An American Pickle – Marketing Recap

How HBO is selling a comedy starring dual Seth Rogens.

In the last few year, multiple projects have featured a single actor playing two roles, usually twins. Paul Rudd, Mark Ruffalo and others have all turned in split-screen performances, playing off themselves in addition to anyone else who happens to be on screen. One could make the case, like digital de-aging usage, that this is a questionable tactic to employ that deprives other actors of a role and plays down to the audience in a way.

Seth Rogen becomes the latest to take on not one but two characters, this time in the HBO Max original film An American Pickle. Rogen plays Herschel Greenbaum, an Eastern European immigrant who comes to America in the early decades 20th century with his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook). Herschel gets a job in a pickle factory and one day falls in a vat of brine, where he’s left when the factory closes. The brine preserves him and he wakes up a century later, finding himself in a world he doesn’t recognize. His great-great-grandson Ben (also Rogen) is his only relative, introducing Herschel to the 21st century and telling him what became of his family after his disappearance.

The movie, like many others this year, had a very different fate planned originally. But HBO Max’s campaign has used Rogen’s unique sense of humor and an offbeat story to hook audiences who are already streaming subscribers or who might become subscribers.

The Posters

Rogen as Herschel is the sole figure on the one poster (by marketing agency BLT Communications), released in late July. The photo is made to look like an old-fashioned photograph that would be appropriate to the ear he lived in and so helps to establish the premise and setting of at least some of the story. Both The Disaster Artist and 50/50, both movies produced by Rogen and his partner Evan Goldberg, are mentioned at the top while at the bottom the premiere date is shared.

The Trailers

We meet Herschel and Sarah Greenbaum as the first trailer (9.9 million views on YouTube), released in early July, begins. They’re living and working in a small “old world” country and are more or less happy, until the day Herschel dies after falling in a vat of pickles. Cut to a century later and he reemerges, with his great-grandson Ben his only surviving descendent. The two have a hard time getting to know each other, of course, leading to what seems to be much of the movie’s humor.

Online and Social

It doesn’t seem that HBO Max has created a stand-alone website for the movie, nor did they give it much promotion on the brand’s social profiles.

Advertising and Promotions

The movie had originally been setup at Sony for several years. In April of this year, though, with the theatrical release schedule thrown into disarray because of Covid-19, it was sold to Warner Bros., which announced it would go straight to streaming on HBO Max.

No paid promotions were apparent to me, but there were surely at least a few promoted social posts or online ads that drove traffic to the HBO Max sign-up site.

Media and Press

Rogen, of course, was the public face of the movie. He gave interviews where he talked about how this project is the latest in a string of successful productions for Goldberg and himself, how this film was conceived and created and what he made of Sony selling the movie to Warner Bros. earlier this year.

He also appeared on “The Tonight Show” and elsewhere to engage in challenges and talk about the movie.

Overall

You have to at least be partially won over just by the absurd premise that’s laid out in the campaign. It’s so over-the-top and ridiculous that it’s immediately plausible as the basis for a goofy comed that doesn’t care about common sense or believability, as long as it offers a foundation for the humor to come.

In that way it’s pretty solidly on-brand for Rogen and Goldberg, who have made a career of such notions. Therein lies the appeal for anyone who’s already a fan of their previous work.

What seems evident, though, is that this isn’t a massive draw for new subscribers like some other high-profile streaming releases over the last several months. Seth Rogen movies are the kind of thing you watch because you already can, not sign up for a whole new subscription for. That’s not a knock on their work, it’s just that this likely isn’t going to be a game-changer like Hamilton on Disney+. Instead it looks like just a pretty good movie that should be highly enjoyable, which is all it needs to be.

Picking Up The Spare

Highlights from the film’s virtual premiere can be found here

More interviews with Rogen on playing dual roles in the film and learning to speak Yiddish for the film. 

A Promoted Trend was purchased by HBO Max to drive awareness and attention. There were also standard online ads that drove people to subscribe to the service, using this movie as an incentive to do so. 

Rogen appeared on “Late Night” to talk about the difficulty of playing two roles against each other. 

HBO released a featurette that showed off some of the filmmaking techniques employed for the film. It also put out a cast Q&A and a look at how the filmmakers created the vintage photographs in the film. 

