How Lionsgate is selling its take on one of the biggest sexual harassment scandals in the media world.
Whether or not Roger Ailes’ ouster from Fox News marks a key moment of accountability in the recent movement to remove serial perpetrators of sexual abuse from power remains to be seen in many ways. But it certainly was a big deal given the cable channel and the political party it’s an official outlet for don’t usually take the rights of women to be as, much less more, valuable than the men exercising their God-given privilege.
That’s part of why those events have been dramatized in the new movie Bombshell. Charlize Theron plays Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly while Nicole Kidman plays Gretchen Carlson, both of them women integral to the demise of Ailes amidst allegations he repeatedly assaulted and harassed them as well as other female staffers. Margot Robbie plays Kayla Pospisil, a fictional new member of the news staff who encounters those same behaviors and acts as the audience’s surrogate to the story.
Lionsgate’s campaign has relied heavily on the physical transformations of Theron and Kidman into the women they play as well as the schadenfreude not a few people felt at the removal of a man responsible for making many of society’s current ills worse. Unfortunately a solid campaign has run into lackluster early buzz as the movie entered limited release, with wider distribution coming soon.
All three women central to the story are shown on the first poster (by marketing agency BOND), released in October. The similarities in their looks is apparent as they’re side by side like this, while copy toward the bottom makes it clear the movie is “Based on a real scandal.”
There’s almost no dialogue in the teaser trailer (8.6 million views on YouTube), released in August. Instead the situation is conveyed to the audience in a number of Meaningful Glances as first Pospisil, then Kelly, then Carlson get on an elevator heading down. When it stops, Carlson and then Pospisil get off and both head into the Fox News offices for unstated reasons.
The first official trailer (13.7 million views on YouTube) was released in early October as part of an event hosted by Lionsgate in Los Angeles and starts with Kayla being given an introduction to how she needs to approach news gathering at Fox News, basically by finding any story that “would scare your grandmother.” That cuts to Gretchen explaining to a room full of attorneys how bad the sexism and harassment at the company was, both on-screen and off, and Megyn’s high-profile run-in with a certain presidential contender. When Kayla wants a promotion, Ailes makes her an unseemly offer to prove her loyalty. Gretchen’s accusations against Ailes make the environment even more hostile and lead to a boiling point for everyone involved.
Online and Social
Nothing of real note on the movie’s official website, which just as the basic information. Social profiles have offered more frequent updates, but that’s about it.
Advertising and Promotions
Roach and the cast attended a press screening of the movie in early October where they all talked about how they approached telling the story, their own experiences with the kind of behavior shown in the story and more. That screening kicked off substantial awards season speculation for the cast in particular. Another screening event was held in New York a couple weeks later.
The organizers of the Hollywood Film Awards announced in October they would be giving Theron a career achievement award. Similarly, she was slated for International Star Award at the Palm Springs Film Festival.
Lionsgate announced in late October it was moving the limited release of the film up one week in an attempt to gain word of mouth before the wide release the week of 12/20, when it competes against Star Wars.
That same month it took the stars and filmmakers on a brief “Conversation Tour” to discuss the film and the topics it touches on.
Theron was honored by American Cinematheque in November.
Roach was joined by writer Charles Randolph at an Arclight Hollywood Q&A where they screened and then discussed the movie.
Two clips came out in the last few weeks, one focusing on Kayla worrying she’s about to be fired, apparently after being ranted at by Ailes and another with Carlson making it clear the official channels for reporting sexual harassment within Fox are utterly meaningless.
Commercials like this cut down the story to manageable chunks, positioning the events depicted in it as the starting point for a national conversation, though on what is left unsaid.
While it may not make a huge difference in box office results, the cast has been nominated for multiple Golden Globes, SAG and other awards recently.
Media and Press
Initial press about the movie – from before it even went into production – included that it was among the films being dropped by Annapurna Pictures, reportedly due to budget issues that couldn’t be handled by the studio as it struggled to get its financial house in order.
Following the press screening, interviews popped up regularly, including one with Roach where he explained the decision to create the character of Kayla and how he got people to violate NDAs to share details of life inside Fox with him. One person who didn’t participate in that research was Carlson, who was frustrated by the constraints on her voice. The subject of how within and without Fox was or wasn’t willing to break their NDAs to talk with the filmmakers was also covered here.
Additional interviews focused on the challenges of playing real people, including Theron discussing her physical transformation into Kelly and Lithgow’s look for playing Ailes. Theron also admitted to the nervousness she felt taking on the role.
Lithgow talked about the movie when he appeared on “The Late Show” in October. He was also the subject of another profile focusing on his transformation into Ailes and spoke about it more on “The Daily Show” recently.
How the production team recreated the Fox News offices and sets were covered in an interview with Roach. The costume design team talked themselves about getting the look of the Fox News staff right. Roach later shared how he felt the movie followed in the tradition of cinematic social commentary while the whole cast was included in a feature on how they went about making a movie about such a recent and still delicate topic.
Additional interviews with Roach on why he watches Fox News for research and insights, costar Richard Kind on playing Rudy Gulliani, Robbie on the social media research she conducted, Theron on why she didn’t want to meet Kelly in advance, costar Alanna Ubach on playing Fox personality Jeanine Pirro and more have all popped recently. There were also a few profiles like this on the movie’s wardrobe design.
There’s nothing wrong with the marketing as it stands. The campaign sells a dramatic retelling of recent history in a much more compelling way than some other movies (cough, Richard Jewell, cough) and seems much more vital and important. How powerful men create cultures friendly to the abuse they visit on those around them is a topic we need to see more of in order to break those systems down.
What’s surprising – and a little disappointing – is that the social justice message seems secondary here to how the performances, especially by Theron, have been put in the spotlight. Her transformation into Kelly is absolutely notable and worth discussing, but what would have been more heartening is to see how that work went to furthering a crucial societal story. Instead of just focusing on what happened at Fox News, the reality that what happened there is happening all over corporate America could have been underlined a bit more strongly.
Other than that, selling movie with incredibly performances by some of the best actors working today isn’t a hard message to put forward.