Longtime Companion: Promoting and Marketing Films about AIDS

The writer-director team of Craig Lucas and Norman Rene usually create works to be performed on stage, such as their Broadway hit, “Prelude to a Kiss”.  Rene’s first taste of the unique challenges that film directing offers was when he shot Lucas’ 1984 play “Blue Window” for the PBS series “American Playhouse”.  “It was my first experience directing with a camera and I had a great time” (Fox 9).  Lindsay Law, producer of the public television series, was so impressed with their work that in the winter of 1987, he asked them if they would like to do any other projects.


After a few weeks, Rene said they went back to the producer with their idea of a movie about AIDS.  “We laid this bomb on Lindsay.  I think his first thought was, ‘Who will fund this movie’.  A week of two later he asked if we had any other ideas.  He finally said, ‘OK, we’ll do it'” (Fox 9).


This was just the beginning of the obstacles for “Longtime Companion”.  They received many rejections to the script form all the independent film companies that American Playhouse usually deals with.  Producer Stan Wlodkowski had to cut his original 3 million dollar budget in half when, for the first time in its history, American Playhouse became the sole financial backer of one of its movies. 


The film, which took 6 weeks to shoot, took twice as long to find a distributor.  The independents, despite greater experience in nurturing smaller films, also proved hesitant to buy the film.  “Everybody kept saying ‘It’s terrific, I have tremendous respect for it and I know you’ll get a distributor'”, Wlodkowski recalled.  “It got frustrating because somebody has to take a chance” (Michaud 15).  The feeling was that the rejections were due to commercial not artistic concerns.


Law took matters into his own hands by hiring an ad agency to put together several campaigns showing the possibilities of marketing the film.  Then in early January 1990, he held a screening of “Longtime Companion” in New York City for several hundred industry people, journalists and the cast and crew.  Before the film began, Law took to the stage and said, “If you like what you see tonight, please don’t keep it a secret.” (Michaud 15).


Within 48 hours, the Samuel Goldwyn Company agreed to distribute the film.  Goldwyn passed on the script during the development stage, citing a lack of “names” in the cast.  Law credited the “mouths of New York” with the turnaround.


A week after Goldwyn signed “Longtime Companion,” it received a sign that they had not made a mistake when the film won the Audience Award at the Sundance U.S. Film Festival in Utah.  Tom Rothman, Goldwyn’s head of worldwide production said, “It proved the film had great playability and would get terrific word of mouth.  It was the same award ‘sex, lies, and videotape’ won, but ‘sex, lies’, had sex and lies to sell, and we don’t.  It’s very difficult to get people to believe that a film which frankly deals with the impact of AIDS on the gay community is as entertaining as this film is” (Michaud 22).


While at the Sundance Film Festival, Wlodkowski, Rothman, Lucas, and Law met with Goldwyn’s publicity department for their input on how to market the film.  Wlodkowski said, “They know that we, and the gay community, would find a campaign that doesn’t mention the subject matter objectionable” (Michaud 22).


Goldwyn took the advice and chose to be straight forward with its marketing campaign.  The trailer for “Longtime Companion” mentioned AIDS in the first 10 seconds.  The ad campaign showed two men embracing, and featured quotes such as “the best American film of the year so far”, from Rolling Stone.


Positive reviews were a key to the film’s positive word of mouth.  Nearly every major metropolitan newspaper gave it a favorable notice.  A notable exception being Vincent Canby of The New York Times, who felt the movie was too “self indulgent”.  But the majority of reviewers were along the lines of Time Magazine‘s reviewer Richard Corliss, who called it “a splendidly bitchy comedy . . . Also a soap opera, a horror movie and a how to manual on coping with a catastrophe”, or Entertainment Weekly‘s critic Owen Gleiberman who saw the “Longtime Companion” as a “courageous and deeply affecting drama.”  The film’s star Bruce Davison directly credits the positive feedback from  critics for getting people to see the film.  “Thanks to many reviewers somebody saw it.  Somebody’s mind was enlarged” (F3).


Before screening in America, it was featured at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the “Un Certain Regard” section, a non-competitive series that features new filmmakers.  “Longtime Companion” initially opened in 19 cites in the United States, Goldwyn taking a risk in releasing the film during the Memorial Day Weekend.  This weekend traditionally marks the beginning of the lucrative summer movie season.  “Longtime Companion” challenged the idea that only major, commercial films can be successfully launched on that weekend by giving adults a movie to see during that summer which featured the youth hit “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”.


“Longtime Companion” received $2 million in foreign sales at the American Film Market.  Domestically, in the world of independents where breaking the $1 million mark deems a success, the fact that “Longtime Companion” earned $2.2 million at the box office makes it a small hit.


Usually, an Oscar nomination can give a film a boost, but in the case of “Longtime Companion”, when actor Bruce Davison received an Academy Award nomination, as well as a Golden Globe and New York Film Critics award as best supporting actor, the film had already been released on home video.  The beginning of the video version of the film featured a Public Service Announcement, supplied by AIDS Project Los Angeles, promoting the use of condoms.  “Longtime Companion” was only doing modest rental business, but the nomination inspired more to see the AIDS drama.


Davison has made a distinct effort to promote AIDS awareness with his acting choices.  He co-starred with Richard Dreyfuss in Larry Kramer’s play “The Normal Heart”.  He also appeared in “An Early Frost”, television’s first drama about AIDS.  This summer he is appearing in “The Cure”, a film about a young boy afflicted with the disease.


Nearly a year and a half after “Longtime Companion” opened on the big screen, it came full circle and appeared on the TV series that had provided its financial backing.  The public television series “American Playhouse” gave the film a chance to reach an even greater audience.


This film paved the way for others to follow.  It showed that people are willing to go see a film about one of the scariest subjects the world now faces.  “Longtime Companion” made it possible for a big budget studio film like “Philadelphia” to be produced.


This essay was co-written with Lisa Plinski




Canby, Vincent.  “Manhattan’s Privileged and the Plague of AIDS.” New York Times.  11 May 1990.  Champlin, Charles.  “A Role That’s a Matter of Life and Death for Bruce Davison.”  Los Angeles Times.  28 Feb 1991.

Davison, Bruce.  “The Beneficial Effects of ‘Companion'”.  Los        Angeles Times.  22 April 1991: 

“Fighting AIDS with VCR’s.”  New York Times.  28 Nov. 1990.

“For The Record.”  Los Angeles Times.  15 April 1994.

Fox, David J.  “They Found Out How Touch a Sell AIDS Really Is.”  Los Angeles Times.  13 May 1990.

Harmetz, Aljean.  “Sam Goldwyn’s Little Studio That Cold.” New York Times.  18 Oct. 1992.

Hunt, Dennis.  Los Angeles Times.  15 Feb 1991.

Michaud, Christopher.  “Is There a Distributor Out There For This Film?”  New York Times. 18 March 1990.

“1990 Winners & Sinners.”  Film Comment.  March/April 1991.