How 20th Century Studios is selling a new adaptation of a classic musical
Years ago there was a rash of movies that updated Shakespeare plays, Jane Austen novels and other literature classics for modern times, changing the dialogue and settings as appropriate.
West Side Story, out this week in theaters, is the latest film adaptation of a classic of this subgenre, deftly updating Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet for the 1950s, with the original movie released in 1961.
This new version comes from director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner but still features the same greatArthur Laurents book, Leonard Bernstein music and Stephen Sondheim lyrics.
Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort star as María and Tony, respectively, star-crossed lovers from different backgrounds, she part of the Puerto Rican community and he a part of the white community. Their love is tested by the racial tensions in the New York City neighborhood as exemplified by the rivalry between the Sharks (the Puerto Ricans) and Jets (the whites) street gangs.
announcement and casting
There had been news about the movie, particularly around casting, for a while leading up to Spielberg’s first real comments in October 2018 about how this version would adhere to the stage musical.
Casting news and various small updates followed over the next several months, starting with Elgort. Throughout early 2019 more additions were made, including Zegler, David Alvarez, Ariana DeBose and others. Notably, Rita Moreno joined not only as a member of the cast but also as a producer on the film, helping to guide the story’s development.
marketing phase one: not tonight, tonight
Disney used the social media app Weibo to release a special poster designed in the style of Chinese tapestries to celebrate Lunar New Year in 2019.
A first look photo showing the Jets and Sharks released in mid-June of 2019, with a photo of DeBose as Anita released a month later.
The first real look at the movie came in an April 2020 feature with a batch of new photos along with comments from Spielberg about why he chose this project, what it was like working with the cast and lots more.
A profile of DeBose in October of last year mentioned this as one of two breakout roles for her in the last year or so.
In September, 2020 Disney announced it was pushing the release date back an entire year because of Covid-19 related delays and theater closures.
marketing phase two: something’s coming
A brand identity that would last throughout the campaign was established on the first poster, released in April. It doesn’t show much outside of the title treatment, displayed here as white bricks seen through a black background.
The first trailer (3.1m YouTube views), which debuted during the April broadcast of this year’s Academy Awards, makes the case for the movie based on it being visually gorgeous. It focuses on the cinematography and staging of the story and less on the story itself, seemingly assuming some level of familiarity on the part of the audience. It’s relatively short and doesn’t feature any dialogue and just a few lyrics, but the impact is certainly felt.
A “Special Look” came out in late July that functions like a short trailer or extended TV spot. Little dialogue is featured along with the music, but it definitely reinforces the fact the movie will look incredible.
It was mid-September before the full trailer (6.6m YouTube views) was released, debuting on “Good Morning America.”. It offers the basic outlines of the story we all (hopefully) know, that Maria meets and falls in love with Tony despite them coming from different cultural environments. That causes tension in her family and others as those opposing forces get ready for a clash. Notably, it specifically calls out the racial hatred that powers one side, which is angry over how “other” people keep taking over their territory. That’s an important message to highlight in this day and age.
That was followed by another poster, this one using the same title treatment but pulling the camera out to show the rest of the building wall and, importantly, the shadows of Tony and Maria who are standing on a neighboring building.
The movie received an important endorsement when Sondheim appeared on “The Late Show” and praised the work of Spielberg and Kushner.
A TV spot came out shortly after the trailer debuted that cut down the story to its broad strokes, still featuring those bright visuals as well as “Tonight.” Another focuses more on Maria and her attempts to fit in in America and make a life for herself.
Ziegler was interviewed about how surreal it was to work with Spielberg on the film.
A bit of behind-the-scenes footage is seen in another “Sneak Peak” released at the end of October. Two more posters – one showing Maria and Tony dancing the other with Bernardo and Anita dancing – came out at the same time.
Tony has a choice to make in a TV spot from early November that highlights not the romance of the story but the dangerous choices everyone is about to make and the danger those choices will create. Another spot brings the focus back to Tony and Maria and their doomed love.
The theatrical poster indicates how the Tony/Maria romance is the central selling point of the film, specifically their singing “Tonight.” It shows the pair on the fire escape where they sing their love to one another, making sure the audience knows this will be the centerpiece of the movie.
