Two days before the June release of Kate Mara’s latest film “Megan Leavey,” the “House of Cards” actress was promoting the movie at an event in Washington.
But Mara wasn’t attending a premiere or a promotional junket for the biopic about marine Megan Leavey and the bond she formed with Rex, her military dog, while serving in Iraq. Instead, she was speaking at a rally calling for the restoration of online animal welfare records held outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The rally was broadcast live on Mail Online, and an accompanying Care2 petitioncalling for the release of animal welfare records attracted 160,000 signatures. Megan Leavey, meanwhile, ended up a modest indie hit, grossing nearly $13 million.
That a rally held outside a government building may have been among the film’s most effective promotions highlights the increasing coordination between movie marketing and political and social advocacy. The boundaries between films and social causes are blurring in today’s on-demand, streaming-centered cultural landscape.
“Movie studios are now aligning with good causes to support the release of films in ways that they never used to,” says Cynthia Parsons McDaniel, a former Head of Marketing and PR at three different film studios, who says Twentieth Century FoxFOXA, +0.18% which partnered with the Teenage Cancer Trust with 2014 teen romantic drama The Fault in Our Stars.
“Whether it’s by doing a film or working with charities or doing certain docuseries, what I’m trying to do is spread positive messages,” actress Cara Delevingne, star of the new film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, recently told WWD.
Hollywood has always been purpose-oriented, both on the screen and off with prominent actor-activists ranging from Ronald Reagan to Angelina Jolie. But now causes are gaining in prominence and priority.
Take Sony’s “The Emoji Movie,” to be released July 28. While the movie is on one hand typical family oriented summer fare, a key component of its marketing is an antibullying campaign.
Sony and the “I Am a Witness” campaign, run by nonprofit organization The Ad Council, released a trailer showcasing footage from the movie that relates to confronting oppression.
“Emoji! I thought the conversation just got dumber,” exclaims a green troll in the trailer. “Internet trolls — just ignore them!” replies Hi-5, the hand emoji, voiced by James Corden.
The campaign aims to give the movie a layer of social worthiness the comedy might otherwise have lacked. “You wouldn’t have seen something like ‘The Emoji Movie’s antibullying trailer accompanying the release of a family movie a decade ago,” said Parsons McDaniel.
The biggest blockbusters now associate themselves with the worthiest missions. The “Star Wars: Force for Change” program, a charity launched by Lucasfilm and Disney in 2014, “harnesses the power of ‘Star Wars’ to empower and improve the lives of children around the world,” according to its website.
The Force for Change program might not exactly be in danger of eclipsing Han Solo in minds of Star Wars fans, but it is by no means an insubstantial part of the galaxy.
A recent fundraising campaign, held to coincide with “Star Wars’” 40th anniversary, raised $3.4 million with proceeds benefiting Unicef and Starlight Children’s Foundation. (Rival sci-fi franchise ‘Star Trek’ also runs a number of charities overseen by its distributor Paramount.)
“The Promise,” a drama starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac set against the backdrop of the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks that began in 1915, was released in 2016. The film’s budget, reportedly just under $100 million, was funded by late Armenian-American businessman Kirk Kerkorian.
Despite wide distribution and a release coinciding with a movement for Congress to promote a bill requesting that the U.S. government highlight the killings, “The Promise” attracted mediocre reviews and grossed just $8.2 million in the U.S. Its mission was further derailed by a vociferous social media campaign in which Turkish websites flooded popular film database IMBD with one-star reviews.
The renewed emphasis on philanthropy is changing how filmmakers view their creative projects. Yet some movie industry creatives think the emphasis on messaging can go too far.
“Causes are at the forefront of movies more than ever and the activism among actors, suppressed for a long time by the studios, is now considered a positive,” says Emmy-winning screenwriter Jake Jacobson. “But it’s getting to be product placement for ideology. I don’t see what benefit it is for a film to do that other than preach to the choir.”
“Twenty years ago, you could have just told a story and people would have read into it what they wanted,” said Ernest Thompson, who won an Oscar for writing 1981 tear-jerker “On Golden Pond” and directed “1969,” a 1988 Vietnam War drama. “Now audiences are hungry for guidance and inspiration to step outside of the norm.”
Thompson is now developing a movie entitled “Allegiance Farm” about child abuse. “My intention is for the girl I cast to become a spokesperson for other children to have the courage to speak out,” he said, using her stardom and social media to boost advocacy on the issue — something he says wasn’t possible three decades ago.
“Now the girl who gets cast [in Allegiance Farm] can get people’s attention and tell other [abused] children where they can get help and give them ideas,” Thompson said. “The implications for this are limitless.”
Yet Thompson still believes subtlety is key for entertaining, rather than just educating, an audience. “If a movie is advertised as a message, you’ve got a problem,” he said. “If you can make an audience laugh and think, you’re accomplishing your goals more effectively.”