It’s hard to believe that Funny People, opening this week and starring Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler, Leslie Mann and a host of others, is only the third film from director Judd Apatow. After all, the guy’s name has been everywhere for the last three years or so, especially since 2007’s Knocked Up become one of the bigger hits of the summer, holding its own against Transformers and other heavyweight blockbusters with its tale of an accidental pregnancy that changes the lives of a stoned slacker and a career woman. But most of the press about the guy has been about his producing credits – Superbad and others were all movies he shepherded to some extent and some he had a writing or story credit in – but he hasn’t been behind the camera since then. And the only time before that was for The 40 Year Old Virgin.
Funny People, on its surface, would appear to be Apatow’s most personal story to date. Sandler plays a fantastically successful movie star who’s made a career out of starring in high-concept, low-intellect comedies. He befriends an up-and-coming stand up comedian (Rogen) who he hires to help him write some new material. One day Sandler’s character finds out he’s dying and so reaches out to Mann’s character, the love of his life who he let get away, and reconnects with her despite the fact that she’s now married (to a man played by Eric Bana) with kids. But he realizes, as he stares down the prospect of death, that he hasn’t lived and starts to re-embrace life.
I say it’s Apatow’s most personal to date since he – and just about everyone in the film – is a veteran of the stand-up culture the film is set in. And Sandler, who Apatow roomed with during their days of paying their dues, is playing a slightly modified version of himself. So it seems like while things might be dramatized to some extent this is a world Apatow knows all about, with characters being based on people he knows to some level.
That being said it also appears to mine familiar Apatow territory, with men being lifted out of their malaise and driftlessness by a good woman. So let’s see how Universal is handling the marketing.
There was just a single poster for Funny People that was created and released and…honestly I’m not sure what to make of it. It just has Sandler in the middle, with Rogen and Mann coming in from each side and resting their heads on his shoulders. From a visual stand-point that’s it. The copy plays up that it’s the third film from the director of Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin but doesn’t name Apatow outright. It does include the names of the three cast members pictured before simply putting the title treatment there and the opening date.
If there was a definition for a movie poster that made a “soft sell” to the audience this is it. There’s nothing about the movie’s plot – not even a line of teaser text – and there’s nothing that is overtly “funny” about the image. It almost seems like something that was taken at a standard publicity still shoot and which someone said, “Hey…that might make a pretty good poster.” about. Then, when no other designs could be agreed upon, they went and did just that.
I’m not saying it’s bad…it’s not. It’s just that it defies so much of what I would expect from a movie of this caliber it’s a bit unnerving. Where’s the crowded imagery? Where’s the obvious points of input from every Junior VP that took a look at it? Where’s that element of “wacky” someone felt was necessary to label it a comedy? Instead this looks like a poster that is selling a movie with a complex, emotional but humorous story that relies on the considerable charms of the three lead actors.
Usually simplistic stories get lots of things thrown on to their posters to make them look more interesting. This is a case where the lack of design elements actually makes me think the story is too difficult to explain in a single image.
The movie’s primary trailer starts off with Sandler’s character delivering a performance at a small comedy club. Shots of him talking about not having a girlfriend are mixed with shots of him standing alone in his very large house, immediately making it clear he has no one in his life at that point. Then we get introduced to Rogen’s character, an up-and-coming comedian who impresses Sandler and who is then asked by him to come and write some jokes. That leads to the introduction of Rogen’s two friends, also comedians, who can’t believe his good fortune.
We then move into the story that’s going to provide the film’s pathos, the fact that Simmons, Sandler’s character, is sick and might be dying. So we see a few scenes of him reacting to that, as well as to the eventual news that he might be getting better. The inclusion of that particular point makes me think either it’s completely inconsequential to the film and so nothing is lost by giving it away or the studio was worried people weren’t going to want to see a depressing movie about death. Either are viable options.
There’s also a bit in there about Leslie Mann’s character, a former sweetheart of Simmons’ who re-enters his life when he gets sick but who now comes with a husband, two kids and a seemingly happy life.
It’s an extremely funny trailer that highlights some of what are probably the best bits from the movie, but that’s alright. Apatow’s movies are always filled with small moments that make the whole film worth it and I’m sure there’s plenty of funny still to be revealed here.
