Nomadland – Marketing Recap

How Searchlight has sold one of this year’s buzziest dramas.

(Note: This was originally published on 11/30/20, which was the release date most widely cited. It has since come out that Searchlight is giving the film a coordinated theatrical/Hulu release on 2/19/21, preceded by a limited IMAX distribution schedule, so the piece below has been updated as such.)

Frances McDormand stars as Fern in Nomadland, the new movie from writer/director Chloé Zhao. The movie, based on the book of the same name by Jessica Bruder, follows Fern in the wake of losing everything in the 2008 financial collapse. With nothing holding her down or back, Fern begins living out of her van, becoming one of the many nomads driving across the country engaging in piecemeal work and forming a supportive community of their own.

The story, while set a decade or more in the past, is still unfortunately timely. PBS Newshour recently reported on the older Americans who have done something similar because of the coronavirus pandemic. So this is still relevant, because capitalism still throws out the most vulnerable first.

Searchlight’s campaign has been relatively minor, relying mostly on the buzz the film built up at festival screenings. Those positive reviews have earned the film an exemplary 97% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Posters

Set against an all-white background, the first poster (released in mid-August) features the movie’s title spelled out in segments of different state license plates, a nice way to communicate the wandering nature of the story and its characters. Aside from that there isn’t much information, just McDormand and Zhao’s names along with the credentials of the festivals the movie screened at.

A motion poster came out in mid-January

The Trailers

A teaser trailer (2.9 million views on YouTube) was released in early September just before its festival screenings. It doesn’t show much, just Frances walking through a camp on an evening walk, the trailers and tents of others in the background.

The second trailer (2.7 million views on YouTube), which came out in mid-December, does a much more complete job of introducing Fern and her situation, which includes living out of her van and traveling across the country. She takes what local work she can get, helps others like her and makes do. It’s a restless life, but one she enjoys and is rewarded by, so there’s little room for others to complain about her choices. Most of all, this is presented as a great showcase for McDormand.

Another trailer came out in February that hit many of the same story notes.

Online and Social

Not much beyond the basic marketing information on Searchlight’s page for the film, nor on the social profiles the studio setup, which has primarily been focused on touting the festival awards the movie has earned. More promotions and other updates were shared on the movie’s Twitter profile and other social media sites.

Advertising and Promotions

Fox Searchlight acquired the movie after it debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

In July 2020, dual announcements came out with the news it would screen at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals, winning the Golden Lion at the former and the People’s Choice Award for McDormand at the latter. It was also scheduled for the Telluride, with Zhao receiving a Silver Medallion Award at the latter, and New York film festivals, all of which resulted in a wave of positive word of mouth and buzz about awards potential, especially for McDormand. It also was slated to open the Montclair Film Festival and screen at the Middleburg Film Festival.

Searchlight released a short featurette showing some of the highlights of the Telluride drive-in screening, held at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles and with McDormand and Zhao in attendance. In early October the movie was named as the opening feature for the Denver Film Festival. At the Montclair Film Festival the movie won the audience award for a feature film.

MoMA announced the film would serve as the closing feature at this year’s virtual contenders showcase.

Another featurette on the story and characters was released in late January with a second coming out in February focusing on how the kinds of people depicted in the film are a kind of pioneer.

A clip showed Fern out for a morning walk and getting ready for the day ahead. Another shows her dealing with a mechanic working on her van.

Media and Press

In advance of those festival screenings, a profile of Zhao about how she approached this project as well as what else she had coming up. Another interview with the director later on covered her filmmaking techniques and how she has a tendency to leap before she looks.

As festival season was getting underway there were a number of additional interviews with McDormand where she talked about her character, the story and more.

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards was interviewed here about capturing the film’s naturalistic look and more. Zhao also spoke about how the story came together in the editing.

There was finally an interview with Strathairn, who didn’t make it into much of the marketing.

THR had a substantial feature on how McDormand and Zhao collaborated on the story and worked to create a sense of authenticity about the culture being portrayed.


Throughout the life of the discourse around the movie it’s remained conventional wisdom that it would be among those seriously competing for Oscar and other award consideration when that season rolls around early next year. Searchlight has steadfastly stuck with a fall theatrical release for precisely this reason, despite so many other films being delayed or going to PVOD/streaming.

What’s surprising then is that the studio didn’t make a bigger deal of this week’s theatrical debut for the movie. There’s just the one teaser trailer that doesn’t offer much in terms of the story or characters, and the single poster isn’t much more informative. With a star like McDormand and Searchlight trying to follow the established book as closely as possible, a bigger campaign would have been expected, even if it was narrowly targeted at the film festival crowd and their ilk.

