How Netflix has sold a movie about racial identity.
Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, Passing tells the as Irene “Reenie” Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and her childhood friend Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga). Now grown women, Reenie goes about her life fully embracing her black identity while Clare, more light skinned and married to a white man, “passes” as white. As the two reunite for the first time in years their different approaches lead to conflict between them as the question of what is or isn’t authentic comes between them.
The movie marks the first directorial effort from actress Rebecca Hall and arrives on Netflix this week after a campaign that’s leaned into the push and pull of the two characters as well as Hall’s journey to making the film.
announcement and casting
The movie got on a lot of people’s radars quickly when it was announced in 2018 this would be Hall’s directorial debut and would feature an impressive cast.
It wasn’t until about two years later that a release date was announced.
The movie was among those scheduled to screen at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it got positive reviews, especially for Hall’s direction and Negga’s performance.
Shortly after that festival debut Netflix acquired the film following a brief period of speculation.
the marketing campaign
In a substantial feature story from around the time of Sundance, Hall talked about the process of making her directorial debut, including how she used her personal experience with similar subject matter to convince the studio to give her the job. Negga and Thompson also talked about how they got involved and what it was like to work with Hall.
Hall and the cast participated in a video panel conversation during the virtual Sundance festival. Also during the festival Thompson and Hall talked about how both of them immediately cleared their schedules in order to be part of the film.
A featurette from Dolby had Hall and Almada talking about the story and how they crafted the film using that company’s technology and more.
In August Hall was interviewed about another project but spoke about how this movie was driven by questions she had about her own family and more.
The trailer (790k YouTube views) was finally released in mid-September, opening with Reenie and Clare meeting when both are at a swanky restaurant. The two are friends but not really, having very different ways of looking at the world and making their way in it. In particular, Clare insists on passing as white while Reenie has no interest in doing so. There’s jealousy in both directions as each sees things to both envy and dislike in the other.
“Nothing is black and white” promises the poster, released at the same time. Clare and Reenie are shown back to back, the color of the background they’re placed against signaling the racial identity they’re chosen/accepted for themselves.
Thompson, Negga, Hall and others all appeared at the New York Film Festival screening of the film where all were interviewed about the process of making the film and working with first-time director Hall. The movie also screened at the Chicago Film Festival in October.
Unsurprisingly the book the movie is based on was selected as the inaugural title in Netflix’s newly-launched book club.
Just recently it won the U.S. Narrative Feature Jury Award at the LGBTQ Film Festival NewFest.
Another interview with Hall included her talking about how for seven years her efforts to get the film made were rebuffed by studios and producers who didn’t believe there was any audience for it.
As a longtime fan of Hall’s work, it’s great to see her positioned here as the public face of the movie’s campaign, even more so than the two leads. In fact it’s actually a bit surprising to see that Thompson and Negga weren’t given more to do, but the message Netflix is sending is that it’s Hall’s story, and a personal one at that.
How Warner Bros. has sold a showdown that has nothing to do with justice dawning.
Hollywood is, if nothing else, certainly an interesting place. Take, for example, this week’s Godzilla vs. Kong, which has a couple things going on.
First, this is the fourth and latest film in Warner Bros.’ MonsterVerse franchise, which started in 2014 with Godzilla, continued in 2017 with Kong: Skull Island and most recently was seen in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It’s notable, though, that GvK was greenlit all the way back in 2015 and moved into production, before Skull Island was released, with the assumption the series would be enormously successful and each installment highly anticipated.
In reality each installment has experienced diminishing returns from the one prior, at least domestically in the U.S. Godzilla’s $200.7m box office has fallen to a mere $110.5 for King of the Monsters. But a ship of this size isn’t easy to stop (though it might get stuck), so we’re just going to keep going because the international box office is still fairly strong.
