If you look back at the last few years of Oliver Stone’s career you’d be hard pressed to figure out just what he’s got in mind. Since 1994’s Natural Born Killers (a movie I despise with a fiery, fiery passion – it’s the very definition of a convoluted mess) Stone has alternated between overtly commercial epics like Alexander and Any Given Sunday, seemingly liberal tracts like Commandante and the “HOORAH!” weeper World Trade Center. Somewhere in there the strongly opinionated and almost morbidly nostalgic filmmaker who put together an amazing body of work in the five years between 1986’s Salvador and 1991’s JFK (I like it, deal with it) seemed to get lost as he looked to update his image. In that time he became, to some extent, a competent director-for-hire who was willing to forego his own vision for a decent paycheck.
W. marks a sort of return to the Stone of old. Shot over about 50 days with a shoestring budget and reportedly with a loose sort of vibe, the movie aims to tell a slightly dramatized version of the life of the man who would become the 43rd President of the United States, going back to his younger days as a heavy drinker who couldn’t find success in any of his various business venture and continuing right up through his Presidency.
The first teaser poster showed simply a large “W,” with it being presented like a dictionary entry whose definition is “the improbable President.” It follows with a handful of Bush’s most misunderstanded quotes, most of which are the same sort of thing you likely saw on Slate’s “Bushisms” online feature and eventual books.
The second poster shows the President standing in front of an American flag and below a boom mic getting his hair coiffed. The implication being that this is a very image-concsious man whose chief skill is in managing his public persona. It’s a tad more effective than the first teaser, largely because it’s a bit more subtle, but it’s really a matter of opinion.
Around the time of the Democratic National Convention, two new posters were released that show Brolin as Bush kind of in thumb-twiddling mode behind the desk of the Oval Office. The first has him with his head on the top of the desk looking like he’s just bored and doesn’t know what to do about it. The second has him gazing wistfully at the ceiling like he’s just thought of a really funny joke and is smirking to himself about just how clever he really is.
Eventually there was a whole series of these posters released with Brolin in various poses behind the desk, including one where all you see are the bottoms of his shoes. The message is clear that this is a president who just enjoys the trappings of power while not knowing exactly what to do with the power he has.
The movie’s first trailer certainly not only sets up the film’s core story point but also nicely provides its own little indictment of the title character’s personality. It starts off with George H. W. Bush dressing down W. for his failure at just about everything he had been involved in to date, from the oil business to the Air National Guard. It presents a character that had little ambition, little sense of responsibility and little talent for anything but getting into trouble. It then shows this perpetual screw-up eventually sitting in the Oval Office and then introduces us to the other characters that will populate the movie, from wife Laura Bush to eventual Vice President Dick Cheney. It doesn’t tell us the names of the actors playing these roles, just the names of the real people they’re portraying, which makes their presence even more real and more than a little funny.
The second trailer that was released more clearly presents the film as a wacky comedy of relationships. Brolin’s Bush in this is constantly struggling against the weight of the expectations that have been laid on him, which he deals with by either freaking out or putting on as much bluster as possible. We get more lines from the supporting cast as well, giving us a little better look at the film as a whole. The use of the Talking Heads as the music for the spot is meant to enhance the trailer’s zoned-out and slightly surreal tone. It’s likely to excite liberals in the audience who are going to relish any portrayal of the cast of characters such as Dick Cheney going on about enhanced interrogation techniques and Bush seeming jovial and frat-boy like in response.
The movie’s official website opens with a countdown to the film’s opening with various pictures of Brolin as Bush rotating in the background.
The first section, “Trailers” features both the teaser and theatrical trailers as well as an extended version of the latter and one of the TV spots created for the movie. If anything, the extended theatrical trailer works a bit better than its shorter counterpart simply because the extra running time allows the insanity to build to a bigger head before coming crashing down at the end.
“About the Film” is pretty skimpy, featuring just a single paragraph describing what the film is all about. I guess there isn’t much that needed to be said, but this would have been a good spot for something like a note from the director or a similar longer feature. Likewise “Gallery” features just about 10 stills from the film.
The “Cast” and “Crew” sections are, conversely, quite cool and full of good content. Not only do the descriptions of the actors tend to be written in a bit more of a human, conversational style than many such sections but the navigation between each individual is pretty sweet. The way they sort of expand when you mouse over them reminds me of a Mac icon dock and that led me to play around with it a bit more than I usually would have, which is a good thing.
Lionsgate setup a dedicated YouTube channel, linked to via “MashUp” on the site, for W that contained trailers, clips and other promotional materials. It also housed a trailer mash-up contest that encouraged people to create their own trailers. Unfortunately the lawyers at the studio weren’t told, apparently, and were taking down the clips citing copyright violation as soon as they were put up.
Finally there’s a “Widget” that will bring you much of the official site’s content, as well as a banner across the bottom that promotes other current and upcoming Lionsgate releases.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Not coincidentally, the film got a lot of publicity from – and staged a bit of marketing around – the two national conventions from the Democratic Party and then the Republicans. The studio launched a whole series of outdoor ads featuring the poster artwork of Brolin in character and behind the desk of the Oval Office looking very Bush-like in an effort to find those politically-minded movie fans.
The movie got a ton (even I saw some and I don’t watch that much TV) of television advertising support, not surprising there were better than even odds that whatever programming it was appearing in was political in nature. Most of those ads were variations on the trailers and contained much of the same footage. There was even some radio advertising done, though Rick Klau did not appear to be a big fan of those efforts.
Media and Publicity
Director Stone was also out there in full force talking up the movie and the timing of its release to the media, sometimes taking the outrageous position that the film wasn’t supposed to be all that controversial. What seemed to be oddly missing, though, was any sort of witch-hunt from the conservative media. My only assumption can be that they were too busy trying to stay positive about a certain vice-presidential pick to worry about this too much.
Looking back on the whole campaign, it comes off with the same sort of vibe as the movie itself does, one of feeling very sort of laid back and patched together and something a great deal of people never really had a serious plan for. The posters and trailers sort of arrived apropos of nothing and never seemed to be labeled as “teasers” or “theatrical” or anything like that. They were just there and apparently were meant to be taken at face value and not as part of a larger whole.
But taken as a whole it’s a pretty good campaign. While the posters and trailers are slick and funny to some extent, the website really shines for its presentation value alone. We can argue about the take on the characters all day long (and beyond) but that site lays the movie out in a very professional and compelling way and that counts for a lot. That makes me wish it were more fully fleshed-out, especially since it doesn’t feature any of the print assets, something that I think is a major oversight.
Other than that, though, I think this is a solid campaign for a movie that’s going to be largely dependent on word-of-mouth and critical recommendations in order to succeed.