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.
The movie is called Spiderhead. It looks good, but a trailer was released all of two days ago with little to no fanfare. There’s a fundamental business model problem at Netflix and firing a bunch of low level people to cut costs is never going to solve it.
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.
How Paramount has sold an unexpected but long-awaited sequel
The original Top Gun was released 36 years ago, launching Tom Cruise into the realm of super-stardom and inspiring a generation to fantasize about taking F-14s as high as they can go, debate Meg Ryan versus Kelly McGillis (there’s no wrong answer) and seek out the best pair of aviator sunglasses around.
A sequel should have been an instant no-brainer, but we had to wait nearly four decades before the stars aligned, with Top Gun: Maverick hitting theaters this weekend.
Cruise returns as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, still a hotshot who’s spent years avoiding promotions so he can keep flying as a test pilot. When former rival Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now an admiral, needs someone to train a group of pilots for a specialized mission he calls on Maverick to give them the edge they’ll need. One of those pilots happens to be Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s former radar officer and best friend Nick “Goose” Bradshaw, who died in the first film.
Additional pilots are played by Glen Powell, Monica Barbaro, Danny Ramirez and others, with Jon Hamm playing Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson, who’s skeptical of Maverick’s abilities and presence on the base. Jennifer Connelly also joins the cast as Penny Benjamin, a character only referenced in the first film as the admiral’s daughter Maverick had a fling with.
With Joseph Kosinski directing, let’s take a look at how it’s been sold.
announcement and casting
Rumors and reports had circulated for a while but a Tweet from Cruise in May 2018 seemed to confirm that the movie was actually happening and might even be in production. That was followed shortly by news that Kilmer would return in his role.
Late 2018 saw Cruise post a video from the movie’s set featuring him talking about motion-smoothing on modern TVs and how it distorts the viewing experience. It wasn’t specifically about the movie, then, but because he was wearing a flight suit in the video it certainly helped remind people it was in production.
In a surprise move, Paramount included about two minutes of footage in its CineEurope presentation to exhibitors in 2018.
Part of the story was confirmed by the much-hyped search for an actor to play Goose’s son, a role eventually nabbed by Teller. Cruise also spoke about the movie early on while promoting other projects, including a stop on “Kimmel” during the Mission: Impossible – Fallout publicity cycle, also in 2018.
Teller spoke about the challenges of working with Cruise – namely keeping up with the older actor – while promoting “ Too Old To Die Young” in 2019.
the marketing campaign phase one: I’m going to need a beer to put these flames out.
The first poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) debuted in July 2019. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feature Cruise’s face but instead shows the back of Maverick’s jacket, decorated in service patches, as he looks out of a hanger while a jet cuts through the sky in the background.
Familiar music plays as the first trailer (37.6m YouTube views), released in July at San Diego Comic-Con, begins. In addition to lots of footage of fighter jets performing incredible maneuvers, the focus is on how Maverick is still undeniably Maverick, unable to conform to the system to the extent he’s been passed over for promotion many times in the last 30 years. This despite the medals and accomplishments he’s racked up in that time. There are shots that invoke scenes from the original, including Maverick racing a jet on his bike and a scene of sweaty, shirtless men playing football, all meant to amp up the nostalgia factor in the audience.
One notable change from the first movie is the footage shot via cockpit cam showing Cruise behind the stick of the fighter. That’s a continuation of the approach taken for other movies with the star – especially recent Mission: Impossible entries – where the focus has been on how Cruise really does many of his own stunts and learns new skills so he can do more of what his character would. We’re meant to believe, then, that the actor was really flying the jet, part of the brand he’s built up, one that sells the audience on a more visceral experience instead of a collection of special effects that can overload the senses.
That SDCC presence included the first ever appearance there by Cruise, who showed up on a panel with some of his castmates to talk about the film. While he was in San Diego, Cruise stopped by “Conan” to talk more about returning to the movie after 30+ years.
A few months later, in December of that year, the next poster was released showing Maverick leaning against his car and looking on as two F-18s fly by overhead.
The first full trailer (21.2m YouTube views) came out at the same time, immediately establishing Maverick as being back at the Top Gun training base, now as an instructor to younger pilots. While there’s plenty of focus on the next generation – including two pilots that may have a connection to characters from the first movie – we also see Maverick still has the same cocky attitude as well as a few tricks left to show the kids. Fast planes, beach football and more are all on display here, helping to establish familiarity with the audience while still selling a sequel.
December’s full trailer was accompanied by the release of Snapchat’s first-ever reaction filter, allowing users to see a split screen with the trailer on top and their own face inserted into the cockpit on the bottom. Giphy stickers also came out around then with key moments from the trailer available to add to your own messages/posts.
