It’s not easy to sell American movie-going audiences on a story of a historical event many have no prior awareness of set in a far-off country they may not be able to find on a map. That’s exactly the challenge facing The Promise, coming out this week. The story, set in 1914 just as World War I is about to break out, takes place on the edges of the former Ottoman Empire as it’s on the edge of collapse, rounding up the ethnic Armenians who live there.
Amidst all this, the movie follows Mikael (Oscar Isaac), an Armenian medical student who is caught up in the fervor and emotion of the moment he’s living in. He wants to bring modern medicine to the small villages of the country and do some good. One day he meets the American photojournalist Chris Meyers (Christian Bale) and the Armenian artist he’s involved with, Ana (Charlotte le Bon). A love triangle forms for the affections of Ana even as world events pull countries and other factions into the looming world war.
The primary domestic poster works hard to establish the movie’s epic credentials. All three leads are seen staring out thoughtfully into the middle distance, with very serious expressions on their faces. We see Isaac and Le Bon embracing, masses of displaced people and a foreign cityscape in the background, all of it framed by the tattered colors of the Armenian flag that envelops everything. It’s a solid effort, especially as it’s punctuated by the copy “Empires fall. Love survives,” which makes it clear we’re going to be watching a love story set amidst historical turmoil.
We meet Michael as the first trailer opens talking about how much he loves Constantinople, including its bizarre, its people and more. He might be speaking of the past, the way the trailer is framed, and we go back to see him meet Myers, the AP photographer, and through him he meets Ana. It then becomes clear everything’s not alright, as talk of war starts to amp up and we see the unrest in the city that’s spurred by not only racial politics but also the looming specter or World War I. The drama, we see, comes from Michael trying to escape a suddenly hostile city while at the same time battling Myers for the love of Ana, who is torn between both men.
The trailer is certainly weighted toward showing off Isaacs, which isn’t surprising since he’s just about as hot a commodity as there can be right now. And mixing wartime and doomed romances is a tried-and-true storytelling hook. Overall, though, the trailer doesn’t generate nearly as much heat or passion as it’s trying to, nor does it really give the performances by the three leads any real time to breath.
The second trailer continues to balance the epicness of the political story and the intimacy of the love story. It bounces between the two, showing how all three members of the love triangle trying to survive amidst the political and military chaos and how the one informs the other over and over again.
Online and Social
The official website opens with full-screen video of clips from the trailer. the title and tagline are in the middle of the top of the page, flanked by prompts to either buy tickets or sign up for updates. At the bottom of the page are links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles.
Using the content menu on the left, the first option is to watch the “Trailer” again. After that is “About” which is where you can read a brief synopsis as well as view a cast and crew list, with links to their IMDb profiles for all the names there.
“The Production” has a Director’s Statement from Terry George about making the movie, how he got involved in the story and more. There’s also lengthy write-ups here about the behind-the-scenes filmmakers.
“Videos/Photos” takes you down to the updates that have been posted to the site including stills, clips and more.
After that are links to a site called “The Promise to Act,” which encourages people to find out more about the Armenian Genocide that’s depicted in the movie and speak out about it, raising awareness of that tragic event. On the more promotional front is a “Share” option that has prompts to share the poster, photos and trailer on Facebook or Twitter.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Nothing here I’m aware of. I couldn’t find any TV spots but there might have been some online
Media and Publicity
The movie’s scope and scale was the subject of some press, which compared it to the kinds of movies such as Doctor Zhivago and other epic political and romantic stories. Also covered there is how it was a passion project for Kirk Kerkorian, the former head of MGM, who wanted strongly to tell a story of the Armenian Genocide. But that subject matter caused a backlash from tens of thousands of people who had never seen the movie but who seemed to be leaving poor reviews on IMDb to try and sink it.
An attempt to counter some of that blowback came in the form of an announcement from the studio it would be launching a public service campaign to raise awareness of the historical events chronicled in the movie and that proceeds would be donated to a variety of non-profit causes. The story of how the movie got made continued to be a dominant one in the press.
Other than that there doesn’t seem to have been a big push involving the stars of the movie. A few comments here and there, including at the premiere, but that’s about the extent of it.
As I said at the outset, this is a hard sell to contemporary domestic audiences. The Armenian Genocide and other events around the time of the first world war are important, no doubt, but they’re not exactly sexy or all that attractive when it comes to deciding how you want to spend two hours of your day. So the studio has decided to sell it as a love story set against the backdrop of epic historical events that put the relationships depicted into stark contrast. It’s hard to argue with that strategy as it’s been used countless times before.
I wonder, though, how it might have come off differently if the studio had played up the more timely elements of the story. After all, right now we’re in the midst of substantial debates around refugees from war-torn countries and other such issues. So a campaign that highlighted the geopolitical parts of the story might have come off very differently. Maybe the appeal wouldn’t have been that much stronger, but it would have at least benefitted from feeling like an immediately relevant story from our past that can speak to and inform our present.