How Searchlight is selling an unconventional take on a classic story.
(Note: Yes, this movie came out last week, but it got missed and I didn’t want to abandon it completely. Anyway, here we are.)
The Personal History of David Copperfield is based on exactly the Charles Dickens book you think it is, but writer Simon Blackwell and director Armando Iannucci have something unusual in store for audiences. While the story follows most of the same beats as the book, the casting and presentation of that story are somewhat unusual.
The core of that is the casting. Dev Patel plays Copperfield, whose life is followed from youth to adulthood. In that time we see him grow and move away from home, lose his mother, move in with his aunt and ultimately achieve his dream of becoming a writer and part of society. Starring alongside Patel are Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Benedict Wong, Nikki Amuka-Bird and a host of others.
With that cast providing the film a substantial pedigree, the campaign has promised audiences a fun bit of fresh air, a new take on an old story with a fizzy, eclectic energy.
Copperfield himself looks out at the camera on the first poster (by marketing agency Creative Partnership) from early October. The gist of the story is shared in the copy “From rags to riches…and back again.” while the floating pieces of paper with drawings on them communicate some of the supporting characters and story points audiences will encounter.
A second poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) came out in February. This one takes a visual approach that’s akin to some of the posters for Terry Gilliam movies, showing a veritable funhouse of elements, from Copperfield in the background behind the curtains to the supporting characters arranged around him. It shows off the inclusive cast, giving the impression of being a stage play of sorts, which works in the context of the film being sold.
Copperfield is leading the audience at a lecture through his childhood history as the first trailer (3.2 million views on YouTube), released in February, begins. He falls in with Mr. Micawber, who helps David learn how to survive on the streets of London. Years later after his mother dies he seeks out the only family he has left, starting a cycle of ups and downs throughout his life mixed with adventure and romance. Iannucci’s sense of humor is on display throughout the trailer, which shows a story that mixes straight ahead retellings of Copperfield’s journey with fantastic elements and more.
Online and Social
Not much beyond the basic collection of the trailer, a poster and a story synopsis on Searchlight Pictures’ page for the film.
Advertising and Publicity
In mid-July it was announced the movie would open this year’s London Film Festival. A few weeks later it was slated for the “Special Presentations” section of the Toronto Film Festival.
Searchlight acquired the movie in mid-August before those festival screenings. Buzz out of Toronto was surprisingly mixed, though most reviews praised Patel’s performance and other aspects of the film. A release date was finally announced in late October, shortly after the movie received 11 BAFTA nominations, including for Patel, Swinton and Laurie.
Searchlight pulled the movie from its release schedule in mid-March in response to the Covid-19 outbreak that was closing theaters and more. It was later rescheduled for August.
The first clip came out in late July showing Copperfield flirting awkwardly, setting a nice tone for the movie and the rest of the campaign. Another has him helping his mentor literally and physically release the thoughts he’s been troubled by while a third has Copperfield finding out the home he’s about to enter is not one that welcomes donkeys.
An exclusive featurette given to AMC has the cast and director talking about the joy of Dickens’ work and the wonderful experience of working on the project. Another featurette from Searchlight covers similar ground, with behind-the-scenes footage mixed in to show the cast at work. A bit more background on the period the story is set in and how the team recreated that in their own way is covered in a third.
Media and Press
As production began Iannucci talked briefly about how he was taking a colorblind approach to casting the movie, not worrying about how the period would have been almost exclusively white. That topic was soundly dismissed by Laurie in an interview that took place during Toronto. How the film was cast without worrying about ethnicity was the subject of another interview with Patel.
Additional profiles of Patel covered how he wasn’t a huge fan of Dickens’ original before beginning production and how he got involved with the project while further interviews with Iannucci had him putting this film in the context of his other films and shows.
What a fresh, breezy campaign Searchlight mounted here. It’s enough to make one wish the movie were coming out at a time when a bigger percentage of the audience was able to make it to theaters in order to see it. Though of course if this were a normal year for movies (or anything else, really) it likely would have been swallowed up in the hype cycle for one of the big genre entries.
While the lack of story details in the campaign is usually a negative, here it doesn’t really matter at all. What’s being sold is a charming little jaunt with a pulsating energy, not a detailed character journey. In that respect it works by putting the story on the backburner and allowing the vibe of the film – propelled by the cast, script and direction – to come through. Even those who may not be willing or able to see it in theaters will likely mark it as one to see at a later date.