The movie got a red-band trailer a bit later in the campaign, though it really wasn’t all that much of a controversial or offensive spot. This trailer, though, puts more emphasis on the relationship between the characters and less on the plot point of Sandler’s character being afraid he’s about to die. That being said, this is probably the funniest of the spots in that it really shows off how Apatow and his crew are able to turn a phrase with some salty language. As I’ve stated often, it’s not enough to just swear. You have to be able to actually write and this is an example of the talent behind the movie being able to do just that.
The official website‘s main menu features the movie’s key art, with content areas nicely displayed in boxes toward the bottom of the screen.
The first box is devoted to linking to websites relating to some of the characters we meet in the film and which we’ll discuss below. Over to the right is one prompting you to “View Restricted Content.” That’s where you’ll find not only the red-band trailer but also footage from a stand-up performance by Randy, who we’ll also hear about later.
Down in the second row are promos for a Judd Apatow-hosted video podcast series that you can subscribe to on iTunes, information on the film’s soundtrack, a link to Universal’s official Twitter account and a link to a promotional site from Universal that promotes select DVDs you can buy that come with movie cash you can use to see Funny People.
Once you enter the site you get to the more substantive content.
“About the Movie” contains a Synopsis that has nothing about the movie’s story other than that Apatow things it’s funny even though it’s his most serious movie to date. There actually is a brief snippet of plot at the very end but that’s it.
Where that first section is surprisingly sparse, the “Characters” section is a bit better. Click on any of the head shots at the bottom and you get Photos, Wallpapers and Icons specific to that character, as well as other content like clips from that character’s movies or other such stuff. I like it when content is organized like this as it allows you to grab what you’d like and learn more about the people in the film.
“Videos/Photos” is where you’ll find the all-ages trailer, the red-band version and four TV spots. This section also contains a single collection of all the pictures you can find elsewhere on the site. Likewise “Downloads” has the Icons, Wallpapers and a Screensaver.
The movie’s MySpace page has the trailer, poster and buddy icons you can download from there. The Facebook page is a bit better, with more video like the TV spots and a selection of photos you can download as well as a bit of audience conversation going on.
Much like what happened around Tropic Thunder, another comedy set in the weird reality of Hollywood, there as an effort at extending the universe of the movie by creating marketing materials for the movies Adam Sandler’s character George Simmons had made a career of starring in. That included a handful of posters and websites and even a promotional clip from the movie Re-Do, where he plays a man who is given the body of a baby after falling into a cave or something and one from Sayonara Davey. The funniest thing is that these seem like exactly the kinds of movies Sandler has indeed been making over the years.
Corporate sibling NBC gave the some legitimacy, at least in a vague sense of the word, by creating a show page for “Yo, Teach!,” the show that the character played by Jason Schwartzman stars in. The site looks much like any other show profile on the network’s site and, I’ll be honest, it’s not hard to see this kind of show actually making it on TV. The effort not only included a clip of the show but even an EPK type interview with Schwartzman that was pretty funny itself. NBC did something similar to this for the show-within-a-movie that was part of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and “starred” the character played by Kristen Bell. Mark Taylor Jackson – the character played by Schwartzman – also has a site of his own that lists all his work and other information.
Also fleshing out the movie’s universe was an official site for Randy, a stand-up comic portrayed in the film by Aziz Ansari, that contained the character’s bio, tour dates and more. Unfortunately the site crossed the fiction/non-fiction line by including a banner ad for Funny People at the bottom, bursting the bubble of belief that anyone might have carried with them.
Liz Miller at NewTeeVee was underwhelmed by this aspect of the campaign. While she has some valid points about execution – and points out the lack of traction of the video components have gotten – I’m not quite as down on this simply because I like it when a film’s fictional world is fleshed out like this. I agree that if this was meant to bring in large numbers of potential audience members then it might not have done what it was hoped to, but in terms of the actual execution of it I think it’s a good effort.
Advertising and Cross Promotions
A couple months before release Universal began running a series of TV spots for the movie, basically taking the trailer and adding a few scenes and cutting the running time. They were pretty funny, many of them showing off the whole ensemble cast as opposed to focusing on just Sandler or Rogen, though they were certainly prominent.
