'Sicario' Sequel Walks a Fine Line Amid Border Crisis

The ads for 'Sicario: Day of the Soldado' are competing with news coverage of the chaos on the U.S. border, but Sony Pictures isn't backing away from its marketing plans.
Richard Foreman, Jr.
'Sicario: Day of the Soldado'

On June 19, MSNBC cut from a lengthy segment on border chaos and immigration policy right into a commercial break that featured a guns-blazing ad for Sicario: Day of the Soldado. The trailer, which depicted gruesome border violence carried out by the Mexican drug cartels, made for a awkward segue as it touted the film’s June 29 release.

But the placement of the trailer was entirely coincidental given that spots for the movie were bought long before border issues, including images of children separated from their families, began dominating the news cycle, according to sources. Still, it raised the question of whether Sony, the film’s distributor, would alter its marketing plan in light of current events.

With one day to go before the film opens, the answer appears to be no. The studio has neither leaned into the hot-button coverage of America’s southern border nor pulled TV ads that might be seen as insensitive or opportunistic given the depictions of real-life human suffering on the news. Instead, although the studio declined to comment, it appears to be sticking with its original marketing plan. As is typical, Sony declined to discuss the film's marketing strategy.

The Sicario sequel isn’t the first film to find its plotline — in this case, the film literally opens with U.S. agents apprehending migrants in the nighttime desert — dovetailing with a trending news story. Sony saw its Zero Dark Thirty hit theaters in December 2012 just as the practice of so-called “enhanced interrogation” — depicted in the film about the lead-up to the killing of Osama bin Laden — was drawing increased criticism in print and on the airwaves. In that case, the studio’s publicity and marketing push didn’t shy from the news coverage, with director Kathryn Bigelow opting for interviews with the likes of CBS News over softer outlets. The film became a flashpoint, criticized for justifying torture by the far left and as pro-Obama propaganda by the far right. The controversy didn’t hurt, with the film earning $133 million worldwide, the bulk of that, $96 million, in North America.

Other studios have made calculated use of trending and divisive news topics even when the connections weren’t overt. For example, in the case of Fox Searchlight’s campaign for Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, the distributor issued a trailer that aired during pro football games that intercut scenes from the period-set film with sequences from Black Lives Matter rallies. But that film, which also suffered from the controversy surrounding Parker’s past, grossed just $16 million. Before his epic all, Harvey Weinstein was the master of tying his film's marketing campaigns into the topical story of the day, from Bully to Fahrenheit 9/11.

With wide-release films like the Sicario sequel, it can be risky for a campaign to be associated with a political point of view given that such a link could alienate a large swath of the potential audience. The first Sicario earned $85 million worldwide in 2015, and the sequel, produced for $35 million, needs to attract moviegoers from both sides of the political divide.

“To peg a movie’s debut to a very divisive political subject no matter what that is, you do that at your peril,” says comScore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “[This case] illustrates the risk of putting your ads on live news television. Anything can happen in the news any day, and it can frame your movie in a really weird way that you never intended.”

In this case, while the studio didn’t make any adjustment in the nature or the placement of the movie’s ads, Sicario’s stars have been dodging any comparisons to real-life events. Benicio Del Toro told a CNET reporter: "They are apples and oranges really," when asked about the timeliness of the film. "Let's not confuse them."