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Awards Campaigns Harken Back to Oscar’s Earliest Days

Some people seem to think Oscar campaigns are a recent phenomenon. In truth, they are as old as the awards themselves: In Hollywood, creativity and marketing have always gone hand in hand.

While many contenders get the heebie-jeebies at the word “campaign,” it’s all part of a long tradition that includes screenings, handshaking — and ads.

On March 18, 1931, Variety ran a full-page ad headlined “Take it again, Norma!” MGM congratulated Norma Shearer on her win for “The Divorcee” and predicted she would be nominated again for “Strangers May Kiss.” The ad showed an Oscar statuette, though that image has long been banned from subsequent ads.

Among the earliest uses of the word “consideration” was in 1948, when RKO touted several films, including “Mourning Becomes Electra” and “The Farmer’s Daughter.”

Over the years, the campaigning has sometimes been subtle, sometimes blatant. In the late-1950s and early ’60s, Lustre-Creme shampoo ran a series of ads congratulating actresses on their nominations, including Audrey Hepburn for “The Nun’s Story” as well as Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Hayward, Janet Leigh and Shirley MacLaine. These were de facto FYC ads.

March 18, 1931: Variety ran a full-page ad from MGM congratulating the actress.
Variety

On the downside, Chill Wills helped pioneer over-the-top campaigns, as another trade paper ran an ad promoting his supporting work, saying “We of ‘The Alamo’ cast are praying — harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at the Alamo — for Chill Wills to win the Oscar.”

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On March 22, 1961, director-star John Wayne rebutted with a full-page Variety ad disavowing his company’s knowledge of the campaign, calling Wills’ tactic “reprehensible.” Wayne added, “I refrain from using stronger language because I’m sure his intentions were not as bad as his taste.”

On the other hand, spoofs of campaigns also go way back. In January 1976, the filmmakers of “Smile” (directed by Michael Ritchie, written by Jerry Belson) took out an ad as darkly funny as the film itself: “Please read this ad carefully. (It’s the last one we can afford.)” And it said if Academy members were among the 204 million Americans who didn’t see the film, they could attend a screening on the MGM lot.

On Feb. 1, 1979, Variety ran a page 1 story about Charles Powell, Universal’s senior exec in charge of advertising. Powell told the Los Angeles Advertising Club that the six major studios would be spending $300,000 each in search of Oscars that year — a total of $1.8 million. In a luncheon talk to an overflow crowd at the BevHilton Hotel, Powell noted that there were 3,600 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences — meaning the studios were spending $500 to reach each voter.

March 25, 1969: It’s the simplicity of the ad for “Isadora” that speaks volumes.
Variety

Some people seem to think campaigns were born with the films of 1998. “Shakespeare in Love” scored a best picture win over “Saving Private Ryan,” an Oscar upset that coincided with the launch of many websites. Looking for a new angle on the most widely covered entertainment night of the year, many new bloggers concluded that campaigns were the determining factor. In truth, most of the bloggers overlooked the obvious: “Shakespeare” was about the joy of acting and the Academy’s biggest branch is actors. But ever since then, analyses of campaigns has been a big factor of the season.

Screeners started going out in the late 1980s, and a few decades later, a different element began to dominate the season: Q&A sessions. On Nov. 30, 2000, DreamWorks scheduled a screening of “Gladiator,” followed by a Q&A with director Ridley Scott. It was theoretically tied to the film’s DVD release, but the screening/Q&A combo — at the Academy’s Goldwyn Theater, no less — was closely watched by rivals. After the film won the best-picture Oscar, every other studio scheduled a slew of Q&As the following season.

And 2003 saw the launch of the Variety Screening Series, in which the Q&As were packaged together. The goal was to get people to see the films and see them on the big screen. The first year of VSS included screenings of “Master and Commander,” “Seabiscuit” and the film that eventually took home the top prize, “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” The following year, other websites and print publications began their own screening series.

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