the french dispatch – marketing recap

How Searchlight Pictures has sold a symmetrical literary movie from a symmetrical literary filmmaker.

The French Dispatch poster

There’s been a startling – and disappointing – lack of hot takes about how The French Dispatch is opening the same weekend as Dune means a showdown between two filmmakers who, unlike many assigned that title by studio marketing departments, can truly be called visionary. Dune’s Denis Villeneuve creates stark, massively scaled backdrops for the characters to perform within, while Wes Anderson is known for creating detailed, symmetrical dollhouse rooms that are just as quirky and slightly dingy as the characters inhabiting them.

(Both of those movies also star Timothée Chalamet, which in and of itself is…wow…)

Anderson’s films have always carried highly literary themes. Playwrights abound in his films and characters are always journaling, sending cables or handwritten letters or writing books about their experiences. Now he brings those themes to the fore with what’s been described by him and others as “a love letter” to journalists and magazine writers.

At the center of the story is The French Dispatch, a magazine modeled after The New Yorker. Edited by Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the periodical has a number of writers, illustrators, photographers and writers, each of whom are followed in their own sub-stories. Playing those contributors are Anderson regulars like Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Angelica Huston, Edward Norton and others, with Elisabeth Moss, Léa Seydoux, Timothée Chalamet and others joining in the highly-stylized hijinks as well.

announcements and casting

Initial news about the movie came in mid-2018, with initial reports saying Anderson was developing a musical comedy set in France. The casting of Tilda Swinton and Mathieu Amalric was announced at that time with most of the rest of the principle cast joining in the last months of 2018.

Plot details were revealed in September 2019 at the same time Fox Searchlight announced it had acquired the film. A few months later in January 2020 a release date in July of that year was announced.

the first try at marketing

In February 2020 the first set of exclusive photos debuted in, of all places, The New Yorker.

The poster released at that time is so on-brand for an Anderson film it hurts a little. Illustrated by Spanish artist Javi Aznarez (whose work is seen in the movie as well), it displays the offices of the titular magazine as quirky drawings, the faux French city it’s based in seen in the background. Each of the top-billed cast is shown and named here.

The first trailer (5.5m YouTube views) came out at that time as well. It starts by introducing us to Arthur Howitzer Jr. and his publication, The French Dispatch, intended to share stories of interest about politics, culture and more. After briefly meeting some of the people who work at the Dispatch the trailer shifts to showing us the three stories being covered by the magazine and which the movie will follow. What’s shown is an assortment of dry wit, colorful quirkiness and odd characterizations that are part and parcel in Anderson’s work and therefore immediately attractive to anyone who’s a fan of the filmmaker’s.

While reports abounded that the movie would premiere at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival that wound up not happening because the festival itself didn’t happen save for a scaled-back virtual event.

Cinematographer Robert Yeoman was interviewed about the books and movies Anderson put together as a reference library for the cast and crew to use.

There was a feature profile of Chalamet in October 2020 that covered the actor’s role in this film as well as his rise to stardom over the last few years, including comments from Anderson.

At this point Disney/Searchlight pulled the movie from its release schedule for the time being while the pandemic continued to cause uncertainty and delays across the board.

a second attempt at marketing

Things picked back up in May of this year when a new release date was announced along with the news it had been selected to screen at both the Cannes Film Festival and New York Film Festival

Details on the film’s soundtracks, always a highlight of Anderson’s work, were released in early June.

During the Cannes press cycle, which included the cast arriving to the screening in a party bus, Wilson was interviewed about his decades-long collaboration with Anderson and how original he feels this latest movie is. That cycle also produced a much-circulated meme using a photo of Anderson and the three primary leads.

A clip was released at the same time showing Zeffirelli soliciting feedback on his manifesto.

Costar Henry Winkler, a newcomer to the Anderson troupe, spoke about the movie on “Late Night” in July.

In early August Searchlight revealed fans could sign up to receive an actual issue of the titular newsletter, with a video promoting the newsletter released showing the cast flipping through it and reacting to its contents.

August also brought a new poster, this one showing the massive cast assembled via obviously cut-out photos pasted together into a collage.

A number of short videos came out around that time that each focused on stories for the paper being filed by the various reporters and writers. There were videos from Sazerac, Berensen, Krementz and Wright.

Anderson begins a featurette by explaining just exactly what the movie is and what format it takes. Murray, Wilson and others from the cast also appear to introduce their characters and offer insights into what those characters add to the story.

The producers and production designers were profiled here about how they went about creating that signature Anderson look of symmetry and scale.

