“Inspired by a true story” is a pretty common thing to see in books, movies and other media. Real life is not only a rich vein of potential stories but these are often more compelling than the fiction that is either told or adapted. Plus these come with that added drama that this *really* happened to someone. So it becomes a kind of alternate version of reality TV where the drama of “wow, someone really overcame/achieved this” becomes part of the viewing experience and a big part of the draw for audiences.
In The Heart of The Sea is a little different. Herman Melville’s classic book Moby Dick was inspired by the real story of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in the early 1800s. This new movie, directed by Ron Howard, is inspired by that real story, specifically the non-fiction book of the same name by author Nathaniel Philbrick. So it’s not a Moby Dick adaptation, it’s an adaptation of a book describing the real events that inspired Moby Dick. In the movie Chris Hemsworth plays Owen Chase, first officer of the Essex. The movie not only covers the ship and crew’s time hunting whales but also the aftermath of the ship’s sinking and their struggle to survive.
The teaser poster is primarily concerned with setting up the epic scope of the story. Shot from way up high, the camera looks down at what from that distance is a small ship in the middle of the water. But below the ship we see the outline of a massive whale that is not only so much bigger than the ship but so large it can’t even fit in the frame. The cast list appears at the top along with the note that this is “Based on the incredible true story that inspired ‘Moby Dick'” and I just want to know how many hours the team spent doing the math on that statement and figuring out the most concise and clear way to convey that. Still, I have to believe that line started more than a few people scratching their heads.
A similar epic scale is being shared in the next poster. This one, though, brings the action down to eye-level as we see a group of men alone in the middle of the sea as the massive tail of a presumably massive whale breaks through the surface of the water in front of them. The same copy and cast list appears at the top while on this one the title treatment at the bottom also comes with the promise the movie comes “From the director of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind.” This is oddly the only one of the set that makes a specific call-to-action to see the movie in 3D.
The final theatrical one-sheet takes a slightly different tack while still remaining consistent thematically with the previous posters. This time the action shifts underwater as a lone figure – presumably Hemsworth – swims with harpoon in hand toward the whale, whose eye alone seems to be larger than the person. This time the cast list is moved below the title so that the top of the poster can get the “Based on the…” copy but in even larger font and with the “Moby Dick” really emphasized.
The first teaser trailer starts off by providing the setting for the movie, giving us the date we’re traveling back to and promising the audience this is the story behind a true story they already know. We see some shots of Hemsworth and the rest of the crew on the ship as both the footage we see and the narration over it tell us that what started out as a standard voyage turned very bad. There are lots of shots of the ship breaking up, men rowing in lifeboats and more as things get progressively worse.
There’s no dialogue here as everything is either shown on screen or explained via narration. What this is trying to do is sell the audience on an emotional journey that takes place against an epic backdrop. By which I mean “green screen.”
The second trailer, the first “official” one, starts off with something potentially bad happening to the ship the sailors are on. After a few moments it becomes clear what that is as a massive whale is seen bearing down on them. We get the “Promise me you’ll come back” that is likely 40% of the wife’s dialogue before the whale keeps attacking and ultimately destroying the ship. From there we skip back and forth between scenes of that attack and the aftermath as the crew tries to survive and not turn on each other completely.
Trailer #3 brings back the narrator from the first spot and this time focuses at first on the setup as Hemsworth and his crew leave port on their fateful journey. Then we get many of the same scenes from previous trailers as the ship breaks up from the whale attack and the sailors deal with that attack and what comes next.
The final trailer stars us off in the middle of the action as the whale circles around amid the carnage. This time the context is someone telling the tale of the Essex and we even see someone writing “Call me Ishmael” so this one definitely wants to play up the Moby Dick connection. It also brings back some of the title cards that were in the first trailer. All that combined with the sweeping score really hammers home both the “epic” and the “true story” elements of the campaign.
Online and Social
The official website starts off by promoting the most recent trailer and encouraging you to find tickets for a show near you.
There’s a menu hidden in the compass in the upper left corner and when you open it the first section is “About the Film” which gives you a synopsis filled with cast and crew credits. Next up is “Gallery,” which offers a handful of images and stills from the movie that display full-screen on the page. The “Tumblr” section then takes you down the page to the photos, videos and GIFs that have been posted to the Tumblr blog.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Plenty of TV advertising was done with spots like this that condense many of the elements we’ve seen in the trailers into a 30 second spot. These commercials do what they can to use that shorter run time to still hit as many epic and emotional notes as possible, though.
The TV campaign was so extensive the movie made the list of top ad spenders a few weeks before release.
There was lots of online advertising done, most of it either using the key art or one of the primary images of Hemsworth. Outdoor ads also used variations on the key art for billboards and other signage.
Media and Publicity
Hemsworth made headlines for going into details and showing off his dramatic weight loss for the movie, a necessity since he’s lost at sea for much of it. Tom Holland would also get some coverage as the youngest member of the cast and crew. The logistics of shooting a technically difficult movie like this, particularly one that’s set on the sea and filmed on the water, would be covered as well.
There was also a segment of the press push – which seemed pretty tame for a movie like this – devoted to the true story of the movie’s story. For example Philbrick, the author of the source book, penned an article for Smithsonian about the real story of the whaling economy of Nantucket at the time of the Essex.
There’s a lot of good stuff here and it certainly is a consistent campaign, with a singular look and feel throughout, from the posters to the trailers to the website and more. The marketing not only shares a single look and feel – a blue/green that yeah, looks like seawater. And it certainly wants to sell you on the movie having an epic, yet still deeply personal, story. So it sets the drama of Chase’s personal journey along with that of the rest of the crew against the vastness of the sea, the size of the whale they’re chasing and the grand scale of man against beast.
But for some reason it never really comes together, at least not for me. It almost seems as if the campaign is trying too hard to convince us that no, really, this is a big movie. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s really working hard to break through the noise on two fronts: 1) Obvious award contenders and prestige movies like Carol, Spotlight, Hateful Eight and the like, 2) Star Wars, which is dominating everyone’s attention both in the audience and the press and looms the weekend after this movie is released, meaning there’s a lot riding on opening weekend since that’s likely all the runway it will get. This campaign may not be enough to accomplish both goals since Star Wars is the 8,000 pound gorilla and In The Heart of The Sea doesn’t have the same cache some of the season’s other new releases do.