How Amazon Studios is selling a historical adventure of scientific exploration.
The Aeronauts seems like the kind of story that would act as the prelude to some sort of fantasy adventure. In fact, it’s (kind of) based on a true story. Felicity Jones plays Amelia Rennes, a pilot in 1800s London who is sought out by scientist James Glasher, who wants to use the gas balloon she flies to test his theories on weather prediction. Facing pushback from the Royal Society over those ideas, he partners with Rennes on his own, but their flight into the upper reaches of the sky goes horribly wrong and the two wind up adrift, struggling for survival.
While Glasher is a historical reality, Rennes is a composite of female scientists from the period, a fictional character inserted into the story to give Glasher someone to play off in events that are largely true, but slightly dramatized.
Amazon Studios has put together a campaign that emphasizes the peril the duo find themselves in as well as the desperate need to be taken seriously by their peers that has driven them.
The movie is “Based on a true adventure” according to the poster (by marketing agency BLT Communications), released in late August. The balloon where much of the story takes place is shown floating into the cloudy sky. It’s a peaceful image until you notice a person is dangling from the edge of the basket, holding on for dear life.
That balloon – and the person in danger – are the central elements on the theatrical poster from October. This time, though, the faces of the two leads are added to either side of the balloon, each looking out into the distance as if considering the new territory they’re on the cusp of exploring. It’s actually slightly less effective because the additional elements clutter the impact a bit
The first trailer (7.6 million views on YouTube) wasn’t released until August. It begins with Amelia talking about her search for answers in the sky. Meanwhile, James is encountering pushback from fellow scientists when he suggests weather conditions can be forecast. He enlists her help for his experiments, but a freak storm on one of their outings sends them off course and unable to return to Earth. So it becomes a struggle for survival as extreme conditions pound them and their balloon until it looks like all hope may be lost.
James is desperate to prove his theories about weather prediction in the second trailer (4.2 million views on YouTube), released in October. To that end he gets Amelia to agree to fly him higher than ever before, where they marvel at the wonders around them. Only toward the end do we see the perils the pair face as things get out of hand and hardware begins to fail.
Online and Social
Not much beyond the standard marketing content on the movie’s official website, unfortunately. There was plenty of potential for an interactive history of ballooning or the science of weather prediction, or features on the real life characters portrayed in the story, but all those were passed by.
Advertising and Publicity
When Amazon did finally announce, in mid-May, a release date for later in the year it came with the surprising caveat the movie would screen in IMAX for a week prior. That made it Amazon’s first foray into IMAX releases, not all that shocking given it’s primarily trafficked in smaller dramas and the like.
Those plans changed in late July, though, when it was announced Amazon Studios was releasing it only to limited theaters and then making it available for streaming a short two weeks later, the latest in a series of moves showing less strict adherence to the theatrical model. In fact it was noted this film, along with The Report, 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.
In August the movie was listed among those slated to appear at this year’s London Film Festival as well as the Toronto Film Festival and Hamptons Film Festival. Redmayne and director Tom Hooper appeared at the movie’s Chicago Film Festival premiere also.
The American Federation of Teachers promoted the film with a sweepstakes awarding an educator with a private screening. Also on the educational front, the Museum of Flight held an advance screening for those interested in flight.
Amazon created a traveling promotional event titled “Aeronauts Incredible Journey” that launched in Los Angeles and has or will make a handful of other stops in major markets. The event included movie-themed attractions and experiences along with a period-specific food festival.
Two featurettes released by Amazon focused on the journey the characters embark on and the heights the story reaches for, the process of building the balloon used for filming and the recording of the score.
Online ads used video from the trailers along with the key image of the balloon to drive traffic to the ticket-selling website.
Media and Press
A still was released showing Redmayne and Jones before the movie had a US release date secured. Redmayne and Jones talked about working with filming a key moment with a dog. Sound designer Lee Walpole was interviewed about creating the unique mix of atmospheric and other noises for the story.
While at AFI Fest, Hooper and others spoke about the technical production details as well as how the story is still relevant to today.
There’s almost a sense of “hurry up and wait” about the campaign Amazon Studios put together here. The branding never really comes together and it seems to have been a series of starts and stops, with no groove or momentum to what’s put before the audience.
It’s telling that the strongest parts of the marketing are those that just focus on the balloon itself. That’s a key image and one that has the strongest, most unique brand value from what’s here. When the actors themselves get involved things start to slow down and become far less interesting, maybe because the story is hard to explain. That balloon, though, is simple and evokes a strong response.
That’s why so many of the featurettes and other paid promotions used the balloon as the central component. Keeping the attention on that is the best choice the campaign does, including the traveling carnival, but it may not be enough to keep audiences interested enough in a movie that may wind up passing everyone by as they wait for higher profile holiday releases.
Picking Up the Spare
More featurettes on the movie’s score and actors, along with new interviews with Jones and Redmayne that focused on those stunts, which was also the subject of a profile of the movie’s cinematographer.