How Netflix has sold the adaptation of a best-selling memoir.
For the last several years, those living in major metropolitan areas have been asked to reach out and better understand people in more rural locations. The presumption has been that major media outlets, usually based on the coasts or in other big cities, don’t represent or adequately communicate the feelings of those in the rest of the country. It’s a trend found in the countless “Here’s Why [fill in group] Voted For Trump” articles and in the more recent “Sure, but 70 million people voted for Trump so Democrats need to keep that in mind” narratives.
This dictate was given human form in the 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance that has now been adapted into the feature film of the same name, Hillbilly Elegy.
Directed by Ron Howard, the movie – currently on Netflix after a brief theatrical engagement – stars Glenn Close as family matriarch Mamaw Vance, Amy Adams as her daughter Bev and Gabriel Basso as Bev’s son J.D. The story, as the source book does, focuses on the intergenerational dynamics through the lens of an adult J.D.’s return to the Appalachian setting his family hails from. Within that there are considerations of social responsibility, governmental support and other issues, all from the more conservative viewpoint you’d expect.
Reviews for the movie have mostly been negative, resulting in a paltry 25% Rotten on Rotten Tomatoes, with many critics praising the performances of both Close and Adams but saying the direction and story as a whole leave much to be desired.
Adams and Close aren’t as prominent on the teaser poster (by marketing agency The Refinery), released in mid-October, as are the list of Howard’s previous filmmaking credits. The goal is obviously to create appeal for the film based on his credentials and reputation over anything also about the movie or its source material, mentioned here as “the inspiring true story.” All that is presented against the backdrop of a car winding through a rural road that cuts through thick trees.
The opposite approach is taking on the second poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) that came out later that month. Many of the same appeals are used but here we see Mamaw and Bev leaning against an old truck like they’re just outside talking on a Tuesday afternoon. This poster’s release roughly coincided with the first reviews of the film being shared, many of which called out the performances of Close and Adams among the few bright spots.
It wasn’t until just in October that the first trailer (1.5 millions views on YouTube) came out. It shows the story bounces between a few different periods of the lives of the characters, with the focus remaining on Bev and her relationship with her mother and oldest son. That story is just a means to an end, though, with the real message here being the dramatic performances from Close and Adams.
Online and Social
No website or anything of its own, which is standard, and the movie received surprisingly sparse support on Netflix’s brand social channels, which seemed more focused on promoting its recent holiday film lineup or the recent Shawn Mendes “documentary.”
Advertising and Promotions
Netflix acquired the project in January, 2019, about two years after Imagine Entertainment began developing it.
Online ads like the one here used the second poster’s key art to drive clicks to Netflix’s page for the movie.
Mamaw berates J.D. for his lack of ambition in a clip released earlier this week.
Media and Press
Both Close and Adams joined in an interview to talk about filming the project, including discussing their costumes and wigs and such. Howard spoke in late October about how, given the continued closure of so many theaters nationwide, he wasn’t sure what Netflix’s theatrical release plans were exactly.
The disconnect between the time the book was written in and when the movie is being released along with many of the other issues surrounding the film were covered in this feature by Rebecca Keegan at THR. That includes how the socio-political nature of the memoir was discarded by Howard in favor of a family drama, but doing so leaves the narrative incomplete. It also recounts the unusual process by which Howard’s Imagine Entertainment acquired the rights to the book.
Vance’s absence from the movie’s promotional campaign can likely be explained by that disconnect. Authors with as much media recognition as him who have adaptations coming out are often brought into the publicity cycle to talk about seeing their work adapted by others and so on. But between a string of recent controversial statements as well as a national mood that has much less patience for “maybe we should try and understand Trump voters” narratives than it did four years ago may have made his involvement a non-starter. Of course he may not have been interested in participating to begin with.
Aside from that, Netflix’s marketing campaign does the best it can to sell the film as a prestige picture, but the soundly negative reviews have likely scuttled the awards chances of those involved. Not only that but it’s…kind of boring. The posters feature little to no visual flair or creativity and the trailer is almost instantly forgettable. So the campaign suffers from a lack of any memorable spark, which doesn’t bode well for the film itself.