More commercials – some of which would be repurposed as social ads or video prerolls – continued to be released. Another behind-the-scenes featurette was built around Spielberg toasting the first day of filming but focused on the work that went into preparing the music, sets, choreography and other aspects of production before the camera actually rolled.
Character posters were released showing individual looks at Maria, Tony, Bernardo, Anita and Valentina (the character played by Moreno).
An extended spot debuted during the American Music Awards broadcast. Spielberg talks about how making West Side Story has long been a dream of his, as well as how unfortunately the story of racial divisions is still timely, in another featurette.
The movie’s red carpet premiere was held in New York City at the end of November, with the cast and crew all in attendance.
While on the red carpet Kushner shared how he turned to a Puerto Rican friend to make sure his Spanish language dialogue was accurate to that community at that time, with more and more people weighing in to the point it became a regular group discussion. Spielberg and members of the cast also reflected on Sondheim’s contributions and legacy since he had passed away just days before the event.
Reactions from that premiere screening praised the movie as a whole and especially the performance of Zegler in her film debut and DeBose. Spielberg’s first outing helming a musical was also called out as a highlight.
Unsurprisingly given it’s been featured in almost every asset to date, the first clip is an extended look at “Tonight.”
Dolby and IMAX exclusive posters feature slightly different arrangements but both take a more artistic approach to one-sheet design, using painted images of the characters and locations to create a retro feel appropriate to the era the story is set in.
Moreno talked about returning to the story 60 years later when she appeared on “The Tonight Show.” Zegler promoted the film on “GMA” and “Live with Kelly and Ryan” among other media stops.
Brian James D’arcy, who plays Officer Krupke, was interviewed about this movie specifically as well as his thoughts on remakes. Kushner later spoke about how intimidating the project was when he agreed to take it on.
AMC Theaters shared exclusive video interviews with the cast.
A few videos were released that had Spielberg offering his thoughts on Zegler, who he calls the high bar no one else cleared during the audition process, and DeBose, whose charisma and talent he praises. Another focused on Moreno, from how it was Kushner’s husband who had the idea to cast her in a role originally created for a man to how she shared stories of the original production during filming to the part she played in conveying a real Puerto Rican experience to everyone on set.
Alvarez was profiled for how his career includes a break while he served in the U.S. military.
Another premiere event was held just recently, this one in Los Angeles.
The movie got a final push when the AFI named it one of the 10 best movies of 2021.
It’s interesting, if not a bit maddening, that this movie is being held up as an indicator of whether or not non-franchise blockbusters have any future at the theatrical box office. That issue has been very much up in the air this year, with the answer too frequently being “No, not really.” But asking it overlooks the fact that, as an adaptation of a perennially popular musical that was already made into one a cinema classic, it doesn’t really fall into the “original idea” bucket even if it’s not a comic book or YA novella adaptation.
The movie certainly comes with the endorsement of critics, as represented by its 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But tracking estimates an opening domestic weekend of $12-17m, which would be just slightly above the $11m opening of In The Heights last June, a result that was roundly considered disappointing. Yes, the winter yardstick for success is different than that used in summer, but still…
Putting all that aside, 20th Century Studios has mounted a very good campaign that:
- Has a strong brand identity throughout the effort, as exemplified by that white brick title treatment
- Knows the audience is there to see the two leads sing “Tonight” to each other and so uses that footage every single chance available
- Highlights, especially in its back half, the role GOAT Rita Moreno played in guiding this film through production and the respect paid to her by everyone from Kushner to Zegler and all in between
- Communicates consistently that this isn’t a period piece locked in amber for 60+ years but one that is both respectful of tradition and updated a bit to make it timely and relevant to modern audiences
Finally, it manages to look and feel like something that is both a big screen musical and all that entails while also looking like a Spielberg film, no doubt thanks to the cinematography of the director’s long-time collaborator Janusz Kamiński.
It’s also coincidental that this is the second of two Sondheim-related projects to come out in just a few weeks, the first being Tick…Tick…Boom!, which featured the late writer (as portrayed by Bradley Whitford) mentoring a new generation of musical theater creators. So that celebrates the future he was instrumental in shepherding while this celebrates one small part of his legacy.