Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Marketing Recap

How Netflix has sold a powerful – and emotional – drama.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, out this week from Netflix, was likely always going to be a major release. Directed by George C. Wolfe, based on a play from August Wilson and starring both Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (among others), it has all the credentials of a high-profile late year awards contender.

Of course it took on additional significance when Boseman passed away suddenly in late August, with this as his final on-screen performance.

The story unfolds over the course of a single summer afternoon in and around a 1920’s Chicago recording studio. Ma Rainey (Davis) is there to record with her band, including newcomer Levee (Boseman), a hot young horn player. As those sessions are interrupted while Ma fights with the white managers and owners for control over her music and career, Levee’s brashness leads the other, more veteran players to begin telling stories of the past, both true and exaggerated.

When reviews began coming out in mid-November, a couple weeks before its limited theatrical release, it became clear the movie was headed for potential awards consideration, especially for David and Boseman. Netflix’s campaign has sold the film as exactly the kind of performance showcase you would expect from such a release.

The Posters

A series of starkly-photographed character posters (by marketing agency GRAVILLIS) came out in mid-October. All brand the movie as “August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is a good way to highlight the source material and give credit to the creator. They also all sport the tagline “It would be an empty world without the blues,” a great way to communicate the attitude of the characters and story.

The final poster, released just a short time later, shows just Ma Rainey and Levee in performance-like poses, this time with the copy reading “Everything comes out of the blues,” which is an accurate statement on many levels.

The Trailers

In mid-October the first trailer (738,000 views on YouTube) was finally released. After opening by introducing us to Ma Rainey herself and showing the status she has in the Blues community we meet Levee, the hot young horn player who comes in and immediately acts like he owns the room. While the two considerable talents clash, they are also crossing swords with the white management that owns the recording studios, night clubs and other means of getting their music out. It’s a great trailer that shows the vibe of the movie, highlighting the two lead performances in particular.

Online and Social

There isn’t a whole lot of information beyond the trailer and a tool for looking up local theater showtimes on the official website for the film, but the fact that Netflix created one in the first place is unusual and indicates the level of effort it’s giving the release.

Advertising and Promotions

Plans for a virtual premiere event intended to include some of the cast and filmmakers discussing the story and more were cancelled when Boseman passed away in late August, just days before that event was going to happen.

About a month later Netflix released the first batch of stills from the film.

The virtual event was eventually held in late October and naturally the talk among the cast and crew included comments on the movie as a whole but also Boseman in particular.

MoMA announced the film would serve as the Centerpiece selection at this year’s virtual contenders showcase.

TV spots for the film were aired at least during recent NFL game broadcasts and likely during other high-profile shows and events.

Clips started coming out shortly after that, showing Ma Rainey’s energetic stage show and Leevee bragging on himself and his talent.

A featurette with music supervisor Branford Marsalis talking about the history of the story, the music of the film and more came out in early December.

The Gotham Awards announced it would be honoring both Boseman and Davis.

Another short featurette had Washington and much of the cast talking about Davis’ performance and more. The impact of Boseman’s presence on set and his preparation for the role was covered in another while a short video had Wolfe talking about his experience working with the cast.

Wolfe along with the movie as a whole were honored by the Museum of the Moving Image during that institution’s first virtual awards ceremony.

TV spot-like promotions were used on social media and video sites, distilling the story down to its basic dramatic elements and showcasing the performances found in the film.

Netflix scheduled a virtual watch party for this evening with input from the cast and crew.

Media and Press

Costume designer Ann Roth was interviewed about how she created the look of the characters. Similarly, DP Tobias Schliessler talked about the experience of working with Davis and Boseman.

An interview with Davis allowed her to talk about the lessons she learned from the character as well as her thoughts on making the movie.

Wolfe was interviewed about taking on one of Wilson’s plays as well as the performances he captured and more. He and Davis covered similar ground in another conversation.

Davis and much of the rest of the cast and crew talked more about bringing Wilson’s characters to life and working with Boseman on what would be his final role.

Talk show appearances included Davis on “Today,” “60 Minutes” and “CBS Sunday Morning,” with Washington also being interviewed on the latter.

Costar Colman Domingo shared his passion for Wilson’s work and how that led him to enthusiastically take the role when it was offered. He and fellow costars Michael Potts and Glynn Turman appeared in a joint video interview talking about the relevancy of the story and more.

Overall

It’s understandable that, to a large extent, the campaign has become a sort of public eulogy for Boseman. After all, his tremendous was taken from us far too soon and far too suddenly. But it’s at least a testament to his talent that this kind of big performance became his final artistic statement to the world.

Aside from that, and the way the marketing makes sure to equally focus on Davis and her performance, what you have here is a great campaign for a period piece that’s poised to make a strong end-of-year awards run. Put together you have a message that will likely appeal to both audiences and critics.

Picking Up The Spare

Davis appeared on “Kimmel” to talk about the movie. 

More from various members of the cast on working with Boseman on what would wind up as his final screen performance. There was also a profile of veteran actor Turman. 

Netflix continued releasing clips like this after the movie was available. There was also an explainer video on “The Great Migration” that factors into the period setting of the story. Another featurette covered how Davis transformed into the title role. 

Online ads like this started appearing after the movie was available on Netflix.

The movie’s costume team talked about using period-appropriate materials to make the movie’s clothes. The film’s hair stylist was also interviewed later on. How the screenwriter translated the stage production for the screen was covered in an interview with him.

Wolfe appeared on “PBS Newshour” to talk about making the film and working with the stars. He was also part of a new featurette on adapting the film for the screen and was interviewed about the story and the making of the movie here.

Author: Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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