How Warner Bros. is selling a true story of justice delayed.
Michael B. Jordan stars as lawyer Bryan Stevenson in the new movie Just Mercy, out this week. Stevenson is a recent Harvard grad who, instead of taking a high-paying job at a fancy firm opts to seek real justice. To that end he takes on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man sentenced to death for a murder of a teenage girl despie the almost complete lack of evidence or motive.
In his quest to help McMillian and those like him who have been denied a fair hearing he has the help of Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), the two of them working to overcome the concerns the locals who know all too well that the system isn’t meant for them.
The marketing for the film has leaned heavily on the public’s associations between Jordan and Larson and the heroic roles they’ve taken on in previous films.
“Every generation has its hero. Meet ours.” That copy may seem cloy given it appears in front of a photo of Jordan, but given that it’s Jordan as Stevenson and that he’s wearing a sensible suit the message is that ordinary people doing their jobs are sometimes the heroes we need. The poster (by marketing agency BOND) came out in December and features images of the other main characters in the tiled background behind Stevenson.
A second poster released later that months features Stevenson in profile, this time reminding us “Heroes exist.”
An announcement teaser preceded the release of the first trailer (6.6 million views on YouTube) in early September during the height of festival season. That trailer stars by introducing us to Stevenson and the surprises and challenges he faces working with prisoners on Death Row. McMillian is reluctant to work with him, but comes around when Stevenson enlists the help of the prisoner’s family and friends in his fight. With Ansley joining the team as well, Stevenson continues pushing his belief that each person has value beyond their crimes, even if that entails upsetting powerful people and institutions determined to maintain the status quo.
The second trailer (3 million views on YouTube) came out in early December and begins with McMillan’s conviction and Stevenson’s resolve to help him and people like him who are being railroaded by a prejudiced justice system. With Ansley’s help and the support of others around them, he takes on that system so that innocent men are not punished simply because of their skin color.
Online and Social
While the official website has plenty of decent marketing materials, there’s nothing here that adds any emphasis to the actual social justice causes espoused in the story. So there are no links or contact information for organizations that may offer legal defense for those who can’t afford it themselves. It seems like such information would be useful and in keeping with the movie’s message.
Advertising and Publicity
Before any other marketing for the movie really started it was announced among the lineup of films screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, an appearance that included a conversation with Jordan and Foxx. It was also slated for the Hamptons International Film Festival and then scheduled as the closing night feature at the Austin Film Festival. In mid-October it was announced it would open the Napa Film Festival.
A few online ads were run that used the key art and brief video snippets.
There were a few screenings held in the last few weeks in New York City and elsewhere, often involving appearances by the cast and crew, who participated in Q&As.
Media and Press
Both Foxx and Jordan spoke while in Toronto about the responsibility they felt to tell a story like this and raise awareness of the injustice they see around them. Jordan praised the people whose stories are portrayed in the movie during a Q&A following the screening. The two appeared on “The Tonight Show” right after that Toronto screening.
Cretton was interviewed about the need for diversity in the filmmaking ranks and how this story spoke to him. As part of a feature package on women in the entertainment industry, Larson talked about how inspired she was when taking on the role.
An interview with Jordan had him talking about the responsibility he felt in taking a part in a real life story like this, as well as how encouraged he felt that a major studio had agreed to take on such serious subject matter. The real Stevenson spoke about what it was like seeing his own story on screen. He was later profiled again about his work seeking justice for those who would otherwise be denied it.
The idea that it’s perseverance that pays off was covered in another interview with Cretton that once more uses the “this is another kind of super hero” narrative hook. He spoke later about the pressure he felt in telling a real life story and how invaluable it was to find the right cast.
The team behind the costumes and wardrobe were profiled on their work creating a realistic look for the story.
Jordan appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie and more.
Foxx became more of a central figure in the publicity later in the cycle, starting with an interview where he talked about the universal elements of the story and an appearance on “The Late Show.” He also conveniently stopped by “Kimmel” when costar Larson was guest-hosting the show, creating a nice two-for-one promotional moment.
While there’s lots of good stuff going on here, there are two major issues that are apparent in the campaign.
First, the way it embraces the super hero terminology seems to betray a lack of confidence in the movie itself. That seemed to start out as a media hook, which made sense given the cast. Eventually it became part of the formal marketing and become the actual tagline used to help sell it to the public.
Second, it still seems like a mistake not to use the campaign to promote organizations that help those less fortunate. That’s the kind of move that’s been made in the campaigns for movies about sexual conversion therapy, teen drug abuse and other issues, so not seeing it here is notable by its omission.
That being said, it’s hard to take too much issue with a movie that touches on a topic like this, so whatever benefit comes from it is a plus.