Long Shot Is Media Commentary Hiding in a Romcom

The extent to which Long Shot underperformed at the box office when it was released earlier this year has become one of the central narratives of entertainment reporting in 2019. A romantic comedy starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen should have connected with audiences, especially given the sheer volume of “the romcom is back!” think pieces that have been published in the wake of hits like The Big Sick, Set It Up and a handful of other films. There were even reports that studio buyers were snapping up romcoms left and right at Cannes in May, energized by Netflix’s “Summer of Love” in 2018 and other success stories.

So when Long Shot brought in only $30 million domestically, it was massively disappointing. Two massive, enormously likable stars in a breezy popcorn flick like this should have been gold, Jerry, gold! Indeed, the campaign mounted by Lionsgate utilized the chemistry between those stars as the main selling point for audiences.

Missing from the campaign was any mention or reference to the most interesting part of the story: The pointed, spot-on message about the current unstable state of the media industry.

The romantic comedy element of the story begins when Fred Flarsky (Rogen) takes a job as the new speech writer for Secretary of State and aspiring presidential candidate Charlotte Field (Theron), who’s also his childhood crush. But their reunion is precipitated by Flarsky quitting his job as a writer reporter for Vice-like publiciation where he has a reputation for gonzo investigative pieces. For example, the movie opens with him undercover in a neo-Nazi organization in order to expose their members and actions.

Following that incident he’s informed by the publisher that the site has been sold to a Rupert Murdoch-like media mogul named Parker Wembley (played with gusto by Andy Serkis). Flarsky is taken aback by this, not least because he himself has written several stories about Wembley. The purchase does not bode well for the future of such hard-hitting pieces and Flarsky quits in protest, afraid he won’t be able to continue doing what he’s been doing.

If you’ve been watching the media landscape for the last several years, you may recognize the events above as being remarkably similar to what has happened time and again to websites that have taken on powerful figures. Peter Thiel was so offended by the things written about him by the journalists at Gawker he sued the publication into bankruptcy and oblivion. In 2017 Todd Ricketts purchased the Gothamist network, which promptly deleted negative coverage of Ricketts from its sites but was still shut down by him just months later.

Cinematic stories about journalists are relatively common, but few get it so right or offer such relevant commentary on the state of the media industry. Most just show a reporter who in appropriately involved with the subjects they’re reporting on, or present them as either naive do-gooders or hardened cynics.

Here, the realities facing freelancers and reporters is offered starkly, albeit to comedic effect. Flarsky has to choose between A) compromising his ethics and principles in the service of maintaining (for the time being) steady work, or B) drawing a moral line in the sand and saying he refuses to see his work compromised by someone who may feel threatened by that work.

Taking that kind of stand can not only impact current income but future opportunities as well. Freelancers are subject to vague “morals” clauses that may cause them to lose work simply because someone complained about something they wrote on social media. They censor themselves lest any criticism of a publication, company or individual be held against them when pitching or bidding for work.

Flarsky’s journey following his dramatic exit doesn’t follow the same path it would for most writers, editors or freelancers. Not only do most people not have the luxury of letting their ethics act as the primary motivator when making life-altering decisions (see season three of “The Good Place”) but aren’t then rewarded by scoring a sweet gig writing jokes for the girl they’ve been in love with for 20 years. Most then spend much of their time figuring out what the hell they’re going to do now and living with the regret of not swallowing their damn pride because how they going to pay the mortgage now, huh?

Still, that the screenwriters would even approach the idea that media ownership by the rich and powerful types who are often the subject of investigative takedowns is a step in the right direction. It’s an acknowledgement that the world is run by those who feel that power should, by all rights, make them immune from criticism and repercussions, no matter what their wrongdoing may be. They’re using that power to buy up the kinds of outlets that have traditionally held them in check and made them accountable for their actions.

It’s an angle I would have liked to have seen explored more deeply. Flarsky has a chance later on to tell Wembley what he thinks of him, but it comes out as a temper tantrum more than a biting critique of his maniacal need to avoid responsibility.

The media industry commentary is not the point of the movie, but it is an important subplot the likes of which are uncommon on the screen. Making a more concerted effort to bring it to the forefront, even just for a targeted media-centric audience may not have made much of a difference at the box office, but it would have presented something truly original about the movie that might have acted as a wedge for some people to take a chance on it, potentially generating positive word of mouth that could cascade outward.

Long Shot – Marketing Recap

You can find my full recap of the marketing for Long Shot at The Hollywood Reporter.

Online and Social

Not much at all on the movie’s official website, just a synopsis and collections of trailers and posters along with links to the film’s official social network profiles.

