How Warner Bros. has sold the much-anticipated prequel to a critically-acclaimed series.
“The Sopranos” retains its status as one of the most acclaimed and influential series of all time even 14 years after its final episode aired. It is still a cultural touchpoint alongside fellow HBO series “The Wire” and a handful of others that have been off the air (so to speak) for over a decade.
This week the world of mob boss Tony Soprano – memorably brought to life by the late James Gandolfini – returns in the form of The Many Saints of Newark. Jumping back to 1967 Newark, the prequel movie is still centered on Tony, whose younger self is now played by Michael Gandolfini, James’ son. At this point, though, he’s just an underachieving teen who idolizes his uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), who leads the family’s criminal operation. Tony’s ruthlessness grows as time goes on under the influence of Dickie and others, setting the stage for his eventual ascent to power.
Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Bernthal, Corey Stall, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Billy Magnussen and others also star, some as wholly new characters who will influence the direction Tony and others take, some as younger incarnations of characters familiar to viewers of the show and who are part of Tony Soprano’s orbit. Let’s take a look at how Warner Bros. has sold what should be a slam-dunk with a built in audience of loyal super fans.
[disclosure statement: I’ve never watched a full episode of “The Sopranos” but I do believe the ambiguous cut-to-black ending is incredible simply because it refuses to neatly tie things up. Watching people freak out was highly enjoyable, even if the next 10 years of endless debate and discussion made me sometimes want to walk into traffic. Let’s move on…]
announcement and casting
Ever since the elder Gandolfini’s passing, series creator David Chase had ruled out telling stories that would take place after the end of the show. His idea of telling a story set earlier in the timeline, though, remained intriguing and it was this idea that New Line and HBO Films finally greenlit in 2018. Alan Taylor, who had directed a number of episodes during the original show’s run, was hired to helm the movie at that time.
Nivola was one of the first to be cast later in 2018, with others added over the course of 2019. That included the younger Gandolfini, who reportedly was hesitant to step into his father’s shoes and who, despite the genetic connection, had to audition for the role.
Originally scheduled for September, 2020, in April of last year the date was pushed to March, 2021 because of pandemic-related theater closures and other delays. This past January release was moved to October at the same time Warner Bros. announced it, like the rest of its slate, would debut simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max.
selling the movie
One of the first, albeit very brief, looks at the movie came via an HBO Max promo in January touting the same day theatrical/streaming availability of WB’s 2021 lineup. But the campaign didn’t really kick off until just this past June.
That’s when the first trailer (9.5m YouTube views) came out in late June. It starts with the older Tony’s voice introducing us to his younger self on screen. After getting into a fight we see his mother being told by a high school teacher that Tony is smart, a born leader, a label she disagrees with since he’s not doing well in school. He eventually gets involved in the “family business,” first as a lark and then as he accumulates more power and influence. But it’s clear there will be hurdles he has to clear on the way up, including lots of violence and betrayal.
The first poster was released at the same time. Using the same stylized typeface and black-and-white photography – albeit with a single pop of color – it shows the primary dynamic of the story with a young Tony looking to Dickie
Van Zandt talked in July about how he had consulted on parts of the movie’s story at the request of Chase, even though he doesn’t appear in the film.
Director Alan Taylor talked about the difficulty he had in taking the story from the small to big screen while keeping Chase’s vision intact. For his part, Chase was interviewed about not only the pressure of returning to a story he’d already left behind but also the difficulty in casting many of the parts.
TV spots/social media promos began running in late August, cutting down the trailer to focus on a few key moments in the criminal development of young Tony Soprano and how that’s enabled by Dickie.
A sprawling feature from early September went in-depth on the making of the film, especially how the actors sought to capture the spirit of well-known characters, making them familiar to those who know them from the show without doing impressions. It also covered the long road the movie took to finally being made all these after the end of the original show.
About about the same time there was an interview with/profile of Chase, who talked about how the original show came to be, the passing of Gandolfini and what eventually convinced him to return to the world of Tony Soprano for this prequel story.
Chase talked more about casting Gandolfini to play a young version of the same character his father brought to life when he appeared on “Kimmel.” Gandolfini himself appeared on “CBS Sunday Morning” to talk about the same thing, including sharing how at times he went a little hard in that direction and had to be pulled back. Bernthal’s appearance on “Late Night” had the actor telling fans of the show they shouldn’t just expect more of that in the movie.
Like many others, Chase was asked for his thoughts on the movie going day-and-date on streaming and theatrical, saying he wasn’t thrilled with that decision and, if he’d thought it was a possibility, he might not have made it at all.
Dickie is looking to make a name for himself as the second trailer (2.9m YouTube views) released in early September, begins. His aspirations have made enemies, of course, but they also overlap with his nephew Tony’s burgeoning interest in the family business. It’s a more fast-paced trailer that has more of an emphasis on Dickie’s story than Tony’s, along with what I’m sure are a few nods to stories from the show that fans will enjoy.
Dickie is all on his own on the next poster, also from early September. The same design aesthetic from the first one-sheet is used here. This time he’s labeled as “Who made Tony Soprano.” That the copy is declarative instead of being framed as a question is intriguing, telling the audience that the movie won’t so much be a journey to find out who it is that made the future mobster the man he would become but that this is the guy, so come along and see what happens.
A series of almost a dozen character posters came out shortly after that, showing off the movie’s impressive cast.
At this point the younger Gandolfini began a substantial media tour that would, in the three or so weeks leading up to the film’s release, include “CBS Sunday Morning,” “The Tonight Show,” “Late Night” and elsewhere. He was also the subject of a number of feature profiles like this.
A featurette from later in September had Taylor, Chase and many of the cast members talking about returning to these characters and this world or, in many cases, entering for the first time.
Just a couple weeks ago the movie’s world premiere happened at the first ever Tribeca Fall Preview, an offshoot of the Tribeca Film Festival. At that premiere Chase, Taylor and the rest of the cast hit on similar themes about their experiences with the movie and the franchise as a whole.
Betting site DraftKings ran a free sweepstakes where fans could simply name their favorite “Sopranos” character for a chance at a $5,000 prize.
The focus is more squarely on Dickie in some of the additional TV spots run in the last couple weeks, continuing a shift begun in the second trailer.
It’s not terribly surprising that many of the reviews of the movie have been lukewarm, resulting in a 71% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To some extent no movie, whether it was set before or after the series, could live up to the reputation the show developed or the hallowed place it has been elevated to in the intervening years.
WB’s campaign for the movie has been solid, though, designed to give fans exactly what they want, which is more tales of Tony Soprano and his “family.” To that end, much of the marketing has been designed to evoke or outright mimic the key art and other elements of the show. Other elements are more geared to make fans react to an important mention or appearance that’s explicitly tied to the show that has come before.
What’s missing is a message to those (like myself) that haven’t yet explored the show. This could be an excellent on-ramp to that broader experience, allowing us to start with a young Tony and then continue on with his later, more established years. That could leave people in that category feeling shut out for one reason or another and therefore uninterested in checking out the movie.