How Netflix has sold a drama of consent, punishment and ethics
Chris Hemsworth, Jurnee Smollett and Miles Teller star in this week’s Spiderhead, debuting on Netflix and in select theaters. Based on a short story by author George Saunders, the movie derives its title from a facility where convicts are sent to reduce their prison sentences by agreeing to participate in medical experiments. Hemsworth plays Steve Abnesti, who runs the facility and administers the experiments, which test new drugs. Smollett and Teller then play Lizzy and Jeff, two inmates who form a bond and, after discovering Spiderhead’s secrets, work together to outwit the experiments and experimenters to escape.
The movie is directed by Joseph Kosinski, who already has a hit movie in theaters in the form of Top Gun: Maverick. But that movie was shot in 2019, so this film – produced in late 2020, technically serves as Kosinski’s follow-up to the Tom Cruise-starring sequel.
announcements and casting
The cast and story outline were announced by Netflix in September, 2020, just as production was beginning in Australia.
The first footage came in January 2021, part of Netflix’s announcement of its ambitious feature film slate for the coming year but the release date was eventually pushed back to mid-2022.
the marketing campaign
It wasn’t until April 2022 that the campaign kicked off with the release of a first-look still from the film.
The trailer (5.7m YouTube views) was then released in mid-May. We get the context, that Spiderhead is a prison of sorts where Abnesti uses the inmates as subjects for drug testing and that Jeff is one of those being held there. Abnesti has a very lackadaisical attitude toward what’s going on, convinced it’s helping more people than it’s harming, but the kinds of reactions shown are often extreme in various ways. There’s not a whole lot more to the story that’s conveyed here, it’s more about setting the attitude and vibe of the film.
The movie’s one poster also came out at this time. The cast and location are both shown, along with copy asking “How far would you go to fix human nature”, which hints at the ethical lines the story will ask the audience to consider. Notably, the poster also calls out the movie as coming “From the director of Top Gun: Maverick and Tron: Legacy” so an attempt is being made to draft off the goodwill and popularity of those films.
Smollett talked briefly about this film in a profile that included her career to date and an overview of the many projects she has currently in the works.
An extended clip was released last week during Netflix’s Geeked Week showing Jeff and Heather, another inmate, being introduced to one another during one of the experiments. As the drug being tested takes effect their attraction grows to the point where they begin making out right there in the booth.
Abnesti narrates what seems like a promotional video for the Spiderhead facility, his calming voice talking about how residents are free to move around and enjoy various pastimes, but some of the footage is far less serene
Netflix has come under some criticism for not promoting what should otherwise be a big deal of a movie, especially given how Kosinski not only has a good directorial track record but also one of the biggest films of the year in theaters now.
But the campaign the streamer has put together is about right for what it usually does to market its original films. And while there may not be a lot of muscle behind the effort, consider that
- Both Kosinski and Teller have just been on the press circuit promoting Top Gun: Maverick, which given its massive profile surely took precedence when agents were negotiating which movies the talent was going to be available for.
- Similarly, Hemsworth is about to embark on a publicity cycle for Thor: Love and Thunder.
There are some other small quibbles with the marketing effort here – Smollett isn’t featured very much, the stakes of the story are pushed aside for more about the unusual experiments at the facility – but the size of the campaign and the number of attention-grabbing moments likely have more to do with the fact that talent is being diverted than neglect on Netflix’s part.