A featurette released just after the full trailer hit exactly the expected notes, focusing not only on the real flying done for the film but how much Cruise himself did. Additionally, it’s mentioned how he inspired and pushed the younger members of the cast to do their own flying in order to keep up, all of which was captured through state of the art cameras and other equipment.
The commercial that aired during the 2020 Super Bowl emphasizes both the incredible visuals of high-speed flying and the drama that will come from Maverick having to face the actions of his past and deal with the legacy he’s leaving behind.
A handful of photos came out in late January along with more details on the relationships between the characters.
When everyone went into quarantine in March, video meetings became popular among those working from home. Paramount released backgrounds that could be uploaded to Zoom profiles to add some Top Gun flair to those meetings.
the marketing campaign phase two: where’d *who* go?
It was among the last of the major summer releases to do so, but eventually the movie’s original June 2020 release date was pushed to December because of the pandemic-related theater closings. In July Paramount pushed it even further out to July, 2021 and then to November, the latter a move reportedly driven by Cruise’s desire to engage in a worldwide press and publicity tour, betting that Covid-related lockdowns would be lifted later in the year and allow for that.
The early 2020 release of an autobiography from Val Kilmer allowed him a number of opportunities to reminisce on the making of the original Top Gun as well as how he lobbied hard for a role in this film.
Barbaro was profiled in a piece that seemed to be half about the movie and half about the high-end watches she was now partial to. A bit later Kosinski was interviewed about working with Cruise again and bringing the new actors into the world of Top Gun.
Hasbro previewed a crossover with their Transformers toy series in July, 2020.
An interview with Hamm had him talking about working with Cruise, his first experiences with the original Top Gun and more. Similar ground, including how he was spending pandemic quarantine and the frustration of the movie’s repeated delays, was covered in an interview with Teller.
the marketing campaign phase three: he was inverted
Things then got very quiet for over a year, with only sporadic activity on the social media front – mostly amplifying people’s posts for Halloween, Top Gun Day and other events – until late 2021.
An interview with producer Jerry Bruckheimer from September of that year had him talking about Cruise’ insistence on having Kilmer be part of the sequel. There was also a group profile of many of the young actors, including Powell, Barbaro, Jay Ellis, Lewis Pullman and Danny Ramirez, who are jumping in the pilot’s seat for the sequel.
Before things could get on track for the November 2021 release date, Paramount pushed it even further back to May 2022.
In August 2021 Paramount gave CinemaCon attendees a first look at 13 minutes of footage from this and other upcoming movies. This marked three years since footage was shown to CineEurope.
Out of relatively nowhere a couple cross-promotional items popped up beginning in late 2021.
Hasbro was back again, this time revealing a look at a new Barbie figure inspired by Barbaro’s “Trace”.
The actor then appeared on “Today” to promote the film in a more straightforward manner.
A co-branded Porsche commercial was released in February that contained footage from the movie
In an interview about his new album, Johnny Marr revealed he had recorded a new version of Hans Zimmer’s iconic theme for the sequel.
Ellis hosted the inaugural Anthem Awards at the end of February.
Reports emerged in mid-March that Paramount planned to screen the movie at the Cannes Film Festival, with those reports later confirmed with the addition that it would include a retrospective/celebration of Cruise’s entire career.
The next trailer (24.6m YouTube views) came out later that month. Some young hot shot pilots are assembling as we see Maverick has been called back to action by Iceman, now an admiral, over the objections of those in charge. What starts as teaching quickly turns into combat as we also see Rooster confront Maverick over the death of his father, some beach football and lots more in an exciting spot that focuses on the in-cockpit POV the audience will get for many of the flight sequences.
The poster that accompanied the trailer shows Maverick walking away from his fighter.
That was followed by a 30-second commercial version of the trailer that boiled the footage down to the essential thrill-inducing elements.
Elaborate theater standees in the shape of a fighter pilot helmet but with a massive screen playing the trailer were placed around the country at the beginning of April to help audiences arriving for other movies get a taste of this one.
Spot this amazing display at a theatre near you and share your photo with us! You can't miss it. #TopGun: Maverick – Only in theatres May 27. pic.twitter.com/MRlZZ1t4aL
Kosinski shared how about 800 hours of footage was shot in total, a massive amount resulting from so much time being needed to teach the actors how to use their equipment and other technical details.
The Dolby Cinemas-exclusive poster released in mid-April shows Maverick racing his motorcycle alongside an F-18, a scene from the new movie that recreates one from the first film. The ScreenX poster uses the cockpit cameras that were a focus of the campaign to show a phalanx of jets trailing Maverick’s fighter. D-Box’s one-sheet has Maverick looking pensive on an aircraft carrier while a pair of fighters fly by. Maverick is inverted on the 4DX poster and is looking out as he flies by the carrier on the IMAX one-sheet.
