How Focus Features has sold a drama from a Hollywood icon.
The Card Counter, in theaters this weekend from Focus Features, is the latest feature from writer/director Paul Schrader, one of the foremost figures in the last 50 years of cinema. Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell, a former military interrogator who now makes a living as a gambler. One day a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) tries to enlist Tell in a scheme to enact revenge on an officer Cirk served with and bears a grudge against. Hoping to turn Cirk from his path, Tell takes him on the gambling circuit. Financing them is La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who also joins them on the road.
announcement and casting
The movie was first announced in October, 2019 when Isaac was cast. Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, and Willem Dafoe joined the cast in mid-February of 2020, about the same time Martin Scorcese, who famously collaborated with Schrader on several of the most important films of the last five decades, came on as an executive producer.
A first look still was released in mid-June of last year as production was resuming after a Covid-19-related shutdown had paused filming. Focus Features announced it acquired distribution rights a month later.
the card marketing
Things really started just a few months ago in July, when Focus Features announced the film’s world premiere would take place at the Venice Film Festival in early September.
The original song “Arise Sun” from Robert Levon Been came out at the end of July.
At that point the first trailer (2.8m views on YouTube) was released, the tension apparent from the start. Tell is talking about the weight of things past as it opens and we slowly learn more about him as things go on, including how he was sent to prison for crimes committed while he was in the service. Now free and making a living gambling, he’s backed by La Linda, who smells an opportunity to make money. Cirk’s intrusion on his life is unwanted, especially when Tell finds out what he’s up to but his presence sets a series of events in motion that may upset the life Tell has made for himself even as it offers a chance at closure.
Tell’s face looks out from behind a series of playing card faces on the highly-stylized poster, released a little later in mid-August. Scorsese’s name is prominently displayed at the top, indicating how much weight the studio believes he commands, especially when it’s paired with not only Schrader but also the high-profile cast. The vengeance/redemption storyline is hinted at in the copy “Reap what you sow.”
TV spots like this started running at about the same time, cutting down the story to much broader strokes but maintaining the tension and drama that was found in the full trailer. Even shorter videos served to introduce the individual characters.
Tell explains to La Linda that he’s not a typical gambler and why he’s trying to help Cirk in the first clip, also released in late August.
Schrader wound up being the central figure in the press campaign. Interviews with the writer/director had him talking about the influence his previous work with Scorsese had on this movie, the process of writing and shooting the movie, how he thinks the story reflects at least some of the trauma soldiers coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan can and will have and more.
He also spoke about what it was like shooting the film during Covid lockdowns and with strict protocols in place. Similar ground was covered in a joint interview with Haddish and Isaac as well as how the two actors bonded on set.
Three character posters released in early September showed the leads standing in front of playing cards. The same tagline is used here from the main poster, but what really stands out is the use of shadow, like they are actually standing in front of a physical object and it’s not just a background that’s been inserted.
The stars and director all appeared at the Venice Film Festival, doing interviews and otherwise promoting the film there.
A featurette with Schrader had him talking about the story as well as how important it is to challenge the audience and make them work a little bit.
With the film’s creative pedigree – both in front of and behind the camera – the positive festival reviews that have resulted in an 85% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes isn’t wholly surprising but still good to see.
The campaign has set a tense, dramatic tone from the outset, one that very much brands it as a movie intended for serious adult moviegoers. Schrader is clearly still a brand name with that crowd, which is why he’s been put front and center in the publicity. Isaac is conspicuously absent from all but a few interviews, but there are likely reasons for that. And it’s allowed Haddish to get a bit more time in the spotlight.