How Netflix is selling a historial, but unfortunately still timely, drama.
The right of citizens to assemble freely while seeking redress from their government is one of those ideas and ideals, like “all Nazis are bad,” that seemed relatively settled and uncontroversial up until about four or five years ago. Those in power, though, often don’t care for it when those who aren’t rise up en masse and point out problems, inequalities or other issues plaguing society. We’ve seen…several…examples of that in recent months.
The Trial of the Chicago 7, out this week on Netflix from writer/director Aaron Sorkin, tells the story of a similar protest from over 50 years ago as well as the aftermath of those actions. Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp, Daniel Flaherty, Noah Robbins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II play, respectively, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale.
Those men all assembled in Chicago for the 1968 Democratic Convention, leading and organizing protests against the Vietnam War, racial inequality and other social issues. Those protests were met with violent pushback from the Chicago police, who used tear gas and other methods on those in attendance. Ultimately the eight were charged with conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot, though the conventional wisdom is those charges were only an excuse to punish those who had embarrassed then Mayor Richard J. Daley, who had denied many of the requested protest permits.
The movie arrives just as the U.S. has seen months of protests – the vast majority of which have been non-violent – over some of the same types of issues, especially the treatment of Blacks by police. Then, as now, those involved have been labeled as agitators or worse. The lack of headline-making charges and trials may only be because many individuals have been disappeared by shady Department of Homeland Security agents, though everyday police have certainly done their part as well.
Then, as is the case now, the whole world is watching.
Paramount originally developed the movie but sold it off to Netflix in July, seeing no other options given the multiple issues caused by this year’s pandemic. While it hits streaming this week, Netflix did give the film – which has a 94% Fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating – a small drive-in release in the last few weeks.
Hoffman is walking up the courthouse steps on the poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts), released in mid-September. He’s flanked not only by Chicago PD but by supporters of him and the other defendants. Not only does it label the movie as “Based on a true story” and call out Sorkin’s dual involvement, but the narrative is framed in the copy reading “In 1968, democracy refused to back down.” That makes it clear those being persecuted are on the side of light in this story, while those doing the persecuting are the adversaries. It’s almost a case of those in power exhibiting facist tendencies in trying to quell speech while others take more of an “against facism” approach.
The teaser trailer (809,000 views on YouTube) came out in mid-September and immediately establishes both the setting of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention protests and the resulting trial, which is clearly shown to be an attack on free speech and political thought.
All of that is expanded on in the full trailer (767,000 views on YouTube), released shortly thereafter. On one side you have the establishment that is tired of a bunch of punks telling them how to do their jobs. On the other you have Hoffman and his allies, who are clear in their plans to protest the Vietnam War in Chicago. The resulting trial is shown to be, for all intents and purposes, rigged from the outset as the judge and prosecutor have their thumbs on the scales of justice. But those on trial have numbers on their side, as we hear repeatedly the cries of “The whole world is watching.”
Online and Social
Surprisingly, there was actually a website Netflix created for the film, though it had only the basic marketing information along with details on where those in-person screenings were happening.
Advertising and Promotions
A clip released at the end of last month shows Hoffman testifying in court and making his feelings on the proceedings known. Additional clips came out over the next few weeks.
The singer Celeste released a video for her new song “Hear My Voice” that’s featured on the film’s soundtrack.
Last week Netflix hosted a drive-in premiere screening at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena with Sorkin and others in attendance.
Spots like this distilled the story down to the core drama, especially the courtroom sequences, while highlighting the all-star cast featured in the film.
Media and Press
During TIFF Sorkin talked about how he staged the filming of the movie, including how he felt it could have been a musical.
A THR cover story in the film had Sorkin, Cohen and others from the cast all commenting not only on the film itself and its release strategy but also on the relevance of the story as it relates to the protests happening across the country right now.
Sorkin was interviewed on similar topics, including how his history as a playwright factors into how he crafted the story and shot the movie. More details also came out about how Netflix adjusted its release plans to cope with the pandemic once it acquired the title and how Sorkin was anxious for the film to finally come out, regardless of what format that took, as well as how he worked to create something that was true to the period but also timeless for today.
How Strong prepared for the role was covered in an interview with the actor while Redmayne appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about working with Sorkin. Despite having a prominent role, Cohen seems to have not done much press for the film, maybe because he’s ramping up the marketing for his surprise Borat sequel that comes out soon.
As stated at the outset, the story here is unfortunately still pertinent to the times we find ourselves in now. That has been reflected in the publicity push more than anything, while the rest of the actual marketing has been more focused on Sorkin and the cast.
What jumps out the most is that both the teaser and full trailers have surprisingly low viewing numbers. Combined they amount to just over 1.5 million views, which is below even what other mid-level dramas have racked up. Perhaps Netflix didn’t use paid advertising to boost those numbers, but even so, for a movie with a cast like this and from a popular writer/director that doesn’t seem to indicate widespread awareness or interest.
Whether or not that would have been different if everything else had remained normal and it were coming from Paramount to theaters is a question without an answer. But at this point its best hopes may lie in getting people’s attention through in-app promotions and recommendations.
Picking Up The Spare
The movie’s costume designer was interviewed about channeling the styles of the era and making them part of the film’s look.
A new featurette had Sorkin talking about how he developed the story and what inspired him while working on it. Another focused on the real story the film is based on.
Sorkin also spoke in an interview about meeting the real Tom Hayden and shooting in Chicago.
Strong was interviewed about reuniting with Sorkin and going all-out in his performance. Abdul-Mateen II spoke about his experience shooting the film and hanging with the cast.
Michael Keaton wasn’t a big part of the initial publicity or marketing push but has done a couple interviews since then.
Netflix bought a paid Trending Topic on Twitter to drive awareness of the film.
While he was promoting Borat, Cohen also talked more about filming this movie.