A set of character posters all featured those characters standing or sitting in a pose that hints at who they are and what they do, with the design background helping to communicate their actual background.

An Anderson-directed video for “Aline” came out toward the end of September to keep things going and hint at what the rest of the soundtrack would sound like.

New York’s MoMA held a screening of all 10 of Anderson’s films, including this one, over 10 consecutive nights at the beginning of October.

How the set designers, costumers and others created the world of the movie was covered in this profile of the technical aspects of production.

Murray and others appeared at the BFI London Film Fest screening of the movie earlier this month. The same kind of pop-up cafe experience was also staged in London around this time. The film also screened at the Chicago International Film Festival.

A featurette that focused on the eclectic and impressive cast was released last week. Another had that cast talking about bonding on set and how Anderson creates a family-like atmosphere during filming.

TV spots like this finally started running just days before the film’s release, selling little about the story but instead communicating both the cast and the very Anderson-like tone and look.

Also in New York City, Searchlight launched another pop-up cafe experience where visitors could come by and immerse themselves in a small bit of the film’s world.

overall

If a Wes Anderson movie campaign communicates that it’s for a Wes Anderson movie and contains all the necessary elements – dry line delivery, balanced imagery, clever illustrations, unique use of aspect ratios etc – then it can objectively be considered successful. After all, this is not going to bring in many converts. Instead it’s meant to speak primarily to Anderson die-hards who are already on board with the director’s style.

Wes Anderson Applause GIF by Searchlight Pictures - Find & Share on GIPHY

Father Figures – Marketing Recap

father figures poster 2Owen Wilson and Ed Helms star in the new movie Father Figures as two brothers who one day get a rude surprise: Their mother Helen (Glenn Close) doesn’t actually know who their real father is and has been lying about it for years. That sets the two off on a trip to track down some of their mother’s former paramours to figure out who their true biological father is.

That journey, of course, goes off-track pretty quickly. Not only do they learn more about their mother and her history than they ever really needed to, but they get involved in various other hijinks that complicate matters. Some of the potential fathers are great, some are less so. Blah blah blah, lessons are learned and so on.

Continue reading “Father Figures – Marketing Recap”

Marketing Recap – Wonder

wonder theatrical posterIf you’ve read the book on which this week’s new movie Wonder is based you’ll know what it means to have a good cry. The story follows Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), a young boy born with facial deformities who, after years of surgeries that have kept him home – and home-schooled – is about to enter fifth grade at his local public school.

Confident in who he is and supported by his mother (Julia Roberts), father (Owen Wilson) and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), Auggie is nonetheless self-conscious about how different he is from the other kids. There are ups and downs as he seeks to make friends and be accepted by the kids – and adults – around him.

The Posters

“Are you ready to meet Auggie Pullman?” we’re asked on the first poster, which shows Auggie while he’s wearing his astronaut helmet. Not only does it state clearly that it’s based on a New York Times bestseller but the blue in the background is the same shade that was used on the cover of the source novel. That’s a nice touch.

That same concept was used on a series of character posters. Each features a different actor’s name, a drawing of their head that’s done in the same style as the book cover, and the name of the character they’re playing.

The next poster shows Auggie in profile, this time the visor of his helmet open so we can see part of his face. The same blue background is used along with the same copy, this is just about giving us a slightly better look at the main character.

Another poster has “Choose kind” as its primary message, this one using the same drawing of Auggie that’s featured on the cover of the book. Another once more puts Auggie in the helmet he loves to wear but adds the dog, showing a row of school lockers in the reflection of helmet’s visor. This time we’re promised, “Auggie Pullman will change your world.”

That’s the same message conveyed on the next poster, which drops the blue background that’s been used to date for a white one. Here, Auggie is sitting, still wearing his helmet, in front of a massive globe. A couple more posters featuring either Auggie on his own with his helmet off and in his hands or getting a pep talk from his parents.

The final (?) theatrical poster disposes with the blue theme of the entire rest of the campaign and just uses one of the production stills showing Auggie walking to school with the rest of his family. It also uses a wholly different approach with the copy, asking the audience “Who gives you the courage to face the world?”

The Trailers

The first trailer will hit you right in the feels. We meet Auggie as he’s about to start public school for the first time, something he’s nervous about because of the way his face looks. We hear him narrating what went into the surgeries that have resulted in his situation. His parents try to reassure him and he eventually makes a real friend at school, then another.

Shut up and give me a minute while I finish ugly-crying.

