How IFC Films is selling a movie about the birth of electricity. No, not that one. Not that one either.
I think there’s widespread consensus that David Bowie’s turn as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige is the premiere on-screen depiction of the famous inventor. He was slightly mysterious, a bit conceited and completely awesome. Then last year Nicholas Hoult played Tesla in the much-delayed The Current War. In neither, though, was he the primary focus of the story.
Now he finally comes into the spotlight in Tesla. Ethan Hawke plays the title character in the film from writer/director Michael Almereyda, who takes what has been described as an unconventional take on his life. The story focuses on Tesla’s struggle in convincing those around him that his approach to electricity is the best one, including his conflicts with rival Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and his work with mentor George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan). In addition to that, Tesla has caught the attention of Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of tycoon J.P.
The campaign from IFC Films makes it clear that this is a prestige picture, albeit one that has more than a few elements of experimental theater in it, offering something that’s not what audiences might otherwise expect. It currently has a middling 58 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
A current of electricity slashes through the title on the one poster, released in July. Tesla himself stands behind that glowing title, looking over his shoulder toward the camera. A quote from an early review praising the film is shown along with the Sundance credentials, but no other copy or hints at the exact plot appear here.
As is clear from the first moments of the trailer (489,000 views on YouTube), released in July, this is not the standard biopic we’ve seen before. It seems to hit the high points of the rivalry between Tesla and Edison we’re familiar with, but does so in a way where period characters are talking about Google results, scenes play out against painted canvas backdrops and the whole vibe is unusual. That uniqueness makes it captivating, much more so than some other takes on this story.
Online and Social
Just the basic marketing materials on IFC’s page for the film, including the trailer and poster along with a decent synopsis of the story. There’s slightly more, including information on how to watch the film on-demand, on the standalone website.
Advertising and Promotions
The cast and crew came to Park City for the movie’s premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It wound up winning the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize. IFC Films acquired the film in April.
The Cinema Society hosted a screening of the movie at Donna Karen’s home in mid-August.
Media and Press
Hawke and the rest of the cast talked about the movie and more while at Sundance.
An interview with MacLachlan had him talking about playing Edison and working within the unusual structure of the film. He also appeared on “Today” to talk about the movie and more.
How Hawke prepared for production and the research he did into Tesla was covered in this interview. Almereyda discussed why he chose such an unconventional approach to what is ordinarily such a paint-by-numbers format like the biopic.
There’s a lot to like about this quirky, unexpected campaign, but it has to overcome the reality that not only is it flying largely under the radar but that it might be so quirky and eyebrow-raising that some people might pass it by because it looks a bit odd.
For others, though, it’s just that slightly-twisted approach that will form the foundation of their interest in the film. Biopics are, as I and others have mentioned in the past, somewhat stale in nature, hitting the top dozen points of interest in someone’s life but offering little in the way of flavor or style. This does not appear to be that kind of film and is that much stronger for it.