How Focus is selling a political satire with big names and big expectations.
In any other year, the timing of Irresistible hitting theaters (or some other platform) would be immaculate. It is, of course, a presidential campaign year and, given the hyper-politicized world of the last 30 year, a biting satire of those behind the scenes seems like a great idea. That only increases when you consider the names of those involved both in front of and behind the camera.
Unfortunately, even aside from the Covid-19 pandemic that led Focus Features to shift release from theaters to premium VOD, this is not any other year. With trust in government continuing to fall among Americans, and a current situation where the realities of inequality are being laid bare in a way even the most stubborn idealogues have to work to ignore them, the timing of a comedic take on the problems inherent in the system is…sketchy.
The movie, written and directed by Jon Stewart, stars Steve Carell and Rose Byrne as competing political strategists who see a mayoral campaign in rural Wisconsin as key to nationwide success. So Democratic operative Gary Zimmer (Carell) and Republican operative Faith Brewster (Byrne) take over the town, with Zimmer trying to boost the chances of local “everyman” Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper).
Focus’ campaign has emphasized the talent, especially Stewart, as well as the subject matter. But the 44 percent the movie currently has on Rotten Tomatoes speak to reviews that frequently have been more critical of the tone and the timing than of the movie’s actual quality.
Zimmer’s forehead is seen at the bottom of the first poster (by marketing agency Arsenal), released in March. The black and white photo of him contrasts with the bright red, white and blue of the “Uncle Sam” hat he’s wearing. Amidst what’s most white blank space, Stewart’s name is prominently displayed at the top, as is the fact that the movie will be available in homes everywhere upon release. The comedic tone is communicated through the tagline “Send in the clowns.”
Most of those elements are removed on the second poster (by marketing agency Cold Open), which came out just last week. Instead it features color photos of both Zimmer and Brewster, but Stewart’s name is still a major value proposition shared with the audience.
Democrats are getting their “asses kicked” Zimmer explains as the first trailer (5.4 million views on YouTube), released in January, opens. They need to add more rural appeal, he says, and shows his team a clip of a farmer and retired veteran making an impassioned speech at a local meeting in Wisconsin. Zimmer convinces Hastings to run for mayor of his town, but he himself has trouble fitting in with the locals. Still, his efforts attract the attention of the Republican party, turning the small town into an ideological battlefield between the two parties, who each see it as key to victory in the state.
The timing of the trailer’s release seems designed for maximum relevance and timeliness. Late January was both right before the Iowa Caucus (which wound up featuring the Democratic party tripping over its own feet repeatedly amidst technical problems) and in the middle of the Senate impeachment hearings, which wound up in the acquittal of President Trump as Democrats couldn’t find enough Republicans to vote for conviction.
Online and Social
An “About” synopsis along with the trailer and a featurette are all that’s on the movie’s official website, which seems paltry. There’s no photo gallery or other information to be found. Surprising there wasn’t something like an essay from Stewart on why he made the film or other additional context. VOD information is available on that site as well as a separate page setup specifically for that.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
In late May, shortly after the change in release was announced, a short promotional featurette came out includes a few comments from Stewart – who’s his usual dry self – along with clips from the movie. It plays half like an informational piece and half like a TV spot, leading me to believe it was used in some sort of paid slot.
Zimmer’s awkwardness in a small town setting was conveyed in a clip given exclusively to The Playlist. Another clip has Zimmer strategizing with Hastings and his daughter. ET shared another clip as well.
An installment of Focus’ “You Know That Scene” YouTube series featured a discussion of a few key moments from the film.
A Twitter Watch Party was scheduled for this Friday with Stewart participating.
Online ads like the one below featured elements of the key art, with the primary call-to-action being to find information on how to watch the film this weekend, especially at home.
Media and Publicity
Focus Features acquired the movie while it was still in pre-production. A release date in late-May was finally announced in January.
Stewart pulled one of his “pop out from under Stephen Colbert’s desk” gags to debut the trailer on “The Late Show.”
In mid-May Focus announced the movie, like many others, was going to skip theaters since they were closed because of Covid-19 outbreaks anyway. Instead a new plan involving a late June premium VOD release was planned.
A substantial profile of Stewart came out last week, but his comments about the movie were overshadowed by his reaction to the current situation involving the police and their disproportionate response to black citizens.
Unsurprisingly, Stewart stopped by (virtually) “The Late Show” to talk about the movie and more with his good friend Stephen Colbert.
Let’s address a few standout ideas that are evident in how Focus Features has conducted this campaign, as well as a few issues that are influencing how it’s being received.
First, neither the studio nor Stewart had much influence on the world the movie is being released out into. Sure, they could have delayed it a year because a satire about largely-white politics in the middle of protests for racial equality and justice seems out of touch. But doing so would have meant losing the timeliness of coming out during the campaign cycle. It was a no-win situation here.
Second, reviews seem to be focusing on how the satire of the story isn’t sharp enough, as if everything needs to be merciless in its takedowns. That’s a false measurement, especially since nothing in the campaign here promises anything more than a few laughs at the machinations of sociopathic political strategists.
Third, it seems Focus recognized early on that the story itself was only one part of the potential appeal of the film and that Stewart’s involvement was at least as big a draw given his continued popularity post-”The Daily Show.” And it aligns well with the role he’s played over the years as an outspoken voice for various political causes important to him. Unfortunately, his advocacy in those areas has meant that most all of the interviews he did as the movie’s primary public face were more about the politics of today than the film he made.
All of that being said, it’s a strong campaign that stands up with some of the other major political satires of the modern era. It makes the case that the movie is a pleasant good time with a few laughs from some very funny people. It may not be life-changing, and it’s unlikely to result in the dissembling of major societal systems, but it looks here like a decent way to spend a couple hours.