no sudden move – marketing recap

How Warner Bros. is selling the latest heist film from one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors.

Of the high profile directors working today perhaps none has embraced streaming quite like Steven Soderbergh. After putting out two movies for Netflix in 2019, this week brings his second straight film for HBO Max.

No Sudden Move focuses on a group of small-time criminals in 1955 who are hired by a mysterious party to steal corporate documents. They recruit a reluctant insider to actually nab the goods, with some of the crooks sent to his home to keep his family in check. But when the job goes sideways they set out to find out who it was that hired them and why.

The movie stars Don Cheadle, Kieran Culkin, Benicio del Toro and others as the criminals, David Harbour as the executive marked to actually steal the documents, Amy Seimetz as his wife Mary and Jon Hamm as the Detroit city detective assigned to investigate the crime. With a solid 87% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie’s campaign has been heavy on the kind of stylized filmmaking that Soderbergh is known for.

The Posters

“Trust is a setup” we’re told on the one poster (by marketing agency The Refinery). Shown are Goynes and Russo, two of the criminals at the center of the plot played by Cheadle and del Toro. The rest of the notable cast is named at the top of the one-sheet, but the overall design is very simple and moody, setting a dark and shadowy tone for the movie more than anything else.

The Trailers

A brief teaser in late May preceded the first trailer’s release, which didn’t happen until early June.

That trailer (238,000 views on YouTube) is all about selling an attitude and a vibe. It conveys the story of how the criminals are A) convincing a mid-level auto executive to steal company secrets while B) the gang watches over the exec’s family to make sure they don’t do anything stupid and he knows what the consequences for not cooperating are. As usual, everything turns pear-shaped in a flurry of irrational behavior, divided loyalties, law enforcement investigation and other factors, but what’s clear is that this is another stylized Soderbergh production that looks fantastic.

Online and Social

The signed-out landing page for the movie on HBO Max’s site has some very basic information, including a collection of cast headshots, a small gallery of stills and the trailer.

Advertising, Press and Publicity

Casting news dominated much of the press for a while. In late September production, previously delayed because of the pandemic, resumed at the same time the movie was renamed from its original “Kill Switch” to the current title.

HBO Max and Warner Bros. confirmed in May that the movie’s world premiere would happen at the 2021 Tribeca Festival. At that premiere the cast was interviewed about the movie itself as well as the uncertain nature of the production.

Harbour promoted the film when he appeared on “Late Night” in June.

A profile of Seimetz focused on how she has bounced between acting and writing/directing her own material over her career, including how she steals the show in this film.

While it’s not actually press for the film, Alissa Wilkinson at Vox explores some of the very real social issues, including housing discrimination, highway construction and more, that inform the movie’s setting, action and characters.

Online ads like the one below were used to drive traffic to the HBO Max landing page for the film.

Warner Bros. partnered with Shinola Detroit on a sweepstakes awarding the winner a trip to Detroit’s Shinola Hotel. The company also created a movie-inspired line of handbags, watches and other apparel.

An interview with screenwriter Ed Solomon emphasized how he and Soderbergh sought to construct a story the audience would have to follow closely if they wanted to get the full experience of the payoff.

Short spots like this were used on social media (and likely elsewhere), presenting a cutdown version of the trailer that continues selling the movie as a high-drama heist story with a great cast.

HBO Max released a featurette with the cast talking about the complex nature of that story and the unique filmmaking aesthetic of Soderbergh.

Overall

What I said above really encapsulates the campaign from Warner Bros./HBO Max: Everything about the campaign is focused on presenting it as a dramatic, tense heist film with a great cast portraying characters who are always just one move away from turning on their compatriots.

Adding to that is the brand Soderbergh has for himself as a director who dabbles in seemingly every possible sub-genre and style. If you told me tomorrow he was directing a remake of The Music Man it wouldn’t surprise me at all. The point being that his involvement in and of itself is a big draw for the movie, which is why his name is so prominent throughout the campaign.

