Berlanti, the prolific showrunner of CW series like “The Flash” and “Riverdale,” said that first and foremost, he asked the studio not to downplay the lead character’s sexual orientation.
“To me, that was in and of itself enough of a step,” he said in an interview with Variety. “The other was just to give it the same size and scope as we did with the making of the movie, to give the marketing the same attention and scope that they would have given any other teen romantic comedy.”
As the first mainstream teen romantic comedy with a gay lead character, there’s pressure on “Love, Simon” to prove whether a film with LGBT subject matter can find broad acceptance. “Love, Simon” is aimed at moviegoers between the ages of 13 and 25, as well as LGBTQ audiences. It’s currently at 88% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Opening at 2,402 locations, it’s expected to take in around $10-$12 million on opening weekend against a $17 million budget.
Billboards and other outdoor ads around the country and in Los Angeles feature slogans in the voice of the film’s narrator and protagonist, Simon Spier, played by Nick Robinson.
While the trailer and other promotional material doesn’t hide Simon’s sexuality, marketing materials don’t necessarily read as gay. Movie posters feature Simon and his males and female friends. Notably not pictured is a male love interest, though that might be because his identity is a mystery for most of the film.
“Dear LA, Which way to WeHo? Asking for a friend,” read a billboard in West Hollywood; other cities got their own customized messages. The trailer, too, makes no secret of Spier’s sexual orientation, which is unknown to his friends and family.
The film also has TV ads running. But to get to teens and young adults — the film’s core audience — Fox went to where they hang out: Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
As part of the digital campaign, the studio held screenings for gay celebrities and social-media influencers, including Ellen Degeneres, Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen. On Instagram, the studio held a contest where social-media users could vote to have a screening in their state. The winning states were Texas, Washington, California, New York and Georgia. Those were just a few of the more than 300 screenings held in the top 50 markets since early January.
Fox declined to disclose the cost of the marketing campaign. The international release will include Australia, Britain, Brazil and France.
Also starring Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel and Katherine Langford from “13 Reasons Why,” the rom-com focuses on Simon’s coming out in the era of social media and viral posts. He begins trading emails with an unknown student at his school who is also closeted and whose identity isn’t revealed until the end.
Pam Levine, president of worldwide theatrical marketing at 20th Century Fox, said the campaign aims to mirror the tone of the movie, which she described as authentic, emotional and funny.
“The character of Simon also has a unique voice, and we let his sensibility infuse the materials,” Levine said. “The trailer, digital assets and our outdoor ads have used his voice as a way to communicate the story and tone of the film.”
The PG-13 film arrives at a time when gay acceptance is at an historical high and when audiences are demanding more diverse representation in film and television. Netflix’s “Queer Eye,” a reboot of the 2003 Bravo series, recently became a surprise hit. The 2018 Winter Olympics also made stars out of openly gay athletes, skier Gus Kenworthy and figure skater Adam Rippon.
When Berlanti learned Fox would be making this movie, he personally pitched himself to direct the film. Berlanti is openly gay and married to former L.A. Galaxy soccer player Robbie Rogers, with whom he is raising a 2-year-old son.
“I felt like I was finally experiencing a story like my own with a Hollywood happy ending,” Berlanti said. “I wanted to be a part of it.”
He recalls the discomfort over the years by some audiences around LGBTQ sexuality and said films often featured homophobic jokes or slurs. Now, “you look at people applauding a gay kiss, it feels great… it’s nice to see that that’s where we are now,” though he adds that despite the strides, “there’s too many kids that still feel a much darker version of what Simon goes through in the film.”
“We knew from the beginning that the greatest asset we have is the film itself, so we started screening it very early on,” Fox’s Levine said. “We started last fall with digital influencers who we believed would embrace the film, and have continued to broaden the circle ever since with an aggressive word of mouth screening program, culminating in the sneak last weekend.”
Seminal gay indie films like “Call Me By Your Name, “Moonlight” and “Carol” were all critically acclaimed but had only modest box-office success. On the other hand, Ang Lee’s 2005 “Brokeback Mountain” was in nearly 2,100 theaters during its widest release, and grossed $83 million domestically. Last year’s best picture Oscar winner, “Moonlight,” earned just $28 million domestically and was in more than 1,500 theaters at its widest release.
“Call Me By Your Name,” which won the Academy award for best adapted screenplay and scored three other nominations, only screened at 914 theaters and grossed $17 million domestically.
“Love, Simon” is based on the book “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli. The Atlanta-based writer said that the film features a story that still needs to be told, even in 2018, when gay acceptance is higher than ever. There are still teens who live in places that are not very accepting or have challenging family circumstances,” she said.
“There are so many different environmental factors for just how safe it is for a kid to come out,” Albertalli said. “There are kids from all over the world who have been very eagerly anticipating this movie.”