How Netflix has sold a shot story of love and all the messiness that entails.
Malcolm & Marie gained notoriety early in 2020 for being one of the first films to be shot after pandemic-related closures and other restrictions went into place. Appropriately, the movie features a small cast of just two and takes place in a single location.
Zendaya and John David Washington play Marie and Malcolm, respectively. The couple live together in Los Angeles, with the story opening as they return from the premiere of a film directed by Malcolm. As they wait for reactions and reviews to come in, the two engage in a number of conversations that alternately solidify and call into question their relationship, with each speaking their real feelings – both good and bad – about the other.
Written and directed by Sam Levinson, the movie currently has a poor 58% on Rotten Tomatoes, having been sold as a stark drama anchored by the performances of the two leads.
“Madly in love” is a nice way for the copy on the poster (by marketing agency P+A), released in January. That communicates some of the range of emotions in the story, while the black and white photo of the two reinforces that with its image of the two in a passionate embrace. The retro title treatment also acts as a nice hint to the slightly throwback nature of the drama being sold.
Netflix released the first trailer (2.8 million views on YouTube) in early January. “This is not a love story. This is love.” is the message displayed on title cards halfway through the trailer, and that’s certainly the message that’s sent. We see the couple laughing and loving and fighting and running, all seemingly over the course of a short period of time. The performances really come through here, which is good since those are the central selling point of the film.
Online and Social
The movie did have its own social media accounts, including a Twitter profile where promos and other updates were shared. Netflix also created a Giphy collection of GIFs from the film.
Advertising and Promotions
Zendaya released a still from the film in early July, effectively announcing the film was coming. Details emerged after that about how the film was shot in secret and during the Covid-19 pandemic’s quarantine period, with multiple safety protocols in place for everyone involved.
Netflix acquired worldwide distribution rights to the film in mid-September, later setting a February release date.
A clip released late last month shows just one of the heated conversations the couple has over the course of the night.
A feature profile of Zendaya had the actress offering lots of insights into the origins of the story and how she and Washington worked in the early pandemic conditions. For his part, Washington talked about similar topics, and addressed the decade-plus age difference between the leads, in an interview later on.
Zendaya was interviewed by Carey Mulligan about making the movie. She also appeared on “The Late Show” to promote the film and had a feature profile that covered her career to date as well as what’s next for her.
Both Washington and Zendaya spoke about how they used their real life relationships to influence their performances.
While sure there’s a certain cloyness to some of what’s presented here, it comes off even more like a stage play than some of the actual filmed stage plays that have come out recently. That’s a positive thing, since it brings with it connotations of it being an actor’s showcase, kind of like a play being produced in a black box theater in order to strip away some of the distracting artifice in order to focus on the story.
We can take issue with the age difference between Washington and Zendaya, but it’s not so great – and neither so young – that it becomes overly creepy in a Woody Allen kind of way. And purely from an acting perspective, it’s clear Zendaya can hold her own against her older costar. So it’s a solid campaign that sells a throwback, performance-centric drama that, if nothing else, will serve as one of the first artifacts of how very weird 2020 was for film productions.
How Warner Bros. is selling the single most important movie of the year.
The stakes could not be higher. Whether or not theaters are open, and how safe they might be amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, has been endlessly discussed and debated. It’s been the subject of more hot takes and think pieces than defunding the police.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, Tenet is finally here.
Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest film comes with more baggage than Princess Vespa fleeing her wedding on Druidia and more expectations than an only child going to the same college where her father was student body president.
John David Washington stars as The Protagonist, a man who is recruited into a mysterious spy organization, given only the word “tenet” to guide him as he’s ushered into a world where terrorism and war can be prevented by examing the artifacts that fall backward through time from the future to the present. The war in question is one that seems to be caused by Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch married to Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Helping him are the scientist who explains how time inversion works named Laura (Clémence Poésy) and his handler Neil (Robert Pattinson).
Warner Bros. originally planned a July release for the film, putting it in the middle of what was sure to be a hot summer movie season. The world had other plans, though, and after a number of delays because of theater closures resulting from the pandemic it is finally coming to U.S. theaters, a week after its international release, which brought in about $53 million. Over the course of 2020 it has been held up as the great savior of theaters, the title that would bring audiences back after months of watching movies at home or at drive-ins.
