On Feb. 22, two important showbiz phenomena will climax at the Dolby Theatre. One is the Academy Awards. The other is a multimillion-dollar marketing and promo push.
These two things occur simultaneously, and that has been a source of endless confusion, misinformation and heartache. While they overlap, they are very separate things.
A lot of people (within and outside the industry) bemoan any connection between the Oscars and money, ignoring the fact that money is a factor in politics, religion, health, education and just about everything else. But people want to believe that some areas are immune to considerations of filthy lucre, such as the Academy Awards.
Film is art, but it’s also about profits and always has been, so studios would be insane to ignore the power of Oscar. For example, Warner Bros.’ “Argo” had pretty much played out domestically ($110 million in three months) by the time Oscar nominations were announced Jan. 10, 2013. “Argo” earned $19 million in the next six weeks, and an added $6 million after winning best picture on Feb. 24. That’s $25 million from just domestic box office; add in international and ancillaries, and the campaign spending seems like a good investment.
Fox Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave” was an unflinching look at a tough subject that was a B.O. gamble, and it’s safe to assume Oscar helped boost domestic box office to reach $56 million. More important, the film earned $131 million overseas and helped disprove the ridiculous Hollywood theory that international audiences will shun films about the black experience. Global audiences liked “12 Years,” but Oscar helped draw them to the film.
In addition, individuals benefit. After their wins, Charlize Theron and Halle Berry saw their salaries skyrocket to $10 million per pic. Christoph Waltz is earning $5 million for the upcoming “Tarzan,” after his second Oscar win. He doesn’t have the biggest role, but he has the biggest salary in the cast.
So the financial power of Oscar is clear, yet confusion persists, because outsiders don’t understand how a campaign spend can overlap with artistic decisions about “best.” Whenever a favorite doesn’t win, cynics claim the Oscars are just a popularity contest or that the award was bought.
That latter theory wasn’t widespread until the explosion of the Internet, when entertainment bloggers suddenly proliferated and were looking for new angles on awards coverage. Sore losers were sometimes eager to provide that explanation because it’s easier to say, “They outspent us” than to say, “Voters just didn’t like our movie enough.”
The spending isn’t bribery; it’s to get voters to see the film or remind them why they like it.
Marketing is part of Hollywood’s standard procedure; from tentpoles to little indies, you have to make audiences aware of your film. When “Guardians of the Galaxy” opened to $94 million in August, you didn’t find many people sneering that the studio simply “bought” that huge opening.
And no, this is not an excuse or apology for campaigning: Variety makes money, but so do many other outlets. (The biggest beneficiaries of campaigns actually seem to be airlines, hotels and TV networks.)
This is just a reminder that marketing is part of life. It was even a factor in the creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 1927: Hollywood needed something positive to combat the outcry over racy films and scandals like the one involving Fatty Arbuckle.
Even in the Academy’s early days, studio people understood that the award was a good marketing tool. Campaigns started by the second year, and “For Your Consideration” ads go back at least to 1931, with an MGM ad in Variety promoting Norma Shearer for “Strangers May Kiss.” (FYI: March 18, 1931, page 35).
AMPAS members vote for what they like best and bristle at the suggestion that spending influences their decisions. Voters, contenders and movie fans around the world take the Academy Awards seriously. To them, Oscars are a recognition of the year’s best work, and that “pure” aspect is very real.
However, everyone should remember that “best” is subjective; that campaigning isn’t evil per se; and that marketing-ads-promo can overlap with voting, but are not synonymous with it.
People are free to worry about this if they want, but they would be better off fretting about campaign spending for the 2016 elections.