What Happened to First Man?

The $16.5 million grossed by First Man for Universal this past weekend is…underwhelming. In fact it’s a significant disappointment considering the movie was touted as a massive story about…wait, what was it about again?

Much of the post-game analysis in the entertainment press has focused on whether or not the controversy surrounding whether or not the movie featured significant enough placement of the American flag. A dust-up following press screenings had conservative commentators claiming the filmmakers omitted a shot of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) planting the flag after taking his first steps on the moon. Gosling, along with director Damien Chazelle, spent much of the time since saying there was plentiful usage of the flag elsewhere, just not in one scene.

What’s been overlooked is that the marketing campaign Universal ran never actually managed to answer that initial question: What is this about?

It’s something I was never able to quite figure out. The campaign certainly emphasized the reteaming of Gosling and Chazelle, playing off the popularity of La La Land a couple years ago. And there were a lot of big dramatic shots of Gosling as Armstrong looking very serious and very somber about the risks he was taking as he, with the rest of NASA, prepared to take the space program to the moon.

But what exactly is Armstrong looking so serious and somber about? That’s never really explained.

At best we get the sense he’s conflicted about his responsibility to exploration and his commitment to the mission, the risks of which mean he may not be able to live up to his responsibilities and commitments as a father and husband.

Even that message is muddled, though. The trailers were largely free of dialogue, choosing to emphasize the visuals more than the characters. So we never see hear Armstrong explain or rationalize why he loves his family so much but his mission more.

Another factor that may have triggered audience apathy is that we’ve seen this story before. The Right Stuff, “From the Earth to the Moon” and other dramatizations have covered similar ground and, because the marketing was presented mostly dialogue-free, it didn’t actually promise anything new was being added to the pop culture understanding of Armstrong or his mission.

Some of that was covered in the press coverage following festival and other screenings, but if you aren’t someone immersed in Film Twitter, odds are good you missed a lot of it, which means you missed a fair amount of background material.

Finally, there’s the fact that we may actually be all full up of stories about the stoic sacrifice of white men. The last major movie about the early days of NASA was 2016’s Hidden Figures, which told a story about the agency’s lunar mission much of the public was largely unfamiliar with. When Hidden Figures went wide the first weekend of January 2017, it played in 1,000 fewer theaters but grossed $6 million more than First Man. That was not only because it did break new ground in its story but it also opened up the trip to the moon, something that remains a touchstone in American history, to a whole new audience by showing the diverse nature of the team that made that mission possible. Women and people of color were suddenly a much bigger part of that story, whereas the contributions of white men have been covered quite well over the years.

It’s possible First Man could have legs and turn into a decent hit for Universal, but opening on 3,600+ screens doesn’t give it anywhere to expand to if word of mouth does indeed kick in. And the competition isn’t going to lighten up. If it couldn’t go up against the second frames of Venom and A Star Is Born it may not have the strength to take on the opening of The Hate U Give and Halloween.

There may have been some in the audience who took a pass because they believed the conservative commentators who blew what seemed to be a non-issue regarding the placement of the American flag at face value. But a confusing, emotionally-distant marketing campaign coupled with subject matter that seems out of touch with current societal trends certainly didn’t help make a convincing argument that this was a better way to spend time and money than, say, seeing Beautiful Boy in theaters or watching Private Life on Netflix.

Studios Look to PR Tactics to Build and Rebuild Audience Interest

We live in tumultuous political times. Study after study seems to reinforce the notion that the U.S. population is more ideologically divided than ever, with each side of the political spectrum clinging to its own version of facts and truth and calling those across the breach traitors, racists, fascists and more.

It’s been decades since a celebrity from the world of the arts – be it movies, music or other medium – taking a stance on societal issues could be considered unusual. Marlon Brando famously refused to accept his Oscar for The Godfather in protest of how Native Americans were depicted on screen and to bring attention to the standoff happening at Wounded Knee. Sting has weighed in on the fate of the rainforests and other worthy causes. The list goes on and on, right up to Taylor Swift’s recent decision to drop her apolitical public approach and encourage young people to vote, specifically condemning racial and gender discrimination.

While Mike Huckabee’s comments on Swift will likely be remembered as laughably as Tipper Gore’s warnings that explicit music lyrics were going to be the death of civilization, movie studios in seem to be taking political and societal backlash to heart in some ways. To recent announcements provide examples of how studios are looking to mend fences with different ends of the political spectrum.

First is the announcement that Warner Bros. had hired James Gunn to write – and likely direct – its upcoming sequel to the box-office hit but critical flop Suicide Squad. Gunn was newly available because, as of a few months ago, Disney/Marvel Studios had removed him from the development of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 despite being the creative force behind the previous two very successful movies.

That removal came following a campaign by high-profile alt-right trolls, who resurfaced decade-old Tweets by Gunn that included what are legitimately offensive jokes. But they are *clearly* jokes, even if they come off as in poor taste. This wasn’t new information, though, as Gunn had previously apologized for them in multiple occasions, including well before he was hired by Marvel Studios for the first Guardians movie. There was nothing new here, it was just that his more recent comments about President Trump didn’t sit well with supporters, who managed to get him fired for his political leanings because Disney didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.

