Marketing a movie brings inherent challenges, but doing so without the charismatic lead to promote it on the press circuit adds an additional hurdle — as the teams behind a growing number of recent titles have learned, or soon will as SAG-AFTRA’s actors strike begins in Hollywood.
Netflix’s They Cloned Tyrone premiere event took place in Los Angeles ahead of the film’s July 21 release but was without star Jamie Foxx, who has been largely out of the public eye since his daughter announced in April that he was recovering after a hospitalization for an undisclosed health issue. Other stars have recently been absent on the red carpet for different reasons: Jonah Hill cited mental health concerns in declining to promote Netflix’s You People, while Ezra Miller didn’t talk to media for Warner Bros.’ The Flash after a spate of headlines about the star’s personal life.
Meanwhile, the ongoing writers strike has kept some big-name creatives from stumping for their work — including Barbie co-writer Noah Baumbach skipping the film’s premiere in support of the Writers Guild of America — and has taken away late night TV interviews and SNL as promotional tools. The SAG-AFTRA strike threatens to make the options even more limited, and talent from this month’s high-profile releases were grabbing every last opportunity. Actors from Oppenheimer and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One were still going through with previously scheduled press interviews on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of the strike that commenced early Friday.
“Jamie’s obviously not in our midst, and we definitely feel the difference,” They Cloned Tyrone producer Stephen Love tells The Hollywood Reporter, before the SAG-AFTRA strike began. “But at the same time, he’s such a legend, and he’s so heralded, that as long as he’s in the film, when people see it and they see the marketing of the movie, they still feel his presence.”
A press tour is just one weapon in a movie’s marketing arsenal, but it’s viewed as an important one. When Strays’ planned June release date was moved to Aug. 18, one potential advantage was that the delay would allow time for the WGA standoff with the AMPTP to resolve in hopes that late night could help promote the risqué comedy featuring Foxx, Will Ferrell, Isla Fisher and others voicing a group of dogs. Alas, there’s no end in sight, although insiders were hopeful that Foxx will participate in some press opportunities for Strays.
“It’s essential that key stars do their required publicity tour in support of their movie, period,” says Jason E. Squire, USC School of Cinematic Arts professor emeritus and host of podcast The Movie Business, while noting that medical reasons represent an important exception. “This is an example of Hollywood balance, where it’s good for the movie, and it’s good for the artist. It enhances the artist’s career to talk about the work, and it brings the artist to the media world’s attention.”
Promoting a film without the star isn’t necessarily a new dilemma. Russell Schwartz, associate professor at Chapman University, recalls multiple campaigns facing such an issue during his time as president of marketing for New Line. One was for 2005’s The New World, as the feature from press-averse Terrence Malick was also without the support of stars Colin Farrell and Christian Bale after Farrell headed to rehab weeks prior to release. The film’s team shifted to a limited, Oscar-qualifying run at year’s end before going wide in February, but the absences were felt. “We sort of [lost] our moment,” Schwartz says. “It was a tough one.”
His team had to employ a different strategy for navigating 2006’s The Nativity Story due to the real-life pregnancy of Keisha Castle-Hughes, the 16-year-old actress playing the Virgin Mary. Schwartz remembers the bulk of the press opportunities shifting to director Catherine Hardwicke and then-unknown Oscar Isaac, who portrayed Joseph, in addition to a heavier focus on the IP itself. But for original films like They Cloned Tyrone or Strays, there’s no baked-in familiarity to lean on. (Notably, streamers like Netflix tend to put less marketing muscle into titles than traditional studios.)
The ensuing years have brought the prevalence of social media, adding a resource for reaching viewers. Albert Lieberman, the Grey Entertainment founder who worked on marketing campaigns for such Warner Bros. franchises as Batman and Harry Potter, points to Foxx sharing the Tyrone trailer on Instagram last month to his 17 million Instagram followers as one way that a star can impact awareness. It’s unclear whether the post effectively called attention to the film itself, as many of the user comments noted similarities between the premise — about conspiracy theories surrounding an apparent cloning experiment — and the flurry of rumors centering on the actor’s real-life recuperation.
Amid the writers strike, marketers have had to double down on less conventional platforms. For Sony’s ribald recent comedy No Hard Feelings, this meant booking Jennifer Lawrence on not only Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live but also YouTube’s chatting-with-wings show Hot Ones. “Even if there were late night shows, I would try to get Jennifer on Hot Ones,” says Schwartz, who notes that the program “probably gets a lot more next-day conversation anyway” than a standard visit to one of the Jimmys.
Still, discourse over the box office impact of a press tour continues in light of The Flash underperforming. “It’s always debatable whether the star attraction translates into dollars,” says Schwartz, noting that the movie’s primary draw stems from its DC Comics brand. “Would Ezra’s participation really move the needle? I don’t necessarily ascribe to that.” And Comscore box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian points out that the press moments most likely to affect a project’s bottom line tend to come from the top-tier names like Tom Cruise: “The higher the star power, the greater the impact.”
When asked if Miller’s lack of participation hurt The Flash’s finances, Lieberman offers a truism about a marketer’s plight: “The one thing that nobody has ever been able to overcome is a movie that people don’t love.”
Whether the actors strike will spur additional pivots remains to be seen. After leading Hollywood PR firms were briefed earlier this week by SAG-AFTRA to emphasize that actors won’t be available to promote their projects, a publicist quipped to THR, “Time to sign influencers.”
Anaja Smith and Mia Galuppo contributed reporting.