Media and Publicity

A first still was released in conjunction with the announcement of the title change earlier this year. Theron answered questions while in Austin while Paul Scheer commented on prepping to play the role of an obnoxious and clueless conservative TV talking head. The whole cast participated in a Q&A around that screening as well.

Rogen appeared on “Kimmel” a couple months ago to talk about the movie and more, including filming the sex scenes with Theron. Closer to release he showed up on “The Late Show” to hype the movie, talk about drugs and all that. Theron also made a few stops on the talk show and media circuit.

Theron and Rogen were both interviewed about how the movie is about politics but it’s not political in that they’re not trying to comment on modern day happenings, just trying to find the humor in the system. There were also interviews with director Jonathan Levine and costar O’Shea Jackson as well as June Diane Raphael, who talked about the rom-com genre as a whole and how this movie fits into it.

Overall

One point I want to be sure and emphasize here is that this is exactly the kind of movie that, 20 years ago, would have opened to a respectable $45 million and been considered a success.

While Lionsgate avoided opening the movie directly against Avengers: Endgame, coming out the week after isn’t much better as event movies like that benefit greatly from repeat viewings, eating up all the oxygen in the room for a number of weeks.

long shot gif

Picking Up the Spare

Co-writer Liz Hannah and director Jonathan Levine were interviewed about how they managed to create a rom-com that wasn’t quite as regressive socially as many tend to be. 

How well Theron and Rogen gelled and how the whole team collaborated to create a singular vision for the story was detailed here. Levine and Rogen also spoke about how Theron joining the film encouraged them to take it even more seriously than they had been. They all spoke about how the movie was not only funny but important at the premiere. 

Theron finally hit the talk shows in earnest, with a stop on “Late Night.” She was also interviewed about her political thoughts as they relate to the movie and the industry and appeared on “The Daily Show” as well. 

GQ featured Rogen on its June cover in a story that talked about this movie as well as his career to date. 

The Disaster Artist – Marketing Recap

the disaster artist poster 2You can be forgiven if you’ve never seen The Room. No, not Room, the Brie Larson drama from a couple years ago. The Room, written, directed and starring Tommy Wiseau, is widely held to be one of the worst movies ever made, but was a passion project of both Wiseau and his friend Greg Sestero. The film has quite a cult following among film fans who don’t quite glorify its cheesiness but who definitely acknowledge its role in cinematic history.

The story behind the film’s making is now being told in the movie The Disaster Artist. James Franco directs and stars as Wiseau, with the story following his friendship with Sestero and the process of making The Room. That includes a look at the mysterious Wiseau, whose background and personal life have always been unknowns.

The Posters

the disaster artist poster“I did naaaht! Oh, Hi Mark.” is the big copy that’s on the first poster, with that text shown on the green screen of the movie set. The title only shows up in the form of a hashtag in the lower left corner as we’re primarily shown Franco as Wiseau, with a studio light in the background and a boom mic hanging above him.

The second poster uses one of the first publicity stills released as its central element. So we see Tommy and Greg sitting in a theater, their crew behind them, presumably at a screening of the movie they’ve made. A positive quote from a critic helps to establish its quality.

The Trailers

The first teaser is just that, a teaser of something more to come. It just shows Wiseau trying to get through shooting one scene and consistently flubbing his line. The crew becomes increasingly frustrated as the number of takes tops 50 but eventually he gets it, though, of course it’s not a great performance. Still, he got it.

This is mainly about showing off the cast and the general idea of the movie. It’s not going to resonate at all with general audiences who likely aren’t going to have the context of the original’s reputation and so is meant for an audience who’s already well-versed in The Room’s history and reputation.

The story of how Tommy Wiseau created The Room is much more clearly explained in this trailer. We meet Wiseau as a frustrated actor. After meeting Greg Sestero, who’s in a similar position, they decide the only want to succeed is to create their own movie. So they assemble a crew and get to it. The rest of the trailer shows the sometimes hilarious process of doing so.

Honestly, this looks great. While there’s lots of insanity on display here, I most want to see Rogen as The Room’s director. He’s positioned here as essentially the voice of the audience, reacting with bewilderment to Wiseau’s often unconventional – but 100% committed – choices.

Making an appearance in that trailer is the original billboard Wiseau bought to promote the original film and which stayed up for over five years, well after it had come and gone. People quickly found that the website shown on the billboard still worked and that calling the number still played a message from Wiseau inviting them to a screening of The Room.