Now we see if that hope was in any way justified. Nolan is a beloved filmmaker whose work is largely praised, but initial reviews have been somewhat mixed, giving it a 78 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That lukewarm reception may be giving theater owners additional concern. Even if they acknowledge that recovery may not be quick, this is the basket in which they have placed most – if not all – of their eggs. AMC Theaters has put off reopening a few times, largely in reaction to this movie’s delays, but is now touting how 70 percent of its locations will be open this weekend. Other chains like Regal have also promoted how many of their screens will be open and in what states, depending on local restrictions on group gatherings.
In some ways, it benefits by not actually being the first big studio release to come back to theaters. After a few smaller titles have come out recently, last week Disney put The New Mutants on screens, and while the $7 million take for that film might have been disappointing, it essentially served as the warm-up act for this week.
With all that on the record, let’s look at how Warner Bros. has selling the film over the last several months, right up to release.
The Protagonist strides toward the camera on the first poster (by marketing agency BOND), released last December. The image is split down the middle, showing him walking away on the other side, which is also turned upside down, hinting at the fractured nature of the story.
In July the second poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) came out, once more showing a split image of The Protagonist, a scene of apparent devastation in the background. Note that this one still has the mid-August release date.
An IMAX poster came out later in July that features multiple versions of The Protagonist placed around the expanded canvas, similar war-like scenes again shown in the background. Nolan is not only mentioned on this one but also identified as the director of Inception and Dunkirk.
The first trailer (24 million views on YouTube), released in December, is as enigmatic as you’d expect from a Christopher Nolan movie. The Protagonist has passed some kind of rigorous test and now finds himself in “the afterlife,” though whether that’s the name of an organization or some other designation is unclear. Whatever the case, he’s now part of a team tasked with preventing the end of the world, and his role allows him to see things in a non-linear, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey kind of way. There are car chases and expertly choreographed action sequences and, at the end, more questions then there were at the beginning.
The Protagonist is introduced to the word “tenet” almost as soon as the second trailer (28.7 million views on YouTube), released in late May and debuting in Fortnight, begins. From there he – and we – learn about the job he’s undertaking, one that has implications including preventing something much worse than armageddon. There’s discussion of how the time “inversion” he and others are capable of works and how it helps them do their job, and a more or less clear statement of who it is behind the threat they have to extinguish. Throughout the trailer the audience is reminded that Nolan is the creative force behind the film and, at the very end, an emphatic statement that the movie will be coming to theaters.
The “final” trailer (9.8 million views on YouTube) came out in late August, just after release plans were finalized by the studio. There’s a bit more of the story offered here, though not enough to come close to fully explaining what exactly is happening. But we see how The Protagonist is being trained and is given a mission to, essentially, prevent a war that hasn’t happened yet by manipulating time. It’s all very slick, sold like a James Bond adventure complete with fast car chases and more. Notably, it features an end card reminding fans the film opens September 3 “where theaters are open.”
Online and Social
Unless I’m missing something, the official website for the movie seems to just have the trailer and a gallery of posters along with a button to buy tickets. There were also the usual social profiles that offered promos and links over the last few months.
Advertising and Publicity
In a surprise move, the first teaser was attached to Hobbs and Shaw when it was released in early August. That teaser was not immediately released online, generated more questions about the movie – still in production at the time – than it answered, but it certainly created a good amount of buzz.
A brief look at the still-secret film was shared with attendees of CCXP in Brazil in December of last year.
As the first trailer was being released a massive ad buy took place, including a big digital ad on Times Square signage.
The second trailer received a similar but different big stage, debuting and screening hourly in Fortnite, an attempt to gain the attention of that game’s players. Some of Nolan’s previous films were also screened within the game environment.
A video was released in mid-August by Skyscape, a company that trades in the history and techniques of spycraft throughout the ages. Narrated by Hayley Atwell, the video digs into the mysteries surrounding the word “tenet” that date back to ancient times and some of the places it has appeared along with what those appearances might mean.
Initial U.S. screenings were scheduled for three days beginning August 31 at select venues like Chicago’s Music Box Theater and others. Tickets went on sale for those previews went on sale on 8/21.
Rapper Travis Scott teased a song he created for the film, one that was previewed before its scheduled debut during TNT’s broadcast of the Mavericks/Clippers game on 8/21. The song was released online that day and is featured in the final trailer.
Commercials reportedly began running in select markets as recently as mid-August. That included one from IMAX that encouraged audiences to see the mind-bending action on the biggest screen available.
