How Netflix has sold a drama about rehabilitation and rebuilding
Sandra Bullock stars in The Unforgivable, out this week on Netflix following a brief theatrical release period. Based on a British TV series, the movie focuses on Ruth Slater (Bullock), a woman just released from prison, having served her time after being convicted of a violent crime. Despite having theoretically paid her debt to society she finds that few are willing to give her the chance to prove she genuinely wants to turn her life around.
The movie, directed by Nora Fingscheidt, also stars Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal and others as those in Slater’s orbit. Let’s take a look at how it’s been sold.
announcement and casting
While development of the film dates all the way back to 2010, shortly after the original British series aird, things didn’t really begin moving forward until 2019. That’s when Bullock was announced as the lead (as well as producer) with Fingscheidt directing and Netflix distributing.
The rest of the cast was added between late 2019 and early 2020.
the marketing campaign
Netflix kicked off the marketing push in September of this year with the distribution of a still showing Bullock in character that also served as the announcement of a release date.
Get ready for a powerhouse Sandra Bullock performance. In Nora Fingscheidt's THE UNFORGIVABLE, Bullock plays a woman re-entering a society that refuses to forgive her after serving a prison sentence for a violent crime. In select theaters November 24 and on Netflix December 10. pic.twitter.com/dtOedauN9E
An extreme close-up of half of Slater’s face is used on the poster, released in late October. That doesn’t do much to communicate the story but the copy “No one walks free of their past” picks up the slack by hinting that there’s something that will continue to haunt her throughout the story.
The trailer (6.2m YouTube views) came out at the same time. As it starts Ruth is just getting out of prison and we quickly see she’s still being harassed after release. We learn some of the details of why she was sent away and then that she’s now looking to reconnect with her little sister Katie (Aisling Franciosi). That effort, though, is met with resistance from just about everyone, despite some taking her side. Ruth refuses to give up.
A clip came out in mid-November showing Ruth getting a dressing down from her parole officer (Rob Morgan).
Shorter promos like this came out later in November and were used as social and video pre-roll ads and likely for TV spots as well. They distill the trailer down to its core elements to make a quick, punchy appeal to the audience.
A premiere red carpet event was held at the beginning of December with Fingscheidt, Bullock and the rest of the cast in attendance. While at that premiere the cast talked about telling stories of people at society’s margins, working on the film during Covid restrictions and lots more.
Director Nora Fingscheidt framed by stars Sandra Bullock and Jon Bernthal.
I think what appears to me to be the biggest missing element is something overt that calls out organizations that deal with helping former prisoners reenter society, or those working to reform the system that spits people out with little support or other ways to deal with life outside prison.
Other than that, it’s a nice little campaign Netflix put together, but the 35% the movie has on Rotten Tomatoes speaks to some issues critics have had with the film. A stronger appeal from the cast and crew, especially from the topline stars, might have made the message delivered to the audience a bit stronger.
How Netflix has sold a powerful – and emotional – drama.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, out this week from Netflix, was likely always going to be a major release. Directed by George C. Wolfe, based on a play from August Wilson and starring both Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (among others), it has all the credentials of a high-profile late year awards contender.
Of course it took on additional significance when Boseman passed away suddenly in late August, with this as his final on-screen performance.
The story unfolds over the course of a single summer afternoon in and around a 1920’s Chicago recording studio. Ma Rainey (Davis) is there to record with her band, including newcomer Levee (Boseman), a hot young horn player. As those sessions are interrupted while Ma fights with the white managers and owners for control over her music and career, Levee’s brashness leads the other, more veteran players to begin telling stories of the past, both true and exaggerated.
When reviews began coming out in mid-November, a couple weeks before its limited theatrical release, it became clear the movie was headed for potential awards consideration, especially for David and Boseman. Netflix’s campaign has sold the film as exactly the kind of performance showcase you would expect from such a release.
A series of starkly-photographed character posters (by marketing agency GRAVILLIS) came out in mid-October. All brand the movie as “August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is a good way to highlight the source material and give credit to the creator. They also all sport the tagline “It would be an empty world without the blues,” a great way to communicate the attitude of the characters and story.
The final poster, released just a short time later, shows just Ma Rainey and Levee in performance-like poses, this time with the copy reading “Everything comes out of the blues,” which is an accurate statement on many levels.
