How Netflix has sold a satire of looming disaster
Writer/director Adam McKay is back with another in his series of satirical takes on very serious issues. This time around it’s not the inherent corruption of the financial industry but the inaction around climate change in Don’t Look Up.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star as Dr. Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky, two minor astronomers who discover a planet-killing comet is hurtling toward Earth. When they try to warn President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), she and her son/Chief of Staff Jason (Jonah Hill) dismiss them, insisting on making no changes and not warning people. So Mindy and Dibiasky go straight to the media, but find they’re still not taken seriously.
The story is being widely received as an allegory for the indifference among leaders, media and many citizens toward the effects of climate change. In addition to those named above, the film – released in select theaters a couple weeks ago before coming to Netflix this week – features Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Mark Rylance, Rob Morgan and a slew of others likely attracted by McKay’s helming.
announcement and casting
Paramount Pictures originally announced development of the project in late 2019 with McKay attached. Netflix acquired the film in early 2020.
Lawrence’s addition to the cast was announced shortly after that, about two months before filming was expected to begin. In October 2020, after filming was delayed due to the coronavirus, DiCaprio, Streep, Blanchett and Hill were announced as also appearing. Chris Evans joined in December.
Streep talked about the movie during an appearance on “The Late Show” late last year.
The first footage came in January, part of Netflix’s announcement of its ambitious 2021 feature film slate.
In an interview from April McKay talked about the work DiCaprio put into the script before he agreed to star in the film.
the marketing campaign
In September the campaign began in earnest with the release of a batch of first look stills in a Twitter thread that also offered a recap of the movie’s story and showed off many of the big names in the cast, even if just in supporting roles.
The first teaser trailer (13.5m YouTube views) came out shortly after that. It doesn’t go into great detail about the plot but does show the basic premise as well as the various reactions to the news of the comet’s imminent arrival. Those reactions range from bored indifference from the White House to amusement from the media, with the public either not paying attention or going crazy, all while the scientists themselves become increasingly panicked. The spot also sets the humorous tone of the film.
The impressive cast is shown off on the poster, with their faces shown through the cut-out letters making up the title. How the story is but isn’t real is communicated through the copy “Based on truly possible events.”
NASA shared a video of McKay talking about how his fictional story is a parallel to the agency’s real mission to test how it might deflect potentially threatening asteroids in deep space.
An exclusive clip came out later that month showing Dibiasky and Mindy attempting to brief Pres. Orlean on the danger of what’s coming but being dismissed as alarmist as she chooses inaction over other potential responses. The clip was released as part of Netflix’s TUDUM virtual promotional event, joining other interviews, clips and trailers from upcoming high-profile releases.
McKay talked about how the comet is a stand-in for climate change in an interview from November. He also commented on the state of political satire, the impressive cast he assembled for the film and lots more. Both McKay and Streep talked about how they crafted her character and what role she fills in the story in a joint interview.
The full trailer (10.3m YouTube views) also came out in mid-November. This one offers a lot more details of the story, from the “wait and see” response from the president to how Dibiasky and Mindy decide to take matters into their own hands and go to the media, who treat it as diversionary entertainment. Eventually there’s a mission to intercept the comet, but it’s mainly in the service of mining its mineral resources.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Lawrence explained the characters, situations and other details shown in the trailer to help audiences grasp what it is they’re watching.
The cast and crew kept talking about the making of the movie and the message of the story at a BAFTA screening, with Lawrence sharing her non-chill reaction to the on-set presence of Arianna Grande, who has a small role in the movie and recorded a new song with Kid Cudi, who also appears. The Q&A also had Streep talking about Hill’s knack for improvising insults that would have her breaking during filming.
“Just Look Up,” that new song from Grande and Kid Cudi, was released in early December.
A New York City premiere event was held a few days later with the cast and crew walking the red carpet. At that event McKay talked more about the climate change nature of the story, as did Dr. Amy Mainzer, the film’s scientific advisor who weighed in on the script and other details. DiCaprio, long known for his climate advocacy, also commented on that and the movie in general.
How McKay hounded Streep into accepting her role and more was covered in another interview with the filmmaker. An even more comprehensive profile of the director covered a lot of ground both about this movie and his career in general, with most secondary coverage focusing on his story of having a professional falling out with frequent collaborator Will Ferrell. Another later interview had him covering similar ground while also commenting on how the absurd comedy of his early years has morphed into something more serious.
Composer Nicholas Brittell was also interviewed about working with McKay for the fourth time and creating the movie’s score as well as some of the film’s smaller incidental background music.
Lawrence was her normal charming and goofy self when she appeared on “The Late Show” to talk about working with Streep and other aspects of the movie. How he reacted to some of his costars was also the subject of discussion when both Perry and Hill each appeared on “The Tonight Show.”
Each of the stars of the film gets their time in the spotlight in a series of a dozen character posters.
A second clip came out as the movie was hitting select theaters showing the performance sequence Grande and Kid Cudi are in with their song. The two planned to perform the song on this week’s episode of “The Voice.”
Bon Iver also released a snippet of their new song on the film’s soundtrack.
Short videos like this might have been TV spots but were also used as online promos, distilling some of the movie’s humor for the more condensed running time.
You really see two distinct campaigns happening here:
First is the “satire about serious issue” campaign that is spearheaded by McKay and, to a lesser extent, DiCaprio. This part focuses on the real threat posed by climate change and how, to make a point about the underwhelming public response to date, the story uses a comet as a more tangible stand-in. Multiple interviews and profiles of McKay are all part of this as he talks about the science behind the story and the kinds of characters that serve as ways to communicate the points he’s trying to make.
Second is the “star-studded and kind of goofy” campaign, spearheaded by Lawrence, Hill and Streep. This part is more about sharing crazy stories from the set, including the melding of different kinds of actors and how that went. It’s meant to appeal to the celebrity magazine crowd more than the cinephiles or issues-awareness groups within the audience.
Both are fine and often complement each other, but the latter also serves to make the former a bit less impactful.
Still, the push by Netflix has a solid darkly comic tone throughout and sells the movie, which has a lackluster 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as an entertaining albeit disturbing choice.