Washington, Pattinson, Debicki, Branagh and others praised Nolan in a behind-the-scenes featurette that explored how massive the movie is, what the primary story themes are and how it was all made.
Media and Press
Casting and other details came out last year in fits and starts, adding to the mystery of the project while building anticipation.
Because shooting had just begun there wasn’t footage to show, but Warner Bros. still included the film among the upcoming releases it promoted to CineEurope attendees in June of last year.
A first look photo was released just before the first trailer came out.
Around May the movie began to become something of a lightning rod with regard to the state of movie theaters. In the weeks prior some states had begun to open up the economies a bit more, releasing some of the pandemic-restricting rules, including on theaters. It seemed likely, then, that Tenet would become the first major studio release since almost all screens were closed, and theater owners were hoping built up anticipation could push it to a $100 million opening weekend.
Nolan even publicly stated that he hoped that would be the case, reiterating his commitment to theatrical releases. And Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff made similar statements, name-dropping this movie specifically, all in an attempt to both set audience expectations that it would not be coming to streaming and to reassure theater owners the studio was not abandoning them entirely.
But rosy predictions and wishful thinking may not be enough to convince people who are still skittish about public gatherings to sit in the dark with dozens of strangers, even if theaters put social distancing guidelines in place. And it became clear WB was going to need theaters to be open in at least a half-dozen major markets to make it worth moving forward. NATO was reported to promise WB that 90 percent of theaters would be open by mid-July, but what that assurance was based on wasn’t immediately clear, especially considering not only public hesitancy but also the logistical complexities of bringing workers back on and ramping up operations that have shut down for months.
Around the end of May the scale of the production began to become the focus of the press, including interviews with Nolan where he talked about the massive practical effects employed. At the same time Washington commented on the fan theory that this was some kind of sequel to Nolan’s Inception.
One theme that was consistent in the press through June was that the cast wasn’t much more in-the-know than the audience. A profile of Washington had both him and Pattinson talking about how little they understood the mind-bending nature of the story, with similar comments made by Branagh. Nolan, though, stated he thought the cast got what was happening. He also spoke about helping editor Jen Lame get the rhythm of the story down and more.
A lot of previous ground was covered in an EW cover story package that included fresh looks at the film along with the usual comments about its groundbreaking nature. Debecki revealed a few new details about her character in another interview while also talking about working with Nolan and more.
Let’s address a few open questions and issues.
First, the campaign is pretty great. It sells a slick spy thriller wrapped in a time-twisting sci-fi adventure, James Bond meets “Legends of Tomorrow.” Many of the hallmarks of Nolan’s brand of filmmaking are present, from the slick production values to the stylized lens everything is viewed through. Nolan’s movies are known for being layered mysteries the audience is asked to wade through and that’s exactly what’s being sold here, with few of the story’s details being revealed while lots of great set pieces are shown off.
But the question remains whether the combination of the strength of the campaign and pandemic cabin fever will turn out enough of the audience to make Nolan and WB’s insistence on a theatrical release for the $200 production worth the hassle. They’re aiming for the sweet spot on three overlapping groups: 1) Those interested in the movie on its face, 2) those living in areas where theaters are open for business and 3) those willing to put health concerns aside and endure the frustrations of spaced seating, mask requirements and more that are in place at theaters.
Reports of ticket presales are imperfect measures to gauge actual intent, and overseas results are no more helpful given most countries outside the U.S. have done far better in getting the pandemic under control. So we wait and see if Tenet will provide the way out of the darkness industry insiders and others have been waiting for.
Monsters and Men, the new movie from writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green, uses a police shooting of an unarmed black man as its inciting incident. That event has a ripple effect through the lives of multiple people and families, but the focus is on three individuals in particular.
Manny (Anthony Ramos), who just wants to provide a good life for his family and who filmed the shooting; Dennis (John David Washington), a police officer who’s seen the footage and is disturbed by the department’s silence around it; and Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a young and promising athlete who has to weigh his future as a baseball player against his desire to be active in his community.
There’s not a whole lot to the first poster, which just shows Manny and Dennis staring each other down through the one-way glass of a police interrogation room. Aside from the title there isn’t even any copy or text on the poster. What that image shows, though, is the dynamic that will fuel the story of law enforcement and its sometimes adversarial relationship with those they’re meant to protect.
The theatrical poster offers a bit more, showing the main characters arranged above and around a background image of protesters assembled and marching. There’s not much more explained outside of the tagline, “One moment can change everything.”
