Ambition can be a powerful drug. It can drive us to excel in our given fields but it can also lead to some unfortunate behaviors. Ambition can be the downfall of our families, our own personal health or any number of things that get shunted to the side as we put whatever goal it is we’re striving for at the very front of our lives and give it more attention and devotion than anything else. Ambition can bring us unparallelled success but also has the potential to lead to our ultimate destruction.
Ambition and the lengths some will go to to secure their dreams is at the heart of Black Swan, the new movie from director Darren Aronofsky. The movie follows Nina (Natalie Portman) a ballerina with dreams of dancing the lead in her company’s production of Swan Lake. She’s always been on the cusp of greatness despite devoting her life to little else and it’s within her grasp until a new dancer Lill (Mila Kunis) joins and threatens to do things better than Nina. The two become rivals, with Lily seeming to be psychologically toying with Nina, who with Lilly’s help is descending into a sort of paranoid madness.
The first poster uses one of the first publicity stills from the movie – that of Portman wearing a ridiculous amount of white makeup with outlandishly feathered eyes and a tiara. It’s a striking – and to someone unfamiliar with the subject matter confusing – image to use but it certainly works to create a sense that the movie is about some sort of high art.
Aronofsky gets Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler to his credit and the poster also plays up the movie’s selection to appear at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival, giving it some hefty indie credibility to go with the beautiful woman being featured.
While I don’t usually mention non-U.S. materials in this column I have to point to this set of four international posters that are just gorgeous. Slightly art deco, minimalistic and striking in their artistry, they’re fantastic and really sell the movie in an unusual and interesting way that focuses on the unusual nature of the story and its connections to Swan Lake.
The second domestic poster also focuses strictly on Portman. This time she’s decked out in an outfit befitting the title – a costume of black feathers – some of which are also falling down around her as she stands in position. Aside from being kind of cool on its own the one element that adds a sense of mystery is that the hand that’s hanging in front of the costume and below the title treatment is colored bright red. It’s still a good poster but it’s not nearly as striking as the first one.
If you’re familiar with Aronofsky’s previous work you’ll be better prepared for this head-trip of a trailer.
The spot introduces us to the primary characters pretty well. There’s Portman’s Nina, who has been with the ballet company for a while now but who just now is on the verge of finally getting a featured slot, something that is a point of passive aggressive criticism from her mother. Then there’s Kunis’ Lilly, who comes in as the new hot young thing and threatens to usurp Nina’s role almost before she gets it. The rivalry between the two is made clear as well as the fact that they eventually become attached to each other in unhealthy ways.
While that’s the plot, though, the real purpose of the trailer is to show the fantastic visuals and mind-bending moods Aronofsky creates. There are lots of moving lights, lots of haunting music and lots of interesting make up and scene decoration. Everything seems to be in service to the goal of creating those visuals and that gives the trailer a unique and interesting touch.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the spot shows the much-speculated-about kiss between Portman and Kunis, but that’s brief and the trailer works at presenting an interesting and challenging film even without such an obvious pandering move.
The top of the official website starts with a recreation of the first poster key art, which then gives you the option of either watching the trailer again or just entering the site.
Choosing the latter, the first section there is “The Film” and is where you’ll find both a Synopsis of the movie’s story and five sub-sections of Production Notes that cover a number of facets of the film’s making with an emphasis on how some of its more striking visuals were created and what purpose they served in the advancement of the story.
The “Gallery” has 10 stills from the film, “Downloads” has the International Teaser Art that I mentioned above as well as Desktops and AIM Icons and “Video” just has the trailer.
Finally, “Cast & Crew” has information and backgrounds on the talent that was involved in making the film.
The rest of the site is where you can find the usual assortment of Fox Searchlight stuff, including a bunch of links to news about the movie, a widget showing a stream of Twitter updates and a Facebook page widget. That Facebook page also has videos, photos and other updates along with fan conversations about how much they’re looking forward to the movie.
Also online was an unusual effort that was framed as coming from Nina, the character played by Portman. The effort’s focal point was IJustWantToBePerfect.com, a sentiment that echoed her character’s trajectory in the movie. Arranged like a calendar, the site unveiled a new image from the movie on select days that people could share on their social networks. There were extensions of this to promote the site on Twitter and Facebook as well. That site was updated later on with a clip you had to type in a secret code to unlock that was quite disturbing, basically showing Portman’s character in the throes of passion but with a weird twist that’s more than a little creepy.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
A bit of TV advertising was done for the film, with spots such as this one that played up the psychological manipulation of Portman’s character that’s either really being perpetrated against her or which she’s imagining. It also includes more than a little footage of the sapphic love scenes between Portman and Kunis so in addition to selling the movie on its artistic pedigree the marketers are obviously unafraid of some straight-forward titillation as well.
I believe there was online advertising done as well that utilized the film’s poster art with its striking image of Portman in character. There was also some, I think, that was video-based and used an edited version of the trailer that’s similar to the TV advertising in video units on various websites.
Media and Publicity
The movie’s press push kicked off with a story in USA Today (7/22/10) that included the first looks at the actresses in the film, including the very theatrical (and a little goofy) makeup sported by Portman.
Around the same time that story broke it was announced the film would debut at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, where it started to generated some early positive buzz, and the Toronto International Film Festival, with similar results.
Some of the TIFF-generated press included a discussion with Aronofsky (Los Angeles Times, 9/13/10) about how ambitious the movie is or isn’t compared to some of his other films and the struggles he had in putting his vision for the story on the screen, from creative to budget issues and more.
Naturally because of the tawdry nature of it, the sex scene between Kunis and Portman became part of the press coverage (Hollywood Reporter, 9/24/10) for the movie, playing up how the actresses approached it, which apparently was with tequila firmly in hand.
There was also coverage of how Aronofsky kept the two actresses apart on the set and during production (LAT, 11/28/10) despite their being friends in real life so that friendship wouldn’t impact their performances as rivals.
Much of the press discussed, even if it wasn’t the main focus of the story as it was here (New York Times, 11/28/10), the work that Portman and Kunis had to do in order to convincingly play ballet dancers on-screen, including countless hours of rehearsal and training over the course of several months so that they not only moved like professionals but just plain looked like one.
This is certainly not a campaign for the squeamish – or even the mainstream. Most everything about the marketing here is designed to confuse the audience and, let’s just be honest here, weed out vast swaths of the public until the only ones remaining are those who are actually going to be interested in the crazy structures and themes explored by Aronofsky. That’s alright since that means there will be less of a chance that people are upset or offended coming out of it.
In addition to being more or less purposefully offensive it’s also nicely brand-consistent, hitting the same five or six notes in most all of the marketing materials that were produced and which were hammered home in much of the press coverage about the movie. Everything about the actual marketing has the air of being not just for a movie but also for a stage production in its own right. That’s conveyed primarily through the wonderfully artistic posters, while the trailer, advertising and website bring plenty of reasons for the right audience to be interested in the movie, which promises a very odd but also enjoyable time with the movie.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- 01/17/11: Just about everyone is surprised that the movie has become such a box-office success, including Aronofsky, with multiple theories abounding about why it caught on. Whatever the case it’s word-of-mouth that’s sustained it and allowed it to grow like it has.
- 01/26/11: An Oscar win could bring the movie’s already successful box-office receipts to $150 million according to THR, but as the story points out that road also means increased advertising and promotional expenses.