the many saints of newark – marketing recap

How Warner Bros. has sold the much-anticipated prequel to a critically-acclaimed series.

The Many Saints of Newark poster

“The Sopranos” retains its status as one of the most acclaimed and influential series of all time even 14 years after its final episode aired. It is still a cultural touchpoint alongside fellow HBO series “The Wire” and a handful of others that have been off the air (so to speak) for over a decade.

This week the world of mob boss Tony Soprano – memorably brought to life by the late James Gandolfini – returns in the form of The Many Saints of Newark. Jumping back to 1967 Newark, the prequel movie is still centered on Tony, whose younger self is now played by Michael Gandolfini, James’ son. At this point, though, he’s just an underachieving teen who idolizes his uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), who leads the family’s criminal operation. Tony’s ruthlessness grows as time goes on under the influence of Dickie and others, setting the stage for his eventual ascent to power.

Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Bernthal, Corey Stall, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Billy Magnussen and others also star, some as wholly new characters who will influence the direction Tony and others take, some as younger incarnations of characters familiar to viewers of the show and who are part of Tony Soprano’s orbit. Let’s take a look at how Warner Bros. has sold what should be a slam-dunk with a built in audience of loyal super fans.

[disclosure statement: I’ve never watched a full episode of “The Sopranos” but I do believe the ambiguous cut-to-black ending is incredible simply because it refuses to neatly tie things up. Watching people freak out was highly enjoyable, even if the next 10 years of endless debate and discussion made me sometimes want to walk into traffic. Let’s move on…]

announcement and casting

Ever since the elder Gandolfini’s passing, series creator David Chase had ruled out telling stories that would take place after the end of the show. His idea of telling a story set earlier in the timeline, though, remained intriguing and it was this idea that New Line and HBO Films finally greenlit in 2018. Alan Taylor, who had directed a number of episodes during the original show’s run, was hired to helm the movie at that time.

Nivola was one of the first to be cast later in 2018, with others added over the course of 2019. That included the younger Gandolfini, who reportedly was hesitant to step into his father’s shoes and who, despite the genetic connection, had to audition for the role.

Originally scheduled for September, 2020, in April of last year the date was pushed to March, 2021 because of pandemic-related theater closures and other delays. This past January release was moved to October at the same time Warner Bros. announced it, like the rest of its slate, would debut simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max.

selling the movie

One of the first, albeit very brief, looks at the movie came via an HBO Max promo in January touting the same day theatrical/streaming availability of WB’s 2021 lineup. But the campaign didn’t really kick off until just this past June.

That’s when the first trailer (9.5m YouTube views) came out in late June. It starts with the older Tony’s voice introducing us to his younger self on screen. After getting into a fight we see his mother being told by a high school teacher that Tony is smart, a born leader, a label she disagrees with since he’s not doing well in school. He eventually gets involved in the “family business,” first as a lark and then as he accumulates more power and influence. But it’s clear there will be hurdles he has to clear on the way up, including lots of violence and betrayal.

The first poster was released at the same time. Using the same stylized typeface and black-and-white photography – albeit with a single pop of color – it shows the primary dynamic of the story with a young Tony looking to Dickie

Van Zandt talked in July about how he had consulted on parts of the movie’s story at the request of Chase, even though he doesn’t appear in the film.

Director Alan Taylor talked about the difficulty he had in taking the story from the small to big screen while keeping Chase’s vision intact. For his part, Chase was interviewed about not only the pressure of returning to a story he’d already left behind but also the difficulty in casting many of the parts.

TV spots/social media promos began running in late August, cutting down the trailer to focus on a few key moments in the criminal development of young Tony Soprano and how that’s enabled by Dickie.

A sprawling feature from early September went in-depth on the making of the film, especially how the actors sought to capture the spirit of well-known characters, making them familiar to those who know them from the show without doing impressions. It also covered the long road the movie took to finally being made all these after the end of the original show.