The trailer lays out for us the basic premise of the story, that an unarmed civilian has been shot by a police officer, seemingly with little or no provocation. From there on out we see how the three main characters and those around them respond to the incident and how they all have to make decisions that are in the interests of themselves, their communities and more.
That looks pretty powerful and impressive. It’s very much the kind of conversation-starter that should be happening today and it pairs nicely with the similarly-themed Blindspotting as well as the recent Pass Over. The cast looks excellent and, most importantly, it doesn’t seem to be overly-exploitive, just raw and unfiltered.
Online and Social
The usual array of standard material is found on NEON’s official website for the movie, including the trailer, a story synopsis and prompts to buy tickets, either individually or in groups. As with other releases from the studio there’s also a nice section of “Social Assets” where you can download images and videos suitable to share online. Links to the official Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages can be found in the upper right corner of the site.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
There’s a very good 30-second spot that can be viewed on the official website that narrows the focus of the story a bit to not overwhelm the tight running time. Green also shared images of outdoor ads around New York City the studio placed that used the key art.
Media and Publicity
The movie was one of those most frequently cited by critics as one they were anxious to see at the Sundance Film Festival. A clip was released by the filmmakers around that time to capitalize on that buzz and the film was soon acquired by NEON. The movie was announced as one of those screening on opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Just days before release news broke that beleaguered movie ticket service and nascent film distributor MoviePass had taken a stake in release and distribution.
Washington did a little bit of publicity and press, including an appearance on “The Tonight Show,” and participation in live Q&As, but he was coming off the press tour for BlacKkKlansman, so Green handled a lot of the duties in this department. That resulted in interviews like this and other appearances
With a handful of similarly-themed films coming out this year, Monsters and Men risks getting lost in the end-of-year shuffle. I realize that statement is telling in and of itself since there are probably like 15 movies around the ennui of middle-aged white guys that came out this year while this is one of just three or four stories about the injustice faced by black communities.
That being said, the movie looks just as powerful as the others that have come out already or are still on the horizon and it’s necessary to tell more of these stories so they become just as common to make sure the issues raised aren’t washed away. Hopefully the campaign reaches enough people to help make that happen.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green has furtherthoughts on how the story forced him – and hopefully the audience – to genuinely consider the point of view of police officers involved in incidents like those the movie depicts.
Spike Lee, one of the most powerful and important filmmakers of the last 30 years who we collectively too often sleep on or overlook, is back this week with the new movie BlacKkKlansman. The movie is basically just what you might think it is based on the title, a story of a black member of the KKK…at least kind of.
Based on real events from the 1970s, John David Washington plays police officer Ron Stallworth. In the midst of the social turmoil of the time, Stallworth decides to infiltrate the KKK to determine how dangerous they are. He conducts most of his business over the phone but partners with fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be the face of the operation when things need to be handled in-person. They do so well they eventually cross paths with KKK leader David Duke (Topher Grace) himself.
Ummm…wow. Stallworth is shown on the first poster standing there with one fist raised in a “black power” salute and the other holding a hair pick, all of which, when combined with the leather jacket he’s sporting, makes it clear the story takes place several decades in the past. The main thing is…he’s wearing the white hood of the Klan over his face, creating an incredible juxtaposition between the visual elements and setting up the nature and premise of the story. The edges of the photo shown have been artificially worn to give it a dated feel as well.
Driver and Washington stand on opposite sides of a white triangle, on which is the tagline “Infiltrate hate” and a reminder this is based on a true story. Of note here is the clear callout beneath the title that the movie comes “From producer Jordan Peele” to capitalize on his popularity.
One more had Washington standing within an American flag whose red and white stripes had been converted to black and white, those stripes going both behind and in front of him to illustrate how woven he and others are into the American experience. This one promises the movie is “Based on a crazy, outrageous, incredibly true story.”
I’m just not sure how to adequately explain how the first trailer opens with Stallworth, recently added to the police force, adopting a very white-sounding voice to call and get in the good graces of David Duke. Stallworth is out to infiltrate the KKK and can handle part of that, but needs “the right white man” to actually play the part in person, which means recruiting Zimmerman, who’s a bit skeptical. The execution of the plan coincides with the civil rights movement and other societal upheavals, with the reluctant partners out to take down those looking to keep any non-white people in their place.