The second trailer once more starts with Auggie heading to his first day at school, where he encounters some bad attitudes from his classmates despite the encouragement of his family. Eventually he makes some friends and finds his groove, getting more involved and helping to inspire other kids. The primary element of the trailer is the inclusion of a new song from singer Bea Miller.

I said give me a damn minute.

One more short trailer hit that emphasized the role of Auggie’s family and how important they are to him.

Online and Social

There’s full-screen video that plays in the background of the splash page of the movie’s official website. Auggie is there in the corner holding his helmet just as in the key art alongside the release date, the movie’s official #ChooseKind hashtag and links to the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles.

Over in the opposite corner are a few activities and options, starting with the “Daily Dose of Wonder,” which opens up a Facebook Messenger conversation with the movie, though what you’re supposed to do next is unclear. It might be that you’re meant to share something inspiring, but there’s no clear call to action or anything right here. There’s also a “Portrait Creator” that lets you create your own version of a self-portrait in the style of the book’s cover. You can download the finished product as an image to share on social media, a desktop image for your phone, computer or tablet, or an avatar or cover photo for your social media profile. iMessage stickers could be downloaded and you could enter the Omaze-powered Choose Kind campaign.

Moving to the content menu at the top of the page, the first section here is “Story,” which has a brief synopsis to check out. “Videos” has a lot, from the trailers to a number of character introduction videos to some of the “Choose Kind” short films that were created and a couple of featurettes.

There are several production stills in the “Photos” section and the “Posters” section has at least most of the key art that was created. “Cast” just has stills of each of the cast in character. There’s another link to the “Portrait Creator” and then a “Partners” section.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

The first TV spot played much like a shorter version of the trailers, showing not much of the actual story but focusing on how strong Auggie is in the face of such adversity and how supportive his family is. More spots kept hitting the inspirational aspect of the story, showing how tough Auggie is.

For a family drama, there were a number of interesting promotional partnerships:

  • Wattpad, the short/serialized fiction publishing platform, along with Tongal sponsored a short films series featuring stories that were shared there.
  • GapKids launched a back-to-school campaign centered on community heroes and kids with inspiring stories that included at least one TV spot using both Tremblay and R.J. Palacio, the writer of the source book. That was also part of GapKids’ overall “Forward With” campaign of other emotional and uplifting stories and commercials.
  • Roma, which created a special movie-themed rain boot as part of its overall mission to help those in need around the world have proper footwear and access to education.
  • Funoogles, which created special movie-themed eyewear and accessories.
  • HelloFresh, which offered a deal on its meal delivery service tied to the movie and asked recipients to send back a postcard with their stories of moments where they “chose kind.”
  • City of Kindness, which launched its own Choose Kind campaign. Mayors of select cities offered tools to help citizens make good choices and some hosted local screenings, all culminating today, World Kindness Day. Cheerios and Crest offered free product to organizations working with that campaign.

The trailers and other videos were used for social media ads and the key art, along with clips from the trailers and more, were used as online ads. Outdoor advertising used that key art as well.

Media and Publicity

There was certainly coverage of casting and production, but it’s notable that one of the first big pieces of press was from Daveed Diggs (of “Hamilton” fame), who talked about how he got the role. In EW’s fall movie preview Tremblay talked about working with Roberts as well as wanting to be part of such an important emotional story.

Tremblay, Roberts and Wilson all made a variety of media appearances and gave various interviews that talked about how inspiring they found the material and how that motivated them to get involved in the project. Director Stephen Chbosky also spoke about how he wound up making the movie and how he worked with Palacino to bring Auggie’s story to the big screen.

Overall

It’s OK for me to admit that this campaign plays every heartstring that still lies within a grizzled, cynical 40+ year old exterior. That’s partly because I have read the book it’s based on, so I know how the story plays out, and partly because it’s just damn effective. It uses the talents of all involved, from Tremblay to Roberts to Wilson, to great effect to sell the movie as one that’s inspirational and touching. I’m also struck by how it’s sold as both a movie for kids and young adults who will be drawn in by the relatability of how strange and alienating fifth grade can be as well as a movie for full-on adults and parents, who will identify with all the emotions shown by Auggie’s mom and dad.

It also can’t go without stating that there’s a great branding consistency going on in most all of the campaign. The trailers all hit the same beats as the TV spots and of course the posters, for the most part, use the popularity of the book to great effect, grabbing that distinctive robin’s egg blue for much of the campaign. Where many adaptations seek to discard much of the source book’s branding (aside from a title treatment or something) this one knows how often people have seen the cover on their own bookshelves or on the racks of book sections at Target and want to draw a straight line for the audience right to the box office.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.