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This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Alejandro G. Inarritu‘s come-from-behind victory at the Feb. 7 DGA Awards wasn’t just the result of a shift in momentum toward Birdman, it also was the payoff to a subtle tweak in Fox Searchlight’s awards campaign.
“They obviously began to sense that [Boyhood‘s] Richard Linklater was vulnerable, and they made a big push for Inarritu in all their ads,” says one rival campaigner, who notes that recent trade ads have included prominent pictures of the Mexican filmmaker.
Searchlight hasn’t been alone in opting for last-minute alterations to its campaign narrative; nearly every movie that believes it has a serious shot at a major Oscar has changed directions — or moved into higher gear — in the lead-up to the Feb. 22 Academy Awards.
Historically, notes one strategist, most awards campaigns adopt “a phase two look. That’s campaigning 101. In phase one [before the nominations], the goal of marketers is to get people to see the movies. In phase two, you’re trying to remind them why they love the movie, instead.”
But campaigners also are trying to achieve several other goals, including bumping perceived rivals aside and giving voters a crystal-clear reason to select their picture.
Nowhere is that clearer than with The Weinstein Co.’s The Imitation Game, which has taken billboards and ads urging everyone to “Honor this movie. Honor this man. And honor the movement to bring justice to the other 49,000.”
The bluntness of that message has raised eyebrows among competitors, since it seems to be asking voters to pay tribute to the film’s subject, gay World War II code-breaker Alan Turing, just as much as the film. “[It’s] playing the gay card,” notes one commentator, an impression that was furthered when Harvey Weinstein said he’d give up his CBE (a British honor) if the U.K. would retroactively pardon those once imprisoned for homosexuality.
“Harvey was reasonably contained for most of the race,” grouses a longtime campaigner, who, like all the others interviewed for this article, asked not to be named. “Then when the nominations came out, he realized he had a shot to win best picture because he had all the requisite categories. It’s pretty hard to win without nominations for director, editor and screenplay.”
Only three of the best picture finalists have been nominated for all those awards, notes the campaigner: Imitation Game, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel. After the nominations were announced, “Harvey goes completely shameless, like he did with Philomena, getting Judi Dench to meet the pope.”
Is Weinstein’s possible pandering really any worse than Searchlight’s last year, when 12 Years a Slave was in a tight race with Warner Bros.’ Gravity? Then, the Fox unit deployed the tagline, “It’s time” — which could have been interpreted as, “It’s time to see the movie,” or more likely, playing upon the Academy’s collective white guilt, “It’s time to recognize the horrors of slavery.” (12 Years won.)
Boyhood also has spun in a new direction, dropping its focus on Ellar Coltrane, the young man at the center of the movie, and no longer stressing the eons the film was in production. Instead, it’s using a photo of Patricia Arquette — considered a near-lock for best supporting actress — with the line, “One Family’s Life. Everyone’s Story.” Insiders say that was designed to “refresh” a picture that was introduced at Sundance more than a year ago by pointing to its universal themes, including motherhood and family. “They noticeably warmed up their ads, too,” says a campaigner. “Even the colors are warmer.”
Just as Boyhood has a new tagline, so does Birdman — “Risk. Above all” — a not-so-covert reminder of the film’s originality.
“You have to tell people why this movie is the best picture of the year,” explains one strategist. ” ‘It’s the best picture because …’ If you can’t do that with an image or a tagline, you haven’t given them a reason to seal the deal.”
Given this, some experts are baffled that several campaigns have not made more conspicuous shifts. A case in point: Focus Features’ The Theory of Everything, which has adopted the tagline, “Consider Everything.”
No longer a favorite for best picture, the movie has emerged as a frontrunner for best actor (Eddie Redmayne).
“I would have said, ‘Consider the extraordinary,’ and made it all about him,” says one strategist, offering a bit of unsolicited advice. The word “everything” implies that the picture still is in with a real chance of winning best picture (unlikely); but it also leaves room for voters to consider the movie’s screenplay by Anthony McCarten (far more likely). It may indicate that Focus is confident in Redmayne and wants to scoop up other baubles, too.
Does all this make any difference so late in the game? Haven’t voters already made up their minds? No, say the campaigners, each of whom stands to receive a six-figure bonus if his or her movie wins the top Oscar.
True, when there’s an all-but-certain winner, like Slumdog Millionaire in 2009, the race becomes about how long a film’s coattails can be rather than whether it will win best picture. But in a race as tight as this, the final pass may determine who wins Hollywood’s Super Bowl. Says one campaigner, “It basically comes down to which movie made you feel something. That’s what you have to remind them of.”
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