How NEON is selling a drama about the mental toll felt by those managing our overwhelmed prison system.
Alfre Woodard stars in this week’s new release Clemency. She plays Bernadine Williams, a woman who for years has served as warden at a prison where death row inmates are housed and ultimately executed. In the leadup to yet another execution, Williams begins to struggle with the emotional weight of everything that’s happened on her watch and forcing her to create a stronger connection with the man about to have his fate sealed.
In a week where this is one of two movies about the realities of the criminal justice system – the other being Just Mercy – NEON has run a campaign that emphasizes Woodard’s performance as an emotionally-drained bureaucrat.
The sole theatrical one-sheet (by marketing agency Legion Creative Group) has Williams looking tired and somber against a muted blue background. The bottom half of her body is coming apart, flitting away from her in the form of black doves. It’s some heavy symbolism, designed to show how her job is chipping away at who she is, pieces represented by twisted versions of birds normally associated with peace.
Williams is pragmatic about needing to just do her job in the first trailer (56,000 views on YouTube), released in September. She knows some people see her as part of the problem, but she makes it clear she tries to help the men on death row who move through her prison. No one on either side of the issue understand the position she’s in or the isolation she feels doing a difficult, almost impossible thing repeatedly, but she knows someone has to.
Online and Social
NEON gives the movie a good but not great site, with the standard marketing materials along with the “Social Assets” it usually offers.
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. The positive buzz that was built up from those screenings was significant, with many calling it the highlight of the festival before it went on to win the Grand Jury Prize. Still, it wasn’t until over a month later that it was picked up by NEON.
In late July it was announced the movie would get yet another festival screening, this time at the Toronto International Film Festival. Woodard was scheduled to be honored when the movie was shown at the Hamptons International Film Festival.
Closer to release the studio hosted a handful of screenings, often accompanied by Q&As with the cast and crew, to drum up word of mouth and reach a motivated audience.
Media and Publicity
While at Sundance Chukwu was interviewed about the events that inspired the story as well as how much research she did into the prison system so that every detail was as correct as she could make it.
An interview with Woodard had her talking about her own research for her role as the prison’s warden and the responsibility she felt to tell an important story. She and Hodge appeared together on “The Daily Show” to talk about the movie.
Clemency is likely to get lost in the wake of other, bigger movies, but given the continued conversation about the flawed prison system in the United States – including news the Department of Justice wants to bring Federal executions back – it seems like an important addition to that discussion.
It’s just too bad there wasn’t a bigger push for the movie. While there were certainly a number of interviews recently and the decision to hold screenings with interested groups is a good one, it would have been nice if the filmmakers had been given a bit more visibility to weigh in on the story and characters.
Still, it’s hard to argue with any campaign that puts Woodard at the forefront like this, so at the end it’s a winning strategy.