How Warner Bros. has sold a biopic about the man behind two legends
Most biopics are about the people who have made the headlines, not the people who pushed them along the way or otherwise supported them. Sure, those folks may appear as supporting characters, but the movie itself is about the lead singer, the star athlete, the groundbreaking comedian.
King Richard, out this week in theaters and on HBO Max, takes a different tack. The movie is focused on Richard Williams (Will Smith), the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena. Set when those two were still up-and-coming childhood prodigies, the story is about how their father not only pushed them to be their best on and off the court but pushed, cajoled and bargained for them to get every opportunity to excel.
As several people have said on Twitter and elsewhere, it takes a special sort of mindset to take two of the greatest tennis players to ever compete and decide that it’s actually their father who deserves to be the focus of a motion picture.
announcement and casting
Shortly after the film was announced in 2019 it was slammed with a lawsuit by those who claim their work was being stolen by the producers and filmmakers. That lawsuit was eventually settled so that production could continue.
Smith was attached to star from the outset, with others added to the cast over the first half of 2020. Those additions included Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney as Serena and Venus, respectively, as well as Joe Bernthal, Liev Schrieber and others as the people the Williams family encounters along the way from potential to success.
One of the first, albeit very brief, looks at the movie came via an HBO Max promo touting the same day theatrical/streaming availability of WB’s 2021 lineup. Another promo showed off a bit more footage.
the marketing campaign
Richard pushing the girls in a shopping cart filled with tennis balls is the central image on the first poster from July. Copy at the bottom makes it clear the story is about “Venus, Serena and a plan for greatness.”
The first trailer (14.1m YouTube views) came out in late July and opens with Richard coming home with Venus and Serena to find a child services investigator in the house. He contends he’s hard on those two and the other kids but that they are all becoming better people as a result. His ambition is evident throughout the trailer as he pushes the girls to perform at the top of the game, constantly putting them in positions to show off what they can do.
The movie was among those shown off by Warner Bros. at CinemaCon in late August.
How Smith has changed his perspective about his career and how that plays into the choice to take on this project were covered in an extensive profile of the actor from September.
After that it screened at AFI Fest, where it was the closing feature, and at the London BFI Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival. It was also the centerpiece screening at Miami Film Festival GEMS in November.
Empire debuted the second poster in October, this one showing the three main characters huddled together as the copy tells us this is a true story we’ll have to see to believe.
Another trailer, (4m YouTube views) this one featuring “Be Alive” by Beyonce, came out in mid-October. It’s less about the domestic troubles of the Williams household and more about the push-back Richard gets every time he wants to give his girls a chance to perform. But he also is obstinate in constantly going against the grain of what people advise him to do with their careers, which causes as many problems as it solves.
Promos like this began running after that as TV spots, social promotions, pre-roll ads and more.
At the beginning of November the movie was the opening feature at the American Black Film Festival. Just before that it had been the closing night feature of the Chicago Film Festival where it won the Best Feature Audience Choice Award.
Earlier there had been a number of early screenings at colleges, culminating with a coordinated push to historically black colleges and universities to try and reach those audiences ahead of time and begin building even more buzz outside the usual critics and media circles.
A video was released showing the real life Venus and Serena visiting the set and meeting, apparently for the first time, the girls who are playing them as children and the other actors playing family members and others.
Reports emerged around that time that Smith himself wrote checks to many of his costars and others in an effort to compensate them for the revenue they stood to lose because of the changed release plan, which could impact their bottom line. Whatever the case, the stories were intended to help burnish Smith’s image as a nice guy and a leader on set.
Aunjanue Ellis, who plays the Willams sisters’ mother, was profiled about her experience on this movie and how it fits into a career spent mostly as a secondary player. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green was interviewed about how he first heard about the project and how he ultimately scored the job after making a connection with Smith and convincing him he could do the story justice.
MovieClips released an exclusive featurette covering the dynamics and drive of the Williams family.
Smith has made the talk show rounds of “The Tonight Show,” “The Daily Show” and more, including an appearance on Oprah’s show. Even the real Serena stopped by “Kimmel” to promote the movie. Sidney and Singleton made multiple stops together, including on “Drew Barrymore” and “Tamron Hall” talk shows.
The three major stars showed up at a Chicago tennis event to talk about the movie and encourage those folks to go see it.
What it felt like to play a sports icon so early in her career was covered in a profile of Sidney.
Both Smith and Ellis received the Outstanding Performers of the Year Award from the 37th annual Santa Barbara Film Festival. The two were also jointly interviewed about the movie specifically but also what it has to say about black families and other topics.
There were additional profiles of Ellis and Bernthal, the former focusing again on how this is her long-worked for overnight success and the latter how it’s an opportunity for the actor to not play a stereotypical tough guy character.
The Williams sisters stopped by the movie’s red carpet premiere at AFI Fest where the cast talked about portraying people who are still alive and more.
That was followed by a cast and crew appearance at an event at Wimbledon in London that also served as the movie’s UK premiere.
Ellis appeared on “Kimmel” just days before release.
Reviews have been very good – the movie is 91% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes – but tracking estimates an opening weekend of just about $10 million, which would be pretty low.
That could be for a number of reasons: A lack of interest in largely conventional biopics, the split distribution pattern, other plans over the weekend before Thanksgiving or something entirely different.
But the campaign hasn’t really taken a wrong step, so it doesn’t seem that the marketing is playing a role in those lowered expectations. Of course that may be part of the problem, that following the variation on a theme shown in Spencer and other recent true stories, something that’s more conventionally heartfelt, inspiring and standard just isn’t resonating