How to Create Character History In One Line

It’s not hard, just very difficult.

Here’s one of my favorite scenes, with one of my very favorite lines, in the last 30 years of film.

Specifically, it’s this exchange:

Reuben: Look, we all go way back and uh, I owe you from the thing with the guy in the place and I’ll never forget it.

Danny: That was our pleasure.

Rusty: I’d never been to Belize.

Look what’s happening there.

  1. It establishes history: Sure, we already get that the three guys know each other, but this cements that they’ve worked together before and trust each other.
  2. It’s vague enough to mean anything: Reuben never states who “the guy,” “the thing” or “the place” are so the audience can fill that in for themselves. We can imagine all sorts of scenarios.
  3. It was a big deal: Rusty dropping Belize in there makes it clear that whatever trouble Reuben was in, it took Danny and Rusty off their usual turf. And Belize is likely such a unknown to most people that it doesn’t immediately bring to mind any specific memories or images, again allowing for all sorts of situations to be imagined.
  4. It establishes a hierarchy: Danny and Rusty are there kissing the ring and looking for Reuben’s help, which puts him above them on the pecking order. But they hold a favor over him that they’re not overtly referencing even if they all know it’s hanging over the conversation. Still, Danny waves it off as being a non-factor, not anything Reuben feels should compel him to agree to their plan.

Danny and Rusty are, in some way, running a small con on their friend Reuben here, hoping that the chit they still hold comes into play in getting his agreement to join their scheme. But that’s not how they approach the situation, which allows for this masterclass in establishing character history to take place.

And it’s so subtle and well-done, all without needing to segway into a 15 minute flashback or long explanation of what happened in Belize. We don’t need to know what it was, we just need to know how it affects the characters and story we’re following now.

That kind of writing is a major reason the movie sizzles with as much energy as it does, because everything we need to know is on the screen, not waiting down some digression. It’s the kind of thing screenwriters, who too often feel the need to explain every little bit of barely relevant backstory and connection down to the tiniest detail, could stand to do more frequently.

The Laundromat – Marketing Recap

Early reviews called it a bit of a misfire, though a well-intentioned and well-made one with a top-notch cast.

laundromat posterBased on Jake Bernstein’s book “Secrecy World,” this week’s Netflix-original The Laundromat seeks to turn a rather boring financial story – the revelation of what came to be labeled “The Panama Papers” – into high drama. The movie comes from director Steven Soderbergh and stars Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Meryll Streep and a host of others.

Oldman and Banderas play, respectively, Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, two highly-connected lawyers at the heart of the shady international dealings uncovered in the documents. Streep plays Ellen Martin, a woman who finds her life upended by the actions of the rich and powerful who take advantage of those “legal” services. Martin’s investigation uncovers just how corrupt the entire system is and how weighted against people like her it is.

Netflix has given the movie a brisk campaign that’s been heavy on festival screenings, trying to sell a whimsical comedic take on a very serious issue. While the 45% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes may not completely tank the film, it also bodes poorly for what should otherwise be a major fall streaming release, one that’s getting a brief theatrical release before it hits streaming next month.

The Posters

A piggy bank wearing sunglasses stands on a pile of currency from various countries on the poster (by marketing agency BLT Communications), released in late August. That irreverent image is meant to convey the movie’s off-kilter humorous tone, setting the audience up for satire more than a straightforward drama.

The Trailers

Jurgen and Ramon are our guides through the first trailer (11.2 million views on YouTube), released in August during the Venice Film Festival. They establish the premise of the story, aimed at exposing parts of society that are rigged to favor the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. Ellen is on their trailer, piecing together clues that show how money and corruption are all tied together, and when secrets are exposed, a lot of people become very angry for their own reasons. It’s all presented as a caper flick, with a loose vibe that frames it as a lighthearted, if terrifying, glimpse behind the curtain.

Online and Social

No website, but Netflix did create a Twitter profile for the film in order to share photos, key press beats and more.