The second full trailer once more starts out in an acting class but this time focuses on Wiseau’s mysterious nature and tendencies toward secrecy. He introduces the movie as “his life” before jumping back to show how he goes about making The Room, from rejection by other directors to the production itself. There’s conflict and other problems as we keep seeing he doesn’t like people asking questions about his life.

it’s a bit darker than the other trailers but fills in some important gaps in what’s been presented to date, so it works as one element of a bigger picture.

Online and Social

The movie’s official website opens with a headshot of Franco as Wiseau and a loading message encouraging the visitor “Don’t worry about it.” After that the page switches to one with a carousel of positive critical quotes along with the message “Oh, hi! Welcome to Tommy’s Planet.”

Scroll down the page and you’ll come across stills, more review pull quotes and lots more. There’s a printable headshot of Franco as Wiseau you can download if you sign up for A24’s email newsletters, links to stories about the movie, Giphy Stickers to download, background on the billboard campaigns mounted for this movie as well as the original, embedded Tweets with reactions to the film and lots more.

You can also access the main, more traditional content like “About,” “Videos” and “Tickets” via the menu in the upper right of the site. That’s also how you can find links to the movie’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter profiles. There’s a cool feature when you open that menu that plays a couple scenes from both The Room and The Disaster Artist showing how the original was recreated accurately.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

The promotional billboard mentioned above came back up in the movie’s paid efforts. An outdoor sign that basically recreated the original was created and erected in Los Angeles, this time featuring the new movie’s title and website. A phone number was also included that really worked in much the same way Wiseau’s first one did, only this time with Franco.

TV advertising kicked off with a spot that not only promoted the movie but which encouraged people to film themselves performing a scene from The Room and post it on social media using #ImADisasterArtist for a chance to win “The Tommy.” That’s a nice bit of meta marketing in a campaign full of it.

Social media ads were run in conjunction with the release of each of the trailers. There were also Twitter promoted posts bought that used a Variety cover story on Franco (linked below) as the basis for the ad.

The teaser poster of Franco declaring his innocence on the film set was also used for a theater standee that included space for visitors to step on and have their picture taken.

Media and Publicity

SXSW was the movie’s big coming out party, resulting in a ton of positive buzz for the whole thing as well as Franco’s performance in particular. There were lots of strange stories that came out of that press conference as well as subsequent press like how Franco stayed in character the whole time and so on. It was later announced as one of the films screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

There were a number of other stories about the unusual shoot that kept the movie in the minds of the audience in unique ways, including comments about Franco directing the whole thing in Wiseau’s voice and what he had in common with the guy he was playing. The younger Franco also addressed what caused him to hesitate for so many years to work with his older brother.

Franco was the subject of a Variety cover story that included an interview with him about how he maintains such frantic schedule, his insecurities around his career and this film and lots more. His brother Dave also spoke about working James in such a big way and what the production was like. James was also interviewed about how he found The Room and what lead him to try and tell the story behind such an infamous film along with coproducer and longtime collaborator Seth Rogen.

There were also plenty of stories that revisited the original material and the history it has amassed. There was an interview with Sestero, on whose book the film is based, and the legacy he feels it has as well as how it grew into a cult phenomenon. Reports came out saying that Franco had shot almost a half hour of shot-for-shot recreations of The Room’s scenes for use in the film, or at least on the DVD release. There were considerations of what about The Room is real and what has been embellished by history.

Franco was announced as one of the final hosts of this season of “Saturday Night Live” and did various media appearances to talk about the film and drum up interest in the general audience that doesn’t know the history behind the story.

Overall

I have to admit that when the campaign first kicked off – heck, even back when the movie was first announced and started screening – I had zero interest in what was going on. Watching a corny production of a low-quality film didn’t appeal to me on any level. That changed pretty quickly when the first teaser trailer popped up and the attitude of the movie was more clearly on display.

A24 and Franco have worked hard to change attitudes like mine with a campaign that honors but doesn’t necessarily glorify The Room. It’s never disrespectful to Wiseau. And the way it overtly borrows elements like the L.A. billboard and more shows a deep love and appreciation for the filmmakers and their dedication, even if the result of that hard work and dedication isn’t all that great. It’s a fun, interactive and engaging campaign that should appeal to cinephiles and lovers of bad movies as well as those who are on board for Franco, Rogen and their previous work together.

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