The Personal History of David Copperfield – Marketing Recap

How Searchlight is selling an unconventional take on a classic story.

(Note: Yes, this movie came out last week, but it got missed and I didn’t want to abandon it completely. Anyway, here we are.)

The Personal History of David Copperfield is based on exactly the Charles Dickens book you think it is, but writer Simon Blackwell and director Armando Iannucci have something unusual in store for audiences. While the story follows most of the same beats as the book, the casting and presentation of that story are somewhat unusual.

The core of that is the casting. Dev Patel plays Copperfield, whose life is followed from youth to adulthood. In that time we see him grow and move away from home, lose his mother, move in with his aunt and ultimately achieve his dream of becoming a writer and part of society. Starring alongside Patel are Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Benedict Wong, Nikki Amuka-Bird and a host of others.

With that cast providing the film a substantial pedigree, the campaign has promised audiences a fun bit of fresh air, a new take on an old story with a fizzy, eclectic energy.

The Posters

Copperfield himself looks out at the camera on the first poster (by marketing agency Creative Partnership) from early October. The gist of the story is shared in the copy “From rags to riches…and back again.” while the floating pieces of paper with drawings on them communicate some of the supporting characters and story points audiences will encounter.

A second poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) came out in February. This one takes a visual approach that’s akin to some of the posters for Terry Gilliam movies, showing a veritable funhouse of elements, from Copperfield in the background behind the curtains to the supporting characters arranged around him. It shows off the inclusive cast, giving the impression of being a stage play of sorts, which works in the context of the film being sold.

The Trailers

Copperfield is leading the audience at a lecture through his childhood history as the first trailer (3.2 million views on YouTube), released in February, begins. He falls in with Mr. Micawber, who helps David learn how to survive on the streets of London. Years later after his mother dies he seeks out the only family he has left, starting a cycle of ups and downs throughout his life mixed with adventure and romance. Iannucci’s sense of humor is on display throughout the trailer, which shows a story that mixes straight ahead retellings of Copperfield’s journey with fantastic elements and more.

Online and Social

Not much beyond the basic collection of the trailer, a poster and a story synopsis on Searchlight Pictures’ page for the film.

Advertising and Publicity

In mid-July it was announced the movie would open this year’s London Film Festival. A few weeks later it was slated for the “Special Presentations” section of the Toronto Film Festival.

Searchlight acquired the movie in mid-August before those festival screenings. Buzz out of Toronto was surprisingly mixed, though most reviews praised Patel’s performance and other aspects of the film. A release date was finally announced in late October, shortly after the movie received 11 BAFTA nominations, including for Patel, Swinton and Laurie.

Searchlight pulled the movie from its release schedule in mid-March in response to the Covid-19 outbreak that was closing theaters and more. It was later rescheduled for August.

The first clip came out in late July showing Copperfield flirting awkwardly, setting a nice tone for the movie and the rest of the campaign. Another has him helping his mentor literally and physically release the thoughts he’s been troubled by while a third has Copperfield finding out the home he’s about to enter is not one that welcomes donkeys.

An exclusive featurette given to AMC has the cast and director talking about the joy of Dickens’ work and the wonderful experience of working on the project. Another featurette from Searchlight covers similar ground, with behind-the-scenes footage mixed in to show the cast at work. A bit more background on the period the story is set in and how the team recreated that in their own way is covered in a third.

Media and Press

As production began Iannucci talked briefly about how he was taking a colorblind approach to casting the movie, not worrying about how the period would have been almost exclusively white. That topic was soundly dismissed by Laurie in an interview that took place during Toronto. How the film was cast without worrying about ethnicity was the subject of another interview with Patel.

Additional profiles of Patel covered how he wasn’t a huge fan of Dickens’ original before beginning production and how he got involved with the project while further interviews with Iannucci had him putting this film in the context of his other films and shows.


What a fresh, breezy campaign Searchlight mounted here. It’s enough to make one wish the movie were coming out at a time when a bigger percentage of the audience was able to make it to theaters in order to see it. Though of course if this were a normal year for movies (or anything else, really) it likely would have been swallowed up in the hype cycle for one of the big genre entries.

While the lack of story details in the campaign is usually a negative, here it doesn’t really matter at all. What’s being sold is a charming little jaunt with a pulsating energy, not a detailed character journey. In that respect it works by putting the story on the backburner and allowing the vibe of the film – propelled by the cast, script and direction – to come through. Even those who may not be willing or able to see it in theaters will likely mark it as one to see at a later date.

