Round Up the Usual Suspects: Marketing a Best Picture Oscar Campaign

It’s never Winter, Spring or Autumn in Los Angeles. The City of Angels feigns both seasonality and reality by entertaining two distinctive periods of the year: Summer and Awards Season. The latter is already in full swing, with the usual suspects vying for that top prize with the help of marketing budgets from their respective studios. Time and time again it’s been proven that the right messaging and meaningful narratives propel a film to glory. In 2011, The Kings Speech won Best Picture against all odds, including front runner The Social Network whose messaging ‘You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies,’ couldn’t stand up against the empowering story of King George VI. ‘Let courage reign,’ ‘God Save the King,’ and ‘Find your voice,’ resonated with Academy voters and was the edge it needed to win. As the awards are decided based on preferential voting, ultimately knowing the difference between an isolating message and a compelling one is essential in unifying voters in a universal way.

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 build on the meaning of a movie and ensure they 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. I’ve looked at all of this years’ Best Picture nominees and how they stack up in terms of campaign messaging.

Little Women – “Own Your Story”

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What Little Women does not have on its side is familiarity. A tale that has been told numerous times on screen rarely gets that coveted best picture nod because it’s not thought to be telling of our times, or at least has less of an impact if in some way it does. Where it strays from previous attempts however is in the positioning of Jo March, (Saoirse Ronan), as a hybrid of her character and Louisa May Alcott herself. Jo opens the movie pitching her writing to a disinterested publisher and what follows is a showcase of why the chronicle of her little women is desperately needed. Gerwig’s tagline is cleverly pushed as ‘own your story.’ It’s a reference to Saoirse Ronan’s character desperately selling the rights to her story at any price, before becoming more pronounced and considered by the end, opting instead to own her copyright. In a way, the girl who is slightly embarrassed at the writing of her life is by the end empowered to own the story that ultimately made her.

The Verdict? Although a powerful narrative in this environment, Gerwig’s absence from Best Directing category almost guarantees a slash in her odds for Best Picture.

Parasite – “Act like you own the place.”

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Of all the films I’ve seen in the last year, none have had such a profound impact than Parasite had, and this has my vote for Best Picture. Historically, foreign language films don’t go down well at the Oscars, mainly thanks to the conveniently placed Foreign Language Film Category, which essentially makes more room in the Best Picture category for homegrown films to dominate. A staggering amount of momentum however has built for the Korean masterpiece, Parasite as audiences have flocked to see one of the most entertaining films of the decade. Despite an absence of acting nominations at the Oscars, a surprise ensemble win at the SAG awards shows that it may not be as vulnerable as we think. Its marketing has definitely let it down, with “act like you own the place” failing to acknowledge the deep-seated class divide that the entire movie is based on.

Verdict? It’s my pick. Word of mouth and genuine adoration for this film has been the most important publicity to date and could secure a surprise win.

Marriage Story – “Sometimes the ending, is when the story begins.”

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Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as the Brookers, two young people initiating their divorce. We’re given an insight into their early years together through exposition amidst their divorce. Every memory is tarnished, as they look back on their time together through the prism of their divorce proceedings. It’s a love story told through that kind of self reflection you get after something crumbles and you’re left wondering if it even really existed. And that’s reflected in its marketing, with a smiling family portrait reminiscent of 1979’s Best Picture and landmark divorce drama, Kramer Vs Kramer, along with plugs such as ‘it’s not as simple as not being in love anymore’ and ‘sometimes the ending, is when the story begins.’ What Baumbach has on his side here is the rawness and complexity of the story, because oftentimes ambiguity in life isn’t reflected as often as it should be on film. In Marriage Story, the Kramer’s have a new face, and it’s no longer in the form of a neglectful, absent mother, the Brookers bring with them a more complex story for this century, where the blame can’t be readily attributed to either party.

The Verdict? This modern tale of the complexities of divorce may be exactly the kind of narrative that the Academy needs, but it has lost momentum to other front runners throughout awards season.

The Irishman – “A lot can happen in a lifetime.”

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Not only does Scorsese take his time with the story, but he took a considerable amount of time to get the film made. The Irishman was years in the making with schedule clashes between the biggest method actors of the 20th century, but a greater hindrance was the question of who would dig deepest into their pockets to fund Scorsese’s facial technology to make his actors appear younger in certain sequences. In the end, Netflix footed the bill. The narrative for The Irishman sees Netflix use their veteran actors as a way to link the longevity of their careers with the lifetime story of Frank Sheeran. The facial technology that was used throughout gives the actors a facelift and you forget this, until the story returns to the present day in Frank Sheeran’s nursing home, crinkled and wrinkled from years of ‘painting houses.’ When it first debuted, the tagline read ‘a lot can happen in a lifetime,’ and there’s no doubt that this has played in to Academy nominations already, with acting nods for the method stalwarts Pacino, De Niro and Pesci. It’s also no coincidence that Scorsese has been injecting his personal experience into the media subtly, with a profile in The New York Times focusing on his lengthy career and his feelings on morality in his third act – a nod to Frank Sheeran contemplating his past from his nursing home in the final scene.

