Stories of clashing generations are nothing new, but the trope is getting a fresh take at the box off with 20th Century Women, the new movie from writer/director Mike Mills, who based it off his relationship with his own mother. Set during the turbulent 1970s, the movie stars Annette Bening as Dorothea, a woman born in the early part of the 20th century who’s never accepted the status quo but has pushed her and the world around her every chance she’s gotten.
Her unconventional (for the time) attitude is causing stress in her relationship with her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). He’s rebelling in his own way and seeking out friends and a network of his own, making his own mistakes and experimenting. That brings him into contact with Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited photographer and Julie (Elle Fanning) among others, who give him new perspectives, opinions and experiences.
The poster for the movie sells it strongly as an ensemble drama, with the full cast arrayed on a beach, lens flares adding a nice artistic element to it. A series of smaller photos at the top showing the birth control pill, Jimmy Carter and other items are meant to help set the time period of the story. The whole thing looks like a modern catalog cover to a high-end consumer brand, right down to the typeface used for the title. It’s slick and cool looking.
The first trailer is pretty great. It opens with a televised speech from Pres. Jimmy Carter where he’s talking about the chase for material goods and how it doesn’t lead to happiness, immediately setting up one of the movie’s major themes, the quest to be happy. While that plays, footage of all the major characters is shown, letting the audience know this is a multigenerational drama that might move around between them but which uses Dorothea as its emotional core. So we see everything from teenage relationship drama to younger adults trying to lead their lives to Dorothea tying everything together.
Benning looks just fantastic in this. In addition to the story, the focus is on making sure the audience knows this comes from the director of Beginners, so it clearly has the arthouse in mind as its core target. There isn’t a whole lot of detail shared about what the story is, exactly, other than all the characters are concerned about being happy. That’s enough to get most of the target audience interested, though, considering the names involved both in front of and behind the camera.
The second trailer is not completely different, but it certainly presents a more traditional structure than the first. We see that Dorothea is trying to find some good role models for Jamie and enlists Abbie and Julie in that effort. So it’s all about trying to mold this young man into someone who respects women and is a good person, something Dorothea isn’t sure she can do on her own.
It’s great and conveys both the joy of the characters and the struggles they’re going through in the late 1970s. Again, Benning looks great here as does the rest of the cast. This one really allows for the movie’s sense of humor to come through, with lots of shots of characters dancing and otherwise having fun even while showing that it’s not all fun and games.
Online and Social
When you load the official website for the movie there are sections right there in the top left where you can buy tickets, watch the second trailer or find out about the “Cast.” When you click that last link you’re zoomed down the page there the cast’s names appear. Clicking any of those names brings up a section devoted to the character they play that’s full of GIFs and lines of dialogue from them that you can share via Twitter or Facebook.
Over on the right hand side of the front page there are also links to the movie’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Scroll down the main page and there’s an assortment of GIFs, some from the movie some from the era that the movie takes place in, along with quotes from critics praising the movie in advance of release.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV spots like this one condensed the themes of the trailer, making it clear that it’s a story of a mother and son and that it’s dramatic yet also funny. It also absolutely sells Bening as the focal point of the story.
The second trailer was used in social ads on Twitter and Facebook to help build awareness for the movie. There may have been other online ads run as well but I’m not aware of them. No promotional partners or anything along those lines.
Media and Publicity
The movie got a nice initial liftoff in the word-of-mouth category when it was announced as the Centerpiece film at the 2016 New York Film Festival.
Mills later talked about how he approached the story, specifically how he got in the mindset of Bening’s character, who’s modeled after his own mother. How Mills developed the story and what his personal connection to the material continued to be the focus of the press with interviews like this.
It was great when Gerwig got a profile all to herself about her recent roles in this movie as well as the recent Jackie, which let her talk about how she got into these characters and working with Mills. There were also a number of opportunities for Bening to talk herself about her character, working with Mills, her career to date and lots more.
This movie seems…vital. Like this is the kind of perspective we need to see more of in the world, something about irrepressible women who are shaping the lives and minds of those around them while giving zero fucks about other people’s opinions. That’s how the movie was marketed as the story of a boy who’s grown up in a world dominated by women not because that was the only way but because it…well, it just kind of worked.
From a purely marketing-focused perspective, there’s some great brand consistency on display. Those big white letters that are used in the title treatment show up in the trailer, on the posters and elsewhere, making it a seamless campaign. But more than that, the story on display in the trailers is a strong one, one that promises to introduce characters that are wonderfully human and flawed and that we’ll enjoy spending time with. Bening is out to prove once more that she’s the reigning queen and Gerwig is always a joy to watch.