Rolling Stone followed that with profiles of the cast members, including Gandolfini, Odom Jr. Stoll, Liotta and Bernthall.

About about the same time there was an interview with/profile of Chase, who talked about how the original show came to be, the passing of Gandolfini and what eventually convinced him to return to the world of Tony Soprano for this prequel story.

Chase talked more about casting Gandolfini to play a young version of the same character his father brought to life when he appeared on “Kimmel.” Gandolfini himself appeared on “CBS Sunday Morning” to talk about the same thing, including sharing how at times he went a little hard in that direction and had to be pulled back. Bernthal’s appearance on “Late Night” had the actor telling fans of the show they shouldn’t just expect more of that in the movie.

Like many others, Chase was asked for his thoughts on the movie going day-and-date on streaming and theatrical, saying he wasn’t thrilled with that decision and, if he’d thought it was a possibility, he might not have made it at all.

Dickie is looking to make a name for himself as the second trailer (2.9m YouTube views) released in early September, begins. His aspirations have made enemies, of course, but they also overlap with his nephew Tony’s burgeoning interest in the family business. It’s a more fast-paced trailer that has more of an emphasis on Dickie’s story than Tony’s, along with what I’m sure are a few nods to stories from the show that fans will enjoy.

Dickie is all on his own on the next poster, also from early September. The same design aesthetic from the first one-sheet is used here. This time he’s labeled as “Who made Tony Soprano.” That the copy is declarative instead of being framed as a question is intriguing, telling the audience that the movie won’t so much be a journey to find out who it is that made the future mobster the man he would become but that this is the guy, so come along and see what happens.

A series of almost a dozen character posters came out shortly after that, showing off the movie’s impressive cast.

At this point the younger Gandolfini began a substantial media tour that would, in the three or so weeks leading up to the film’s release, include “CBS Sunday Morning,” “The Tonight Show,” “Late Night” and elsewhere. He was also the subject of a number of feature profiles like this.

Odom Jr., Bernthal, Liotta, Nivola and others from the cast also made appearances on a handful of morning and late night talk shows.

A featurette from later in September had Taylor, Chase and many of the cast members talking about returning to these characters and this world or, in many cases, entering for the first time.

Just a couple weeks ago the movie’s world premiere happened at the first ever Tribeca Fall Preview, an offshoot of the Tribeca Film Festival. At that premiere Chase, Taylor and the rest of the cast hit on similar themes about their experiences with the movie and the franchise as a whole.

Betting site DraftKings ran a free sweepstakes where fans could simply name their favorite “Sopranos” character for a chance at a $5,000 prize.

The focus is more squarely on Dickie in some of the additional TV spots run in the last couple weeks, continuing a shift begun in the second trailer.

AMC Theaters had an exclusive video interview with some of the primary cast members, as did Regal Cinemas.

overall

It’s not terribly surprising that many of the reviews of the movie have been lukewarm, resulting in a 71% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To some extent no movie, whether it was set before or after the series, could live up to the reputation the show developed or the hallowed place it has been elevated to in the intervening years.

WB’s campaign for the movie has been solid, though, designed to give fans exactly what they want, which is more tales of Tony Soprano and his “family.” To that end, much of the marketing has been designed to evoke or outright mimic the key art and other elements of the show. Other elements are more geared to make fans react to an important mention or appearance that’s explicitly tied to the show that has come before.

Leonardo Dicaprio Reaction GIF by Once Upon A Time In Hollywood - Find & Share on GIPHY

What’s missing is a message to those (like myself) that haven’t yet explored the show. This could be an excellent on-ramp to that broader experience, allowing us to start with a young Tony and then continue on with his later, more established years. That could leave people in that category feeling shut out for one reason or another and therefore uninterested in checking out the movie.

One Night In Miami – Marketing Recap

How Amazon Studios sold a fictional story involving some of the 20th century’s most important individuals.

