Based on Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel of the same name, The Circle opens in theaters this week and brings with it a story of how “change the world” technology companies aren’t always what they seem. Emma Watson stars as Mae, an eager young woman who’s hired at Circle, a fictional company that combines elements of Google, Facebook, Yelp and other real-life examples. She’s no one, just an entry-level customer service rep who’s there to help advertisers, but she soon skyrockets within the cult-like corporate culture.
Her ascendancy coincides with the growing influence Circle has in the world. The company is rolling out cameras that will be everywhere and expose everyone’s action to the judgment of the crowd, ostensibly to keep everyone honest. That effort is spearheaded by corporate head Bailey (Tom Hanks) but it’s not quite as altruistic as it seems. As Mae becomes more and more of an influence within the close-knit campus of Circle, the mysterious Ty (John Boyega) is determined to show her the seedy underbelly of how all the data being accumulated will be used. Mae is left as the fulcrum on which the company – and privacy itself – balances.
The first poster presents the basic premise in an interesting way. The Circle’s logo is presented here as a maze of sorts with the copy “Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better” at the top hinting at the surveillance nature of the story. It’s simple but a good first effort.
That same copy point is used on the next poster, which this time puts the faces of Watson and Hanks in front of the Circle’s logo. There’s nothing all that interesting about it, both of them look like they’re squinting after being out in the sun for too long and there’s nothing else about the story or setting that’s conveyed here. It’s just about showing off the star power.
The first trailer opens with Mae’s interview at The Circle, which is filled with more questions about personality than job specifics. We then cut to Bailey giving an inspirational speech about the possibilities that exist in a world without secrets and that speech – or others like it – continues to frame the rest of the action. We see Mae led down a mysterious corridor and other hints that things are not as utopian at the company as they’d like everyone to believe. That’s emphasized by footage of people and drones forcing someone driving a truck eventually drive it off a bridge.
It’s a good first effort that lays out at least the bare outlines of the story. Anyone who’s read the book, which is referenced here, will recognize certain plot points. There’s a good amount of Hanks in here, which makes sense, but the overall goal seems to be to establish The Circle as a Google-like company whose motives are good but actions are disturbing from a privacy perspective.
The second trailer takes a much more linear approach to the story. We start out with Bailey once more talking about the potential for good that would come from a world with no secrets. Then we meet Mae just as she’s moving from her old life to a new job at The Circle. That quickly turns out to be more intense than she bargained for and she finds privacy to be a thing of the past. The stakes and tension only ramp up as her newfound celebrity increases, largely because she’s brought behind the curtain by a mysterious figure to be shown exactly what The Circle is capable of.
This one is quite a bit better than the first, largely because it explains more clearly the story and the stakes. Watson looks great here. There’s more of Hanks this time around, for obvious reasons, and it makes me want to see more roles by him where he subverts his charming nice-guy image.
Online and Social
“Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better.” appears on the front page of the official website as video from the trailers plays in the background. There are prompts in the upper right to get updates via email or to buy tickets while the middle of the page wants you to watch the trailer again. In the lower left are links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram page as well as a reminder to use #TheCircle when discussing it on social media.
Moving over the content menu that’s in the dropdown on the left, the first section is “About” and is where you can read a brief synopsis of the story. “Cast & Crew” just has the names of those in front of an behind the camera without full bios or links to IMDb or anything.
Near as I can tell, “Video” just has the one trailer in it so at least it’s accurate and didn’t add an “s” to the end of the section head. The “Gallery” though has quite few stills showing Watson, Hanks, Boyega and Patton Oswalt, who also plays an executive at Circle.
“Inside the Circle” is a half-hearted attempt at an in-world web presence for the fictional company. So there’s a mission statement at the top, profiles of the three founders and some promotional artwork that can be shared on social media but that’s about it. A more full-throated effort would have been really interesting here.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV spots like this one started running about a month out from release that starts off by selling the promise of The Circle’s mission but then shows the creepy side of the company. Hanks is the focal point here almost as much as Watson, which makes sense.
Outdoor and online ads used the key art showing both Watson and Hanks with a call to action to see the movie in theaters. At various times social ads have used the trailers or other short video to drive ticket sales as well.
Media and Publicity
Coverage of the various trailers and other marketing materials formed much of the first wave of publicity. That kicked into gear more fully with an interview with director James Ponsoldt where he talked about how this wasn’t just a movie warning of the dangers of technology and other related topics.
The movie’s premiere was announced as being at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, sure to give it a high-profile audience even if it was out of competition there.
Unfortunately the press activity was pretty limited in terms of star power. Watson was on the circuit just a month ago promoting Beauty & the Beast and while a few mentions of this movie snuck through, it’s awfully close to that for this to get a dedicated push of its own from her. Hanks didn’t get out too much either, for reasons that might run from not wanting him to be the face of the movie to just not having the time. For whatever reason, most of the publicity came when new trailers or clips were released.
Here’s what’s striking to me about the campaign: Emma Watson is right there front and center throughout all of it. In an age when we’re having endless (and still necessary) conversations about strong female characters and how female actors tend to get less attention than their male costars, it’s great to see STX has leaned into having her as the face of the campaign from beginning to end. Sure, Hanks is there, but he’s positioned (likely rightly) as the supporting character in the story. You can’t not put him in the marketing, but not only is he positioned as secondary, but it makes little effort to hide the fact that he’s playing kind of a conniving…if not bad guy at least someone who runs counter to the wonderfully nice guy the actor is usually known for. I want more of Hanks on the wrong side of the morality tale and more of Watson as the unquestioned lead in a movie.
As for the movie itself, what’s being sold here is a cautionary tale of the intrusive nature of technology. As we sign away our right to sue companies who will track us long after we delete their apps and sell our data to those who want to better target their ads at us, there’s a lot to the story that should make us want to, as one character in the story does, ditch everything and go live in the woods. That story of tech running rampant through our lives is sold alongside the more recognizable – and potentially more palatable – simple mystery. The campaign wants us to find out what The Circle is and it’s Mae’s eyes we’re going to be seeing that through. It’s strong mainstream appeal that, combined with two very likable and popular stars and a strong supporting cast – I haven’t even mentioned Karen Gillan – that should resonate with an audience that hopefully will all have already seen Fate of the Furious by now.