How 20th Century Studios has sold a movie of honor and sexual politics
The Last Duel, out this week from 20th Century Studios, is based on the true story of exactly what you would think based on the title.
Set in 14th century France, Matt Damon plays Jean de Carrouges. When his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) accuses de Carrouges’ friend and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of raping her, de Carrouges challenges him to a duel which would become the last one in France to be legally sanctioned.
Directed by Ridley Scott, the movie was co-written by Damon and Ben Affleck – who also costars – along with Nicole Holofcener, brought in by the pair specifically to strengthen the female perspective of the story.
announcement and casting
The announcement that the movie was coming and that it would feature an on-screen reunion of Affleck and Damon hit in late July of 2019, though the film had been in development for a few years prior to that. Comer and Driver joined the cast later that year.
the marketing campaign
The first trailer (6m YouTube views) came out in late July, opening with what seems to be Marguerite being questioned after the fact about events we see depicted, indicating there’s been some kind of fall out from what takes place. Those events involve charges that have been leveled against Jacques Le Gris – namely that he raped and assaulted Marguerite – and the challenge to a duel that’s proposed by Jean de Carrouges. But while that duel extends into what appears to be all out war, it’s Marguerite that is about to pay the price if she’s found guilty of making a false accusation.
At the same time the first poster was released, nicely conveying the story by showing two swords pointed in opposite directions, Marguerite’s face shown in the blade of one to indicate she’s somehow the reason this duel is happening.
Affleck and Damon talked about reuniting as a writing team and bringing in Holofcener to help them tell a uniquely female-centric story in the best way possible.
The first TV spot came out in early September, cutting down the story to its basic beats and managing to be a lot more clear than the trailer, losing some of the vague mystery and getting straight to the drama.
Damon, Affleck and Comer were joined by Holofcener and Scott at the Venice Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere.
While at Venice – which also served as the first big public appearance of Affleck and Jennifer Lopez as a couple again – Affleck was interviewed about how the story reminds audiences that women haven’t been treated as full human beings for centuries.
Positive reviews, especially for Comer’s performance, came out of that premiere and kept buzz for the movie building.
Another feature story covered Holofcener’s recruitment into the writing team and what it means for how the story is told.
Additional TV spots/online promos came out after that, most of which focused on the drama over the accusations that’s been made by Marguerite and what results from that. Others focused more on how the movie is based on a true story, showing the gritty nature of the events.
A featurette released in late September goes behind the scenes to show Scott directing and talking about his process.
Comer appeared at the UK premiere of the movie.
Marguerite stands at the front of the next poster, released at the end of September. The rest of the characters are arrayed behind her but it’s clear she’s at the center of the story. Again the two sword motif is used here, with copy explaining that not only is this a true story but that the woman in the middle of it will drastically upset the status quo.
More TV spots were released over time that played up how powerful the film and its performances are. The audio for some of the shorter commercials was repurposed for ads on Spotify and elsewhere.
The first clip shows Marguerite confronting her husband about whether it’s her honor or his reputation he’s fighting for as he goes forward with his duel.
Fandango was given the first few minutes of the movie showing preparations for the duel, the king of France looking on.
The cast and crew turned out for the movie’s premiere in New York City last week, with the studio releasing a video of highlights from that event. From that premiere came several interviews with Comer, Affleck, Holofcener, Damon, Scott and others.
Another featurette focuses on how Damon and Driver in particular were suited up for the duel and how those outfits restricted their movements.
Things are summed up nicely in one of the last TV commercials released in the campaign. That spot includes pull quotes from some of the positive reviews the movie has accumulated, all of which have given it an 87% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s that word of mouth that has really powered the campaign in the last two weeks. Positive buzz for Scott’s direction, Comer’s performance in particular and the better-than-expected script have all built on a strong start that sold the movie as a powerful experience that must be seen in theaters. That’s slightly different than some other recent releases, which focus on the *size* of the action, not the intensity of the story.
Despite that, tracking projections estimate a paltry $10 million opening weekend. That is *absolutely* an indicator of how established brands and franchises are better-suited for the new normal of theatrical distribution than other stories, especially since the reviews are better or at least similar in aggregate.