Based on a true story, Freestyle Releasing’s romantic drama 2 Hearts follows the seemingly unconnected storylines of two couples who fall in love decades apart: businessman Jorge (Adan Canto) and flight attendant Leslie (Radha Mitchell) in the 1960s, plus college students Chris (Jacob Elordi) and Sam (Tiera Skovbye) in the 2000s. Their stories gradually intertwine, but exactly how is kept so mysterious in the trailer that one of its top YouTube comments reads, “This is my third time watching the trailer and I still have no idea what’s going on.”
Boxoffice Pro spoke to director Lance Hool, along with Freestyle Releasing’s head of marketing Loren Schwartz and head of acquisitions Chris Charalambous, about the film’s unlikely genesis on a cruise ship, why it was important for the title to debut in cinemas despite two release date changes, and their hyperlocal marketing strategy as major markets including New York City and Los Angeles remain closed.
2 Hearts hits theaters this Friday, October 16.
Lance, I understand your brother Conrad discovered this story after talking with the real-life Jorge randomly on a Pacific cruise. Is that right? Can you tell us more about that?
Lance Hool: Yeah, they struck up a friendship and heard this story. Then he came back to California and said, “What do you think about this for a movie?” My first impulse was, “Wow, this is a great story but a very, very tough movie to make.” How do we tell the story of two couples that are so far apart in age and in time? And how do we keep the mystery going of how they get together through a whole 100-minute film?
So at the beginning it was like, “This is not our [wheelhouse].” Man on Fire, Missing in Action, those movies were. And if it was a comedy, Pure Luck and Crocodile Dundee. But this one was something that I’d been looking for for a long time, which was a story that was really deep in the human aspect of our lives. And so he convinced me, “Yeah, you can do this. You can direct it.” And so I jumped into it. Fully dressed, into the swimming pool.
Most of the actors were able to meet their real-life counterparts for the film. Was that an individual decision, or did you as a director encourage that?
LH: I encouraged it. When we were deep into the film, both families came out to the set. One of them came out in Kauai, which was the last part of the movie that we were shooting. The other one came out to Vancouver, where we were shooting the main part of the film. So they were not together. They came separately. And so the cast got to meet them. At that point, they already had sort of the image of what we wanted them to play. It was interesting to see how close we were and how close I was in casting, which was pretty cool.
The casting must have been a challenge. You cast an Australian guy as the American lead!
LH: [Laughs.] Because it’s such a unique story, I always felt that we needed to have actors that weren’t known. Because when you have to get so involved into the character as an audience, the worst thing is to say, “Oh look, there’s Tom Cruise playing a doctor” or whatever. You just can’t get divorced from that for a while, so you’re out of the story. I wanted to capture every character for the audience to be easy to identify with immediately. So it really was like a six-month period of casting, in which we interviewed hundreds of people.
So we took a long time. When this young guy came in to read, he did a great job right off the bat. He was the guy to meet, that embodied what I wanted to see in Chris. At the end, I haven’t been an actor myself. I enjoy talking to them—every one of them—afterwards, because I know how difficult it is to go and do these casting sessions and then to just be ushered out before you get to say anything. So I spent a little time with him, and I noted the Australian accent. So I said, “Are you from Australia?” And he went, “Oh my God, you blew my cover.” I said, “No, you did it beautifully.” And he’s got it down. He’s got the American accent down.
When you said it took six months to do the casting, there was an aspect of this movie that took much longer than even six months. I understand principal photography wrapped in July 2018. Has it been tough waiting more than two years for this to get released?
LH: It doesn’t seem that way, because we kept working at it. Was it that long ago? I guess it was. It just doesn’t seem that long ago to us, because then we entered the stage of, “Where do we go from here?” It was very important for me to see this as a theatrical film. Convincing my team to not take offers from the streamers was a challenge in itself. I kept fighting [and] making sure we got it to the theaters, because I grew up seeing everything in a movie theater. The Cine Gloria in Mexico City used to play three movies in one afternoon, and I was there for all three movies. Your senses are so in tune with what’s going on around you, but when you only want to concentrate on that big screen, there’s nothing like it. I don’t care what they say, it’s never going to go away. We’ve got to fight to keep it in the theaters.
