The last decade or so has been a rough one for people who, for reasons either religious or just ignorant, aren’t fans of societal change. We’ve seen all sorts of things that used to be kept outside of polite company come to the forefront and attitudes be at least challenged or at best changed, often for the better. “Equality” and “tolerance” have become the new norms and society is usually better for it, even if there are personal beliefs that may justifiably run counter to that, and people are no longer (in most ways) living in shame just because they want to be true to their natures. The political system is slowly catching up to that, though making those sorts of changes to entrenches policies and procedures usually means they lag at least a bit behind society itself.
It’s the latter kind of change that forms the central story of Freeheld. Based on a true story, the movie stars Julianne Moore as Laurel Hester, a gay police officer in a small New Jersey town. When Hester is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer she wants her benefits upon her death to go to her partner Stacie (Ellen Page). But the town ordinances don’t allow for domestic partners to receive benefits so the two, with the help of Hester’s partner (Michael Shannon) and a crusading lawyer (Steve Carell), fight to change the law.
The core theatrical poster focuses on selling the relationship between the two lead characters more than anything else. It’s a nice shot of Moore and Page as they look out over the ocean, obviously together and obviously enjoying themselves during a happy time. It’s the kind of photo people would take on vacation. Below the title treatment the poster lets us know that this is “A true story of love and justice.” It’s a good poster, even if it is a bit short on story teasing.
A series of character posters was released – I’m not sure if they came before or after the theatrical one-sheet – that put each of the biggest stars from the movie in the spotlight. So Moore, Page and Shannon each get one to themselves with a fourth featuring both Moore and Page, this time in the midst of a tender moment. They’re wearing the same outfits they are on the theatrical poster so it’s like they’re, for lack of a more delicate phrase, making out on the beach. Those posters feature a subtle “=” sign which forms the transparent windows through which you see the photo of each actor. That “=” sign, of course, has been adopted by the marriage equality crowd as a show of support for that cause, so this is a nice nod in that direction.
The first trailer is all about setting up the story and so doesn’t spend a ton of time on character introductions. We get the gist – that Page’s character is a mechanic and Moore’s is a cop – but then it quickly moves on to the meat of the story, which is the struggle for equal benefits for domestic partners. That shift starts when Hester says she has a pain in her side, a pain we soon learn is lung cancer that is killing her. We see them start their fight in the city council with occasional shots of Laurel and Stacie getting to know each other and have the kind of conversations couples have when they think they’re planning their future.
It’s an alright trailer, though I feel it does the movie no favors. By focusing on the legal fight we miss a lot of the relationship building between the two women. While I know that legal battle is where most of the focus is likely to be and is the movie’s “message” the fact that we jump right from introductions to the two women moving in with each other is a bit jarring, not letting us get a good look at the performances by Moore and Page. Again, it’s not bad, I just think it errs too far in one direction.
The second trailer was a bit shorter and focused more on the emotions of the characters than the specific story. You still get the outlines here – that there’s a struggle for benefits for a lesbian couple – but it’s less about the journey and more about the characters and the looks on their faces as they go through all the stages of the story. The trailer was notable for including a brand-new song by Miley Cyrus, something that garnered a bit of media attention.
Online and Social
As is often the case with independent movies the official website is a relatively modest affair. “Video” just has the second trailer. Credits and filmographies can be found in “Cast and Crew.” “Story” has a brief synopsis of the plot and “Posters lets you zip through the five one-sheets that are covered above.
The most full-featured section of the site is “Love Is Love.” This allows you to upload a photo that you can customize with the #LoveIsLove the campaign has been using and then share that photo on social networks. That hashtag has been in broader use for a while by advocates of same-sex marriage, so the idea here is to insert a message about the movie into an existing conversation that’s somewhat relevant. There are certainly risks to doing this since it can turn off those who are organically using it, but considering the ties between those organic conversations and the movie’s message my guess is those risks are relatively low.
On Facebook the studio shared lots of engagement-bait like images from the film with some sort of inspirational message or quote overlaid. That’s not to say it’s bad since it’s in line with the movie and its message. There are also video clips, trailers, photos from premieres and screenings and links to select press stories.
As usual the Twitter profile is full of the same plus other things like Retweets of early buzz, messages from the stars and director and more. All those same images also were put on the Instagram profile.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
There was, to my knowledge, one TV spot created and that’s it. That spot jumps right over any of the relationship aspects of the story and focuses solely on the legal fight, starting out with a sick Laurel pleading for her partner to get her death benefits and moving on to scenes of Stacie pleading with the council, crowds protesting and so on.
Media and Publicity
The movie’s screen at the Toronto International Film Festival provided a nice lift for the buzz around it, which was generally positive, and gave stars like Moore a chance to talk about what the movie means and how it still reflects some societal struggles going on today and more (IndieWire, 9/14/15).
Profiles of both Moore and Page were common throughout the last month and weeks before release. Moore would talk about how she wanted the movie to transcend any niche groups and be a mainstream success (EW, 9/29/15) because it’s just a love story and what’s so weird or niche about that? Page made the point (THR, 9/29/15) that the movie shouldn’t be read as some sort of call to action for everyone who’s gay and closeted to come out since, as she points out, it’s not that simple in a lot of cases. Both Page and Moore would frequently be asked about gay rights and what this movie means in that context throughout their press appearances like in this story (USA Today, 9/30/15).
A long, in-depth profile of Page (Buzzfeed, 9/28/15) would put the movie in the context of her own career and sexuality, which she opened up just about a year and a half ago.
This is a nice campaign. No, it’s not going to blow the doors off of anything, but it’s nice and it’s nicely consistent, even if I don’t think the elements it’s consistent in hitting are the most effective. For instance, as I mentioned above, I think the trailers focus too much on the legal wranglings and not enough on the relationship in the movie.
But there is plenty of room in the campaign for Moore and Page to shine, which is the larger point for moviegoers of all stripes. Yes, this might be a “niche” film in the same way any movie with a societal message is. So it’s going to be the promise of tour-de-force performances that’s going to bring in the masses. Unfortunately I think the focus on the legal nature of the story gives short shrift to those performances and some general audience moviegoers may be turned off by what is seen as a “preachy” movie. To be clear, I don’t feel that way but that’s my opinion of how the marketing will be received by the general public.