Advertising and Publicity

There had been lots of chatter about the movie but one of the first big moments in the publicity cycle came in late July when it was included in the “Special Presentations” section of this year’s Toronto Film Festival and in-competition at the Venice Film Festival. The TIFF appearance included a conversation with Banderas where he talked about this movie and his career in general. Reviews weren’t wholly positive, though, with some calling it a slight misfire by Soderbergh.

Media and Press

As festival season got underway, Soderbergh was interviewed about how he approached translating the real life story into a film that struck a slightly comedic tone.

An interview with Streep at the Venice premiere had the actress reinforcing that Soderbergh was using a darkly comic tone to highlight a very serious matter. Further interviews during Toronto allowed her to talk about working with Netflix and the darkly comic nature of the story.

Two short clips from the movie were shared via The Playlist in August.

Streep, Banderas and Oldman all talked about the comic tone of the film in a joint interview. Soderbergh talked about the process of luring Streep to the project as well.

Overall

It’s not exactly breaking new rhetorical ground to compare this movie to The Big Short, Adam McKay’s satirical analysis of the banking crisis that led to the 2008 recession. Purely from a marketing perspective, the biggest difference here is there’s clearly a framing device being communicated to the audience, namely the Greek Chorus that is the lawyers played by Banderas and Oldman.

That there’s so much time spent on that framing device, which is largely intended as a big old wink to the audience, that the actual story gets somewhat muddled. The marketing is so busy making sure everyone knows it’s a bit funny that it’s never clear what it is that’s meant to be humorous. You get that there’s some sort of investigation going on, but into what is never communicated.

A new, socially-relevant film from Soderbergh deserves a bit better than that. Fans of the director will likely be anxious to check it out, but there’s little here to generate the kind of discussion or soul-searching that may be needed to fully understand what happened.

Picking Up the Spare

Netflix put out a short trailer just before the movie became available to streaming subscribers.

That release appeared briefly questionable in the face of a lawsuit from a firm involved in the Panama Papers, but that claim was ignored by Netflix and soon thrown out by a judge.

A couple conversations from the movie’s festival appearance have been released with the cast and crew talking about the story and characters.

Streep was interviewed about the story and her surprise dual roles in the film.

High Flying Bird – Marketing Recap

high flying bird posterDirector Steven Soderbergh becomes the latest high-profile talent to bring his work to a Netflix exclusive with this week’s High Flying Bird. The story is set during an NBA lockout, when no games are being played or money being made by anyone. That situation is an opportunity for agent Ray (André Holland), who comes up with a plan to return some of the control over the game to the talent instead of the owners and executives who manage it.

To that end he enlists Erik (Melvin Gregg) and Sam (Zazie Beetz), hoping the former’s skills will be enough to break through the media clutter and ignite a movement that’s more authentic to the game being played in gyms and parks around the country. That campaign brings him into conflict with powerful officials in the NBA, including an owner played by Kyle MacLachlan.

The Posters

An outline of a basketball player that’s reminiscent of the Air Jordan logo is shown, with one half of the background the outside of a basketball while the other half is pitch black. Within that silhouette is the copy “Play the game on top of the game, hinting at a story that involves getting to the core of what the game is about. In the corner the movie is credited as coming “From the director of Ocean’s 11 and a writer of Moonlight,” the latter part being a bit clunky in its wording while it tries to latch on to some of that film’s cache.

The Trailers

The one trailer for the movie shows what the situation is that Ray is trying to work with and around. He realizes that the player lockout means no one is getting paid, especially the talent that provides the attraction for the fans. The opportunity, then, is to use the stoppage to make sure they get paid instead of the rich owners that see players as interchangeable and expendable. Erik is reluctant, afraid being part of the plan will result in him getting blackballed by the league but Ray convinces him and others that it will work and that things will be better for everyone in the long run.