That’s why I’m very proud that I met Chris [Charalambous] very early on the project. I said, “We’ve got to get this movie into theaters.” He’s a great believer, as I am, that this is the way to go. And the only way to go, really, especially for movies that have so much character involved. You emotionally have to get embedded with these characters. To see them flying around in spacesuits and stuff like that, that’s different. But when you’re talking about what gets us human reaction, and what gets our senses to go 100 percent with a character, that’s special. So we’ve got to keep that.
Chris, from an acquisitions perspective, can you tell us how this project got to your desk, and what drew you to move forward with an acquisition and subsequent theatrical release?
Chris Charalambous: It was an unquestionable theatrical release. It was so organic. We screened it as a group with our team: women, men, everybody was crying at this movie. And I just knew this had to be a shared group experience. It had to be a theatrical release. Lance obviously had opportunities to not release it in this matter. I concur with him 100 percent that there was really no other way to go. We all care, and [we] want this movie to be seen in the most effective manner, the way in which they made it. It’s absolutely a moviegoing experience. You go to see it. That’s what we felt immediately.
That’s when the process started. I’ll never forget when, soon after seeing the film, about a month later, I was off to Cannes—this was in 2019. I’ll never forget walking around the streets late at night. We were on the phone and talked for more than an hour, strategizing the theatrical release and all the other pieces involved with releasing a movie. It was just an incredible [time] thinking of what we could do. I remember, coincidentally, running into Radha Mitchell at Cannes and telling her, “Hey, we’re really trying to make this movie a real event, a strong theatrical event. We’re all so excited.” That was the direction for us to go, to make the acquisition.
The other challenge is marketing a film, which is never an easy task. Loren, it’s something you’ve tackled throughout your career. And on top of it, you were thrown a curveball: “Hey, you get to market a theatrical feature film during a pandemic!” Can you talk about how you break down that equation, to support movie theaters when they need it the most?
Loren Schwartz: To start off, we knew that we had to tell the story of this movie, first and foremost. That’s the one thing that gets people to go into a theater: you have to tell a story via trailer, via all the materials you have, publicity. A story they want to hear, they want to see, based on a true story. So we started with that. We were then thrown the pandemic, so it felt like we were threading two different needles.
The first needle is: how do you market the movie in and of itself, to a young audience and to a faith[-based] audience and to older females? With the pandemic, we realized threading that needle was about establishing who is going to theaters. We moved the movie two times, in order to keep backing our way into hopefully what would be a more open season, more people going into theaters. Threading that needle was about establishing what markets are open. For lack of a better phrase, what red states? What markets and audiences in those markets are more willing to go into theaters, and locating them.
Doing special ticketing, because we’ve learned through research that 43 percent of moviegoing audiences don’t know that movies are playing in their market, in their theater, in their city. So we then established special ticketing, where we basically personalized every ticketing messaging to that city. Saying, “Hey, Boston” or “Hey, Dallas. your theater is open. Check out tickets.” That was important for us, too.
So there was a lot of learning, moving ahead and trying to get this movie out, and trying to find out where the audience is more apt to go out and see the movie. It was definitely a challenge.
That’s such a hyperlocal approach. I haven’t actually come across that practice of targeting specific markets and saying, “Hey, theaters are open in your area. This might be something you’re interested in.” How did you come to that strategy?
LS: It was just understanding the research. And talking with our research company and reading that people were having a problem figuring out that movies were open in their area. It just made sense. We knew that we could do ticketing and we could just say, “Hey guys, tickets are available.” But I’ve always believed in a personal approach, whether it’s storytelling, whether it’s having the talent talk to the audience. Being more personal, I felt, was a way of them taking notice. “Oh, Boston, that’s my city. Oh wait, it is open.” That makes them notice and makes them realize, “Wait a minute, this movie actually is playing in my city.”
One of the biggest keys for marketing is the trailer. As of the moment we’re speaking, the trailer on YouTube has 38.7 million views. That’s more than the view count for the most recent YouTube trailers for No Time to Die, The Batman, A Quiet Place Part II, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, or In the Heights. How?