That process of teaching the actors about in-flight cinematography, the makeshift flight school Cruise put everyone through and more were covered in a featurette released in mid-April. A piece detailing the military training process the actors took part in came around the same time and added to the idea that this wasn’t just a role for anyone but a fully immersive experience.
At CinemaCon in late April 2022 exhibitors were offered an extended look at the film, with critics in attendance immediately giving it massive praise as an emotional visceral old-school blockbuster. A panel with Kosinski, Bruckheimer and others featured them all talking about the multiple release delays, why this was the right time for a sequel and more.
As that was going on Lady Gaga also teased an original song she wrote for the movie.
While he was technically promoting his Paramount+ series “The Offer,” Teller also talked about this movie when he appeared on “Kimmel ” around that time.
In an interview, McQuarrie shared how he approached writing the story, including a conscious effort to not simply ape or recreate iconic moments from the original but instead create something that would stand on its own.
Cruise joined the rest of the cast and crew at the red carpet premiere in early March. Held on an aircraft carrier in San Diego, it included Cruise arriving via helicopter, comments from him and others about how it came about and how they worked in Kilmer’s return.
After that San Diego event the cast and crew engaged on a publicity tour hitting stops in Mexico, Japan and the U.K. in addition to Cannes.
The full video for “Hold My Hand” from Gaga came out a few days later, mixing shots of her performing the song with footage – some of which is new here – from the movie. With the windswept nature of the video, the shifting back and forth from black-and-white to color and more it gives off major 80s vibes, making it a perfect fit here.
Another short featurette was devoted to explaining the rationale behind aviator callsigns.
Powell talked about the process of shooting the movie when he appeared on “Kimmel.”
Select AMC Theaters and Cineplex locations held screenings of the first Top Gun that included an extended preview of the sequel in early May.
XBox offered an exclusive movie-themed version of the popular Flight Simulator video game.
Kosinski explained the controversial decision to not invite either Meg Ryan or Kelly McGillis back for the sequel, saying he wasn’t interested in looking backward. Not sure that is satisfactory, but it’s a choice.
What it was like to join the sequel and what she had to learn for the role was covered in an interview with Connelly.
OneRepublic leaned into the beach football sequence for their video for “I Ain’t Worried” from the movie’s soundtrack.
The Cannes Film Festival event was indeed a spectacle, with fighter jets doing a flyover before an enthusiastic response from the audience to the screening of the film. While in France Cruise was interviewed about his insistence the movie play in theaters and not on streaming, the surreal nature of watching a retrospective of his career and more. Connelly also spoke about working with Cruise. How he and the other filmmakers wanted to do something original was covered in an interview with Kosinski.
Short videos like this one for Rooster introduced each of the major characters with the actor playing them offering some background information.
An assemblage of elite athletes appear in a TV spot that focused on how those who refuse to settle for anything less than excellence are the true mavericks in the world.
You could get a free ticket to the movie if you spent $25 at Applebee’s.
Another featurette focuses on the respect the actors gained for the prowess and intensity of the actual naval aviators they worked with during filming as well as the fact that everything seen on screen is something the actors are actually doing. Similar ground, along with more about this being a big-screen experience was covered in a Dolby-exclusive featurette.
Cinemark also had an exclusive making-of featurette.
Cruise filmed a Fandango-exclusive greeting to audiences, welcoming them back for the summer movie season.
Connelly appeared on “The Late Show” and “GMA” to promote the film while Cruise stopped by “The Late Late Show” and other programs.
First off, an admission: I never thought this movie would happen. It seemed like one of those that was just not fated to move from pipe dream to reality. No one seemed very interested in doing it and the more time passed the less likely it seemed a viable story could be developed.
I’m happy to be proven wrong. Based on the campaign and with the addition of the positive reviews that have given the movie a staggering 97% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes this looks incredible, a worthy addition to the Top Gun mythos.
On both of those fronts, you have to credit Cruise, who seems to have willed the movie into existence (and into theaters) by sheer force of will alone. Ricky Bobby may be right and Tom Cruise may actually have some form of magic, as he not only single-handedly made the film happen but did so while teaching other actors how to fly jets and more.
Tracking estimates of a $100 million four-day opening weekend may prove conservative based on the word of mouth around the movie, all of which has been supported by a slick, well-messaged marketing push that reinforces Cruise’s status ais one of the biggest stars around while also reminding us how emotional the first movie, which wasn’t really an action picture, really was.
Wildfires are currently raging across California and other parts of the western United States. That makes it both an awkward and appropriate time for the release of Only the Brave from director Joseph Kosinski and based on a Ken Nolan GQ article.