The new movie One Night In Miami, the directorial debut for Regina King, is one of my favorite kinds of stories, the hypothetical confluence of several historical individuals. In this case the movie focuses on the fictional meeting of Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) at a Miami hotel room in early 1964. The four men, some with their wives, take the opportunity of their meeting to discuss their various roles in the civil rights movement as well as the rest of what’s happening in the early 60s.

With an all-star cast and a well-regarded actor making her first foray behind the camera, the movie has a lot going for it in this unusual awards season. As such, Amazon Studios has mounted a campaign pulling heavily from history, even if the events of the film itself are largely fictitious.

The Posters

Released in mid-November, the first poster (by marketing agency The Refinery) presents a very simple message to the audience by showcasing the four leads, all standing in front of the Miami hotel where most of the action takes place. It’s a very good, simple poster that highlights the movie’s main selling point, which is the cast and the characters they play.

Character posters showcasing the four leads came out in early January.

The Trailers

The first trailer (9.7 million views on YouTube) came out in mid-November and opens by immediately establishing the premise, that the film follows what happens when four icons of the civil rights movement and the 20th century as a whole come together one night following a fight between Ali and Sonny Liston. There’s lots of scenes of the four of them engaged in deep discussions, thoughtful prayer, righteous outrage and more, basically presenting the film as a showcase for the performances from the four leads.

A second trailer (131k views on YouTube) came out earlier in January and takes a bit more in-depth approach, offering the same value proposition to the audience but showing more details about the conversations that happen between the four men and what sort of dynamic is in play. It also notably differs in that it uses Odom Jr. ‘s performance of a couple of Cooke’s songs as the background music instead of something more contemporary.

Online and Social

There were standalone social profiles for the film that ran through part of last year, but which were eventually shuttered in advance of the new year. Amazon Studios did support it substantially on its brand social accounts, though.

Advertising and Promotions

Amazon Studios acquired the film in July, 2020. Shortly thereafter it was announced in the lineup for the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival. Its debut was scheduled for the Venice Film Festival in mid-September. That screening generated such positive word of mouth it seemed to jump right into Oscar contention, specifically for King.

It was then announced as the closing night feature for the Hamptons Film Festival and added to October’s London Film Festival. In September it was announced it would close the Montclair Film Festival while news later added it to AFI Fest. Reichart and costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuk were awarded the Golden Key Award at the Key West Film Festival.

A clip released in September, about the same time as the festival screenings, shows many of the main characters coming together for a big night out.

Eventually a release plan was announced, with the plan being for the movie to open in limited theaters on Christmas Day before being available via Amazon Prime streaming three weeks later.

EW debuted footage of Odom Jr. performing Sam Cooke’s “Speak Now” and another clip shows the main characters heading out for the night as Malcolm X reflects on the danger he’s in from many hostile parties.

Online ads used the key art to link to Amazon Video’s play page for the movie. The studio also sponsored a playlist of R&B tunes on Spotify.

Media and Press

Some of the first publicity for the movie came in an extended profile of King where she talked about making her directorial debut and lots more. Later on she offered a first look at the film along with comments about her experience making it and more.

During the Venice festival King was interviewed about the relevancy of the story, dealing with such iconic historic figures and more. She also talked about how she sees the film’s fate greatly impacting what kind of opportunities black women are given as filmmakers in the future. In another interview she discussed how she and the cast kept going during the Covid-19 pandemic, driven largely by the desire to get this story out there immediately.

The topic of so many well known real life individuals came up in another interview with King, a later interview with Ben-Adir and another one with Odom Jr. and Hodge.

She joined many members of the cast for a conversation about the timeliness of the story and got a feature profile of her own later in the year.

Screenwriter Kemp Powers got a substantial profile that focused on his part in making this film as well as Soul, also coming out in the same time period. He talked more about adapting the play for the screen here and later received another feature profile about his career to date.

King also offered more thoughts on why she was a good fit for this project and once again about what it was like to direct for the first time.

An interview with Ben-Adir had him talking about the research he did to play Malcolm X and how King was instrumental to that process. He went even more in-depth on that process in another feature profile.