So WB/DC has apparently decided it doesn’t care and wants some of the magic Gunn brought to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for its own big-screen efforts. It marks an attempt to mend some fences with audiences who haven’t been fans of some of the previous DC movies, including the first Squad film, citing disjointed narratives and too-dark tones in many of them.

Second is Universal’s announcement it would be providing 14,000 free tickets to its recent Neil Armstrong biopic First Man to current or veteran military service members. That’s a great idea, akin to how writer/director Eva Vives and star Mary Elizabeth Winstead arranged for free screenings of their movie All About Nina for survivors of sexual abuse and assault.

It also seems geared at assuaging some of the criticism the movie and studio had come under after erroneous reports emerged Armstrong’s moon landing did not feature the American flag being planted on the lunar surface. That rumor/story circulated among right-wing commentators, even making its way to cable TV talk shows, despite being almost wholly untrue. As Alissa Wilkinson at Vox points out, the movie doesn’t actually feature any scene where the flag is planted while the entire rest of the movie is dripping with American flags on uniforms, building walls and everywhere else.

Disney’s immediate firing of Gunn and Universal’s appeal to the military show how far Hollywood seems to be willing to go to appease the right wing, which seems to believe that any dissent from their policies and positions represents an unpatriotic hatred of America. They don’t want to be subject to the same fate as Nike, which experienced a backlash in rhetoric, if not in actual sales or brand awareness, after launching a new campaign featuring quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The willingness of studios to fold quickly or make grand gestures is likely in part because they are part of larger companies that have business before the United States Congress and don’t want to fall into the disfavor of the sitting president. Mergers and consolidations are the name of the game for media companies who feel they are the best way to not only maximize shareholder value but also compete against rising challengers like Netflix and Apple. And Trump’s stance on those mergers seems dependent on how friendly they are to him and his administration.

His disfavor toward CNN is why many speculated he was against the AT&T/Time Warner merger, while the support he received from Sinclair Media was suggested as a big reason why he supported that company’s proposed acquisition of Tribune Media. Interestingly, the former succeeded in going through while the latter failed, in part due to bookkeeping on Sinclair’s part that bordered on creative fiction.

(side note: Perhaps this is why WB decided hiring Gunn was a good idea; Trump already dislikes the company and it can’t get much worse for them, so why not?)

While new surveys continually show younger consumers in particular want brands to take public stances similar to their own beliefs on big issues, there’s obviously still danger in doing so, at least for media entities. So, after briefly feeling the ire of conservative groups, movie studios have decided to pull back and not risk further angering the vocal minority that carries outsized influence.

First Man – Marketing Recap

first man poster 4It’s not as if the story of NASA’s early days hasn’t been told before. From The Right Stuff to the excellent “From the Earth to the Moon” miniseries to the recent Hidden Figures, the heady era when humanity rose to the challenge Pres. Kennedy laid out to extend our reach to the stars is ground that’s been covered before.

Joining those ranks is this week’s First Man. Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in a story that follows him as he moves toward the day when he’s given the opportunity to be the first man to walk on the moon. Along the way he must confront his own fears, face the dangers inherent in breaking new ground and comfort his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and sons as well. The movie reteams Gosling with director Damien Chazelle.

The Posters

“Experience the impossible mission to the moon” is the value proposition offered on the first poster, which shows Armstrong in his helmet and suit, the orange and red of the fiery rocket he and the others ride reflected on the glass. The second takes a broader perspective, showing a massive black plume of smoke rising toward the clouds, a bright orange spot at the top as the rocket ascends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Armstrong’s empty flight suit is the main element on the third poster while the final one-sheet uses a similar image as the first, of Armstrong’s helmet melding into the moon and his face striking a reflective pose.

The Trailers

The first trailer does everything it can to reinforce the stakes of what Armstrong and the other early astronauts were trying to do. It’s filled with people asking him to be careful, explaining how difficult, dangerous and unprecedented the mission is, how much everyone is coming at it from a pretty negative point of view and more. Basically it’s focused on worst case scenarios, which is the opposite of most movies about the space program that focus on hope and the rush of exploration. It becomes a bit heavy-handed at times, but still works as a big-scale drama.

 

All that being said, it also kind of feels like a movie about Armstrong at this point is almost an answer to Hidden Figures, an attempt to reclaim the early days of NASA for white men. I’m not accusing the filmmakers of having that as their agenda, just that instead of Figures opening up the door to more stories about those who have been largely ignored in the numerous retellings of this era we get something very familiar.

Just before the movie’s debut at the Venice Film Festival in late August the second trailer was released. It carries the same general tone and structure as the first, showing how Armstrong is selected for the mission and how he handles that responsibility. The drama at home is just as strong as what’s happening at NASA as time marches on toward launch. What’s most striking about the trailer is that it presents Gosling as giving yet another nearly silent performance in a role as a stoic man who does what’s needed while still remaining sensitive to those around him. He barely has any dialogue, so everything is dependent on him looking determined but caring.

