How Warner Bros. is selling a tale of struggle and redemption.
With tracking reports estimating an opening weekend of $12-17 million, The Way Back doesn’t seem poised to break any box office records. Early reviews have been largely positive, though, especially for star Ben Affleck.
Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star who walked away from the game years ago and has since led a life of divorce, alcoholism and other destructive behavior. One day he’s approached by the head of his old school with an offer to come back and coach the current team. Reluctant to go back down that road, he eventually relents. After a rough start he finds the kids have as much to offer him as he does them, especially finally giving him a purpose outside himself.
The campaign has sold the movie for what it is – Hoosiers, but with the focus entirely on Dennis Hopper’s Shooter – but with odd turns into Affleck’s personal life.
Copy on the first poster (by marketing agency Gravillas) reading “Every loss is another fight” makes it seem as if the movie will be one with an uplifting and inspiring message. John’s head is in the middle of a basketball scoreboard, helping to establish the story’s setting. Next to the title, the audience is reminded of the previous films from the director, including an earlier collaboration with Affleck.
Earlier this month a second poster was released that changes the copy to read “One shot for a second chance,” which is more specific to the story of this film. The same shot of John is used, but this time the image behind him is a more full look at a basketball stadium, not floating parts of the scoreboard.
Jack is working construction and drinking steadily as the first trailer (2 million views on YouTube), released in November, begins. He’s approached by an old friend to take on the role of high school basketball coach when the old one passes away, a role he’s a good fit for having been a star player in his youth. His team isn’t great, but the job keeps him occupied, except for the times when his depression and regrets lead him back to a drunken state. As he turns the kids around he continues to struggle with his own sobriety, showing that this isn’t a simple redemption tale being told but one that might be a bit more complex.
One of Jack’s players is asking him why he quit basketball all those years ago as the second trailer (9.2 million views on YouTube), released in early February, opens. Turns out he was trying to please his disapproving father. Despite that, he’s asked to come back and coach at his old high school. His work with the team coincides with his work on improving himself and pulling out of harmful behavior. This trailer presents a much more inspiring and emotional message, less dramatic and more about second chances and making amends for the past.
Online and Social
There’s almost no information on the movie’s official website, showing just how deprioritized that platform has become by studios.
Advertising and Promotions
Affleck and others from the cast introduced an exclusive AMC clip showing the first time Jack meets the team, both sides working to establish dominance. Regal Cinemas got another clip showing Jack giving the team an inspirational speech in the middle of a game.
Shorter versions of the trailers were used as TV spots and pre-roll ads as well as promoted posts on social networks. All focused on the inspirational nature of the story and not so much the troubles Jack has to go through to get to that point.
The movie’s premiere was held in L.A. earlier this week, with the cast and crew all in attendance.
Media and Press
An extensive profile of Affleck touched on the parallels between this story and the actor’s real like struggles with alcohol and relationship issues along with much more. Similar topics were covered in another interview with the actor.
Affleck appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to promote the film and talk about his other interests. He also showed up on “Kelly Clarkson” and other shows to do likewise. Some of the actors who play the team being coached stopped by “GMA.”
As I stated in the opening, the campaign bears more than a passing similarity to elements of a previous basketball film. That’s giving this movie short shrift to an extent, but it’s also a handy way to understand what’s going on.
Throughout the marketing there’s a consistent effort to portray the glass half full elements of the story, sometimes artificially downplaying the rougher parts of Jack’s story. That’s a shame since it’s that part which gives the uplifting half its emotional heft.
What’s disappointing is how the press has latched on to the similarities between Affleck and the character he plays. That’s low-hanging fruit and kind of disrespectful to Affleck, his ex-wife Jennifer Garner and other real people and doesn’t even sell the movie well since it becomes a sideshow to what’s happening in the campaign proper. The whole effort would be stronger with less of a tabloid sheen.
Picking Up The Spare
AMC shared an exclusive interview with Affleck where he talked about the movie and its story.