stillwater – marketing recap

How Focus Features sold a politically-charged drama.

(ed note: This should have been published last week, but life got in the way. Let’s move on…)

Director Tom McCarthy is back with Stillwater, in theaters now. Matt Damon stars as Bill Baker, an oil worker whose daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) has been imprisoned in Marseille, France for the last four years. She was accused of killing her roommate but maintains her innocence. When she slips Bill a note with more information about the killing it sets into motion a series of events that has Bill doing his own investigation, lying when he needs to and doing whatever he can to free his daughter.

The movie has arrived with a campaign that’s been equally heavy on the drama of a father/daughter relationship and the political environment surrounding its release. Generally positive reviews has resulted in a 76% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so let’s see how the rest of the campaign was arranged.

The Posters

“Secrets run deep” we’re told on the first poster (by marketing agency BOND), released in May. Baker is largest element in the design, looking at the camera while around him are scenes showing the French setting of the story as well as a body floating in the water, clearly unwell.

The Trailers

The trailer (6.6 million views on YouTube), released in mid-May, clearly shows what the story entails and what audiences can expect. We see Bill travel to France to try and get Allison out of jail after she’s been arrested for murder, and that his efforts are going to be more difficult than anticipated. He’s an arrogant American, after all, presented as almost a caricature, and refuses to accept that a different approach may be necessary. There are some hints of more going on, that there may be some conspiracy at work, but for the most part it’s sold as the story of an American who’s angry he can’t bully his way through the system.

Online and Social

Not much on the ticket-focused official website, but the movie’s social profiles offer some good additional information.

Advertising, Publicity and Promotions

A first look at Damon as Baker came out in May accompanied by comments about the film and its story from McCarthy.

The actor appeared on “Today” shortly after that to talk about the movie.

News broke in June that the Cannes Film Festival would act as the movie’s world premiere.

Cottin was interviewed about what she thought after first reading the script and more.

Promo spots like this began airing at the beginning of July, cutting the story down and focusing on the drama of Bill’s love for his daughter and his attempts to prove her innocence.

A first clip showing a scene between Bill and Allison was released during Cannes. Another clip came out a short while later.

That Cannes screening was well-received, generating positive buzz for the film and Damon in particular. The actor was interviewed about his character and what he learned while preparing for the role. There was also much made of Damon’s emotional reaction to being back in a theater with other people.

More TV spots and other promos continued the buzz out of Cannes, all of them hitting roughly the same few beats as what had come before.

Damon appeared on “CBS Sunday Morning” to talk about the movie specifically as well as the more general return of theatrical moviegoing. Cottin later talked about the movie and more on “60 Minutes.”

An exclusive AMC Artisan Films featurette had comments from the cast and McCarthy about the story and more. The movie’s producer also spoke about filming in Oklahoma in an interview with the Oklahoma Film + Music Office. Regal Cinemas later offered an exclusive video interview with the cast, as did Cinemark.

Damon made another appearance on “GMA” just before release, with Breslin doing likewise a few days later.

The movie’s premiere was held in New York City last week, the cast and crew in attendance. This was Focus Features’ first in-person premiere since the beginning of the Covid pandemic last year.

An interview with Damon about what he learned – both about the people and their jobs – while shadowing oil roughnecks in preparation for the role was the first of many similar profiles to hit similar topics. Similar ground was covered in additional interviews with Damon and McCarthy where they talked about the political divide in the U.S., how respectful the movie is to the people it portrays

One more clip came out, this one exclusive to Fandango MovieClips.

News came just a week or so ago about a tie-in true crime podcast hosted by Marcia Clarke and produced by Focus Features in partnership with the L.A. Times.

An interview with McCarthy about how the story was developed resulted in Amanda Knox, famously imprisoned overseas for similar charges, to criticize an attempt to make money off her circumstances and experience. All that seemed to do was raise the profile of the movie a bit in the days before release.

A final profile of Damon focused on the actor’s ability to disappear into roles and how that serves him in this movie.

Overall

Two things:

  • If I were a cynically-minded person, the shift in the last week or two of the campaign to focus on the research Damon did in real roughneck communities and more might seem opportunistic. So many movies in the last five years have been slammed by right-leaning media anytime they portray blue collar workers or others who generally identify as conservative. This seems like an attempt to head such criticism off, with Damon and McCarthy taking pains to explain how respectful and accurate these portrayals are.
  • Labeling Damon as a kind of chameleon actor who disappears into his performances is…a stretch. He’s such a bankable face and persona that the posters for his movies – including this one here – almost universally use a giant photo of his head as the primary element. But points for trying.

Aside from those observations, it’s not a bad campaign, especially if you consider that the primary audience seems to be people in mostly red states who are alright with a gay daughter in the story if it means the righteous American character gets to be mean to a bunch of French jerks.

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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