Howard Hughes remains an enigmatic figure in the world of Hollywood and American society in general, though whether his mystique is relevant to today’s generation of young people is an open question. Hughes, as played by Warren Beatty, is the central figure of this week’s new release Rules Don’t Apply, which was written and directed by Beatty as well. The story is set in 1958 and Hughes has summoned his latest ingénue, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) out to Los Angeles to get her career underway.
Mabrey is met at the airport by one of Hughes’ drivers, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich). The two are immediately attracted to one another. But their budding relationship is complicated by a number of factors, ranging from Hughes’ prohibition on employees fraternizing with talent, Mabrey’s devout Baptist religious beliefs and that Forbes is engaged to his childhood sweetheart. All three central characters, though, begin to realize that the rules they once felt bound by don’t apply (hence the title) to them and that they should do what they like.
The first poster cuts a very “classic Hollywood” type of look. Collins and Ehrenreich are on either side of the design, looking vaguely toward each other and into the middle distance, their photos washed out a bit of sepia tinge. Cutting between them, walking toward the camera with his face down and obscured by a fedora is Beatty as Hawks, clearly showing that there’s some sort of love triangle in play in the story here. Above Beatty is the full cast list, which is impressive, and at the bottom of the one-sheet we get Beatty’s filmmaking credits as a way to bolster the image of this movie.
One more poster came out to sell the movie as a Hollywood romance. So Frank and Marla are shown in the center, embracing and gazing into each other’s eyes as young lovers do. Palm trees, spotlights, hills and the “Hollywood” sign are in the background to help set the location and the shimmering image of Hughes, his face obscured by a fedora, looms over everything like an angry, vengeful god looking down disdainfully at his creation.
The first trailer opens as Hughes is testifying in front of Congress about his long-gestating plane project. We soon meet Frank, a driver who works for Hughes as part of his movie interests. Frank meets Marla and the two of them form a connection, which runs counter to her religious beliefs and his terms of employment, to say nothing of the fact that he’s engaged. Soon her convictions start to fall by the wayside as she keeps flirting with Frank and becomes involved in some way with Hughes, leading to a love triangle of sorts.
It’s not bad, but it hearkens back to an earlier kind of filmmaking that…well…seems very much in line with Beatty’s output from previous in his career. There’s a lot of Bugsy and other echoes in here just in terms of style, approach, look and feel. Collins and Ehrenreich are the big draws here since it’s clear their story is going to form the crux of the story, but Broderick looks like he gives a fun, loose performance and Beatty is, well, doing his thing.
The second trailer excludes Beatty’s performance as Hughes from much of the narrative, focusing 80% of its runtime to the relationship between Frank and Marla. We see them meet and flirt and get to know each other. There are some of the same scenes we saw in the previous version but this one is much more laser-focused on that pair, with Hughes only popping in every now again, like he’s a supporting character in their story.
You have to wonder how the studio was feeling about the movie based on the dramatic shift in tone between the two. The first one was positioning this as Beatty’s big return to the screen and as a potential award contender. This one though is selling the movie as a period relationship drama. That’s an interesting about face and it makes me think the studio was concerned it wasn’t going to play to a younger audience. While most of the cast is over 60, it seems, the focus here is on the romance that has more potential to appeal to a crowd without grandkids.
A third trailer took a very different tack, selling the movie as an examination of the quirks of Howard Hughes more than anything else. He’s presented throughout the trailer as kind of a goofball, though an affable one, who doesn’t want to interact with people directly, hires body doubles and is in search of ice cream. We see the lives of Frank and Marla, but here they’re just his chauffeur and an actress he’s hired, not part of any forbidden romance.
It’s alright, but wow is it different in tone than what’s come before. There are three distinct ways the movie is being sold, just on display here. That doesn’t bode particularly well.
The increasingly odd trailer campaign continued with a “music only” trailer just about two weeks before release that had footage from the movie playing while we listened to Collins’ singing the title song.
Online and Social
The key art from the teaser poster is used at the top of the official website, just above a prompt to watch the trailer and links to the movie’s Facebook and Twitter profiles. Scroll down a bit and you can get tickets, including through the Atom Tickets app that is all about coordinating group movie outings.
Scroll down and the first section of actual content is “Videos” and lets you watch the trailers, some TV spots and a variety of featurettes and interviews. That’s followed by a “For Your Consideration” section that lists all the award nominations the studio would like be up for this season.
An “About” section has a story synopsis along with the cast and crew credits. The “Posters” section has both one-sheets and the “Gallery” has a few pics you can scroll through and download if you like.
You can get to know the characters in the story a bit more with the “Star Map” graphic that’s next. It presents a map of Hollywood including some of its sites and with the characters from the movie along the edges. It’s a cool idea but it would have been better with some interactive elements to it.
Finally, “Social Updates” has posts pulled in from the movie’s social network profiles.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Lots of TV commercials like this one were produced. Like the trailers, some focused more on the love story between Frank and Marcia while others looked more at Hughes and his eccentricities. They all conveyed the general tone of being set in Hollywood’s Golden Age and involving Hughes and his empire, in all its forms.
Given the star power involved it’s safe to assume there was plenty of online and outdoor advertising done as well.
Media and Publicity
While the movie suffered from some poor word-of-mouth during production, the first real publicity for the movie came in the form of an interview with Beatty and a couple of first look stills here, with the actor/director talking about this movie, his long career and more.
The movie got a nice boost when it was selected as the opening film for this year’s AFI Fest.
With this being Beatty’s big return to the director’s chair it’s only natural that angle be the focus in the press. So a big Variety cover story hit that point, talking to the writer/star/director about the Hollywood system he came of age in, what he’s hoping to prove this time out and his relationship with the material. It also included an interview with Collins about working with Beatty and what she learned about Hughes on the set.
The focus continued to be on Beatty and his career as a whole, the time he took off from movies and more right up to the movie’s opening.
I honestly don’t know what’s going on with this campaign and I’m not entirely convinced Fox is either. The trailer component in particular has such a sense of “Well, let’s just throw all this against the wall” to it that I’m legit not sure the studio had a clear idea of what kind of movie it is it was trying to sell the audience. Sometimes it was all about the hot young stars who might be more attractive to younger audiences, sometimes it was all about Beatty and his connection to classic Hollywood. But if you encountered one or the other and not the whole campaign then you got the wrong message.
While there’s very little consistency between the elements of the campaign, this is the rare case where they work better individually than they do as a cohesive whole. So each poster is pretty good. Each trailer works in its own way. And the TV advertising approach makes sense. But if you put them all together there isn’t an overall brand approach that’s been set out. At best that’s going to be mildly annoying to the audience, at worst it will turn them away in confusion for something that’s a surer bet.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
This is a fascinating story about the rocky road the movie took to screens, including some disputed test screenings and ultimately back-and-forth accusations about who’s to blame – and why – for the movie’s failure in theaters.