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Do Online Movie Trailers Crafted by Studios to Target Oscar Voters Work?

Once upon a time, trailers were called previews of coming attractions. Running in cinemas before the main feature, they highlighted the action, comedy and drama of films yet to be released in order to persuade audiences to return to the theater and part with more hard-earned cash.

That quaint appellation is history. As film marketing adapts to an age of overlapping exhibition platforms and multiplying distribution windows, editors now cut version after version of trailers for a given film, including for theatrical release, TV spots, online promotion and risqué red-band trailers, to name a few.

And this time of year, when movies are competing for critical praise and the attention of Academy members, studios design entire marketing campaigns — including online trailers — that are aimed at those who fill out ballots, says Billy Mikelson, owner of advertising studio Motive Creative. These campaigns, he says, differ from the usual promos by featuring “a certain gravitas — a feeling of importance.” The idea, he adds, is to provide that added push a film, its stars and its creators may need to get them out of their seats and up to the podium.

As awards season progresses and movies collect nominations, guild prizes and other accolades, trailer houses and their editors churn out new spots that emphasize the acclaim. How a movie fares on the awards trail dictates the direction of the campaign, and studios “adjust accordingly once the nominations start coming out,” Mikelson explains. “If a certain actor is getting nominated, you’ll obviously start highlighting their performance in a TV spot.”

But do such campaigns work? Oscar blogger Jeffrey Wells says the impact of awards trailers on voters is hard to quantify, but adds that for-your-consideration ads and trailers that push for noms are a must. “If you don’t advertise and re-promote your films or your awards-worthy performances — no [for-your-consideration] ads, no rebooted trailers — you will disappear from voters’ minds.”

But while the hope is that trailers influence awards, the truth is that awards influence trailers too. A number of Golden Globe nominations and spots on critics’ year-end lists, for example, free up trailer editors to be more subtle and artistic in how they sell the movie — because the nominations and prizes do a lot of the heavy lifting.

Sisters Monica Brady and Evelyn Brady-Watters, heads of the Golden Trailer Awards, say that when a movie starts its competitive journey, it becomes a different type of sell for the studios. “With the major releases,” says Brady, “you have to go out with bigger songs, better graphics, louder sound. You have to pack the trailer with a punch. But as soon as you have those bragging rights — as soon as you have the authenticator of the Academy Awards behind you — that’s the magic bullet.”

“With the major releases, you have to go out with bigger songs, better graphics, louder sound. You have to pack the trailer with a punch.”
Monica Brady, Golden Trailer Awards

Once nominations are out, the tune changes. “Instead of hitting people over the head with huge sound effects and big songs, it’s a softer sell,” explains Brady-Watters. “You don’t need every bell and whistle anymore, because people will see the movie on the strength of the noms. You can really take your foot off the gas.”

Nick Temple, head of advertising studio Wild Card, agrees that trading on a movie’s success is a good blueprint in the second phase of a film’s campaign. “There’s often the sort of strategic planning that could create materials that are review-driven or showcase the nominations the film might have received,” he says. The effect is to remind other awards bodies of the gathering acclaim and to point out to audiences that the film is worth seeing.

But there’s a danger during awards season that stressing nominations and acclaim can go too far, and that overemphasizing a movie’s success can be a negative for voters. Sasha Stone, an Oscar prognosticator and head of the website Awards Daily, feels that while an awards trailer can “plant an image in voters’ minds that a movie is important or critically acclaimed,” it can overstate the case.

“Movies like ‘Phantom Thread’ or ‘Florida Project’ benefit from reminding voters how great they were,” Stone says. But there’s a risk. “When trailers become laughably overdone, they can be a turn-off. The last thing you ever want is for anyone to start talking about how much money is being spent. You never want to look desperate.”

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