The story of Edward Snowden, the former NSA tech who made headlines for exposing what the agency was up to in terms of monitoring law-abiding U.S. citizens before fleeing the country to avoid prosecution, is now being dramatized in a new movie. Snowden comes from director Oliver Stone and stars Joseph-Gordon Levitt in the title role, with Shailene Woodley as Lindsay Mills, his girlfriend who gets caught up in the politics and espionage that comes with Snowden’s actions.
The movie tries to tell a complete picture of Snowden, likely as a way to present him not as a single-minded traitor but as a complex individual who’s moved by the desire to expose what he feels are illegal wrongdoings. So it shows his beginnings in the Army and his rise through the NSA ranks. But then when he can no longer ignore the spying on everyone, regardless of suspicion, he decides to do something about it. That makes him no friends among very powerful people and so in order to continue his work he has to engage in all sorts of subterfuge, all of which comes with danger around every corner from the people who want him silenced.
The first poster is notable in that it includes Stone’s name three times: Once at the top where it says the movie comes from the Academy Award winner, then twice toward the bottom, once as the director and then again as one of the screenplay’s co-writers. So you know what the marketing team here thinks is a strong, if not their strongest, entry into the audience’s awareness.
The main element outside of that is Gordon-Levitt, who stands in front of a faded collage of images including the White House, a couple redacted documents and the American flag. “The only safe place is on the run” we’re told by the copy above the title treatment. Outside of the red that the title treatment is on it’s all very washed out and faded, setting the tone of the movie as grim and bleak.
The first full trailer starts out by introducing us to Snowden and his position as a frustrated soldier who is told he can’t do anything physical. That doesn’t matter since it turns out he has an aptitude for computer science and is quickly recruited by the NSA. That leads him to discover the extent to which American citizens are being spied on, which sets in motion his plans to expose those operations. The rest of the trailer is about the implications of that action, with lots of shots of hushed conversations, security footage showing clandestine meetings and more.
It’s a tense, solid trailer. Everyone made fun of Gordon-Levitt’s voice when this came out, but it’s fine. My bigger concern is that the trailer amps up the tension in what is likely a much slower, more evenly-paced than this. It’s a drama, not an action movie, but that’s not how it’s being sold here.
A second trailer debuted along with the movie’s activities at San Diego Comic-Con and opens with a journalist coming in to interview Snowden about what he’s been doing. This one skips the bits about Snowden being recruited for the NSA and focuses instead on how he becomes disillusioned about the scope of the government’s snooping and how that affects his relationship.
It works on roughly the same level as the first trailer. There’s more time given here to the girlfriend played by Woodley, but all that does is show that she has little to do here than react to Snowden’s actions and continually ask him if he’s doing the right thing.
Online and Social
The official website for the movie isn’t bad, but it unfortunately gives in to the temptation to look “techy”, with various graphics that are supposed to look like command line prompts and so on. The front page features big prompts to both buy tickets and find out about the Fathom Events live Q&A with Snowden himself that’s coming up later this week, just before the movie’s release. There are also links to the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts for the movie.
You’ll find the trailers in the first section that can be accessed by either just scrolling down the page or clicking “Run” in the left-hand menu. They’re not listed, but will cycle through the available options in the one player window on the screen. After that “Hide” takes you to the story synopsis where you can find out what the movie is about.
“Live” has a photo gallery you can scroll through. “Truth” then has a cast list that just features the actor’s name along with their character name and a production still of that character.
The naming convention kind of falls apart at the end here, with “Social” featuring a wireframe map that displays Tweets about the film or its actors popping up here and there.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Most of the TV spots like this one start off slowly, setting up the actions Snowden takes to expose the secrets and actions he comes across in his role at the NSA. As the commercials progress, though, the drama amps up and we see explosions, car chases and other action sequences to make the movie seem as thrilling as possible.
Online and social ads used a mix of the key art and the various trailers and videos. I’m sure some outdoor ads also used variations on the poster as well.
Media and Publicity
While there was plenty of buzz about the movie given the subject matter and the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera, there wasn’t a whole lot of actual publicity about it outside of the news that release was being pushed to 2016. It then got pushed back even further into 2016 in what was likely a mix of needed additional time and the desire to position it in this year’s awards conversation.
Later on Stone talked about the issues he faced while producing and filming the movie, including how some companies couldn’t or wouldn’t help him because they didn’t want to be associated with the subject matter and how he got involved with the project in the first place. That topic would continue to be one he talked about at length whenever given the opportunity.
In an appearance at Cannes during the Lions awards, Stone talked about lots of things, including his continued distrust of corporations and the government and more as part of also promoting the movie. Just before the convention started it was announced the movie would receive a special screening along with a cast Q&A at San Diego Comic-Con, which might be an odd choice for a non-geek movie like this, but obviously the studio is hoping for more of the movie fan crowd to get on board with this.
That SDCC panel provided new soundbites from the cast and Stone about how the real life Snowden cooperated with their efforts and how difficult it was to get funding and distribution for the movie. After the screening Snowden did a Google Hangouts interview and the press then latched on to it as providing a much-needed moment of clarity to the convention, as if everything in life needs a down moment to prove how “serious” it is.
The story behind the making of the movie continued to be a big focal point of the press coverage, including this massive New York Times feature that detailed the efforts of Stone to keep things secure and safe for himself, his cast and the real Snowden, the various levels of security that Snowden forced the filmmaker to navigate and lots more. It’s a fascinating read that makes the making of the movie seemingly as movie-worthy as Snowden’s story itself.
Stone and Gordon-Levitt showed up at the Toronto Film Festival, where they kept talking about the movie, politics and more along with a screening of the movie.
If you go into things expecting a typical Oliver Stone movie you will likely know what to expect from the movie and get more out of the marketing campaign. By that I mean everything has to be viewed through the prism of this coming from Stone, one of our most opinionated directors, even if he sometimes struggles with a distinctive visual style. Stone is the brand in most cases and he brings with him all the baggage a brand does and which is factored into how the movie is or isn’t received and interpreted by the audience.
In this case his presence actually adds little to the marketing. It might even detract from the efficacy of the campaign a bit because he looms over everything. Any other director takes this on and the marketing comes off as selling a nifty, hopefully interesting and fast-paced techno-thriller about current events. With Stone behind the wheel – and his name is all over the campaign – and everything becomes Very Important, part of his body of work that includes loads of conspiracy theory stories and so on. It’s not a bad campaign, but is weighted down by the emphasis placed on making sure everyone knows who the director here is and how much work he put into tracking down and working with Snowden.