There’s a strong theme of “get paid what you’re worth” in the trailer, with the message being that black players in particular are being exploited by white owners in a game that’s watered down from what’s really being played. That’s an interesting idea, especially considering we just watched a Super Bowl where the NFL wanted to honor Black History Month at the same time it continues to collude to keep Colin Kaepernick out of the game.

Online and Social

Nothing here, which is standard for Netflix releases.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Some pre-roll spots were run on YouTube but that’s all I’m aware of.

Media and Publicity

Netflix jumped on distribution rights to the movie before any official marketing or publicity had begun. It was later scheduled for a sneak peak at the Slamdance Film Festival along with a special award for Soderbergh.

In early January it was announced the movie would screen at the The Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of its Film Comment festival.

While at Slamdance, Soderbergh talked about how the film got started as well as his experience shooting it with an iPhone and his return to the festival. Shortly after that he spoke about how he got involved with Netflix, including how he thought the streaming distribution model was preferable simply because more people could access it than if it received a theatrical platform release.

Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney was interviewed about how he got involved with the project and what story he aimed to tell.

Overall

As I said before, it’s an interesting story and one that comes at a particular time, one where we are talking more and more about how many corporate systems are rigged against the line workers in favor of corporate owners, especially when it comes to racial and gender inequalities. That’s the message the comes through in the trailer, while Soderbergh and others also mention it, along with more technical aspects of production, in the publicity cycle.

More than anything, this is just the latest high-profile release by Netflix of a movie that 10 years ago would have still had a good chance of becoming a decent theatrical success. That topic is touched on in the media interviews as well and it’s clear that with successive films week after week Netflix isn’t kidding around with this, instead hoping to attract not only direct subscribers but also media attention that raises its profile among other filmmakers and audiences.

Picking Up the Spare

Writer Andre Holland spoke about the story and working with Soderbergh here while Soderbergh recounted the fast-paced production schedule.

Unsane – Marketing Recap

unsane posterClaire Foy plays Sawyer Valentini in Unsane, the new movie from director Steven Soderbergh. Sawyer is a paranoid young woman who believes the man who’s been stalking her has followed her to where she’s moved to get away from him and begin a new life. Eventually it gets so bad that she sees someone she thinks to be a therapist about it.

Only what she’s actually done is committed herself to a psychiatric institution. Or was she committed by someone else? Her tenuous grasp on reality means she can’t be sure. Becoming ever more enraged at her situation she’s pushed over the edge when she begins seeing the man who was stalking her within the institution, as one of the workers there.

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Last Flag Flying – Marketing Recap

The emotional trauma and bonds of brotherhood that results from experiences in war are explored in the new movie Last Flag Flying. Written and directed by Richard Linklater, the movie stars Steve Carell as a man who learns his son, who followed his example and joined the Marines, has died in the Iraq War in 2003.

Before setting out on the trip to claim his son’s remains for burial, Larry (Carell) tracks down and enlists the help of two of his closest friends from their time in the service, Richard (Laurence Fishburne) and Sal (Bryan Cranston). Larry doesn’t just want to be there for his son’s return but wants to take him back to his hometown for burial, eschewing – to the surprise of most – a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Posters

The three friends stand together on the first poster, Larry clutching the folded flag he received upon retrieving his son’s body. That clearly conveys to the audience that death, as well as friendship, is at the center of the story. The friendship angle is reinforced by the copy that reads “Their last mission wasn’t on the battlefield.”

The Trailers

We meet Sal and Larry as the trailer opens, with them having taken some sort of impromptu road trip and go find Mueller. All three were buddies in the Marines back in the day and Larry’s son, who did likewise, has been killed. The Corps wants to bury him at Arlington, but Larry wants to bring him home, so his friends join in the effort, despite the obstacles.

So it’s being sold as a road trip movie featuring three reunited old friends. What sets this apart from other movies that have had similar stories is the talent and charisma of the three leads as well as the emotional story. This isn’t a crazy comedy where there will be at least three Viagra jokes, the trailer promises, it will be a drama about family, grieving and your duty to old friends.

