We're three weeks away from the September 29th debut of American Made, a film starring Tom Cruise and directed by Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity), and the film damn near doesn't exist in the entertainment media nor on social media. I'm exaggerating about that, but not by much.
They've dropped one trailer, one poster, and a featurette. It's got a Twitter account that has tweeted a dozen times and has gone largely unnoticed. By contrast, the film's studio, Universal Pictures, dropped three trailers, several teasers, clips and featurettes, and a campaign including well over 350 marketing 'asset' files of various types for The Mummy. Obviously, these are not remotely the same type of films, but the lack of marketing for American Made is still a little eyebrow-raising.
Then there's the matter of the release dates. The film opened in 21 international markets in late August, over a month before American Made's American debut. Opening internationally before a domestic debut is certainly not uncommon, but the relatively long delay is unusual. Marketwatch asserts:
"Film industry insiders say that Universal Pictures, owned by Comcast CMCSA, +1.11% , which is releasing both 'The Mummy' and 'American Made' wanted to establish a decent timeframe between both movies in the US, a sentiment that was reinforced when 'The Mummy' underperformed last June.
Such considerations apply less to international audiences which seem more loyal to showing up big movies featuring Hollywood stars (as evidenced by movies such as Johnny Depp-starring 'Transcendence' and 'Inferno', featuring Tom Hanks, performing well overseas and badly domestically)."
But the reviews that have come in so far for American Made have been largely positive, according to Rotten Tomatoes. While noteworthy critics at THR and Variety are decidedly mixed on the film, what they say about it does echo what Forbes noted in June, which characterizes American Made as one of the most important projects Cruise has attempted in some time — and a movie that puts him in a role that's something at least a little unlike the Action Star Tom Cruise figure that we're all familiar with.
Which brings us to the politics, which one suspects contributes to making this much more tricky to market in 2017 than they might have imagined just last year. The film is based on the true story of Barry Seal, a pilot who became a drug smuggler for Pablo Escobar's Medellín Cartel. Seal then cooperated with the DEA and CIA, and participated in sting operations, a situation which contributed to the Iran-Contra scandal. Director Doug Liman, whose father Arthur L. Liman was the Senate's Chief Council for the Iran-Contra investigation, elaborated on the subject matter's appeal to conspiracy theorists for IGN:
"Given that Barry Seal's story touches on then-future Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (the latter is portrayed in the film by Star Trek: Enterprise's Connor Trinneer), there's an inescapably political element to American Made. Not that Liman wants his film to be seen as a political statement. For Liman, his movie is a story about one wild guy's crazy adventure:
"Barry Seal is like a conspiracy theorist magnet. Because it doesn't matter which side of the spectrum you're on, he touches everybody. Because he was working for the federal government, which is the Republicans and Reagans and Bushes. But he was doing it out of Arkansas, which is where Bill Clinton reigned, because he was governor. But, you know, we're a fun movie. So we left the politics – you know, we leave that to other people, and journalists. But I wanted the characters to make cameos in the movie. They are – you could go explore this, we're not going to. We're just gonna touch on it. Because we can't ignore it. But it's not – it's not the reason we made the movie. We have no agenda."
All of which has me wondering if the film's low-key marketing to date is a rare but interesting example of marketing self-restraint. It's not too hard to google and find a few corners of the internet which were practically salivating in 2016 over the notion that this controversial bit of history was about to be thrust into the mainstream by a major film, where its sprawling web of conspiracy theories could somehow be freshly used against both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. And in present day 2017…? It would seem to be a virtual certainty that those conspiracy theories will be revived and weaponized to some degree on social media after the film hits here.
Which is both fascinating and awful, and makes me want to watch American Made to see what makes it tick.