Studios Look to PR Tactics to Build and Rebuild Audience Interest

We live in tumultuous political times. Study after study seems to reinforce the notion that the U.S. population is more ideologically divided than ever, with each side of the political spectrum clinging to its own version of facts and truth and calling those across the breach traitors, racists, fascists and more.

It’s been decades since a celebrity from the world of the arts – be it movies, music or other medium – taking a stance on societal issues could be considered unusual. Marlon Brando famously refused to accept his Oscar for The Godfather in protest of how Native Americans were depicted on screen and to bring attention to the standoff happening at Wounded Knee. Sting has weighed in on the fate of the rainforests and other worthy causes. The list goes on and on, right up to Taylor Swift’s recent decision to drop her apolitical public approach and encourage young people to vote, specifically condemning racial and gender discrimination.

While Mike Huckabee’s comments on Swift will likely be remembered as laughably as Tipper Gore’s warnings that explicit music lyrics were going to be the death of civilization, movie studios in seem to be taking political and societal backlash to heart in some ways. To recent announcements provide examples of how studios are looking to mend fences with different ends of the political spectrum.

First is the announcement that Warner Bros. had hired James Gunn to write – and likely direct – its upcoming sequel to the box-office hit but critical flop Suicide Squad. Gunn was newly available because, as of a few months ago, Disney/Marvel Studios had removed him from the development of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 despite being the creative force behind the previous two very successful movies.

That removal came following a campaign by high-profile alt-right trolls, who resurfaced decade-old Tweets by Gunn that included what are legitimately offensive jokes. But they are *clearly* jokes, even if they come off as in poor taste. This wasn’t new information, though, as Gunn had previously apologized for them in multiple occasions, including well before he was hired by Marvel Studios for the first Guardians movie. There was nothing new here, it was just that his more recent comments about President Trump didn’t sit well with supporters, who managed to get him fired for his political leanings because Disney didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.

So WB/DC has apparently decided it doesn’t care and wants some of the magic Gunn brought to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for its own big-screen efforts. It marks an attempt to mend some fences with audiences who haven’t been fans of some of the previous DC movies, including the first Squad film, citing disjointed narratives and too-dark tones in many of them.

Second is Universal’s announcement it would be providing 14,000 free tickets to its recent Neil Armstrong biopic First Man to current or veteran military service members. That’s a great idea, akin to how writer/director Eva Vives and star Mary Elizabeth Winstead arranged for free screenings of their movie All About Nina for survivors of sexual abuse and assault.

It also seems geared at assuaging some of the criticism the movie and studio had come under after erroneous reports emerged Armstrong’s moon landing did not feature the American flag being planted on the lunar surface. That rumor/story circulated among right-wing commentators, even making its way to cable TV talk shows, despite being almost wholly untrue. As Alissa Wilkinson at Vox points out, the movie doesn’t actually feature any scene where the flag is planted while the entire rest of the movie is dripping with American flags on uniforms, building walls and everywhere else.

Disney’s immediate firing of Gunn and Universal’s appeal to the military show how far Hollywood seems to be willing to go to appease the right wing, which seems to believe that any dissent from their policies and positions represents an unpatriotic hatred of America. They don’t want to be subject to the same fate as Nike, which experienced a backlash in rhetoric, if not in actual sales or brand awareness, after launching a new campaign featuring quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The willingness of studios to fold quickly or make grand gestures is likely in part because they are part of larger companies that have business before the United States Congress and don’t want to fall into the disfavor of the sitting president. Mergers and consolidations are the name of the game for media companies who feel they are the best way to not only maximize shareholder value but also compete against rising challengers like Netflix and Apple. And Trump’s stance on those mergers seems dependent on how friendly they are to him and his administration.

His disfavor toward CNN is why many speculated he was against the AT&T/Time Warner merger, while the support he received from Sinclair Media was suggested as a big reason why he supported that company’s proposed acquisition of Tribune Media. Interestingly, the former succeeded in going through while the latter failed, in part due to bookkeeping on Sinclair’s part that bordered on creative fiction.

(side note: Perhaps this is why WB decided hiring Gunn was a good idea; Trump already dislikes the company and it can’t get much worse for them, so why not?)

While new surveys continually show younger consumers in particular want brands to take public stances similar to their own beliefs on big issues, there’s obviously still danger in doing so, at least for media entities. So, after briefly feeling the ire of conservative groups, movie studios have decided to pull back and not risk further angering the vocal minority that carries outsized influence.


Author: Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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