Verdict? As most have considered it to be one of Scorsese’s finest pieces, the longevity marketing ploy may be just what the director needs to celebrate a lifetime of contributions to film.

Joker – “Put on a Happy Face”

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Todd Phillips has cleverly delivered an origin story for an infamous comic book villain, disguised in the form of a harrowing character study – all without a sniff of an action sequence. He has substituted the cacophony of orchestrated explosions we’re used to, with sequences of deep and dreary meaning, propped up by the superb performance of Joaquin Phoenix who embodies this narcissistic, self-destructive character, walking with a pronounced, jagged step, making room for his clown shoes even when he’s not wearing them. We witness the crystallization process of a deeply troubled citizen of Gotham into a manic character that stands up against everything that has made him feel like he didn’t exist. Joker’s association with the comic universe has led to some fans denouncing it, while others like myself who are less enamoured by the conventional tropes of the genre, are pleasantly surprised. Joker is a devastatingly powerful character study on the darkest moments of mental health and its tagline of ‘put on a happy face,’ is a cynical message that encompasses the very soul of the movie.

Verdict? Although Joker was fantastic and a welcome inverse of the comic book genre, I can’t see a Best Picture win – it’s been far too divisive to overcome the preferential voting system.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – “The 9th Film from Quentin Tarantino”

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Only Quentin Tarantino would consider the marketing ploy, “The 9th Film from Quentin Tarantino” to be sufficient enough to bring him through awards season, but incredibly it has. This is a self-indulgent ode to an old Hollywood that everything he’s ever done has led to. It’s not perfection, but it’s different. And he’s built a career out of being different. And somehow, he’s made his own genre of film and made his own gang that everyone wants to be part of. He doesn’t have a lot of promotional groundwork to do because he’s built a career out of being himself.

Verdict? Despite an early Summer release at Cannes, this could easily creep up on the outside track because the Academy love stories, particularly when it’s about them.

1917 – “Time is the enemy”

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Is time really the enemy? For me, money and ego is the enemy here with Sam Mendes’ uninspiring account of World War 1. His two main characters are bland and stiff, and no allowances are made for character, plot or emotion – everything has been pinned on visuals. Apart from the commendable career triumph for cinematographer Roger Deakins, the accolades this film is getting is baffling and of all the nominations, 1917 seems to be consistently awarded for the craft of filmmaking, rather than taking emotions or the story into account. What Mendes has rightly been plugging in interviews is his personal inspiration for the film, his grandfather Alfred Mendes (a man who must have told long drawn out stories without any breaks) and this seems to be the emotional anchor he’s been banking on to supplement his visual achievements.

Verdict? Mendes won Best Picture twenty years ago for American Beauty, an absolute cinematic treasure. It was a worthy winner, but 1917 doesn’t stand up in stature with predecessors like that. With numerous top Guild award wins under its belt, this has indicated that it could easily still take the top prize.

Ford V Ferrari – “They Took the American Dream for a ride.”

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From the outset, I’d hazard a guess that this has the worst odds at winning Best Picture. Due to a trademark war in the UK and a misguided marketing attempt, it meant that Ford V Ferrari arrived in theatres internationally branded as Le Mans 66. Beyond that, the woefully patriotic tagline of “they took the American Dream for a Ride,” won’t stand a chance against the stronger contenders. Finally, the film itself was hardly revolutionary, despite decent performances from both Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Neither are nominated in the acting races, so this is a telling indication of its sinking odds for a Best Picture win.

Verdict? Not a chance.

JoJo Rabbit – “An anti-hate satire.”

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At first you wonder how a small boy who worships Hitler’s reign can sustain a full length movie, then you get into the groove of the satirical world and just let the madness unfold. JoJo Rabbit is simple and humorous in many ways, but slightly misguided in what it’s trying to convey. A tonal change at the ¾ mark happens suddenly and we see an “anti-hate satire” trying desperately to quickly shoehorn the anti-hate part in. And maybe I’m also a bit bitter because the true Bowie fan within me is disappointed that another director thinks that by playing “Heroes” at the end of a movie this is sufficient enough to make up for any exposition gaps. Overall, it’s a different kind of movie and for that I commend it, but with a few more risks and thought put in to it, it could have been elevated. I’d echo that in its campaign messaging, the “anti-hate satire” has been strong enough to keep people interested throughout awards season, but it won’t sustain a Best Picture win.

Verdict? Waikiki played it safe here and although well liked, it won’t be voters’ first choice.

And the Oscar goes to…

While 1917 is getting lauded at all the guild awards, I think the Academy will split the two top prizes, with Mendes getting Best Director. For me, Best Picture has to be Parasite. I’d argue that The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are close behind it as these are all films whose messages and themes transcend the films themselves. We’ll have to see what compelling thematic thread sticks with Academy voters, right up until the moment they fill in that ballot paper.

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