Bad Education – Marketing Recap

How HBO is selling its new drama set in the world of public education.

bad education poster

This week HBO is debuting a new drama directed by Cory Finley and based on a true story. Bad Education stars Hugh Jackman as Frank Tassone, superintendent of a Long Island school district and the architect of the district’s ranking as the fourth best in the country. He’s beloved by staff and popular with parents and can seemingly do no wrong.

His end begins with what should be a routine story for the school newspaper being written by student Rachel Kellog (Geraldine Viswanathan) about the budget. Kellog’s investigation, though, uncovers irregularities that point to potential embezzlement. Tassone, on the verge of having all his work undone, begins scrambling to cover up the emerging scandal, ultimately turning him from hero to criminal.

HBO’s campaign for the feature has focused on Jackman and costar Allison Janney as the company worked to keep positive buzz from festival screenings going.

The Posters

Earlier this month the first and only poster (by marketing agency Leroy and Rose) came out. It features Tassone and coworker Pam Gluckin (Janney) sitting on stadium bleachers, firmly establishing the story’s setting. Both of the actor’s names include the fact Jackman is an Academy Award nominee and Janney is a winner, helping to give it an air of prestige. That sense is reinforced by a couple positive pull quotes from festival reviews. The copy reading “Some people learn the hard way” hits on the education theme but doesn’t offer a lot of insights into the story.

The Trailers

There are certainly shenanigans afoot in the first trailer (since removed from YouTube) released at the end of January. Frank has been placed in charge of an effort to raise the school district’s profile, something that’s meant to help the whole community. But how he does so may not be strictly ethical, and the hints we see of his plans falling down around him show a scramble to maintain a coverup even as those around him still see Frank as the key to fixing the problems.

Things are going well as the full trailer, (383,000 views on YouTube) released in March, begins, with Frank and his team enjoying the success of their efforts to raise their school’s prestige. The discovery of some budgetary discrepancies puts everyone on edge, though, threatening to expose embezzlement and other problems with the school leadership. All of this because of a story being written for the school newspaper.

Online and Social

No unique online presence of note, but the movie has been given plenty of promotion on HBO’s social channels.

Advertising and Promotions

A debut screening at the Toronto Film Festival led to widespread positive reviews, especially for Jackman’s performance as well as the timeliness of the story. HBO picked up distribution rights shortly after the festival ended. It was later scheduled at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Beginning in early April a series of commercials and other promoted spots started running. Some were cutdown versions of the trailer while others were formatted as more traditional spots. There were also videos that focused on some of the main characters, including Bob (Ray Romano), Pam, Frank, Rachel and others. Some of those offered more insights into what kind of trouble exactly the people have gotten themselves into than the trailers do.

Media and Press

An interview with Jackman had the actor talking about working to perfect a Long Island accent as well as the process of playing a man with multiple layers of both personal and professional deceit going on. Another had him offering some admiration for Tassone, pointing out that despite the problems many of his solutions were so good they’re now in widespread use.

There were also interviews with Janney where she talked about how she approached her character and the story and with Viswanathan, who commented on working with Jackman and her career to date.

Jackman was also among the celebrities dialing into talk shows – in this case “The Late Late Show” – to promote the film and talk about all sorts of other things.

Many of the stars and filmmakers were quoted in a piece that explored the movie’s background, why it fits into HBO’s history of original films and more.

Overall

Having Jackman in the lead is never really a bad thing, and the campaign makes sure everyone knows he’s in it and that he’s a big reason to see the movie. That effort is helped by the plethora of positive festival reviews there were to draw quotes from, many of which are sprinkled liberally around the campaign. Janney too is a big presence here.

Sometimes that emphasis, though, gets in the way of the story. As mentioned above, the trailers never really explain what’s going on other than that it’s financial shenanigans in some manner, but that is cleared up later in the marketing as the paid spots began running.

HBO is likely hoping the movie is attractive enough not only to retain its current subscribers but maybe even add a few who are in the midst of isolation and social distancing. Goals like that explain why, more than some of its other recent features, this one seems particularly geared to garner mainstream attention, positioned as a breezy drama with a bunch of extremely likeable actors.

Picking Up the Spare

More from Jackman  here  on how he embraced the crazy true softy of his character during filming. 

Another interview with Viswanathan where she talked about working with Jackman on the film and more.

The Tale Never Stood a Chance

The team at Slate are concerned that everyone slept on The Tale, last year’s buzzed-about movie starring Laura Dern as the grown version of a young girl victimized by sexual abuse. After it emerged from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival as one of the most buzzed-about titles, particularly because of Dern’s performance, it was quickly snatched up by HBO, which debuted it in May of last year.

It did fade quickly from the cinematic conversation, never quite living up to the hype the buzz that came out of Sundance would have indicated or seemed to predict. A big part of the reason for that, I think, is because it was HBO that picked it up.

The Tale was the one big profile title acquired by the cable network coming out of last year’s Sundance and one of the few movies it’s picked up out of festivals in recent years. About a month out from its debut a campaign was finally launched that included a decent trailer that explained much of the story and a lackluster poster that simply reused one of the first publicity stills included in the Sundance coverage. An official website has offered resources for those affected by sexual abuse and information on free screenings for advocacy and support groups.