LS: Do you mind if I correct you and say that it’s actually at 62 million across all socials? Facebook, Instagram. We have a really champion team that we use, a targeting programmatic team. This is what we do at Screen Gems and the other movies that I’ve worked on. We went after young females, we went after older females, romance fans, inspirational drama fans, faith fans. We catered the messaging in the trailer to be attractive to them and [did] different testing in understanding how we needed to message and how to construct the trailer properly. We came across something that tested very well. Those audiences or those targets or those buckets, as we like to call them, would be receptive to it. And we just aimed at them. We just pushed. I call it sniper mode. We were very much sniper mode towards those audiences.
Men, as much as they will come to this because women are the driving force when it comes to a date night—we really wanted to make it that females were our audience. We didn’t have a lot of money in media. We knew that we really needed to focus our buy on young females because of the Jacob [Elordi] factor, and older females because of the story, the inspiration, the hope, the connection of the movie. That’s something that they would be receptive to. And it worked, obviously.
One of the most upvoted comments on the YouTube trailer is: “This is my third time watching the trailer and I still have no idea what’s going on.” Was that deliberate on the marketing team’s part?
LS: That is. When you’re marketing a movie, with a portion of the movie that you want to keep secret, you have to construct and come up with a little bit of a mystery. So I’d be interested if that comment was made from a male or female?
LS: There you go! Then I’ve done my job. [Laughs.]
You had a September release date at one point. Chris, can you give background on your end and the distribution side of finding the right release date during this reopening process?
CC: We had to shift the date twice. It was obviously the reality of Covid, for the first shift. And what was open, for the second shift. The final and third time, we decided on the 16th [of October]. There was a concern that theaters weren’t going to be open or not have enough room for us. That was the primary issue, quite honestly. It was a completely different playbook. It was about trying to work through something that was unworkable. To be honest, that was the sole methodology in trying to determine our release date, was working through the pandemic. And obviously, considering where there would be an audience, and the feeling for when a movie like this would come out. Obviously, not on Halloween weekend. Finding a space for it.
To close, if I could ask all of you individually to tell us what theatrical means to you, and why it’s important for distribution and exhibition to come together and work together? Not only in getting films onscreen but to market them during this awkward reopening phase?
CC: I’d like to go first on that, because it rings so clearly. In our last initial face-to-face opportunity to spend time in a room with Lance and his team and Loren, in discussing this film and the release of the movie in early March, I shared with the group: “We’re about to go into uncharted territory of being disconnected from each other. This movie is going to be the thing to reconnect everyone.” We are real confident that we are doing that. We feel that, especially with this movie at this moment in time, the connection aspect and coming together is very important for us. It’s an honor to have a movie like this represent that feeling.
LS: I agree. I think what we felt was, we took a look at the landscape. You had Unhinged, you had The Honest Thief. You had a lot of movies that are thrillers and action movies, male oriented. The War with Grandpa: family. But we were the first movie during this pandemic to come back since February that is a movie of inspiration, love, and hope. People need to escape. They want to escape. They don’t want to be reminded of how their life is pushing down on them. They want to escape through characters that they can live through and experience life through, and see how they handle things. There’s a bright light at the end of the tunnel. That’s what this movie does. That’s why we’re hoping that this will be the movie. What we’re seeing in word-of-mouth screenings and what people are posting on comments, this is the movie they feel they want to come back to theaters for.
LH: It’s become more than a movie. It’s allows us to return to what we know as normal. It’s so important to us as human beings to connect with one another, and there’s no better connection than when you’re sitting in a movie theater and people are feeling exactly like you are. You’re laughing or you’re crying or you’re scared. It’s that convivencia, as we say in Spanish. It’s sharing our emotions. You just can’t beat going to a movie theater. We’re movie people. We’ve always been movie people. My whole family has been involved. My great-grandfather was Charlie Chaplin’s financier! So five generations of movie people. To me, if theaters die, then it’s not “the movies” that we grew up with, that I grew up with. It’s something else.