How Lionsgate is selling a story of the past and present and what hasn’t changed.
Written and directed by the team of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, Antebellum stars Janelle Monáe as Veronica Henley, an author that focuses on racial topics and issues. Through a series of events she finds herself abducted and transported back to the 1800s, herself now a slave on a plantation. As she attempts to figure out how all this happened, she also finds she needs to help other slaves escape their captors and bring them with her to the (relative) safety of the 21st century.
The movie, originally scheduled to hit theaters in mid-March but rescheduled by Lionsgate for this week on VOD, brings a story of a shameful portion of America’s history to audiences at a time when racial justice has been in the news for months now. Not only are there the stories of police continuing to discount black citizens, but the Covid-19 pandemic has hit communities of color more severely both in terms of health and job losses. So our failure to make substantive improvements continues to wreak havoc throughout society.
With that in mind, the movie has received poor reviews resulting in a 33 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The campaign has played up the mystery of the story as well as its focus on racial histories and injustices.
Three posters (by marketing agency P+A) came out in late November of last year. All feature the same image – a butterfly stuck to a background and bleeding down the wall – but each has a different color to that background, creating the impression of a changeable reality of some kind. Copy warns “If it chooses you, nothing can save you.”
A solid red silhouette of that same butterfly is shown on the theatrical poster from early March. This time it’s placed over Henley’s mouth, her face clearly conveying a sense of alarm. It’s a creepy and alarming image that, without the copy from the previous posters, doesn’t offer a lot of explanation but does present the audience with a mystery that will hopefully be unlocked.
Released in November, the first trailer (6.8 million views on YouTube) doesn’t offer any kind of explanation as to what the story is or what’s going on. Instead it’s focused on creating an air of mystery and suspense as we’re shown quick cuts of strange goings-on with little in the way of connective material. That sense of unease is added to by the inclusion of mentions that the movie comes from the producers of Get Out and Us.
The second, very short trailer (180,000 views on YouTube) was released in March and lays out the basic premise: That Henley is an influential author and speaker who finds herself stuck in a reality that splits the present and the past. She’s forced to endure the slavery of her ancestors in order to save the future, but the details aren’t shared. Instead it’s about creating unease in the audience as we experience the same sort of disorientation Henley is.
A new trailer (5.7 million views on YouTube) came out in late May after a new release date was announced and debuted on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” It’s a shorter trailer but once more shows how Henley is pulled – more accurately “chosen” – from her comfortable modern life and thrust into the life of a plantation slave, a situation she’s determined to free herself from. Like the previous trailers, it never reveals too much of the story, just enough to make it clear there are strange things happening.
In early August, at the same time release plans were changed, another trailer (142,000 views on YouTube) came out that starts by showing more of Henley’s home and family life before she’s pulled into the past, albeit one that seems less than stable. Her desperation to get home and her confusion over what’s happening are clear, as is the terror that is slavery. There are a few moments that hint at what powers might be behind her predicament, but that’s never fully explained, which only adds to the tension created in the trailer.
Online and Social
The movie’s official website has most of the major marketing materials, including trailers and clips, a story synopsis and a small photo gallery. Primarily it’s there to communicate what VOD options are available for those interested in watching the movie. There are also social network profiles that provided updates and engagement in the build up to release.
Advertising and Promotions
The first clip came out in mid-August showing Henley discussing racism on a talk show before having to explain the concept to her young daughter. A second clip shows Henley having a very strange encounter with a creepy young girl on a hotel elevator. More clips offered additional looks at important aspects of the story.
At about the same time the first snippet of music from the film’s score was released.
An exclusive look at the movie introduced by Monae was shared during the recent MTV Video Music Awards.
Monáe’s new song “Turntables” comes from a new documentary on race and democracy but is also relevant to this film. The video mixes shots of the singer with footage of racial protests both past and present to underscore the message that the fight for justice is still ongoing and not something simply from history books.
Lionsgate held a drive-in premiere event earlier this week with Monáe and others in attendance.
Short videos like this were used as online promos as well as, most likely, TV commercials.
Media and Press
The third trailer, released in late May, debuted on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” along with an appearance by Monáe.
The filmmakers were profiled in response to their takeover of the movie’s social media profiles during the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
Costar Jena Malone received a number of profiles where she talked about the story of the movie, her role as a villain here and lots more. An interview with costar Gabourey Sidibe had her talking about her character along with sharing an exclusive clip.
Of course Monáe was the focus of the press push, with interviews focusing on how she brought her powerful performance style from music to the screen, how integral she feels activism is to being an artist, the kind of change she hopes to inspire, how the story explores the lasting impact of slavery and the type of future she envisions. She was also the subject of an EW cover story where she talked about these and other matters.
Monáe made appearances on “Good Morning, America,” “The Late Show” and elsewhere in the last week or so to talk about the movie and its story. She and others also shared their thoughts on the film at the movie’s rooftop premiere event.
How black filmmakers were working to tell stories involving racial themes and from their own point of view within the horror/thriller genres was the subject of a substantial profile.
While the reviews have so far been mixed, the campaign makes a strong impression and presents a timely and interesting product for audiences. There’s a lot of mystery on display here, something for the audience to unlock and explore along with the filmmakers, one that will resonate with horror fans along with others more interested in the racial history that’s used as the crux of the story.
The studio has smartly put Monáe at the center of the campaign, which makes sense not only because she’s in the lead role but because she brings with her a strong fanbase and public persona. That, combined with the clear imagery and iconography on display, creates a recognizable brand identity that flows throughout the marketing.
Picking Up The Spare
Focus Features advertised the movie on Spotify by sponsoring the “All The Feels” playlist.
More from Malone on how she researched her role.
MovieClips debuted an exclusive clip from the film.
A new TV spot that was also used for online ads played up the mystery while encouraging people who have seen the movie already to not spoil the twists for those who haven’t.