It’s…it’s really funny. What’s shown here, with the music and everything, plays fast and loose and breezy, showing how the two partners make their plan come to fruition, albeit for different reasons. This is the kind of filmmaking we haven’t seen from Lee in a number of years and both Washington and Driver look pitch perfect.
Online and Social
Focus Features’ website for the movie isn’t exactly chock-full of information, but the basics are all covered. The site uses the studio’s standard layout, with the trailer playing as the site opens and other content available further down the page. So as you scroll down you can see an “About” section and then, available by clicking on the various pictures on the page, read bios and other facts about the cast and crew. Over on the right there are also links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
I’ve seen a few online ads that have used the film’s key art and some social posts using the trailer, but that’s it. There no TV spots I’ve been able to find.
Media and Publicity
Aside from the…unconventional and eyebrow-raising title, the first real bit of news about the movie came when it was announced as one of those screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Footage was shown off by Lee at CinemaCon, with the tone of what was seen taking a good amount of the press and other attendees by surprise. The first still was released shortly after that. The movie was also part of the later CineEurope presentation from the studio.
A feature profile of Lee appeared just before the Cannes debut that allowed him to talk about making the movie, what he wants to convey through it, his thoughts on the current president and lots more that show he hasn’t missed a step over the years. He talked again to Vanity Fair after that screening, which was very well-received and generated a ton of great word-of-mouth. It also included comments from Lee, unsurprisingly, about the current U.S. political climate and administration. He reiterated those views in subsequent interviews like this before the movie was ultimately given the festival’s Grand Prix award, significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was one of the few entries in the actual competition this year from a U.S. filmmaker.
The movie was one of two at Cannes featuring Topher Grace, resulting in a narrative emerging about how this was a kind of comeback for the actor and how this was part of a mission to reinvent his career. He talked more about why he opted to take on such a controversial role while Washington was also profiled in a feature where he talked about carving out a career independent of his father’s and more.
At some point it was noticed the movie was one of several either primed for release or in production that focused on the KKK being the adversary in some manner.
That coincided with the release of two clips, one showing Grace as Duke thanking his supporters for putting “America first” and one showing Stallworth getting more familiar with black culture.
While there wasn’t much on the paid front, there was a significant press push in the final week before release. Washington appeared on “Access Hollywood,” while Grace appeared on “The Today Show,” as did both Lee and Washington. Meanwhile, Lee showed up on “NBC Nightly News” and elsewhere. All those and others created an exclusive featurette for Regal Cinemas.
The real Stallworth was interviewed as well, mentioning how he’d spoken to Duke recently and how the Trump-supporting racist was “concerned” he may not come off well in the movie, something that defies parody.
Well…What to say about that. Spike Lee has made a movie that:
Is about black law enforcement standing up for an underrepresented culture and taking on established powers that have ignored the plight of their community for too long.
Is about how white supremacist neo-nazis are unquestionably the bad guy, someone to be targeted for investigation and taken down because of their hate speech.
And all of that and more is in a campaign that makes the story seem not only timely but funny. It’s hard to think of a story that’s more relevant, especially since its release is timed to the one year anniversary of the white supremacist marches at Charlottesville.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
More from the real Ron Stallworth on how he helped John David Washington prepare to play him. There’s also this additional interview with screenwriter Kevin Willmott.
Spike Lee shared a music video for the previously-unreleased Prince song he managed to secure for the movie.
Great profiles here and here of Laura Harrier, who didn’t get much attention in advance of release. Costume designer Marci Rogers also was interviewed about her work on the movie.
John David Washington shared what his first experiences on the set of the film were and what inspired him about working with Spike Lee.
Washington and others from the cast spoke out about what has happened in the country in the year since the Charlottesville incidents and how the movie connects to that. They also explained how they got into character for the time period the story is set in.
There have been a number of stories like this that continue to explore the real events depicted in the story and the connection between the real Ron Stallworth and Washington, who plays him in the movie.
Topher Grace continues to be a central focus of the press as he appears on “Late Night” to talk about the film.
Lee finally got on TV, talking with Seth Meyers about the connections between this movie – and the events that inspired it – and the present day. He also appeared on “The Daily Show.”
John David Washington appeared on “Kimmel” to talk about the movie, working with Spike Lee and more.
The real-life Ron Stallworth is interviewed here about his actual experiences and how closely the movie adheres to that.
The technical aspects of shooting the film are discussedhere by director of photography Chayse Irvin.
The movie’s producers spoke about how they were a bit more free to tell this story in the way they wanted following the success of Get Out.