It should also be noted that for as many times as I’ve watched this trailer, I still well up every damn time. It’s the music. It’s the story. It’s the stoic grief. It’s…yeah.

Online and Social

Load up the official website and the trailer starts playing in case you need a good cry this morning. Once it closes you get a recreation of the key art of the three actors looking somberly at the camera. There’s a prompt to get tickets on the page while at the bottom are links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Moving on to the content menu at the top of the page, “Synopsis” offers a brief write-up of the story. Skipping over “Videos,” which just has the trailer, next up is the “Gallery,” where you can check out a number of production stills.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Some online and social advertising was done around the release of the trailer as well as in the last week using the trailer, short clips or variations on the key art.

While I couldn’t find them online, it does seem some TV advertising was done recently, with the movie’s Twitter account sharing a photo of a commercial that apparently aired during one of this past weekend’s World Series broadcasts.

Media and Publicity

News broke back in June that the movie would get a high-profile debut by screening at this year’s New York Film Festival, where it went on to garner decent praise and buzz and where Linklater talked about it briefly, including praising Amazon Studios for helping him to make the movie after a decade of false starts.

Shortly after the first trailer debuted and while the movie was screening at festivals Linklater talked about finally making a movie about grown-ups, how time spent with friends inspired some of the story and more.

While at NYFF, Fishburne addressed how the intent was not to tie the movie to anything overtly political happening at the moment but to tell the story of a father doing what he can to grieve for and honor his dead son. Linklater made similar comments, saying the story would have played out the same even if Hillary Clinton was currently occupying the White House.

Where the movie falls in Cranston’s career was the primary subject of this feature interview as well as how he decides what roles to take, regardless of how they might be viewed by others.

Cranston and Carell have made a few media appearances in recent weeks and will likely be making more in the coming days as we get close to release.

Overall

Amazon Studios’ campaign isn’t massive, possibly because it follows just a week after the release of Wonderstruck, for which there was a much more comprehensive and general push. That’s not to say it hasn’t put a solid or committed effort together, just that the lack of additional paid efforts and a more subdued publicity campaign adds up to signal that this is a movie it doesn’t think will have the widespread appeal of that other movie.

While the volume may not be quite what we’ve seen for other movies, the emotions here are the real selling point. Everything about the campaign wants you to feel Larry’s conviction, determination and stubbornness deeply, mostly be experiencing them through the filter of Sal and Richard. Linklater has underscored this in interviews, but there really isn’t anything political in the campaign. It’s just about a father who wants to do right by his son and needs the emotional and other help of two men he’s always been able to count on. It’s not taking a stance on the war or anything, it’s just about dealing with a tragedy no parent should have to face in the most manageable way he can.

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

Steven Soderbergh – Director Overview

This week Logan Lucky hits theaters, marking director Steven Soderbergh’s return to feature films after a self-imposed five-year hiatus. That makes it a good opportunity to look back at how the previous films he’s directed have been sold via trailers.

Soderbergh, like the Coen Bros., is a tough nut to crack when trying to identify a grand unifying theory of his work. Instead of one overall theme that clearly stands out, it’s evident that he bounces from one genre and approach and story type to the next. That’s in part, it seems, to keep himself engaged and fresh and in part to satisfy all his various instincts and career desires. With that being said, there are a handful of genres his various films fall into that help bring Soderbergh’s approach to cinema into somewhat clear focus.

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Logan Lucky – Marketing Recap

Brothers Jimmy and Clyde Logan (Channing Tatum and Adam Driver, respectively) come from a long line of losers in the new movie Logan Lucky, directed by Steven Soderbergh. They decide they’re going to turn things around, though, and set out to reverse their fortunes by robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600.

The problem is they don’t exactly have the smarts to pull off such an elaborate heist. So they enlist the services of a convicted thief named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) to help them out. Between the three of them and with the reluctant help of Logan’s sister Mellie (Riley Keough), they execute their scheme. But will they actually get away with it?

Continue reading “Logan Lucky – Marketing Recap”