In mid-October the first trailer (738,000 views on YouTube) was finally released. After opening by introducing us to Ma Rainey herself and showing the status she has in the Blues community we meet Levee, the hot young horn player who comes in and immediately acts like he owns the room. While the two considerable talents clash, they are also crossing swords with the white management that owns the recording studios, night clubs and other means of getting their music out. It’s a great trailer that shows the vibe of the movie, highlighting the two lead performances in particular.
Online and Social
There isn’t a whole lot of information beyond the trailer and a tool for looking up local theater showtimes on the official website for the film, but the fact that Netflix created one in the first place is unusual and indicates the level of effort it’s giving the release.
Advertising and Promotions
Plans for a virtual premiere event intended to include some of the cast and filmmakers discussing the story and more were cancelled when Boseman passed away in late August, just days before that event was going to happen.
About a month later Netflix released the first batch of stills from the film.
The virtual event was eventually held in late October and naturally the talk among the cast and crew included comments on the movie as a whole but also Boseman in particular.
MoMA announced the film would serve as the Centerpiece selection at this year’s virtual contenders showcase.
A featurette with music supervisor Branford Marsalis talking about the history of the story, the music of the film and more came out in early December.
The Gotham Awards announced it would be honoring both Boseman and Davis.
Another short featurette had Washington and much of the cast talking about Davis’ performance and more. The impact of Boseman’s presence on set and his preparation for the role was covered in another while a short video had Wolfe talking about his experience working with the cast.
Wolfe along with the movie as a whole were honored by the Museum of the Moving Image during that institution’s first virtual awards ceremony.
TV spot-like promotions were used on social media and video sites, distilling the story down to its basic dramatic elements and showcasing the performances found in the film.
Netflix scheduled a virtual watch party for this evening with input from the cast and crew.
Media and Press
Costume designer Ann Roth was interviewed about how she created the look of the characters. Similarly, DP Tobias Schliessler talked about the experience of working with Davis and Boseman.
An interview with Davis allowed her to talk about the lessons she learned from the character as well as her thoughts on making the movie.
Wolfe was interviewed about taking on one of Wilson’s plays as well as the performances he captured and more. He and Davis covered similar ground in another conversation.
Davis and much of the rest of the cast and crew talked more about bringing Wilson’s characters to life and working with Boseman on what would be his final role.
Costar Colman Domingo shared his passion for Wilson’s work and how that led him to enthusiastically take the role when it was offered. He and fellow costars Michael Potts and Glynn Turman appeared in a joint video interview talking about the relevancy of the story and more.
It’s understandable that, to a large extent, the campaign has become a sort of public eulogy for Boseman. After all, his tremendous was taken from us far too soon and far too suddenly. But it’s at least a testament to his talent that this kind of big performance became his final artistic statement to the world.
Aside from that, and the way the marketing makes sure to equally focus on Davis and her performance, what you have here is a great campaign for a period piece that’s poised to make a strong end-of-year awards run. Put together you have a message that will likely appeal to both audiences and critics.
Picking Up The Spare
Davis appeared on “Kimmel” to talk about the movie.
More from various members of the cast on working with Boseman on what would wind up as his final screen performance. There was also a profile of veteran actor Turman.
Netflix continued releasing clips like this after the movie was available. There was also an explainer video on “The Great Migration” that factors into the period setting of the story. Another featurette covered how Davis transformed into the title role.
Online ads like this started appearing after the movie was available on Netflix.
The movie’s costume team talked about using period-appropriate materials to make the movie’s clothes. The film’s hair stylist was also interviewed later on. How the screenwriter translated the stage production for the screen was covered in an interview with him.
Wolfe appeared on “PBS Newshour” to talk about making the film and working with the stars. He was also part of a new featurette on adapting the film for the screen and was interviewed about the story and the making of the movie here.
How Amazon Studios is selling a period piece about gender equality and seizing the opportunity to make an intergalactic impression.
Christmas Flint (McKenna Grace) is a young woman with dreams of doing something big in the new movie from Amazon Studios, Troop Zero. Christmas is a girl who doesn’t fit in and doesn’t have a lot of friends, so joining the Birdie Scouts (roughly the Girl Scouts) seems like an unusual step for her. Despite that, she aspires to do so because she’s learned one group will be chosen to record a message on the Golden Record being shot into space with the next probe.
