Movie Marketing Madness: Changeling

It’s interesting (if now seen as a bit heretical) to note that prior to 1992′s Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood was a solid if only moderately remarkable actor and director. Don’t get me wrong, he’s always been great. But his filmography is made up prior to that point of Westerns, cop pictures and some rather formulaic studio fare. He was notable – sometimes even remarkable – in many of those roles but he was generally a consistently good character actor.

(At this point I should note that two of my favorite Eastwood movies come from the the early 80′s: Bronco Billy and Firefox. Perhaps its the sepia-toned memories of watching them over and over again on HBO in my grade-school years, but I still think they’re good movies. Those of you still reading have probably stopped but I wanted to admit that once and for all.)

But since that remarkable movie he’s been seen as Clint Freakin’ Eastwood and revered as a grand statesman of cinema, capable of lyrical scene composition and emotional performances with nary an effort. Indeed much of the press around his movies talks of his gentle nature toward shooting his movies and their beautiful scenic composition.

The latest feature from Eastwood and his understated brilliance (something that seems to be up for dispute with this movie) is Changeling. The film stars Angelina Jolie as a mother whose son disappears at a young age. Years later, after a very public search for the boy, she’s presented with someone who the police claim is that missing son but whom she says is categorically not. Fighting against pressure from the authorities to drop it and accept things as they are, she’s committed to an asylum as a private investigation into the matter continues, and is continually met with official interference. The story is based on true events that took place in the 1920′s and one gets the sense the movie would not have gotten the greenlight if it weren’t seen as an excuse to go after a Best Costume Design Oscar.

The Posters

The movie’s single one-sheet is, essentially, an homage to Jolie. It presents her Big Floating Head taking up about two-thirds of the poster’s real estate as she looks down over the faceless small boy that’s tucked in one corner of the design.

Above the title treatment is the declaration that this is based on a true story (I don’t get that this is a marketing hook right now – there’s enough depressing news going on that we don’t really need it dredged up from another era) and below is text that presents just what an extraordinary journey Jolie’s character is going to be going on.

It’s a pretty clear example of the “well we don’t know what else to do so let’s just put the star – in a period hat – there and hope for the best” problem that plagues a lot of posters. The designers apparently couldn’t figure out a way to convey “mom searches for real son” in a single image and so took the easy way out and plopped the biggest star from the movie on the poster. The problem is that, aside from that brief explanatory text there’s no entry point for the audience to become interested in the movie or its story. If they don’t find Angelina Jolie to be an alluring figure, either sexily or cinematically, they’re going to be left cold by this. And if it’s only the latter they’ll likely be turned off by the hat, which conveys a pretty clear “You’re going to be bored by this” message.

The Trailers

The one trailer for Changeling is an exercise partly in story explanation and partly an exercise in the beautification of Angelina Jolie. Her character is, by turns, shown as deeply suffering, intensely protective, deeply suffering or intensely protective. The story is laid out rather well, but the main point of it seems to be to show just how emotive Jolie can get and how many times she can declare that this is not her son and she won’t do it, whatever “it” happens to be at any given time.

Mostly, though, it just leaves the audience cold since it’s almost impossible, in this trailer, to connect with the character’s concerns or emotions. This might be the fault of the trailer format or it might be the fault of Jolie just not being a very good actress. Take your pick.

Online

The movie’s official site opens with the trailer, which you can skip if you’d like to get straight to the content.

Once you get there the first section in the menu is “Synopsis,” which presents a pretty decent three paragraph description of the story of the film. More video follows in “Video Clips” and “TV Spots.” The former features seven extended clips from the movie, most of which take scenes from the trailer and flesh them out a little bit. The latter has three commercials that were created that act as abridged versions of the trailer. All of the videos are sharable via a button at the corner of the player which allows you to grab what’s essentially a mini-widget of that video that comes complete with branding for the film and a link back to the official site.

There are a decent 19 stills in the “Gallery,” a good portion of which are reaction shots of Jolie. The usual content can be found under “Cast” and “Filmmakers,” including the histories of all the major players in and behind the movie. “Downloads” carries a handful each of Icons and Wallpapers. There’s also some very nicely written and presented “Notes” that cover more or less the major highpoints of the film’s production.

The final feature on the site is labeled “LA Times Feature.” That’s a little trip down memory lane into the LAT’s archives about the actual event. Clips from the paper are shown as they originally appeared. It’s a neat section with some interesting stuff in it. It also shows just how different Jolie looks from the woman whose real life she’s portraying.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

There’s been a bit of online advertising that I’ve seen and the website archives the handful of TV spots created. I also heard more than a few radio commercials so obviously Universal wanted to seriously get the word out about this.

Media and Publicity

Lots and lots of press for both Eastwood and Jolie since they’re the main draws in the film. Most of it is almost exclusively positive and laudatory over the two stars.

Overall

There’s a decent idea behind this campaign in that the focus should absolutely be on the actress playing the distraught mother. But it’s all executed with such kid gloves it winds up coming off not so much as being gentle toward the subject matter as it seems to not want to offend or infringe on Jolie’s image. The idea seems to be to present Jolie as the Holy Mother at all times.

But that sort of approach winds up leaving the audience cold and presenting a movie that is just too far out of bounds for a good portion of that audience. There’s nothing there for them to hang on to.

The poster is not at all engaging in its singular focus and the trailer is, while alright, also comes off as awfully cold. The site is slightly better but also falls into the too-emotional-for-its-own-good trap quite far. That means the campaign as a whole leaves a lot to be desired in making itself appealing to an audience that is probably somewhere between the mainstream and the independent worlds.

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