How Universal is selling a personal story from an “SNL” cast member.
Pete Davidson is…an acquired taste. He has as many detractors as he does fans and has come under considered criticism for a number of choices made in his past. Still, by all regards he remains popular, at least enough to remain on “Saturday Night Live” for a number of years as a prominent cast member.
Now he is working to expand even further into feature films with The King of Staten Island, not only starring in the film but also writing it. Davidson plays Scott, a slightly fictionalized version of himself. Scott suffers from a kind of arrested development, showing no drive to grow and move out of his mother’s Long Island basement. Part of Scott’s ennui comes from losing his firefighter father nearly 20 years ago, just as Davidson lost his own on 9/11/20. When his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) begins dating another firefighter (Bill Burr), Scott finds the status quo challenged but also an opportunity to finally grow as a person in unexpected ways.
Universal’s campaign has leaned into Davidson’s established public persona while also asking audiences to question what it is they actually know about him as well as relying on the popularity of director Judd Apatow, who also helped Davidson as a writer.
Scott stands atop his car with all the unearned confidence of your average white 20-something on the first and only poster (by marketing agency P+A), released in late April. The tattoos that cover his torso speak to Scott’s only occupation as a tattoo artist while the scene shown in the background establish the suburban setting, though it doesn’t get more specific than that. The biggest call to action appears at the top, which displays Apatow’s name and previous films prominently, indicating Universal thinks his involvement is a major draw for audiences to latch on to.
The first trailer (6 million views on YouTube) came out in early May and introduces us to Scott, a grown man who still lives with his mother and has successfully avoided responsibility his whole life, in part because he hasn’t moved past his firefighter father dying almost 20 years ago. It’s clear Scott is a fun guy to hang out and get high with, but not much more than that. When he has to begin caring for the children of his mom’s new boyfriend, he starts to grow up a bit and get his life in order.
Online and Social
In addition to the basic information and material about the movie, the official website has a section devoted to “Critical Acclaim” where visitors can get a sense of the positive reviews the film has already accumulated, all the way back to its festival screenings. The focus of the site, and what’s found on the front page, is offering a variety of ways for people to download the film on-demand since that is its new distribution method.
Advertising and Promotions
After accumulating quite a bit of buzz in advance, the movie’s public debut was scheduled for the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, but that was spiked when the festival was canceled because of the Covid-19 outbreak. It was later scheduled for the Tribeca Film Festival.
In late April the decision was made to pull the movie from the theatrical release schedule and push it over to Premium VOD, just as Universal was doing with a number of other titles. That announcement was accompanied by a staged video call between Apatow and Davidson. Another call, mostly about drugs, followed a little bit after that.
A featurette released in early May featured members of Davidson’s real life family as well as those in the cast and Apatow talking about the origins of the story, how the star examined his real issues and more.
About the same time a clip came out with Scott’s sister encouraging him to be nice to their mother.
A few days ago another staged call came out, this one with Davidson and Burr talking about the imminent on-demand release of the film.
The story and characters are condensed down to their major elements in a TV spot that introduces us to Scott and the world around him but skips touching on some of the struggles he faces.
Media and Press
Shortly after the first trailer debuted both Apatow and Davidson appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie and how some of Davidson’s “SNL” castmates helped play a role in making it happen.
In the last week or so there’s been significant activity on the press front. Davidson appeared on “CBS Sunday Morning” to talk about the real-life parallels in the movie and on “Kimmel” to make a bunch of jokes and talk about the story.
An interview with Apatow had him going in-depth on his working relationship with Davidson and how he helped the actor create a narrative out of his experiences. Burr also shared his experiences on the set and what it was like working with Davidson.
Both Apatow and Davidson were interviewed on NPR about their collaboration, which was also the subject of an NYT feature. Costume designer Sarah Mae Burton discussed her process in creating a visual look for Scott and other characters that seemed everyday without overtly reminding audiences of the actor wearing the clothes. Apatow was also interviewed with his daughter Maude, who plays Scott’s sister and has appeared in many of her father’s films along with others.
Entertainment Weekly hosted a video roundtable interview with Apatow and most of the cast to talk about making the film and what it meant to them.
In the interest of full-disclosure, my tolerance for Davidson is generally fairly low. I fall into the camp that feels he’s not nearly as funny as he thinks he is, making his popularity somewhat perplexing to me.
Unfortunately there’s not much in this campaign that dissuades me from this feeling. The press work he and Apatow have done tries to iron out some of those wrinkles, but it’s not enough to change my mind, and my guess is I’m not the only one. Even Apatow’s involvement isn’t enough to significantly pique my interest.
That being said, Universal’s campaign isn’t bad and works with the strengths it has and, admittedly, Davidson has a substantial fanbase. So offering a movie featuring a slightly askew version of the star working through some personal issues probably has a good amount of appeal for many people. But given the personalities involved, your mileage will almost certainly vary.
Picking Up the Spare
Maude Apatow was interviewed about the movie and making her own way in an industry where her father is a dominant force.
An exclusive preview was shown on HBO.
A number of new featurettes have been released, covering Davidson’s connections to much of the rest of the cast, a look at how heroes make for good stories and the involvement of Davidson’s grandfather.