One of America’s most beloved figures plays another of America’s most beloved figures.
A couple years ago there was a cluster of documentaries about Fred Rogers and the magical show he helped create. Chief among them was Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which chronicled the beginnings of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and showed how Rogers worked hard to keep civility, respect and empathy at the core of everything he did and everything he shared.
This week’s new release A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes a dramatic approach to telling Rogers’ story. Not a standard beat-by-beat biopic, the movie is based on 1998 Esquire profile of the man by reporter Tom Junod and focuses on the short period of time Junod spent with Rogers researching that article.
Rogers is played by Tom Hanks, fulfilling the head canon most everyone has had since about 1995 in terms of matching an actor to a role. Playing Junod is Matthew Rhys. Sony’s campaign for the movie has, as we’ll see, used Hanks’ widespread adoration as a major selling point while also making clear the Rogers everyone saw on TV for decades was the same one that existed when the cameras were off.
If you’re not already crying at the “We could all use a little kindness” copy that sits atop the first poster (by marketing agency BOND) released in September I’m not sure we can continue to have this conversation. Rogers is decked out in his sneakers and red cardigan, seated on the steps outside his television house and looking every bit the compassionate friend so many of us remember. It’s a simple poster to convey a simple message, right down to the unobtrusive type used for the title treatment.
The second effort (by marketing agency Gravillis Inc.) from October is a little less successful, putting Rogers on a stool against a bright orange background. Descriptions of his character including “Neighbor. Icon. Friend.” are shown at the top. This time around the copy reads “An American icon and the story of kindness we need right now,” which is a little heavy-handed.
Thankfully things get back on track on the third poster (by BOND), released just last week. This time Rogers is shown on his living room set having a conversation with Junod, who looks slightly embarrassed at the situation he finds himself in. Instead of a tagline this one features a handful of positive pull quotes from enthusiastic early reviews.
What the first trailer (12.2 million views on YouTube), released in late July, does most well are two things: 1) We get a good look at Hanks as Rogers and see he gives the performance all the charm we’ve come to expect from the actor without ever breaking out of the guardrails provided by the real man, and 2) Explain the framing device of the story, that we’re seeing Rogers through Vogel’s eyes and experiences, many of which are mirrored in members of the audience. Reactions to the trailer were almost uniformly of the “Give me a minute while I stop ugly-crying” variety.
Online and Social
For all the care and attention given to reinforcing and protecting Rogers’ legacy and reputation in the rest of the campaign, the movie’s official website is a real head scratcher.
Not only is there no biographical information on the subjects of the film – not even a link to Junod’s original profile – but there’s a “Photo Feature” that allows visitors to:
- Upload a picture of themselves and add it to the publicity still of Hanks as Rogers sitting on the front steps, or
- Upload a picture of their own and have the movie’s title treatment along with their location added to it.
This is just the kind of feature that has been used for a lot of bad, off-brand purposes when other companies have used it. While similar tools have been available on the sites for other movies, it seems like the potential for abuse that would sully the name of Rogers and his mission would be too high a risk.
Other than that, the site simply sports the usual marketing material. But that one section is going to bother me for quite a while.
Advertising and Publicity
The first trailer was released just before the news broke that the movie had been added to the lineup of the 2019 Toronto Film Festival. Hanks, ever the charmer, led a group sing-along of Rogers’ best known song while working the crowd there. Reviews were massively positive, calling Hanks’ performance one of the best of his career. Sony released a sizzle reel of the premiere activity in Toronto.
Later on it was added to the list of films screening at the London Film Festival.
News came in September that Hanks would receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award at this year’s Golden Globes.
A short featurette was released in October with Hanks, Heller and others talking about what made Fred Rogers so special. Another one released in early November has them sharing the care and attention paid to making Hanks believable as Rogers. That the movie is a tribute to Rogers was covered in a third video that features an interview with his widow.
Heller introduced the film and answered questions about it at a screening last week hosted by The Hollywood Reporter.
