From the start, Fox Searchlight was confident that “12 Years a Slave” would win critical acclaim and be an awards contender.
Getting people to see it? The film’s distributor feared that would be a different story.
The new movie depicts the evils of slavery in painful and unflinching ways. Scenes include lynchings and whippings, rape and the separation of young children from their mother. Many people go to the movies for a couple of hours of escapism; “12 Years a Slave” is anything but.
British director Steve McQueen “has no intention of making audiences the slightest bit comfortable with this terrible story” of a free black man kidnapped and enslaved in antebellum Louisiana, Times Film Critic Kenneth Turan noted in his review.
Recognizing the challenges of the material, the studio marketing team has taken a series of steps aimed at getting mainstream audiences to give the film a chance.
Hoping to position the film as uplifting, Fox Searchlight has crafted advertisements emphasizing the slave’s determination and humanity, and is touting endorsements from influential African American entertainers Kanye West and Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Several advertisements include scenes of a benevolent abolitionist played by Brad Pitt, even though his role is small and doesn’t appear until late in the film. “I will survive,” Northup, played by the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, says in a trailer. “I will not fall into despair.”
This week, Fox Searchlight cut a television advertisement playing up the most redemptive scenes from “12 Years a Slave.”
“The materials have not tried to soft-pedal the film or mislead the audience,” said Nancy Utley, Fox Searchlight’s co-president. “But we always wanted people to know that it’s ’12 Years a Slave,’ not ‘1 Million Years a Slave.’”
Still, when Fox Searchlight agreed this year to distribute the independently financed movie, some studio executives worried that the film might be too harsh for large numbers of moviegoers. In fact, the studio didn’t pay anything for the distribution rights, agreeing to share the box-office proceeds with the financiers of “12 Years a Slave.”
The concern was understandable: Although some films dealing with painful topics, such as “Schindler’s List,” have become popular with audiences, others, such as “127 Hours,” have fallen by the wayside.
“We’re aware of it,” Steve Gilula, Fox Searchlight’s other co-president, said of concerns that the film could be perceived as too difficult. “Our focus is making it successful and getting people into movie theaters.”
Because the film is not populated with recognizable actors, word of mouth will be critical to its success. Fox is hoping to build an audience by focusing its initial marketing push with the art-house crowd and African American moviegoers.
The film opened strongly last weekend, but it screened in only six cities, including Los Angeles. It will expand to 12 more markets Friday, including Detroit and Houston, selected because they have large African American populations.
At the same time, the film has to compete with “Gravity” and “Captain Phillips,” both playing to auditoriums packed with mostly adults.
The studio also is hoping endorsements from prominent artists such as Combs and West can make “12 Years a Slave” part of the pop zeitgeist.
“This movie is very painful but very honest and is a part of the healing process. I beg all of you to take your kids — everybody to see it,” Combs says in a message on his new cable channel Revolt TV, a video of which Fox Searchlight promptly promoted on the film’s Facebook page.
Filmmakers were also aware of the challenges. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt intentionally shot it with long takes, giving the audience little breathing room. But the film is also beautiful to watch, with striking shots of Southern landscapes and the natural world.
In recent years, audiences have supported several intense movies about difficult subjects, including two with graphic imagery that won the best picture Oscar: the Holocaust drama “Schindler’s List” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” which depicted torture.
But some movies, such as “127 Hours,” in which a scene of a trapped hiker amputating his own forearm caused some patrons to pass out during screenings, were derailed when potential ticket buyers decided the experience might be too grim.
Bob Berney of Picturehouse was with Newmarket Films when it released “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004 and said moviegoers were willing to patronize the bloodily explicit movie about the last days of Jesus “because it had the broad blessing of the leading opinion-making preachers, their built-in approval.”
Similarly, “Schindler’s List” carried the imprimatur of director Steven Spielberg and was marketed less as a story about genocide and more about the selflessness of Oskar Schindler, credited with saving more than 1,000 people during World War II. “It’s not really a story about the Jews and the Holocaust,” said Gerald Molen, one of the film’s producers. “It’s about the difference that one person can make.”
Christian Colson, who produced “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” said, “I think intelligent audiences have a great tolerance for difficult subject matter if it’s in service of an important story that reflects the times we live in.”
At the Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza 15, where “12 Years a Slave” has generated strong ticket sales, a number of moviegoers this week said that even though they knew the film would be upsetting it did not stop them from attending.
“I wasn’t hesitant, but ambivalent. I knew there would be scenes that would be difficult to watch,” said 53-year-old Mena Moffett-Webster of South-Central. She admitted after the screening that the film was “exhausting” and “intense” and that she “walked out a few times and covered my eyes” during some of the most explicit scenes.
But she nevertheless intends on seeing “12 Years a Slave” a second time, when she will bring her 15-year-old son.
“It wasn’t too graphic,” she said. “Not at all.”
Times staff writer Alicia Banks contributed to this report.