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.

Da 5 Bloods – Marketing Recap

How Netflix is selling the latest Spike Lee Joint.

Chadwick Boseman, Delroy Lindo and a host of other talent all star in this week’s Da 5 Bloods, the new film from director Spike Lee debuting on Netflix. The story focuses on a group of Vietnam War veterans who return to that country to search for the remains of one of their fallen comrades as well as the treasure they left buried there decades ago.

Of course this being a Spike Lee Joint, the story is likely only a framework on which to examine issues of race and justice in America and the world as a whole, something he has done throughout his career to great effect. That’s part of the allure of his films, along with the masterful way he crafts narratives and directs actors to some of their all-time best performances.

Netflix’s campaign for the movie culminates at a time when the U.S. might finally be having the hard conversations about race that have been tabled for centuries.

The Posters

A crying black face wearing an Army helmet is depicted on the first poster (by marketing agency Gravillis Inc.). That poster, released in early May, uses a simple image to convey a great deal of the story’s tone as well as the upcoming release date.

A similar image is changed a bit on the second poster that came out just a short while later. This time the four main characters can be seen raising their fists defiantly from the helmet of the soldier while bombs with the face of Richard Nixon painted on them fall from above and a couple slogans are painted on the wall behind them.

There’s more imagery, some of it variations on what’s been used previously, on the next poster from later in May. New here is a colorful background as well as an illustration of black protesters marching with signs showing the black power fist being raised or declaring “I am a man.”

That same fist is the main element on the final poster, released in early June. This time it, not a face, is seen under the helmet, symbolizing the how the civil rights movement was expected to give way to the more important military effort but still existed within it and as part of that. The “Our fight is not in Vietnam” slogan shown here reinforces that idea while the faux folds in the design make it seem like this was a propaganda poster pulled out from storage for display.

The Trailers

The movie’s one trailer (1 million views on YouTube) came out in mid-May and immediately sets the tone by showing Hanoi Hannah reading a message to black U.S. troops asking them if they know what they’ve been (disproportionally) sent to Vietnam to fight and die for. As “Time Has Come Today” by The Chambers Brothers plays we see the former soldiers struggling with their return to the country where they experienced so much pain, searching for their fallen comrade along with the hidden gold they left there. There are flashbacks – presented in a different aspect ratio and with the look of different film stock – of them as younger men as well as actual historical footage of protests, politics and more from that period. It’s chaotic but clear and promises yet another masterstroke of filmmaking from Lee.

Online and Social

Nothing here, but Netflix did give the movie a good amount of promotion on its brand profiles.

Advertising and Promotions

Lee announced a June release date just a couple months ago.

More of the movie’s story is on display in a short TV spot-like video released in early June. You get the basic plot outlines and what the mission these men are embarking on is made clear, adding up to a strong spot.

Netflix also seized the cultural moment we’re all living through to offer something that is relatively rare on the service, a curated collection of films. In this case it’s a “Black Lives Matter” list of titles that offer a number of movies, series and documentaries touching on the black experience, by black filmmakers and so on.

In addition to the soundtrack by composer Terence Blanchard being available, Spotify offered a playlist of songs Lee used as inspiration or which were otherwise important to him, with commentary from the director sprinkled in touching on how the songs related to the movie.

Media and Press

Boseman spoke briefly about the movie while promoting other projects late last year.

In May the first look at stills from the film was offered along with comments about the story and more from Lee.

A profile of Lee in late May included a number of tidbits about the film, from the fact he wasn’t using any de-aging technology for the flashbacks to the wide range of political opinions the story’s characters would represent. In another interview with Lee he talked about how this film continues his career-long focus on racial issues and the inequality that pervades throughout society, something that hasn’t improved in the decades since his first film.

Overall

If the campaign accomplishes anything – at least anything outside of creating a desire to see the movie – it will likely be to create more awareness of how the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were intertwined and influenced by each other. That, to be transparent, is something I wasn’t fully cognizant of myself until the movie sent me down a research path.

To that end, Netflix’s marketing shows that once again Lee is using the power of the moving image to make sure audiences understand the past isn’t dead but still alive in the present. His mixing of new footage with news clips is something he’s done to great effect in movies like BlackKKKlansman and Malcolm X. It’s even on display in a short video created by Lee – not tied directly to this movie but certainly relevant and consistent with the topics he’s regularly addressed – showing the tragic similarities between the fates of George Floyd and Eric Garner and what happens to the character Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing.

The timing of the film, while entirely coincidental, means it’s inescapable how vitale and relevant the story and the issues it addresses remain. And the elements of the marketing make it a must-see for anyone who’s been a fan of Lee’s previous films.

Picking Up the Spare

More from Lee here on crafting the story, including his inclusion of characters that don’t match preconceived notions and more. Lee was also interviewed via video on “The Tonight Show” and again on “The Daily Show.” 

That political diversity is covered by Lindo in an interview where he talks about working with Lee and more. 

A couple new clips were released just before the movie hit Netflix. 

A featurette on the history of the art used on the posters and how they tie to the civil rights movement came from Netflix that’s super-interesting. That process was also covered in this story

On release date, Netflix bought a Twitter Promoted Trend to raise awareness of the film. 

Composer Terence Blanchard, who also offers commentary on the movie’s Spotify playlist, talks here about creating the film’s musical elements. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel also spoke about working with Lee to create the film’s look and the difficulties of the location shooting. 

The topic of Lee making one of his main characters an overt supporter of Pres. Trump continued to generate feature stories and interviews and was part of a profile of Lindo. 

The movie’s journey to the big screen was not always a straight line. 
Netflix has put out a number of video interviews with the cast where they shared what it’s like to be picked by Lee for a particular role. Majors also talked about how Lee helped him prepare for his character.

