As 2013 comes to a close, 12 Years a Slave has become embroiled in some healthy, Oscar-friendly controversy. A couple of Italian posters for the film have focused on its white supporting players, Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, instead of on black protagonist Chiwetel Ejiofor. Since then, Italian distributor BIM has issued contrite apologies; Lionsgate's Summit Entertainment, the film's international sales agent, has demanded a recall of the “unauthorized” posters (it's unclear if no character posters featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor were ever created, or if they were just not on display); the U.S. media and their cohorts elsewhere have played their usual role in pushing hot buttons and creating controversy – much to the delight of both their advertisers and their viewers/readers; and everyone is now aware of how relevant to our early 21st century world is Steve McQueen's movie set in the mid-19th century United States.
Needless to say, the fact that the Italian posters for 12 Years a Slave – a top Best Picture Academy Award contender – were in all likelihood an issue not of racism, but of (lack of) truth in advertising, has been ignored. But that wouldn't have generated the controversy required to sell 12 Years a Slave, whether in Italy or in Hollywood or online.
Brad Pitt is a major worldwide star; one whose World War Z grossed nearly $340 million earlier this year. Michael Fassbender is one of the stars in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (also featuring Pitt), Ridley Scott's Prometheus, and Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, in addition to Steve McQueen's Shame and David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, both of which performed particularly well in Italy.
On the other hand, Chiwetel Ejiofor's chief claim to fame outside the UK are supporting roles in the Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington star vehicle American Gangster, and in Roland Emmerich's 2012, in which the nominal star was John Cusack and the actual stars were the special effects.
Distributors want to sell their movies. However dishonest their posters and trailers, they'll emphasize whatever or whoever it takes to make an “art” movie – or any movie, for that matter – seem more appetizing to the masses in their respective markets. And this is hardly something new.
Lack of truth in movie advertising
For instance, back in 1925 independent distributor Astor Company released Ferdinand Pinney Earle's 1921 “art movie” The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as A Lover's Oath. In Earle's original story, the star was English Shakespearean actor Frederick Warde; in Astor's reedited version, the focus was on Mexican-born star Ramon Novarro, whose Ben-Hur, released in December 1925, was to become the biggest worldwide blockbuster of the silent era. A Lover's Oath thus became a “Ramon Novarro movie” not because Astor was anti-British (and/or pro-Mexican), but because Novarro's name would help to sell the little art film.
British actor Alec Guinness was the one who eventually won a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in David Lean's 1957 war drama The Bridge on the River Kwai, but that movie's poster emphasized Hollywood star William Holden, who, though top billed, actually has a secondary role in the film. Anti-British bias? More like pro-box office bias.
See more recent examples here, featuring posters and/or DVD covers selling actors who actually had either supporting roles or walk-ons in the films in questions. These include Sandra Bullock in Hangmen, Kevin Costner in Sizzle Beach U.S.A., Mel Gibson in Chain Reaction, Keanu Reeves in The Watcher, Michelle Pfeiffer in the mash-up Power Passion Murder, Selena Gomez in Harmony Korine's recent mini-hit Spring Breakers, and Lou Diamond Phillips in Stand and Deliver.
12 Years a Slave Italian poster: BIM.