When she finds the group is less than welcoming to her, she decides to form her own troop and enlists misfits like her to make a play at the competition. In doing so she finally makes some important and lasting friendships while also showing everyone who’s doubted that she – and girls in general – can do anything they want.
The movie has been sold with a simple but charming campaign that highlights the 70s-setting of the story and the quirky nature of the main characters.
The first poster (by marketing agency cold open) came out out in January of last year, just as the movie was screening at Sundance. It doesn’t show much but manages to convey a lot, offering a picture of a bunch of girls in scouting uniforms leaning out the windows of an old bus, clearly on their way to some sort of camping or other getaway. “Show the universe who you truly are” reads the copy at the top.
The second poster (by marketing agency LA) shows most of the main characters strolling down a wooded nature path toward the camera. It uses the same tagline and offers a better look at the overall film, but the placement of the people on the path is so obviously artificial, with the scale clearly off between them and the trees they’re walking past.
Christmas is an unusual girl, we see in December’s first trailer (3.8 million views on YouTube), one who dreams of outer space and worries the adults around her. When she finds out members of a local scout troop might have their voices recorded on a record being launched by NASA on an upcoming mission, she decides to join up but finds the other girls aren’t exactly welcoming. So she recruits other local misfits to create their own troop, getting into plenty of hijinks while upending social norms of the late 70s.
Online and Social
Advertising and Promotions
After a successful debut at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Amazon acquired the film’s distribution rights. It wasn’t until November that it was given a January release date on Amazon Prime, part of the company’s shift away from substantial theatrical releases.
A featurette came out December that had the filmmakers – including directing team Bert & Bertie – and members of the cast talking about the story and what its message is.
Amazon brought a movie-themed float to the Rose Parade earlier this month, with the cast and crew speaking to the volunteers that helped build the float and more.
The studio partnered with a New York City craft studio to sponsor a night where kids could come in and make their own movie-inspired projects.
Advance screenings with key target audiences were held at the MIT Museum, the Smithsonian and other locations.
Everyone turned out for the premiere red carpet earlier this week.
A first look still from the movie was released at the same time it was announced it would be screening at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Davis spoke about how this was an unusual kind of role for her while the movie was appearing at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Grace was interviewed and commented on how it was important for kids to know they can be weird, which is good. The movie’s directors spoke about the gender-balanced crew they put together as well as other aspects of production. Gaffigan was also interviewed about how this was one of a few films he was in that were screening at Sundance.
Davis, Gaffigan, Allison Janney, Grace and others made the media rounds in the last couple weeks, stopping by various morning and late night talk shows.
There’s almost nothing controversial or questionable in the campaign, which is nice to see. Instead, what’s being presented here is a movie that is pleasantly nostalgic and inspiring in a comfortable, familiar way. It’s the blanket you find at the back of your closet that is just perfect for cold, rainy days of watching your favorite movie.
Whether or not that translates to genuine audience interest remains to be seen. Amazon knows that, which is why the movie is one of their first releases to go straight to Prime Video instead of getting a theatrical release window. It’s not that the studio doesn’t have faith in the feature per se, it’s just that it apparently realizes it can’t realistically compete with this week’s other major releases.
Picking Up the Spare
A number of featurettes have been released by Amazon in the immediate wake of the movie hitting streaming. Those included a focus on the making of the film, how it encourages empowerment, the dynamic between the two leads and more on the gold record that forms the crux of the story.
There are always plenty of crime dramas in theaters, but writer Gillian Flynn and director Steve McQueen are looking to do something different with this week’s new release Widows. The movie stars Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo as four women with one thing in common: Their dead husbands, all criminals, all departed while still owing a debt to some very bad men.
Those very bad men don’t see death as a reason to forgive the debts, so it falls to those left behind to make things right. Determined to live on their own terms and get out from under the thumb of anyone who would control them, the women take matters into their own hands and do what they need to do in order to survive.
The first poster intercuts the men and women of the main cast in strips at the top, likely to show how all their lives are interconnected. The women themselves are shown at the bottom below the title near the copy “Left with nothing. Capable of anything” to explain how they are seizing control of their future.
