In fair Los Angeles, where we lay our scene.. Cast your mind back to 2005. Critics and the media were sent into a tailspin at the 77th Academy Awards, when Crash was awarded the Best Picture Oscar. It had faced stiff competition in the lead up from Brokeback Mountain, a beautifully-made, gay love story that had been considered a fitting contender for Best Picture from early on in the race. Many would argue that Crash is empirically, a better film than Brokeback Mountain, but Academy voters choose with their hearts, not their heads. A trawl through the history of the Academy Awards, exemplifies how the Best Picture Oscar regularly rewards premise over craft, rather than vice versa. Although style and craft may deem a film worthy of a nomination, Academy members are at the behest of constructed narratives that will stand up in stature with its predecessors. Those narratives are created by employing sophisticated marketing plugs that captivate the Academy and can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Despite being regularly noted as one of the most unlikely Best Picture winners, I’ve always argued that Crash was a deserving winner that year. Their powerful narrative and other elements of the campaign contributed to its win.
The Power of a Narrative – Crash Vs. Brokeback Mountain
Backed by Lionsgate, Crash engaged in a clever campaign which saw DVDs delivered to every member of the Screen Actors’ Guild, a minor branch of the Academy voting base. It was one of the first studios to engage members directly by framing the viewing of Crash as a necessity. As a film which dealt head-on with racial tensions in Los Angeles, its handling of such a theme would need to be equally handled in a judicious manner. When Oprah Winfrey was cited as a key advocate of this film, her support got the public talking.
What was the key difference in narrative that had allowed Crash to supercede one of the first mainstream, same-sex love stories? Arguably, it was the latters’ lack of succinct framing which ultimately let it down. Ang Lee, the director of Brokeback Mountain had expressed his excitement of marketing the film ‘for what it is.’ When Ledger and Gyllenhaal appeared on adverts however, the tagline ‘Love is a force of nature’ was plugged alongside them. Its promotion of the subject matter was lukewarm to say the least, and for such a groundbreaking premise and delicate storyline, the supporting marketing materials didn’t match up to the potential narrative it could have created.
In comparison, Crash sold itself as a drama examining the human condition, intertwined with the untreated racial prejudice in America. Its Los Angeles setting was a vital component of the story, the first lines of the script encapsulating the uniqueness of the vast and bizarre city that many Academy members called home.
It’s the sense of touch. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.
Its tagline was powerful: ‘Moving at the speed of life, we are bound to collide with each other,’ and was repurposed in marketing materials to supplement a superb, multi-faceted script. Crash’s screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, had been inspired by his own experience of being the victim of a carjacking attempt, in which he questioned the identity and motives of the two men who had targeted him. He aligned a human parallel with this fictional screenplay, and in doing so crafted a narrative that gave real life credence to this story. Subsequent messaging reiterated this sense of societal bias and racial stereotyping, by encouraging the audience to question themselves and the views they may consciously or subconsciously carry around with them, ‘You think you know who you are. You have no idea.’
On critical reception, the film was attacked by a select few for being a vehicle for protracting racial stereotypes. Paul Haggis laughed off the critiques. It had been his very intention to lure the audience in with these stereotypes, before gradually deconstructing them, with raw humanity in the mix. Haggis to this day is still surprised at this Best Picture win, however he noted that it was the narrative and likely the Academy base living in Los Angeles where the film was set, which they identified the most with, ‘for some reason that’s the film that touched people the most that year.’ It doesn’t matter whether voters would have picked Crash or not, if asked again today – it is the film that speaks to them most powerfully at the time that really counts.
Timing is a Virtue
Another vital factor which studios conform to, is time. Beyond the crucial campaign messages, timed executions regularly dictate Oscar success. Most studios in search of an Oscar nomination strategically set a release date within the October to December window. Before Christmas is an essential time, with the Golden Globes generally the first Sunday of the New Year. It may be presumptuous and premature to isolate films at this stage, but every year there are certain films that don’t conform to the publicity gauntlet, generally required for a nomination or a win. First Man, directed by Oscar’s golden boy Damien Chazelle hit theatres in early October, with momentum gradually tipping off ever since. Similarly, veteran screenwriter Paul Schrader’s gripping work First Reformed was released in March this year and has been all but forgotten for consideration purposes. There’s no doubt that the recency effect has an affect on the Academy, meaning that this has become the norm, with over 55% of Oscar nominated films released in the November to December window.
The Campaign Trail
A little gold man isn’t the only prize at stake here. Studios are eager to secure nominations and wins because it affords longevity to a project that would not been as profitable otherwise. Tent pole movies like Marvel keep studios afloat, but an Oscar winning film can be just as lucrative a revenue stream, manifesting in an upward trajectory of box office takings and repeat screenings. Marketing spend for a Best Picture campaign can be as high as $10 million, but if allocated to the right resources, Keynesian economics kicks in to reward studios. According to IBISworld, Best Picture winners from 2008 to 2012, earned $13.8 million more after winning the award than nominated films that didn’t win. Agents want their cut too, with actors and actresses of Academy winning caliber, known to bump their asking price by 20% for their next film role.
Already in Los Angeles, awards season is well underway, with dozens of billboards lining the freeways with ‘For Your Consideration’ posters. It’s a whirlwind period for the industry in LA, a city which feigns both reality and seasonality. In many ways, the overzealous efforts to claim the industry’s top prize, undermines the craft it seeks to celebrate. On the other hand, it’s a fascinating aspect of the entertainment industry that has arguably kept creative and forward-thinking films in the public consciousness. More power to the Oscars, and more power to the films that try to beat the system to get their story out there.
To communicate their stories, studios must be committed to running the publicity circuit, arranging blowout Oscar parties and engaging in all awards season events, their presence akin to the likes of Trump and Clinton on the campaign trail. The Academy Award nominations are no different to the Democratic or Republican nominations; campaign messages have been communicated and the masses will decide who is being the most sincere. Once nominations are secured, ‘Phase 1’ marketing as it’s referred to, comes to an end and ‘Phase 2’ works on securing that top prize.
What’s the Narrative for 2019?
It all depends on the Phase 2 hustle that studios will make after nominations. A Star is Born has been a firm favourite for months, but its Phase 1 marketing was lacklustre to say the least. I’d go out on a limb to say that Roma is awarded Best Picture. If Netflix pulls out all the stops, aligning Roma with current political issues and reinforcing Cuaron’s elegant storytelling, it could be the first win for the streaming service. One thing is for sure; members of the Academy will be swayed by their hearts, and it’s up to studios to captivate them with a thematic thread that sticks with them when they’re filling out that ballot sheet.