How MGM sold the latest in a long series of celebrations of the City of Angels
Describing Licorice Pizza, the latest from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, as a “love letter to Los Angeles” is to put it in the same company as scores of other movies. It’s similar to how just as many movies have been described as allowing “the city of New York to really be a character in the story.” By that I mean it’s a common way for writers and directors to attach a vibe or feel to a movie without actually having to do the work.
The story is centered around Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman). Valentine, just 15, is an aspiring actor who falls for the older Kane as they embark on a series of low-key adventures that include a trip to New York, a stint in waterbed sales and more, all set against the gas crisis of the 1970s.
As with many of Anderson’s movies, the specifics of the plot are secondary to the drifting, aimless nature of the characters who aren’t moved along by traditional story beats but more the gentle waves of life.
announcement and casting
The movie, at the time unnamed and with few if any details known, was said to be in production in mid-2019. It was originally setup at Focus Features but MGM acquired it in July, 2020. Cast members, including Haim, Hoffman, Bradley Cooper and others, were added over the next few months.
the marketing campaign
Up until the end of this past September the movie had remained nameless, with Anderson keeping the title under wraps to maintain some mystery. Finally the title was revealed with the release of the first poster, which shows Kane and Valentine hanging in a carport and giving off some *very* 1970s vibes.
The first trailer (6.1m YouTube views) came out at the same time. It shows some of the ups and downs of the relationship between Kane and Valentine as well as many of the big name cameos that have been lined up for the movie. But most of the story points are still very vague, obscured in the service of maintaining the loose, hazy aesthetic Anderson is creating and the apparent aimlessness of many of the characters.
Initial screenings generated lots of positive buzz among critics, especially for Haim’s first screen performance. How that debut came about, and the coincidental personal connection between Anderson and the Haim family, were covered in an interview with the musician/actress and John C. Reilly, who has a small role in the film.
Anderson was interviewed about the inspiration behind the movie, the meaning behind the title, how he handled the age discrepancy between the two main characters and more.
The movie’s hit-driven soundtrack was announced in mid-November. Ads announcing the availability of tickets started running around that time as well. That included TV spots/video promos that took a very 70s approach with the voiceover and title cards.
MGM recreated a pinball parlor from the movie as a location people could come visit in Los Angeles.
The next poster is even more visually inspired by the era the story is set in, with a cartoonishly-drawn Kane holding Valentine in her outstretched hand, with the other characters shown around her. The feathered hair, the tight t-shirt, it all looks like she should be sporting roller skates and discussing “Charlie’s Angels.”
The movie actually opened in a handful of select locations last weekend, scoring an impressive opening for such a small platform release. That performance was no doubt helped by the positive reviews and other word of mouth that have given it a 92% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
As for the campaign, it’s hard to see it attracting an audience outside of a core group of PTA enthusiasts and other cinephiles. Not that it’s not solid, but it’s extremely inaccessible to anyone who hasn’t already bought into the vision and style of the director and those like him. There’s been a small effort to get fans of HAIM interested but I’d be surprised if those efforts resulted in any serious return.
That’s in part because this movie is getting such a traditional small-scale release, meaning it will simply be unavailable to vast swaths of the potential audience even if their interest is piqued.