Amazon Studio’s new film about uncovering government secrets gets released with coincidentally appropriate timing.
Scott Z. Burns wrote and directed The Report, this week’s new release from Amazon Studios. The movie, based on a true story, stars Adam Driver as Daniel Jones, a U.S. Senate staffer given the responsibility to investigate and report on the actions undertaken by the CIA in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Specifically, Jones is tasked with determining if the CIA’s program of torture and various forms of “enhanced interrogation techniques” were of any substantive use to U.S. intelligence gathering. What he finds is that not only were those efforts of little to no value but that agency officials routinely misled lawmakers as to what they were doing and whether it was helping to keep America safe.
The campaign mounted by Amazon has sought to position Jones as a crusading fighter determined to do what’s right despite the powerful forces aligned against him. With an 86 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, early reviews have been positive but there seems to be a distinct lack of buzz for the drama.
Jones is presented on the poster (by marketing agency LA), released in August, as a collection of copy, some of which is appropriately redacted. Even part of the title is scratched out. “Truth matters” reads the copy at the bottom, but the whole design is stark and attention-grabbing, selling the movie as a serious drama for serious people.
The second poster, released in October, uses the same design concept but this time includes the faces of Annette Bening as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Jones’ boss, and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm). The movie’s festival credentials are also highlighted along with a positive review quote playing up the film’s story.
Amazon released the first trailer (5.4 million views on YouTube) in August. As it starts, Jones is explaining how the attacks of 9/11/01 changed his perspective to one focused on national security, leading to a job in government. When he learns the CIA destroyed evidence of torture he sets out to find out what was on the tapes that have gone missing, finding that the agency engaged in wanton cruelty with little to show for it. The intelligence community takes issue with that finding and begins targeting Jones and making the case that what they did was essential to national security, leading him to take action to make sure his report sees the light of day.
A second, shorter trailer (427,000 views on YouTube) was released in October that focused on the ramifications of the report and what it was meant to both accomplish and undo.
Online and Social
Amazon created Twitter and Facebook profiles for the movie but no official website. Those profiles don’t even have a link to any site where people can buy tickets or register their interest in watching it when it becomes available for streaming.
Advertising and Publicity
A first look still from the movie was released at the same time it was announced it would be screening at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon picked it up during the festival, one of many high-profile acquisitions it made. In August it screened at the Telluride Film Festival.
In mid-June Amazon finally announced a September release date for the film, planning a two-week theatrical release before it would become available on the company’s streaming service. That release date was shifted to November in late July, but the same two-week window between theatrical and streaming availability was kept intact. In fact it was noted this film, along with The Aeronauts, represented the first salvo in a shift by Amazon away from applying the theatrical model to all its feature releases, something it had previously committed to as a way to stay in the good graces of exhibitors and studios.
Amazon held a number of screenings of the movie in various locations, usually those associated with government or journalism, in the last couple weeks. Some of those included Q&A sessions with the cast and crew and even Jones, who joined the filmmakers on stage to talk about the true story the film is based on.
Online ads used variations on the key art to raise awareness.
Media and Press
A first look still from the movie was released at the same time it was announced it would be screening at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon picked it up during the festival, one of many high-profile acquisitions it made. Burns spoke about the story and how he envisioned it as an alternative to officially-approved versions of events.
Benning was interviewed about taking on the role of Diane Feinstein and how she decided not to research the real woman too much lest it overwhelm her performance.
An interview with Burns allowed him to talk about how timely the story told in the movie still is, especially as the U.S. is in the middle of impeachment proceedings that have the concept of accountability for illegal actions as their core premise. Burns, along with the real life Jones, also spoke about how this movie seeks to correct some of the problems with earlier movies like Zero Dark Thirty that seemed to position torture as both effective and necessary.
While Amazon has made the case that it’s reevaluating the theatrical release window it’s previously had in place as a way to appease theater owners, it seems that choosing this movie – a political drama that has more in common with the kinds of films that were popular 40 years ago – to be one of the first under the new system. That could be because of a lack of faith in the commercial viability of a story like this, regardless of its high-caliber cast.
That being said, the campaign…well…it seems to be targeted specifically at the audiences that still enjoy the kinds of films that were popular 40 years ago. It sells a movie in which someone going on with their public service job despite other people telling them “don’t do that” in loud voices is high drama.
What’s missing from all but a handful of interviews is a clear message to the audience as to *why* this story is still so essential and relevant. That whistleblowers and others who seek out the truth are an essential part of our society and government is as important now than ever before. More emphasis on that might not have improved the movie’s box-office chances significantly but it would have tightened up the campaign a good deal.