The NFL has had a rough couple years in terms of publicity both on- and off the field. The league has been beset by bad press, whether it’s continued coverage of life-threatening player injuries or news about players engaging in spousal abuse or other felonies, infractions which usually earn them a slap on the wrist compared to things like drug usage, which the league sees as more troublesome. The ability of fans to enjoy games guilt-free has been tested as many people realize that if the league doesn’t encourage this kind of behavior it at least isn’t serious about punishing players for engaging in it.
This week’s new release Concussion is about what may be one of the crucial moments when the conversation about the NFL and its treatment of players began to turn. It tells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith), a doctor who discovered a serious medical problem in professional football players that resulted from repeated head trauma. His findings are not well received by the league, of course, as it sees them as damaging the reputation of the game. Under pressure to drop it, Omalu instead doubles-down, insisting the league acknowledge the damage being done to players’ bodies.
The initial poster shows a very pensive looking Smith looking somewhere off-camera as he stands in front of a wall of blurry (gotta keep copyright considerations in mind after all) football helmets. Smith’s name is at the top of the poster while the audience is told this is “Based on a true story” just above the title treatment. Just below the title is the tagline “Even legends need a hero,” setting up the idea that Smith is a champion of some sort for the underdog, likely the players. The helmets are a nice nod not just to the setting of the movie in the world of the NFL but also to the devices those players count on to keep their heads from being knocked in on a weekly basis.
The second poster goes for an extreme close-up of Smith’s face, still looking off camera with a very serious expression on his face. In the background is the hazy image of a football stadium, so it sells the story as having something to do with football while we’re told this is undoubtedly a drama. Above the title treatment we’re told “Nothing hits harder than the truth” while below it we’re reminded the movie is based on a true story.
Both are good posters and as I said, they present A Very Serious Film to the public. It’s clear Smith is the centerpiece of the film and that he is being positioned for some acting awards here. They’re meant to pop from the hallway of the theater while people are on their way to other movies by being more simple and understated than the one-sheets they’re likely surrounded by.
The first trailer debuted via sport writer Peter King’s Twitter feed and showed the fight Smith’s character is up for after he comes across how repeated concussions are impacting the brains of football players, including going up against the NFL itself, which obviously doesn’t want anything to tarnish the game’s image. So Omalu is pressured to drop his findings and let the issue go, something he’s unwilling to do.
It’s relatively short but gets the basic point across as it sets up the story, the conflict and provides a general idea of the characters we’ll encounter. Smith’s performance is understandably at the center of things here but we also get a sense of what drives his character.
The second trailer is quite different from the first. The first half sets up why the doctor Smith plays is doing what he’s doing as he discovers the problem plaguing football players and what drives him to continue the investigation. Then the second half gets into the NFL’s reaction to that investigation and its results, including the intimidation he’s the recipient of as more and more people find out.
Both trailers work pretty well and for largely the same reasons. It’s clear Smith gives a commanding performance surrounded by supporting players. It’s also clear it’s essentially a procedural and kind of plays like an extended episode of CSI as people gaze into microscopes, have conversations about what they just saw through microscopes and so on.
Online and Social
The official website opens by playing the second trailer. Close that and you see a variation on the second poster. There’s a menu in the upper-left corner that contains the bulk of the site’s content.
The first section under that menu is the “Trailer,” so you can skip that if you’re already rewatched it. After that is the “Story,” which just has a single paragraph worth of plot synopsis. Then “Cast & Crew” just has a list of the cast and crew without any additional information about them.
There’s a section here that links to Sony’s awards-consideration site, in case there was any doubt of the aspirations the studio has for the movie. After that there’s a section that tells the true story of Dr. Omalu and what drove him to conduct the research he did along with a link to the GQ story that inspired the movie.