Netflix is essentially running the HBO model, mixing in an increasing number of original features and programs alongside the content it gets via licenses from other studios and producers. But right now, with the exception of shows like “Game of Thrones” and a few others, Netflix has the advantage of being buzzed about while HBO does not.

That’s why The Tale dropped off the radar relatively quickly. The platform that distributed it didn’t have the zeitgeist others do and didn’t bring that cache with it.

If Netflix had been the one offering it to audiences it would have come with a lot more buzz attached to it and might have been in the same conversation with The Kindergarten Teacher and other films that have brought new and underrepresented stories to the public.

This is not to blame HBO for mounting a lackluster campaign for the movie, it’s simply a representation of how the conversation has shifted in the last few years. Cable subscriptions aren’t the end-all-be-all they once were and are falling out of favor with the general public, replaced by streaming subscriptions and skinny bundles. It’s not where the kids are or where the media’s attention is currently turned.

What happened might be unfair to the movie, and because stories like this are seen as risky the underwhelming response to one may be held up as “proof” they don’t work. That’s the danger with all movies, shows or books that offer looks into groups and situations that haven’t been as mainstream as they deserve to be.

The Future Is In Original Content

Here’s the key passage from the news that Netflix was investing 85% of its available funds on original material:

Sarandos reiterated that Netflix’s heavier focus on original and exclusive content is driven by more favorable economics — as opposed to licensing TV shows and films owned by Hollywood studios — and the expectation that big media companies would eventually put more weight into their own streaming-subscription services.

There’s a lot that could be said – and has been, by myself and others – about how the dynamics of the media industry have changed, are changing and will continue to change. Phrases like “media fragmentation” are used often as more and more options for consumers to choose from arrive on all platforms, whether it’s via a home-based or mobile connected device. Two things are clear, though:

#1: Everyone is out for original content

That’s a point that’s been hammered home on many occasions. Netflix is producing or buying more and more original shows and movies. Same goes for Hulu, Amazon and even Apple. These companies are placing the same bets HBO, Showtime, TNT and other cable channels have for years. Each one hopes that even if the shows or movies aren’t award-winning prestige material (though there’s a heavy dose of that as well, exemplified by not only “Game of Thrones” but how Amazon is searching for its own version of that show) they’re good enough to keep people’s attention and convince them to become or remain subscribers. A recent survey ranked which services people thought had the best original content, with Netflix coming out as the clear winner.

That original content, then, supplements the catalog material offered by each channel. As each media company launches or plans for the launch of their own OTT subscription service, they’re often reclaiming their back catalog from whoever they’ve previously licensed it to as soon as those contracts expire. WB pulled “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” and other shows off Netflix so it they could be exclusive to Hulu, which it has a stake in. Disney will be letting its Netflix contract lapse as it seeks to build out its upcoming service. There are a number of other examples, though there will likely always be some material that’s licensed out to other players in the game.

It’s important to note that this isn’t just a trend in the entertainment industry. Target, according to a recent report, has brought in a lot of shoppers with its new exclusive brands and other offerings. As “house brand” has become less associated with “generic” and is seen as better able to compete with other products on both quality and prestige, retailers like Target are ramping up those products. When Target, Walmart, Meijer and other big-box retailers all sell the same national toothpaste and dishwasher liquid, they seek to differentiate themselves in other ways. As direct-to-consumer brands, facilitated by online shopping and bespoke boutique physical locations, become more popular, exclusive products become a powerful competitive feature, giving shoppers a clear reason to choose to shop at this store, not that one.

So everyone, then, is adopting some variation on what I’ll call the “HBO Model,” a mix of licensed and original content. That means how we talk about things will matter more and more, which brings me to my second point.

#2: We’re going to need some new terminology

If we accept that Netflix, CBS, Disney, Apple, Amazon, Crackle and others are all playing the same game, we then need to look at how the platform on which they operate determines the terminology with which we refer to them. And since the platform question is increasingly answered by “all of them,” that becomes a tricky task, though one that’s still necessary to address if we’re going to have intelligent discussions.

Consider how HBO Now is only used by about 10% of its U.S. subscribers according to a Bloomberg story from February. That service, though, is available on a number of platforms. The same can be said of Netflix, Amazon Prime and other services. Apple’s iTunes service is really the only one that doesn’t cross platform lines, available exclusively on Apple devices with the exception of PCs.

So is HBO a streaming service in the same way we would apply that label to Netflix? Is Amazon a cable company because of how it offers “channels” to different media companies, allowing consumers to subscribe to those individual outlets? A recent survey indicated customers were much happier with streaming subscription options and content than with their traditional cable subscriptions, so things are coming to a head as the one begins to increasingly look like the other and vice versa.

I don’t know what those new terms and labels are, but they’re going to be needed in the same way we need a new word for “TV” that doesn’t comes with the baggage of being intrinsically tied to distribution technology. If you have thoughts, leave them in the comments or @ me on Twitter.

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