Second, the movie is being viewed as the latest test of whether the U.S. audience is ready to return to theaters. Originally scheduled for November 2020, it comes this week to both HBO Max and over 90% of U.S. screens, the highest number available since many closed a year ago. While estimates for opening weekend are relatively paltry at less than $30 million, that would still be the most of any film since the Covid-19 pandemic shut most everything down.
So we find ourselves with the two monsters – known in-universe as “Titans” – finally coming face to face. The reasons why aren’t necessarily important, as the title does double duty as a synopsis of the story, such as it is. Kyle Chandler and Millie Bobby Brown return from King of the Monsters, joined this time by Alexander Skarsgård, Rebecca Hall, Kaylee Hottle, Bryan Tyree Henry and others, who will be offering exposition and acting as scale references so we know just how massive the two Titans are.
Warner Bros.’ campaign for the movie, helmed by mumblehorror director and noted fetish porn blogger Adam Wingard, is…well…it’s exactly what you might assume it is given the premise.
The first poster (by marketing agency BOND), came out in January, immediately establishing the campaign’s red and blue color palette while showing Kong standing among the skyscrapers while Kong’s dorsal plates can be seen poking above the ocean surface as he advances toward that same skyline.
Godzilla has made landfall on the second poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts), released toward the end of February, as we see him walking through the city toward Kong.
Another poster from early March has the two Titans facing off like boxers, with a design seemingly inspired by Vegas promotional art, their faces close together and seen within the transparent letters of “Vs.”
We get different perspectives on two posters (by agency Little Giant Studios) that came out just a short while later. One shows Kong from Godzilla’s point of view and the other shows Godzilla from Kong’s, each one again emphasizing their massive size as compared to the buildings they’re walking between and through.
One more theatrical poster hit the red/blue Kong/Godzilla clash one more time, with the two shown to be so tall their heads poke above the clouds.
Exhibitor-specific artwork included one-sheets for IMAX, which has the two monsters falling into one another like this is a 90’s erotic thriller from Paul Verhoven, RealD 3D, which offers a variation on the previous imagery of the Titans lunging at each other, and Dolby, which is a bit more original in showing Kong climbing a skyscraper above the cartoonishly round world below.
A series of teasers were released on social media in advance of the first trailer, which was finally released at the end of January. As it begins, someone is talking about how much humanity needs Kong, who is being transported across the ocean. The threat, it turns out, is Godzilla, but no one knows why he’s attacking. Amid all the subsequent fighting it’s revealed this may not be the first time the two – and others like them – have faced off.
A second, shorter trailer came out in mid-February. Whatever story there was in the first spot, it’s excised in this one as it cuts straight to the action as Kong and Godzilla punch each other and rampage through cities, destroying countless buildings as they do so.
Online and Social
There’s not much on the movie’s official website, but you will find a few trailers as well as details on how to watch the film in the way of your choosing, assuming you either subscribe to HBO Max or live near one of the theaters it’s playing at.
AR lenses for Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook allowed people to put themselves in the middle of the showdown between the two titans.
I have to hand it to the WB team on Twitter, which seemingly had the latitude to share fan memes and other fun content via the official account. That’s made scrolling through the account’s updates a lot more interesting as it is less about amplifying only adoration and praise and more about reflecting how the internet really reacts to things. A similar attitude can be found the movie’s official Giphy channel, which has not only straight GIFs but also a bunch of goofier, meme versions.
They even shared an image from a *very* current meme and got onto the NFT bandwagon with exclusive artwork available there.
While the movie was initially scheduled to open in early 2020, less than a year after King of the Monsters, that title’s lackluster performance at the box office had Warner Bros. pushing this one back to later in the year to tighten things up and perhaps even do some more drastic reworking. Despite that delay, the movie was among those included in the studio’s CineEurope presentation to exhibitors in June of 2109. Another delay moved it from March to November 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic pushed it even farther out to May, 2021.
Rumors last December that Legendary was shopping the film to Netflix or other streaming services came and went but were followed by WB’s official announcement that it like the rest of their 2021 slate would be released to both theaters and HBO Max. Legendary was none too thrilled, threatening some sort of action.