The site has two calls-to-action. First is “ForThePlayers” which encourages you to film and share your own touchdown dance as well as prompts to get involved in the concussion-awareness conversation and download the CDC app to find out more. The second is “#GameChangers,” which is about sharing a story about someone in your life who has overcome adversity to achieve great things. Finally, the site wants you to buy the Leon Bridges song “So Long” which is featured in the movie.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
There were quite a few TV spots run, most of which play as mini versions of the trailer and all of which present the movie as a tense, pulse-pounding thriller more than a drama. They work but they may oversell things like car chases and other elements that I’m guessing aren’t so prevalent in the movie itself.
Some of those TV spots even aired on ESPN, despite the fact that “make the NFL angry” would seem to be something the network would like to avoid and was the big reason Bill Simmons was fired from the network. Director Landesmann confirmed later on that TV commercials had been accepted by all the networks for Thanksgiving Day games. That NFL broadcast advertising would prove so apparently successful that it was increased to become one of the top spending movies. And it would turn out that as the advertising progressed, NFL games on network television – but not the NFL’s own network – would be the movie’s biggest promotional outlet.
There was online advertising done as well, most of which used one or the other element of the poster key art and which emphasized the “based on a true story” element of the campaign.
Media and Publicity
Right after the first trailer was released a story hit that revealed Sony had made cuts to the movie explicitly for the purpose of not offending the NFL. These weren’t changes requested by the league, the story says, but changes that were pondered ahead of time for both the movie and its marketing to lessen the chance of offense being taken. The NFL smartly pivoted on this and went to the press talking about how they were going to raise awareness of player safety in the lead up to the movie and offering to work with Sony on similar programs.
Later in the year the movie was selected to appear at the American Film Institute’s showcase festival, a nice placement for a movie like this and a venue for it to pick up some good buzz, including Smith as a potential awards contender. That would continue to come up time and time again.
One of the central themes of the campaign in the press would continue to be how the movie related to the NFL and what the league’s reaction to it was and would be. Smith shared how as much as he loves football this felt like an important story to tell. Omalu – the real doctor that inspired the story – also did a few interviews, including this one where he said he hoped the NFL would see the movie as part of a constructive dialogue, not an overt attack. But the controversy of the league’s actions back when Omalu was first revealing his study certainly put it at odds with the NFL and team owners, regardless of how it’s downplayed in the press. Jeanne Marie Laskas, who wrote the book the movie is also based on, would be pulled into the publicity cycle as well, talking about how the story is similar to how whistleblowers, doctors and public advocates took on the tobacco industry decades ago.
Director Peter Landesman would do the rounds in addition to Smith, talking about how he came to discover the story, how he brought Smith aboard the project and more. He’d also talk more about an earlier topic, again dismissing any rumors or reports that he or the studio made cuts to the movie in an effort to appease the NFL. Closer to release there was a huge feature that tackled (sorry) everything from the controversy surrounding the NFL’s handling of player head injuries to how Smith got involved with the project and lots more.
As I’ve said repeatedly above, Smith is the focal point of the campaign, which means the success of the movie will largely live and die on people’s tolerance of him. Not to say that’s going to be a detriment to a great extent or that Smith is a liability, but if anyone out there just isn’t a fan of the actor then they’re probably not going to be on-board for this movie. That’s also the case of anyone who feels the NFL can do no wrong and they’re not going to pay their hard-earned money to see the liberals in Hollywood tear down an American institution.
I’m concerned that the movie is in actually a lot more of a steady procedural than it is a pulse-pounding thriller, which is how much of the campaign sells it. There’s a lot of emphasis given to shots of Smith being threatened, of something menacing happening in the rear-view mirror of a car, of a car on fire on the side of the road and so on. It wants to emphasize the stakes as being very dramatic whereas my guess is the movie is more about three people talking in a room followed by five people talking in a room followed by science stuff. So there may be some issues when people find out they’re not watching Jason Bourne, M.E. and are instead there for 12 Pages Of Why the N.F.L. Is Negligent, Legally Speaking.