as well as video pulled from the trailer to varying degrees.
Media and Publicity
The movie was announced as the opening night feature for the Venice International Film Festival, providing a high-profile platform for it that hinted at a significant awards-centric strategy. It was also announced as one of those that would screen at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Payne talked about the movie and more and which resulted in very positive buzz and early reviews.
A bit later on the first still from the film was released by Entertainment Weekly along with an interview with Payne where he talked about the story, maintaining a bit of secrecy, keeping such a high-profile cast under budget and more.
The movie was announced as the closing night feature for Fantastic Fest, providing a high-profile venue for Payne’s story.
Waltz apparently had to convince Payne he was the right choice for the role, which was originally intended for a younger actor, selling him on the approach of being a mentor to Damon’s character. He also spoke there about the issues raised in the movie’s story and his own acting process.
Director of photography Phedon Papamichael spoke about working once more with Payne and how they both had to adjust their styles to accommodate more special effects and camera tricks. Payne himself also spoke about what inspired the story and how different it was to involve so many effects and other techniques that aren’t usually part of his process.
Payne kept talking about how this movie was sort of a summation of his career to date, touching on the political and social themes that have run through his previous stories as well as how difficult it was to sell the idea to studios.
Of course Damon made the publicity rounds to talk about the story and premise, which he initially thought was a joke. Chau also made some appearances where she talked about working with Damon, her family history and more. She was also one of the up and coming actors identified here as being on the cusp of breaking into the big time, an idea that was buoyed by her receiving a number of early award nominations for her performance.
Damon’s tour wasn’t all sweetness and light, though, as he once again put his foot in his mouth with comments regarding patterns of sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood that weren’t exactly in line with the current thinking. That lead to a bit of a backlash as he tried to introduce nuance into the conversation, which is not what’s needed at the moment. Considering this has happened to Damon on a handful of social issues during the last several publicity tours he’s been part of, he either needs to stop commenting entirely or get better media training before setting out.
I want to go back to something I mentioned in the advertising section, that this was being sold as a kind of quirky comedy, something with a fantastical premise that allows for lots of sight gags involving oversized (in comparison with the shrunk humans) crackers, bottles of vodka, flowers and more. The campaign seems designed to elicit chuckles from the audience at these elements, which promise a kind of Honey, I Shrunk The Kids for adults. All that with a charming performance from Damon, who even states outright that by making the change he’s finally doing something worthwhile.
Anyone familiar with Payne’s filmography, though, likely knows there’s deeper message that will be sold here. That’s been alluded to in the press push, where he’s talked about how he keeps coming back to certain social issues in his films. So the funny, pleasant campaign may not be accurately selling the film, setting up the potential for audience expectations to be upset or at least not met when it opens. Best case scenario, that leads to good word of mouth as the campaign is transcended. Worst case scenario, it underperforms to some extent because people are unhappy at being misled.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.