Of course King not only commented on this movie but also on the race-related happenings in the current world when she appeared on “Kimmel.” She also had to weigh in on criticisms of Ben-Adir, a British actor, playing a well-known American figure like X.

Overall

It’s quite a good campaign, one that’s rooted in the performances of Odom Jrl, Goree, Ben-Adir and Jim Brown. All four of them are the real selling point to the public here, with those who are a bit more in-the-weeds also getting plenty of reminders of King’s involvement. Also good to see is the attention given to Kemp, who is having a moment with a number of projects hitting right about now.

This is, I think, the perfect example of the kind of movie that benefits from a streaming debut in that the opportunity cost of trying it out is so much lower than it would be in theaters. And the campaign has made the point repeatedly, to great effect.

Picking Up the Spare

Amazon released a “Meet The Characters” featurette to inform the audience who it is they’re following in the story. 

More interviews with King had her praising her production crew and speaking about the societal and political ramifications of her work on this film. There was also another profile of Hodge and an interview with Odom, who also appeared on “Kimmel.” King then appeared on “The Daily Show” and then on “PBS Newshour.”

Harriet – Marketing Recap

Focus Features brings the story of an activist icon to the big screen with an action-packed campaign.

harriet poster 2Cynthia Erivo stars as the iconic Harriet Tubman, the former slave who escaped her captors and went on to take matters into her own hands in the new movie Harriet. The movie follows Tubman from the time of her escape to her quest to free others still suffering from the shackles of slavery through the Underground Railroad.

Unlike other biopics the movie doesn’t seem to follow Tubman from childhood, attempting to capture her entire life. Instead if focuses on this one important period of her life when she grew from someone unsure of what future she would have to one where she was defining her own destiny.

To sell the movie – which tells an important story in American history – Focus Features has run a campaign that ups the drama of the events depicted, presenting Tubman as a social activist hero. Tracking estimates an opening weekend upwards of $5 million, but the weak 63 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating may indicate it could be hurt by poor reviews and word of mouth.

The Posters

July brought the release of the first one-sheet (from marketing agency BOND). Tubman is presented as some kind of secret agent on the poster, barely emerging from the shadows with gun in hand and her face still obscured by the hat she wears. It’s an attempt to present the historical figure as an action-oriented leader, someone not afraid to get in the thick of things in service to her cause. Copy at the top reads like a personal credo, reminding the audience to “Live free or die” while at the bottom the audience is told this is based on “the “unbelievable true story of an American legend.”

The second poster shows the floating heads of Tubman, William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monáe), two important figures in Tubman’s quest. Below those heads is the figure of a gun-toting Tubman standing against the breaking dawn. It’s a design that doesn’t send the message the movie is a historical drama but that it’s an action-packed story.

A third poster (by marketing agency Gravillis Inc) almost seems like it’s for a different movie. The overly-stylized “H” that’s placed in front of Tubman and the way she’s shown wearing what might as well be a costume or uniform of some sort further the feeling the marketers are selling this less as a serious film and more like Van Helsing.

The Trailers

Harriet is on the run from her slaver as the first trailer (7.4 million views on YouTube), released in late July, begins. She’s willing to risk her own life to be free, finally achieving her goal and given the chance to create her own identity. Once she’s safe she becomes determined to go back and free the rest of her family, once more putting her own safety at risk. Her repeated success results in being introduced to the Underground Railroad, but the people who are looking for her want her dead and the odds of her escaping seem to drop each time.

Online and Social

The movie’s official website opens with the trailer and, after you close it, offers little beyond the usual array of content Focus always puts on its site. That material is laid out nicely enough, but it’s simply not very much. Missing, unfortunately, is any background on the real life Tubman or links to resources where people can learn more about her.

Advertising and Publicity

The Austin Film Festival announced in August that the movie would screen there in October. It was also scheduled for the Urbanworld Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival, the latter of which generated mostly positive reviews, especially for Ervo’s performance.