Marshall – Marketing Recap

We love origin stories for our icons. That’s true not only for superheroes but for the real people who have influenced our world. This week brings another sort of origin story in the new release Marshall. Directed by Reginald Hudlin, the movie stars Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall in one story pulled from the years before he became the first black United States Supreme Court justice.

The story follows one particular case from early in his career. In Connecticut, a black man (Sterling K. Brown) has been charged with the rape of the woman he drove for (Kate Hudson). Marshall is called to help defend the accused, but because of segregation laws at the time he enlists the help of a local Jewish lawyer (Josh Gad). Together they work to overcome the biases in the town that threaten to convict based more on race than on the evidence of the case.

The Posters

The first poster is simple, showing a black and white image of Boseman as Marshall, standing there in a suit and hat and clutching his briefcase. The red of the title treatment provides a bit of contrast to that photo. “Live hard. Fight harder” is the copy, which tells us that we’re in for a bit of scrapping of some form in the story.

“His weapon was the truth” is the copy on the second poster, which uses the photo collage design concept to share as much about the movie as possible in a single image. Boseman, Gad, Brown and Hudson are all shown here in individual photos along with other pictures of scenes that are important to the story. It’s fine, but it’s an approach that’s been used dozens of times in the past and conveys little that’s unique or compelling about the movie.

The Trailers

The first trailer sets out by immediately establishing Marshall as kind of a badass as he gets into a bar fight. Then we hear about how far he’s come from his grandfather’s position as a slave, but he faces prejudice and anger from all quarters. He’s assigned a case where a black man was charged with assaulting a white woman, which has exposed the racial ugliness of the period. When he brings on a Jewish partner for the case things only get worse but Marshall is no less determined to fight for justice and break down all the barriers society has put in place, ending with a shot of him drinking from a “Whites Only” water fountain.

It’s a powerful trailer, to be sure, but the audience’s expectation is likely that this is more of a biopic about America’s first black Supreme Court justice. It’s not that at all, though. Instead we get a clear cut procedural story that wouldn’t be out of place on “Law & Order” or in a John Grisham novel, though with Marshall in the spotlight. That’s different from what might be expected, taking an awfully narrow slice of his life instead of trying to track it on a larger scale. Not saying it isn’t still compelling, just unexpected.

The second trailer starts out much the same way as the first, showing us the hard life Marshall led before his appointment to the Supreme Court. We see again how he’s assigned a controversial case with great racial implications.

Online and Social

Full-screen video pulled from the trailers plays on the front page of the official website, obscured by the title, pull quotes from early reviews and a prompt to watch the trailer. There are also links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles as well as call-outs for both the #MarshallMovie hashtag for conversations about the movie and #StandUpForSomething for more general activism. It’s also the name of an original song on the movie’s soundtrack.

“About” has a Synopsis and Cast and Crew information for you to peruse. After that is a section on the soundtrack, with a link to buy or stream the album. “Videos” has the trailers and other promotional videos, including all the introductions from the cast. “Photos” has a decent gallery of stills.

Persistent on the site is a call to action for “Group Sales.” The studio obvious want to encourage people to go see the movie en masse, a common tactic with issues-based films like this.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Boseman himself introduces Marshall as a forerunner to other civil rights heroes in a TV spot that has the whole primary cast encouraging the audience to not only see the movie but stand up and fight for equality, calling out racism and other problems when they see it. Further TV commercials would range from those that used short, emotional appeals based on the praise the movie has already received to those that used the second collage-based poster as a starting point to dive into the characters played by each member of the cast.

Using either of the hashtags mentioned above unlocks a sponsored emoji on Twitter, a symbol of the balanced scales of justice. The trailers and other videos were also used as sponsored posts on both Twitter and Facebook.

Media and Publicity

Boseman also showed up on “Kimmel” right around the time of the debut of the first trailer to help promote it along with Black Panther.

Later in EW’s fall movie preview Boseman talked about how yes, this was another historical figure he was portraying, but that he was drawn to characters of significance.

Boseman showed up again on “Kimmel” closer to release and he and the other cast did various other interviews and appearances. Both he and Brown did this joint interview where they talked about the representation of black people on film and how, while there’s still room for improvement, things are better than they once were. Ethnicity also came up in an interview with Gad, where he talked about how taking on such an overtly-Jewish role was a decision made in part to honor his Holocaust-surviving grandparents.

Hudson was the subject of a feature profile where he talked about his career as well as why he got involved in making this movie and how the story, because it’s a less well-known part of Marshall’s career, makes it a perfect one to surprise audiences with.

Perusing the social profiles for the movie, it seems Open Road organized plenty of screenings and Q&A sessions around the country to help get people excited for the movie and position it as an important one for people to see and spread the word regarding.

Overall

Context matters. I mentioned above that my initial reaction to the first trailer was a bit underwhelming because it came off like a preview for the latest episode of a TV police procedural. It was only after reading the interview with Hudlin that I realized the dramatic implications of framing a relatively unknown part of Marshall’s life and selling it like this. The whole point is to sell it in a familiar way because it will be more appealing to the audience and provide the most impact when they do see it.

More than that, I think the best thing the campaign does is get the actors involved in selling it directly. Specifically I’m referencing the trailer introductions and other videos from Boseman, Brown and Gad. In a cultural era where athletes, actors and others are asked to take a side on any number of issues, these three are putting their money where their mouth is, not only selling the move but the racial equality Marshall – and others – sought in all things. They are loudly declaring that not only are they proud of the movie, they’re proud of its message. That’s a powerful appeal.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.