It starts with a poster. Each year, the marketing campaign for Hollywood’s highest-profile annual event, the Academy Awards, begins with the submission of a one-sheet concept to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Once chosen, that poster provides a template from which promotional materials for the Oscars can be created.
“It’s analogous to doing key art for a motion picture,” explains Alex Swart, a two-time Oscar poster designer and creative director and principal at advertising firm SwartAd. “It becomes the official symbol that’s used and adapted in various iterations of the advertising and promotion.”
Swart, who designed his first Oscar poster in 2001 and landed the job again in 2005, was chosen from a pool of graphic designers, advertising agencies and artists who submitted designs on spec using only the most cursory of guidelines.
“My creative brief came down to three words in 2001: ‘We want Beethoven.’ What that meant was that they wanted the drama and the clarity of a Beethoven symphony,” Swart says. “My design for 2001, in my mind, was the visual equivalent to the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”
His winning layout was displayed everywhere, from lampposts and a neon-enhanced Sunset Boulevard billboard to giant banners that hung over the Kodak Theatre and the Academy’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters.
As the years have passed, the expanding nature of Oscar’s advertising and media efforts has meant artists must look beyond the poster itself when making their pitch.
“Historically, we asked the artists to provide concepts that show how a poster or one-sheet concept can translate to a billboard or a taxicab topper or a TV commercial or trailer,” says Academy marketing director Beth Harris. “This past year, we requested that people also submit storyboard concepts because we’re a television show. So much of what we do is about the motion of the concept.”
This year’s key art, designed by Joan Maloney of San Diego design firm Studio 318, was the end result of a process that began last May and saw more than 100 entries examined by the Academy’s leadership committee.
By July, the decision was made, and Harris and her team began working with ABC, the ceremony’s host network, on how to best integrate the art with the different media and advertising programs already in place.
Maloney’s winning entry shows a close-up of the hands of past winners gripping the Oscar statuette, a play on the Academy’s tagline for its 78th annual ceremony: “Hold on to your dreams.”
“We actually have four (images) in the series,” Harris says. “You can see them here in Los Angeles on our different Academy buildings. … And we really liked the emotion that was shown and the feeling that was evoked from how different people were hanging on to that statuette.”
Two years ago, artist Burton Morris took the poster in a more pop art direction, the end result being “very colorful and vibrant and fresh,” says Harris, who says the design lent itself to animation, as well as opportunities for the Academy’s Web site. “So, I think each year totally evokes a different feeling,” she adds.
And that’s the key, Swart insists.
“The challenge is to interpret in a new way — in a novel way — one of the most-recognized symbols in the world,” Swart says, “and to create something that will create desire and curiosity.”