I would be lying to you if I said I have never dreamed of winning an Oscar for my undiscovered movie talents, and I would be flat-out in Pinocchio mode if I said I haven’t practiced my future acceptance speech—more than once. However, in the midst of award season, I started thinking about previous winners and their credibility within the film industry. Are the best, most original, well-crafted and worthy candidates awarded, or at least considered hopefuls in the coveted chase? Or is that pint-sized, gold man just the face of a glamorized marketing campaign to win Academy votes?
I won’t say that all Academy Award winners are undeserving of their recognition, but I will say that a great deal of that success is due to the films’ marketing and campaigning. Think about it. Without advertising and marketing, we as movie-goers wouldn’t know about half the movies that come to theaters. And with the overwhelming amount of movies that come out yearly (655 movies were released domestically in 2012), if a film doesn’t make a big splash opening weekend you might as well consider it a box office casualty. So it seems promoting a film to the max is pretty essential these days—especially if you want a chance at getting recognized during award season.
But let’s skip past the movie trailers, the social media hype and the box office numbers. Let’s instead look at the madness, strategizing—and perhaps evil plotting—that happens after Seth MacFarlane declares you as a 2013 Academy Award nominee.
Unlike Te’o’s girlfriend, Oscar campaigning is a real thing. On average, studios can spend anywhere from $5 to $25 million mounting Oscar campaigns. This means that once the noms are out, the claws come out. (I’m looking at you, Harvey Weinstein.) Think schmoozing with Academy voters, VIP screening parties, brilliant public relations and frequent cast appearances with Leno, Jimmy and Conan.
One famous campaign of the past resulted in Miramax’s surprise Best Picture win for “Shakespeare in Love.” The year was 1999 and the duel was Miramax vs. DreamWorks. Miramax was pulling out all the stops for “Shakespeare” with a $5 million Oscar push, while DreamWorks spent $4 million promoting Spielberg’s hit film, “Saving Private Ryan.” The DreamWorks campaign included print ads, TV commercials and copying and mailing special Academy cassettes of “Saving Private Ryan.” The “Shakespeare” campaign chose to use traditional advertising, as well as heavy public relations. They hired new publicists to pitch newspaper and television stories, and they also positioned the film as the charming underdog—which helped attract more media attention. Taking a word of mouth approach, Miramax also may or may have not created a smear campaign against Spielberg’s war flick, questioning the authenticity of the film’s research. And just so you know, that same year, Miramax promoted their other Best Picture nom, “Life is Beautiful,” as the #3 Vatican-approved movie. (Yes, the Pope really wants you to see this movie.)
Almost 14 years later, the fictional Shakespeare film is considered one of the worst, most undeserving Best Picture winners ever. Although the rom-com made us laugh, cry and swoon over a young Bill Shakespeare, looking at it now, it just doesn’t hold up against the visual aesthetics and epic storytelling that SPR created. This loss for DreamWorks and Spielberg unfortunately acts as a cruel reminder that recognition isn’t always awarded correctly—and that the Academy isn’t necessarily the best at judging quality work.
Although the Academy has recently made some campaign regulations, like tighter restrictions on post-nomination screenings, mailings and email promotions—there’s little they can do about advertising, TV specials or influencing voters of other awards. The 2012 Oscar race is a good example of Academy Awards campaign strategy. For instance, both Best Picture nominees, “The Artist” and “The Descendants,” spent an estimated $30 million on theatrical and award marketing. The edge came down to strategy and timing.
As a part of their strategy, The Weinstein Co. made sure that the peak of “The Artist” momentum hit at exactly the right time. Positioned as ode to Hollywood, the film generated buzz through news publicists, fancy events, cast interviews, select city releases and some helpful pre-Oscar credibility (the film took home a Golden Globe and its lead actor, Jean Dujardin, brought home a Best Actor award from the Screen Actors Guild). In the end, the black-and-white silent film “The Artist” beat out the modern, full-color talkie opponent “The Descendants” through precisely timed maximum exposure.
As I’ve discovered, many factors come into play during award season. Although it’s important for award frontrunners to actually be good films, it seems equally essential that they be strategically campaigned too. So, I guess what I’ve concluded from my award research is that if you market your film as a winner, it will be a winner—or to put it in a less cheesy way, hire Harvey Weinstein.
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