One of the first, albeit very brief, looks at the movie came via an HBO Max promo touting the same day theatrical/streaming availability of WB’s 2021 lineup.
The release date was later moved up to March, 2021.
Short promospots were released online in the build up to the movie’s debut.
Warner Bros. signed a deal with exhibition company CineWorld that would make this movie the first to play in CineWorld’s reopening Regal Cinemas.
Featurettes released in the lead-up to release included one that had the cast and crew introducing the idea of #TeamKong vs. #TeamGodzilla and talking about the scale of the action. That match-up was extended to social media, where people were asked to choose sides. Later on a map of the U.S. was shared showing how the majority of people in each state had voted.
More TV spots started coming out just in the last couple weeks and, like this one, largely played like cut-down versions of the trailers, working to set up the conflict. Longer spots went a bit more in-depth, but still focused on the big action of the story.
An IMAX-specific spot was pretty short but got the point across that people should see this huge movie on a huge screen. RealD 3D got a similar promo. For its part, Dolby shared a handful of interviews with the cast talking about the story and their characters.
Promotional partners for the movie included:
Snickers, which released a spot tying into the Kong vs. Godzilla fan voting.
Roblox, which hosted a movie-themed event in the popular virtual world where players could unlock exclusive rewards.
Legendary also announced a handful of publishing tie-ins just a bit before the movie came out.
Warner Bros. sponsored a TikTok challenge that involved a number of influencers on that platform.
A handful of longer featurettes, originally released on home video editions of the previous movies, were published by WB to YouTube over the last several weeks as a way of making sure the audience was familiar with what had come before. Those included:
Landscape artwork acted as both online ads and likely were used for outdoor ads also.
Media and Publicity
Bichir was interviewed about the movie, saying he enjoys the freedom to take different kinds of parts in movies of various sizes.
An interview with Wingard had the director talking about creating the massive monster battles and more of the action that everyone hopes fans are looking for. Another had him sharing the kinds of showdowns he envisioned and how he wanted to pattern the action after some of his favorite ‘80s action movies.
There’s a great deal that’s very good about the campaign, even when you overlook how it’s supporting a movie that, based on the shrinking box-office returns for the previous films, may not have a huge audience pool to pull from. It has a very nice visual brand that’s consistent from start to finish and it sells a simple message over and over again, counting on repetition being key to both engagement and interest.
When it comes down to it, that simple message is best summed up in a single GIF that, despite the lack of hyperbole or any other pitch, shows exactly what Warner Bros. hopes the audience will either come out to theaters for or use their parents’ HBO Max login to watch.
Annapurna Pictures is hoping to capitalize on a hot cultural moment with this week’s release of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. The movie follows William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), a psychologist in the early 1940s, as he takes the ideas he’s researched and championed around women’s sexual strength and freedom, as well as his earlier invention of the lie detector, to create the superhero known as Wonder Woman.
Those ideas are not only expressed in comic form, albeit under a pseudonym, but put into practice. While he’s married to Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) the relationship is an open one. He introduces a fascinating young student named Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) into the mix, the three of them forming a tight supportive unit that allows for the pushing of all sorts of boundaries.
Three character posters featured all three of the main cast against a bright background, the two women holding a very familiar looking lasso, with Olive also sporting a Wonder Woman-esque costume. “Ever wonder?” is the question posed on all three posters. There doesn’t appear to have been a final “theatrical” poster released, with the version showing Olive in costume used as the primary one-sheet.
The first thing was a brief teaser that had voiceovers talking about secret identities and the reasons someone is writing something. All that as a woman steps out from the light and we see she’s dressed in a fancy getup that closely resembles some aspects of Wonder Woman’s costume.