Picking Up The Spare

Another featurettte was released that looked at the romantic elements of the movie’s story. 

Downhill – Marketing Recap

How Searchlight is selling a romantic comedy remake about what happens when disaster strikes.

downhill posterThe 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure was critically acclaimed when it came out, praised for its depiction of how a single event brings into sharp relief what someone’s priorities are.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell star in Downhill, a remake/homage of that film, opening this week. The two play Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Ferrell), a husband and wife who take their two kids on a ski vacation to the Alps. Everything is going fine until an avalanche comes careening toward the resort they’re staying at. In response, Pete runs away, completely abandoning his family. Everyone is fine, but Pete’s actions have repercussions, understandably angering Billie and casting a pall over the rest of the trip.

Like the original, the new version – directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – is a mix of drama and comedy, but Searchlight’s campaign emphasizing the latter, an approach that makes sense given who the leads are.

The Posters

Just one poster (by marketing agency Eclipse) has been released, coming out in January. It communicates the setting and premise pretty well, showing Billie and Pete clad in ski gear at the top of a mountain, pointedly looking away from each other. The pose highlights the tension between the two that will permeate the story, a feeling emphasized by the copy at the top reading “A different kind of disaster movie.” That copy might be a tad cloy, but it attempts to explain that the audience shouldn’t expect a desperate struggle to survive under hundreds of tons of snow but something else tied to their relationship.

The Trailers

Late December brought the first trailer (4.3 million views on YouTube), which starts off by showing an awkward but loving family on vacation as part of an effort to spend more time together. When an avalanche hits the ski resort they’re staying at, Keith clearly abandons the others, which leads to problems between him and Billie, especially since he won’t admit what he’s done. The humor and drama of the movie, then, come from how the two of them deal with the fallout from what he’s done.

Online and Social

Pretty standard stuff on the movie’s official website. The “Cast” and “Filmmakers” sections have those involved offering a brief comment on the story or setting, which is somewhat interesting.

Advertising and Promotions

The first look at the movie was offered at the same time it was announced it would have its premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

A clip was released in early February showing Keith and Billie bringing their complaints about how the avalanche was handled to the management of the resort, who insists things went just as they should have.

There was only one promotional partnership, with e-card company Postable offering a number of movie-themed cards with passive aggressive notes you could send to someone you want to send a pointed message to.

Promotional videos like this were used on social media and presumably TV as commercials, all of which highlight the broader comedic elements of the story and show the awkwardness of the vacation.

Media and Press

Ferrell and Dreyfuss debuted the first trailer in late December when they both stopped by “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to have a bit of fun with the host.

Just before the Sundance screening there was a feature on how Dreyfuss worked for years to make an American adaptation of the hit Swedish film happen.

During the festival there were numerous interviews with the cast and filmmakers where they talked about how their movie was an homage to the original, how the two leads bonded during production and more. Dreyfuss also addressed how surprising it was she and Ferrell hadn’t worked together before.

The leads, as well as costar Zach Woods, made the talk show rounds in recent weeks to hype the film and talk about working together.


One question that keeps coming up is this: Why was the campaign so truncated? It’s been less than two months since the first trailer debuted, and while there was some press about the movie prior to that the actual campaign has all been executed within that period. Some of that might be the result of not wanting it to get lost in the Oscar cycle. Or the production schedule combined with the desire to hit the Valentine’s Day release date might have simply been the reality at hand.

Whatever the reason, Searchlight’s marketing has made the understandable decision to focus on the comedic dynamic between Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus. That might be what was seen as most appealing to U.S. audiences, but it also means the campaign has frequently downplayed the drama and played up the comedy. In doing so it unfortunately makes the movie look like some of the generic comedies Ferrell has starred in recently. Meanwhile, you have Louis-Dreyfus in the press, particularly at Sundance, getting deep about the story and the drama inherent in relationships, especially when they’re being tested.

Picking Up The Spare

Louis-Dreyfuss and Ferrell appeared together on stage as presenters during the Oscars ceremony just before the movie opened.

Searchlight released a clip of the family post-trauma dealing with the repercussions of what happened.

Additional talk show appearances included Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell on “The Late Show,” Ferrell, Rash and Faxon and Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus on “Late Night”

There were more interviews with the cast and crew about the experience of filming at an actual ski resort, how the story sought to balance drama and comedy, how filming took each out of their comfort zone. Everyone also spoke glowingly of everyone else on the premiere red carpet.