An extended TV spot came out in early October that shared some of the trailer’s more dramatic moments while focusing on the inclusion of the original song “Stand Up” by Cynthia Erivo. A bit later on an official lyric video that also included footage from the film was released.

A very strange video titled “Her Story” was released a bit later that plays like a dramatic version of the trailer, just about half as long. What’s odd about it is the text at the bottom of the screen that offers Wikipedia-like factoids about Tubman, perhaps to help explain the background of the woman in a way the trailer can’t. There’s a better way to do this, though.

The first clip released shows Harriet getting some pushback to her plan to go rescue more of those still enslaved and reacting badly to being told she can’t do something. A second also has her discussing going and freeing her husband, family and others.

Media and Press

While at Toronto there were numerous interviews with Enrivo allowing her to talk about finding the real Tubman underneath the history and how they wanted to show a well-rounded portrait of the woman, not a caricature or sketch.

There was an interview with composer Terence Blanchard where he talked about creating the movie’s period-appropriate score. Director Kasi Lemmons spoke about directing this film in particular as well as her frustration with the industry that’s restricted her opportunities along with her determination to keep at it. Another interview with Lemmons had her commenting on how she connected with the material.

A Variety cover story included Lemmons and Enrivo talking about the long road the film took to production, something they say indicates a new willingness in Hollywood to make movies about women of color.

Enrivo in particular made the media rounds, including appearances on “NBC Nightly News” with Odom Jr., “The Today Show,” “CBS Sunday Morning” and more.

Overall

It’s undoubtedly great to see someone like Tubman finally get her turn on the big screen, especially in a story that appears to put her front and center as someone who makes her own rules and follows what she believes God has set as her purpose without compromise. She is going to fight the injustice being done to her and her people regardless of anyone’s opinion or beliefs.

The trailers are great on that front, but the posters are still a little odd in their presentation of Tubman as a costumed hero. She may have had a go-to outfit for her travels, but the insistance on showing her like Wynonna Earp is a bit perplexing and maybe even a little off-putting.

Still, that shouldn’t take away from the fact that a movie like this getting made is an accomplishment that should be recognized and it’s certainly a story worth understanding a bit more deeply.

Picking Up the Spare

Lots more interviews leading up to and immediately following the movie’s release, with Lemmons talking about the long road taken to get Tubman’s story told, deciding to focus on Tubman’s early years and why she avoided some of the most cruel aspects of slavery.

More from many of those involved while attending the movie’s red carpet premiere here, while they also talked about honoring Tubman and her accomplishments.

Odom Jr. and Erivo spoke about their hope more movies like this will be made while an interview with writer Gregory Allen Howard covered how much had to change in Hollywood for this one to be made in the first place. Similar ground was covered in this profile, including a troubling anecdote from an earlier attempt.

How Erivo created the original song “Stand Up” was covered in this interview, part of a THR cover story. She and Lemmons appeared on “PBS Newshour” to discuss making the movie and were interviewed about their decision to focus on freedom over slavery.

Focus released a new featurette focusing on the scene of Tubman choosing her new name and another with the starts sharing stories from the set. The latest installment of the studio’s “Reel Destinations” series also visited locations from the movie. There was also another entry in its “My First Gig” series with the cast.

Regal Cinemas was given an exclusive featurette with Lemmons and Erivo talking about the story and its history. A short MovieClips featurette had Monae talking about the inspiration Tubman has provided her.

Additional clips from the movie were provided to AMC and EW.

Erivo appeared on “The Late Show” and “Late Night” to talk about the movie.

The full video for Erivo’s “Stand Up” was finally released.

There was a feature on the work of the movie’s director of photography and composer and how they did their jobs. Lemmons again spoke about how she sought to tell the story of the journey Tubman went on.

The movie features significant levels of diversity at all levels of production.

Focus Features brought the movie back to theaters with select free screenings around the country courtesy of Gofobo.