Immediately as the trailer opens we meet Marston and find out he’s writing Wonder Woman under an assumed name, though a board of some sort is questioning his motivations for doing so. Marston becomes fascinated with a female student of his and they begin a relationship of some sort, one that eventually extends to include his wife. That review board takes issue with the content of the comics he’s writing and we find out he’s trying to understand the women in his life.
It’s not bad, showing the twisted and unexpected relationships that form between Marston, his wife and the student. And we certainly get that this is happening as he’s writing and setting out the early years of Wonder Woman. There’s talk of bondage and sadomasochism, all of which have been well-discussed topics integral to the character’s development.
A later trailer wasn’t all that much different, just with some new shading around the edges. The basic premise is that same, that Marston’s ideas for bringing his ideas about women’s empowerment aren’t making him any friends and are even viewed with skepticism by his wife. There are a few new scenes but the basic message is the same and it’s presented much more dramatically.
One final trailer offered much of the same footage but framed it like a cross between a comic book and Pop Up Video, with various secrets and facts about the characters and story being shared along the bottom of the screen. There was also a spot that took some of the footage and presented it in art form, coming off like a motion comic.
Online and Social
There’s not much happening on the movie’s official website. The official trailer appears in the middle of the front page, surrounded by the smoldering flames of comic books being burned, seemingly in protest. There are links along the side of the video player to buy tickets as well as to the movie’s Twitter, Instagram and Facebook profiles. Finally, if you click the flame icon, the video player disappears and you see that yes, indeed, someone is burning Wonder Woman comics.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Promoted posts were published on Twitter and Facebook that used short clips pulled from the trailers, selling the basic outline of the story and promising audiences “The year of Wonder Woman continues.” That’s a more overt attempt to ride the coattails of the earlier movie than had been made to date.
Online ads used the key art, particularly the shot of Heathcote wearing the very Wonder Woman-esque costume and holding a lasso, as well as shots of all three leads to drive ticket sales.
Media and Publicity
While the movie didn’t have a big push at San Diego Comic-Con, it was there that director Angela Robinson talked about how she discovered the story of the Marstons and what it was that attracted her to it. The movie was announced as one of those that would screen at the Toronto International Film Festival, a screening that resulted in pretty positive word-of-mouth and initial reviews.
Robinson spoke in an interview in EW’s fall movie preview about how this was really a love story the movie was sharing, albeit an unconventional one.
Writer/director Robinson talked about her own history as a Wonder Woman fan and the surprises that accompanied her research into the real lives of Marston and the women who helped define the character he created. She also addressed, while at Toronto, the advantageous timing of release, coming so soon after the very-successful Wonder Woman. That timing, she said, was purely coincidental because of the long time this project has been gestating and waiting to be approved.
All three main cast members did the press rounds, showing up on late night and early morning talk shows sometimes on their own and sometimes as a trio.
Hall and Evans were interviewed along with Robinson about the delicacy with which they had to film a particularly racy sex scene with Heathcote. A profile of Heathcote allowed her to offer her own thoughts on the “courageous” nature of the sex-positive story being shared in the movie. And Robinson kept talking about how surprising the untold story of Marston was and what motivated her to share it with the world.
As everyone, including myself, has pointed out, the studio here wants to make hay while the sun shines, hoping to capitalize off the tremendous popularity and goodwill of Wonder Woman earlier this year. Some aspects of the campaign do so explicitly while others are more implicit and subtle. Whatever the actual execution the audience is asked to apply a halo effect to this new release on account of the character’s resurgence into the spotlight of popular culture.
While that’s been the aim of the marketing campaign, the publicity efforts have been more focused on the constant reminders that Marston’s background and the events leading to the creation of Wonder Woman aren’t widely known. There’s also been a strong emphasis on the sex-positive nature of that backstory, with those condemning Marston’s relationships and worldviews clearly positioned as impediments to his progressive cause.
All that adds up to a campaign that’s trying to sell a relationship drama, though one with superhero trappings. It succeeds on that front, particularly when taken as a whole. If you’ve just been exposed to part of the effort your perspective may be different.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.