Pivoting to Win: Oscar Campaigns Keep Eyes on the Prize

With nominations under their belts, marketers turn to phase two

Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling and Damien
Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock

The Oscar nominations are in, and now is the time when the various campaigns that have amassed enough support for their films to get to this point pivot their strategies toward a win.

There are two schools of thought at this stage. One is: “Let’s ride the horse that brought us.” We’ve seen this over the years with campaigns that didn’t adjust their messaging or visuals as they charged through phase two, hoping to build on the backing that landed them there. You can probably expect this strategy for “La La Land,” the frontrunner for best picture.

“That film is in the position Donald Trump was in when he said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t hurt him,” one rival consultant says. “They’re staying exactly the same, with the same visuals that say, ‘Hey, this was the worst year of your life, wasn’t it? Ours, too! Look at these two happy people dancing!’ It’s a great campaign.”

The other school of thought — particularly among the longshots, with nothing left to lose — is to mix things up. In early 1999, “Shakespeare in Love” was staring at the inevitability of a win by “Saving Private Ryan,” but an influx of funding and a shift toward lofty messaging helped bring it the Oscar for best picture. Six years ago, a brainy pitch from “The Social Network” felt like a call to worship, but “The King’s Speech” jumped ahead by appealing to voters’ hearts: “Find your voice,” said the Weinstein Co.’s ads for the film in phase two.

A more recent example is last year’s best picture, “Spotlight.” “They were running a little scared of the Catholic of it all, but they finally leaned in to the fact that it was about something, and they were up against a film, ‘The Revenant,’ that was about nothing,” a consultant says.

Foraging for awards remains a crucial marketing tool for movies that don’t have the advertising capabilities of bigger plays (of the major studios, only Fox and Paramount, received best picture recognition). But for some, nominations alone can be a notable part of the fiscal puzzle. Paramount’s “Arrival” is sure to expand its theatrical reach on the basis of its nominations tally, with a goal toward crossing $100 million in domestic box office receipts and perhaps $200 million globally. Meanwhile, the DVD/Blu-ray release is scheduled for February, just before the Oscars.

“There’s a greater understanding now more than ever that this is how you can get people to see your movie,” another consultant says. “This is how you can bring your box office up. And your own price goes up. If you’re a sound designer, and you pick up a string of nominations, your rate goes up. It’s win-win.”

Let that dispel any notion you might have of the Academy Awards as a pure pageant of objective quality. The Oscars started as a means to promote the American film industry, and that’s what they continue to be.