 

 

A third trailer from late September continued to display a deeply moving story of the early days of manned space exploration, once more eschewing actual dialogue in favor of narration culled from speeches by John F. Kennedy.

 

 

 

Online and Social

The official website for the movie features all the usual content, from the trailers to a stills gallery and so on. The one notable addition is the “AR Experience,” which offers the user a unique movie-themed experience when you load the website on your phone and point the camera at the moon.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Online ads that used the key art of Gosling as Armstrong, the outline of the moon forming the barrier of his helmet, started showing up at the time of the Venice Film Festival, driving traffic to the movie’s official website. At about the same time the first TV spot was released that showed the same kind of drama as the trailer while inviting audiences to come see for themselves what it was like to break this ground. Another used similar footage while listing the attributes necessary to put yourself in harms’ way as Armstrong did. Those were both also used as social media ads.

In late July a special preview was run exclusively before IMAX screenings of Mission: Impossible – Fallout. That preview was teased ahead of time. IMAX later ran its own TV spots that continued emphasizing the big story being told.

Media and Publicity

The footage featuring Gosling that Universal brought to CinemaCon to start building some buzz unfortunately seemed to underwhelm the media in attendance. A bit later both Chazelle and Gosling spoke about the story and characters alongside the revealing of a first still from the movie.

Around the time the first trailer was released Gosling showed up on “Kimmel” to do an interview where both he and the host were dressed in old-school spacesuits and sitting in a pretend capsule.

It was also announced as the opening night film for the Venice Film Festival, where Gosling and Chazelle complimented each other and talked about why they’ve repeatedly worked with each other. The movie garnered strong positive reactions from that initial screening.

The movie was announced as one of those screening – in IMAX – at the Toronto International Film Festival. Shortly thereafter another new photo was released along with comments from Gosling and Chazelle. It would then go on to also screen at Telluride.

There was an extensive cover story profile of Chazelle that covered this movie, his career to date, his collaborations with Gosling and more. Shortly after that Foy was interviewed about how she got involved with the movie, what she found most difficult about the story and more.

Because we live in the stupidest timeline, the movie’s festival screenings became a flashpoint for right wing pundits like Marco Rubio and the drones at Fox News because it reportedly didn’t include a shot of Armstrong planting an American flag on the moon. It got to the point that not only did Chazelle and Gosling feel the need to respond and clarify the intent behind that omission but so did Armstrong’s own sons.

That topic came up again in interviews during Toronto, where Stoll also shared what advice he got from the real life Aldrin. Chazelle later spoke about how he wanted to present the “normal” side of the initial astronauts that helped expand mankind’s reach.

A featurette released in late September had actual former astronauts talking about just how groundbreaking and inspiring the early Apollo missions were to them and the world.

The first clip shared a moment from a mission orbiting the moon where a technical problem creates a moment of dramatic tension for Armstrong and now the audience. That clip was preceded by a critical quote encouraging people to see the movie in IMAX. It was followed by an exclusive featurette on the people who helped make space travel possible and a promotional appeal for the big format by Gosling himself.

The actor showed up on “Kimmel” to talk about the movie and space food and more. He was also interviewed about the approval he got from Armstrong’s sons and how important that was to him. The whole primary cast and crew discussed the movie and the real life events that inspired it.

A private screening for friends of the filmmakers preceded the planned premiere in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum, an event that allowed the cast and crew to talk about the themes of the movie and its characters one more time.

Overall

I get what Universal is going for here and can’t fault them for it. They want to make a dramatic story of man going to the moon for this generation and want someone like Gosling to present a warts-and-all portrait of Armstrong where he’s not a super hero, just someone doing his best to do his job.

But…we know this story. Even if it has some new shading and is a visual marvel, we know what happens here. There’s no new ground being broken or understanding being achieved, at least not based on what we’ve seen in the campaign. Yes, Gosling looks great, but that’s not new either. And why why why are we continuing to make movies where actresses like Foy are asked to stand in the background and be the supportive wife while the man gets the narrative arc?

That’s where the campaign falls flat to me, in not presenting anything new or interesting or even presenting it in a unique way. It’s all material we’ve seen before and no amount of trading off the Gosling/Chazelle reteaming can get me past that.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

Regal Cinemas and Universal partnered on a program to give free movie tickets to 14,000 current and veteran members of the U.S. military.

Gosling is the cover story for the recent issue of GQ, including an extensive interview about this movie and his whole career.

An exclusive IMAX featurette had Chazelle and others involved in the filmmaking talking about shooting the movie in the wide format in order to tell the big-scale story.

Olivia Hamilton, who plays Pat White in the movie and who’s married to Chazelle, made an appearance on “Kimmel” to talk about her burgeoning career.

Gosling talks here about how he tried to get in Armstrong’s head to tell his story.

IMAX has a new featurette going behind the scenes to talk to the cast and crew. Another one from Universal built on the buzz the movie’s score had built up.

Foy continued to get a few feature profiles mentioning this and other recent projects, She was also one of the December hosts of “Saturday Night Live.”

Two new featurettes were released as awards season ramped up, one focusing on Chazelle and his vision for the film and the other on the movie’s technical achievements.