Another featurette was focused on the article that inspired the movie and included an interview with Junod.
Just recently Sony held the film’s premiere in New York City and released a short sizzle video of footage from the event. On the other coast, a group of artists created a movie-inspired mural in Venice, CA.
TV spots like this were short and focused on the humble nature of Rogers message, even as they included overly dramatic music. Online ads used the key art and video snippets pulled from the trailer.
Promotional partners included:
- Vineyard Vines, which touted its position as the “official style” of the film and offered a collection of movie-inspired ties.
- Funko, which released a new POP figure of Hanks as Rogers.
- Beekman 1802, which is unveiling a new movie-inspired gift set of beauty items on QVC next week.
Additionally, both Random House and Penguin Books are releasing movie tie-in books.
Media and Press
The first look photo released by Sony last September showed Hanks sporting the iconic red sweater in a behind-the-scenes shot. Shortly before the new year the movie was finally given a proper title. An actual production still was released in mid-February and another a month later.
Around the time the first trailer was released Heller was interviewed about how she worked with Hanks to tone down his natural boisterousness in favor of the more subdued stillness that was Rogers’ hallmark style as well as how the production team recreated the sets and other trappings of the show.
Another interview with Heller that happened while she and Hanks were in Toronto allowed her to explain some of the choices she made with the story and how she landed Hanks for the lead role. At the same time, Hanks spoke about how he came to appreciate Rogers’ worldview and approach to educating and communicating with children as well as how he finally got involved with the project. Heller also sought to set expectations that this wasn’t a traditional biopic but a very specific story being told.
The director talked about how hard she worked to get Hanks involved in a profile that also emphasized her notable career prior to taking on this project. Rhys was also profiled, talking about how he got familiar with Rogers’ work after being cast as well as working the Hanks.
How the production team faithfully recreated the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” set was covered in a feature that talked about the research everyone involved did.
A feature profile of Hanks encapsulated a lot of the press focus, from how “nice guy” Hanks was playing the leading figure for compassion, respect and understanding in the world and how the filmmakers strove to not have the actor’s personality encroach on the subject of their story.
The dynamic between Hanks and Rhys was covered in a joint interview.
He’d mentioned it before, but Rhys talked about how he was wholly unfamiliar with Rogers when he appeared on “The Late Show.” Hanks also made the rounds, including on “Today.”
Just as confounding as the photo feature on the website was the decision to offer an exclusive behind the scenes look at the movie to a website with a reputation for sexism, racism, bullying and blatantly offensive and hurtful behavior both editorially and professionally.
The studio had news anchors on various national and local broadcasts wear red sweaters in celebration of #WorldKindnessDay.
This should be a beautiful campaign.
For the most part it is. Positive word of mouth from early screenings have given it a 97 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, indicative of the care and grace with which the filmmakers have handled the material. The press has hit exactly the right notes in interviewing both Hanks and Rhys, reinforcing the themes of the marketing (sometimes too heavily) while also being respectful to the legacy Rogers left behind.
A few missteps, though, bring the campaign down dramatically. Particularly that placement of a feature on the making of a movie at a site whose founder publicly threatened to fire any employee who tried to start a union. That’s the kind of off-brand mistake that can really come back to bite you.
Putting that aside, the movie is presented here as a gentle, inspiring feel good time at the theater, one that will cause you to ugly cry but leave feeling reinvigorated and hopeful. If that message can motivate enough people to skip Frozen 2, it may have a shot this weekend.
Picking Up the Spare
Hanks finally stopped by “Kimmel.”
Joanne Rogers, Fred’s widow, was a big part of the movie’s press campaign and made appearances like this on her own to talk about his legacy and how the film honors that.
The movie’s writers talk about how the approached conveying the important character of Rogers. Rhys was interviewed again about how he found the core of his real life character.
Two more featurettes were released to take advantage of awards season, one on Heller’s directing and one on the work of the production designers who recreated the tiny sets.