There’s lot of violence on display as the trailer opens, with scenes of crimes being committed by men who are also shown being attentive – sometimes unwillingly so – to their wives. When those men are killed in a standoff with police, the women are left holding the bag quite literally, still owing the debts their husbands ran up. So they set out to settle things up by any means necessary, determined to protect what’s left of their families.
I want to see this immediately. Looks powerful and gritty, with a bunch of very talented actors.
Many of the same themes and messages are in the second trailer as well, showing the group of wives coming together to pick up the mantle of their husbands as a way to defy expectations and make sure they never have to rely on anyone else ever again.
Online and Social
Unfortunately the movie just gets the standard ticket-centric website from Fox, with only the barest of information offered.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV advertising started with a spot that showed why the women are doing what they’re doing and how cognizant they are of the consequences of their decisions and actions. An extended spot offered even more information to the audience.
Promoted posts like this began running on Twitter in early October, playing up the cast and the critical praise the movie had already received. Other ads continued running right up to release, each taking slightly different approaches, including later ones that used quotes from some of the positive early reviews.
Media and Publicity
A trailer was shown off by the studio during CinemaCon to help show off the movie’s tone and impressive cast. The movie was also part of the later CineEurope presentation from the studio and later was announced as the opening night feature at the London Film Festival. It was also announced as one of those screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Costar Cynthia Erivo was interviewed about how this film and a few others mark her transition from stage to screen and how she got cast here. Another substantial profile of the actress followed in October.
A clip was released to Variety in early September showing Veronica trying to rally the other wives to take their situation seriously and start doing what needs to be done to escape their situation. Another showed the funeral of Veronica’s husband and the kind of people pressuring her to make good on his debts. One released in early October focused on Erivo’s character and her introduction to the rest of the crew.
The positive reception it got at Toronto generated some awards speculation, though some people identified the unusual nature of the movie as a reason such a campaign may be hard to mount. The topic of industry awards and cultural representation was also addressed by McQueen.
All four main actresses, while in Toronto, spoke about the female friendships and partnerships behind the story. McQueen revealed he’d been warned not to work with Rodriguez because she was “difficult,” a label often affixed by men to women who speak their mind, but he found the qualities others see as troublesome as actually adding to the role.
Given its setting, it’s not that surprising it was also added to the list of the Chicago Film Festival screenings as well as to the lineup of the Austin Film Festival and the AFI Film Festival. New York City’s Museum of Modern Art then made it part of its annual film series.
Davis appeared on “Kimmel” in late August to talk about this movie and other projects she had on the horizon.
McQueen and his vision were the subjects of a featurette that had most of the main cast talking about how he directs a scene and gets to the heart of the story. Another video had McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn talking about why they set the story in Chicago and how they adapted to filming there. Still another went deep into the story.
Kaluuya appeared on “Kimmel” to talk about the movie while Rodriguez was interviewed about how taking on the role was a bit scary, taking her into uncomfortable territory. McQueen also continued talking about how easy interracial casting is if you just do it.
Glamour offered a feature profile of Davis that allowed her to talk about her career and plenty of other issues and topics. At an early screening a few weeks prior to release she also made comments that were widely picked up in the press about how rare it is to see an interracial relationship on screen where the difference between the two isn’t somehow the focus or involve some kind of unequal power dynamic.
This is one of those campaigns that has won me over as time went by. The first trailer didn’t really work for me but once the featurettes started rolling out and the cast and crew started talking about the movie a bit more, it become one that became increasingly interesting.
It’s notable how the marketing has focused on the talent even more than the story. McQueen and Flynn have been frequently put in the spotlight to talk about *why* they told the story, not necessarily what it is. At the same time Davis has been placed in the position of spokesperson for the film, hopefully leading to even bigger and better things for her.
Picking Up The Spare
Viola Davis showed up on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie and more. She and McQueen were interviewed together about the movie, race in Hollywood and lots more.
A few new TV spots like this were released in the days following the movie hitting theaters.
Davis was interviewed about the strength and resilience of the characters in the story while Debicki was profiled about finally playing someone who wasn’t overly glamorous and rich and how she’s a standout in a high-profile cast. There was also a later interview with Duvall.