The timing of them was odd, though, since it was so far out from release and it was while the campaigns for Star Trek and Up were still on TV, both of them bigger and certainly flashier productions than this. My only assumption on the decision to run them at this point was that Universal wanted to buy time during season/series finale time, when new episodes of popular shows were still running and before the summer rerun/reality season began. That’s just a guess, but it makes sense to my mind and I’d bet that was at least part of the thinking from the studio.
Apatow also stocked a bit of online conversation by releasing a video tape he made from when, in real life, he and Sandler were roommates in the early 90’s. It’s a short video of Sandler making a prank phone call to a local restaurant but it’s mildly funny. It’s not really directly related to the movie, despite the inclusion of the URL at the end. Instead it’s kind of meant to be a look at the kind of environment and mindset these guys operate in, which is the basis for the movie’s story. So it fits but only from a sideways perspective.
There were also the usual round of outdoor and other ads that used the same key art as the poster. Some people found it odd that the names of the three stars – especially Sandler – weren’t on the ads since it’s assumed star power is pretty much the key to selling the movie. I don’t personally think it’s that big a deal. It’s not as if people aren’t going to recognize Sandler – or Rogen – so the lack of names isn’t going to have people looking at the poster confused as to who those people are. It’s actually, I think, more important to include text about it being from Apatow since he’s not pictured on the poster art.
Online also played a part, with banners and interactive units being placed around the web and in some RSS feeds. There was also the use of some sponsored posts like this one on Mashable that was a list of interesting entertainment folks to follow on Twitter that was “brought to you by” Funny People, specifically via the CinemaTweets.com site that Universal runs that aggregates tweets that contain the titular hashtag.
Media and Publicity
Universal got the ball rolling early by staging a “Night of Funny People” at the Improv comedy club that featured the cast appearing in character and doing their routines, with the footage then being what would be mined for the film itself.
The movie got a good amount of publicity when Apatow mentioned the running time would be somewhere around 150 minutes, basically two and a half hours. That raised a lot of people’s opinions about what the appropriate form of comedy was or wasn’t. Some people figured whatever Apatow was putting together would be fine and that it wasn’t a comedy – at least not in the way that we’ve come to expect – that he was making. Others, like Patrick Goldstein of the LA Times, make a passionate case for the director to make some cuts since comedies work better when they’re shorter. I get where Goldstein is coming from, really I do, but I think that his point about the actors that James Brook, which is who Apatow seems to be shooting for, was working with and those Apatow is working with are on different levels, is a bit off. It’s about finding the right actors for the material and not just getting A-list actors on set. And for Apatow that means people like Rogen and Paul Rudd and others. If he tried to get Albert Brooks it might work and it might not.
Apatow was given the opportunity to pen a couple of guest posts, including this submission to the MTV Movies Blog that talks about the kind of feedback he’s looking for from people regarding his movies.
If there’s one thing the campaign has going for it it’s consistency. Aside from a few TV spots that go a little overboard in making the movie seem like a laugh-a-minute broad appeal comedy, most everything in the campaign hits the same sort of notes as all the rest of the components.
The push actually doesn’t feel obnoxious or insulting, two words that could probably be used to describe most summer movie marketing campaigns in comparison. Instead it almost seems like a relatively soft-sell, with the campaign simply making the case for the movie based on what it hopes will be an interesting story and people’s familiarity of and interest in the next movie not only from Apatow but the actors in the film.
Some people I know weren’t fans and some went a little overboard in their praise of the extended universe aspect of the campaign, the part where sites and profiles were created for the characters in the movies. But I think they’re just a good idea and seem to be executed pretty well. Non-franchise films like this face a hurdle (we can debate the size of said hurdle another time) in that their characters aren’t known quantities so going this route creates a bit of that existing knowledge the audience can go into the theater with. Plus, it lets the creators flesh out those characters a bit and maybe use some material they otherwise would have cut
I’m a fan of Apatow and most of the people in the movie so the movie’s an easy sell to me. But I think the campaign also makes a good case for the film to the general audience as a well-made alternative to the explosion-filled sequels and such that have dominated the summer to date.