The story focuses on the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a firefighting crew in Arizona that is determined to prove its worth. One of the county’s elite units, they’re eventually called upon to defend their own hometown from a fire that requires all of their skills, including their belief in depending on the guy next to you, to fight. Josh Brolin stars as the head of the unit, their leader and moral compass, while Miles Teller stars as the new recruit determined to join the team and help the cause.
The first poster establishes the stakes of the story – a fire that’s raging in the background – while also communicating the selfless nature of the firefighter, shown here from the back. The cast and the fact that it’s based on a true story are both here as well, but the idea is to cast this as a “man against nature” story.
The theatrical poster has a clear message for the audience: “It’s not what stands in front of you, it’s who stands beside you.” That’s in-line with the overall “brotherhood” brand identity that’s been created for the movie. This time the perspective is pulled back to see more of the landscape on fire and show the whole team. While most remain anonymous, the faces of Brolin and Teller can be seen.
The stars, including Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly, are much more prominent on an IMAX-specific poster. They, along with a few other members of the team, are shown in profile looking meaningfully off into the distance as the fire burns on the other side of the ridge and aircraft drop fire-suppression liquid.
We hear in the trailer about how tough the life on this elite team of firefighters can be as a new recruit seeks to join their ranks. They’re all preparing for the day a fire comes ranging down the hills toward their town. That day comes soon enough and they all have to go fight to save the town.
It’s clear this is not only a true story but one about highly-skilled individuals in their own band of brothers. That connection, as well as how the job takes them out of the lives of their loved ones, is repeated throughout and reminds me of The Right Stuff quite a bit. It’s good, though it’s certainly familiar-enough territory, making it clear which emotional heartstrings of the audience will be pulled.
The second trailer ups the emotional stakes by starting with one of the firefighters actually leaving his wife and small child before heading out on a job. We hear more about how great a team this is. There are lots of scenes of danger as the team faces a massive fire, but they’re shown as cocky and capable in the face of whatever it throws at them.
Completely missing here is the story of the newbie, Brendan, that was featured in the first trailer. This is more about the action the team faces as they go up against the fire and the skills they bring to that task.
That story is brought back to some extent in the third trailer, but it’s really a side note, while the emphasis is on the quest by Marsh to get his team the certification – and respect – they deserve and need to take on the big fires and really prove their value. It’s all about standing and proving you’re good enough.
Online and Social
The movie’s official website opens by playing the most recent trailer. Close that and you get a version of the theatrical key art on a page that includes a button to buy tickets and links to its Facebook and Instagram (no Twitter?) profiles. There’s also, appropriately, a button for people to donate to the Granite Mountain Fund to support the firefighters out there in the forests combatting these kinds of blazes.
As the top of the page there’s a menu that will let you watch the “Trailer,” read a synopsis in the “About” section and view a “Gallery” of stills.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
An IMAX-specific TV spot hits the idea of this being an elite team hard right from the start, showing the kind of danger they willingly walk into. Other than that there doesn’t appear to have been a lot of TV advertising done, perhaps out of sensitivity to how those spots could be shown alongside footage of real fires being fought right now.
Online ads used the key art as well as footage from trailer. The same kind of footage was used in Twitter and Facebook promoted posts that links to ticket sales.
Media and Publicity
In one of the first bits of publicity for the film Brolin talked about the dedication and commitment of both the real-life firefighters the movie is based on but also the bonding the cast did as part of production.
Brolin and Taylor Kitsch appeared at a Washington NFL Team game as part of a ceremony honoring firefighters. Some of the cast also traveled to Phoenix to do similarly. The same two mentioned above took part in one of those Wired things where they talk about the most common searches for each other’s names. Teller showed up on “The Tonight Show” to talk about some of his recent movies and the serious issues behind them, including this one. There was also a profile of Kitsch where he shared a story of meeting the family of the man he plays and the intensity of some of his other recent roles.
In general the campaign wants the audience to latch on to the message of brotherhood and valor, and rightfully so. There’s a lot of that on display and it’s something that usually works, getting everyone invested in the fates of these men who have put their own survival in the hands of those around them. That’s the strongest element of the campaign.
What’s less effective is the way Teller in particular seems to come and go from the campaign randomly. It’s not a huge problem, but when you look at the effort as a whole it’s noticeable. Perhaps someone decided to keep the focus pulled back on the whole team but then remembered they hired a well-known actor and so had to spotlight him. Whatever the reason, it’s odd. It doesn’t detract from the emotion of the entire campaign, though.
While there have been a few efforts to address the reality of the story being told and nod to the current tragedy in California and elsewhere, it remains to be seen if there’s any sort of appetite to go see a story that appears all too close to what’s seen in the news. That could be a big factor in determining the movie’s box-office success.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.