Public Relations Tactics

7 things Oscar campaigns teach us

November 1, 2011

Campaigns to win the Best Picture Oscar are, by design, fast and brief. Because of the short awards season, there is a small window to target audiences and deliver results for clients. Thus, these campaigns present unique lessons for PR practitioners who are looking to make a big impact in a short period of time.

Below are seven lessons culled from interviews with Hollywood pros that can benefit any PR team.

1. Know that timing is everything.

Most studios choose to release their Oscar contenders between October and December — the time closest to Oscar voting — so any buzz will be fresh in the minds of Academy voters. First impressions are important, and making a splash in the first festivals is a universal strategy.

“You go early for those awards that come from the press,” said “Black Swan” producer Mike Medavoy.  “Like the New York Film Critics [Circle] awards, Los Angeles Film Critics [Association] awards, Chicago Film Critics [Association] awards — it’s that kind of support you need from the press that says, ‘We’re blessing you.’”

With traditional PR campaigns, maximizing resources at the height of buzz is an obvious strategy, and it’s often effective. But nontraditional timing, and a lot of luck, can sometimes play to your hand as well, just as an early film release might pick up steam.

For example, one of this year’s contenders, according to film journalist Scott Feinberg, is Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” Feinberg noted that this film rolled out in select theaters and created a gradual buzz, increasing its distribution slowly.
“Release dates depend on what kind of movie it is, which determines which festivals you choose and which journalists you want to view it first. Coverage from certain journalists can shape the coverage that follows,” Feinberg said. “You need time for word-of-mouth to get around . . . so that the movie will find its audience.”

Another exception to the fall release strategy was the 2009 Best Picture winner, “The Hurt Locker,” which its studio released in June.  According to Medavoy, the film used its promotional resources too early, before producers knew that they might have something special on their hands — but that didn’t seem to hurt them as word-of-mouth spread.

However, it doesn’t always work that way. Medavoy points to “The Social Network,” which won the first batch of awards and then started losing ground.

“That might seem like an anomaly, but it’s explainable,” he said. “People start to rethink it.  Then, somebody goes out and makes a better argument in interviews. Harvey [Weinstein, a producer of 2010 winner ‘The King’s Speech’] does a good job of that.”

There isn’t a single answer to the questions of timing, but when rolling out your PR campaign, ask yourself if you are executing it at the best time to make the greatest impact.

2. Think before allocating resources.

Oscar campaigns are not cheap — campaign budgets can run $24 million per film. Mailing DVD screeners to the Academy’s 6,000-plus members, advertising in trade publications, attending festivals, hosting screening events and conducting media tours are only the beginning.

Is it worth it?  This is the question all PR practitioners have to ask themselves when thinking about return on investment.  Are you getting back more than what you put into a campaign?

Medavoy’s office walls are covered with posters from his movies: “Amadeus,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Annie Hall,”  “Apocalypse Now,” “Dances with Wolves,”  “Rocky,”  “Silence of the Lambs” — all Oscar winners. In 2010, the Academy nominated his film “Black Swan,”and though it did not win Best Picture, its lead actress, Natalie Portman, won the Oscar.

When asked about funding and return on investment, he said, “Without a studio’s support for the nomination process, you’re nowhere. It’s a very expensive proposition. I’ve spent $25 million on a movie [campaign] and wound up without the Academy Award.  We got a nomination, but we didn’t win it.”

Another factor that studios must consider is that the Academy keeps changing the number of films considered for Best Picture in any given year (for 2011 it’s up to 10) and the method of voting, creating hard choices for studios about how many productions will warrant the time and expense of a nomination campaign.

3. Tell the story.

PR pros create stories and impart information that resonate with the public and underscore the client’s or organization’s message. In the movie business, it writes the story about the story. Public relations conveys background information about the film. It might be the backstory of a 60-year-old screenwriter who stuttered like his main character or the personal struggles of the leading man. Our job as practitioners is to add real-life context to a make-believe world, intriguing the audience.

4. Show enthusiasm.

Your client may be a titan of industry, a genius and a great visionary, but he or she needs to understand that the media and the public require some humility.

Take the case of the difficult star who disdains campaigning, and believes that it reduces him to a shill.  The PR pro must show the star that appearing at a press conference can be the difference between being nominated or not.

“People who are voting want to feel that those nominated have some interest in being voted for,” said Cynthia Swartz, an Oscar specialist formerly with 42 West, a PR firm for the entertainment industry.

According to Dennis Rice, an awards publicist whose clients have included Miramax and Disney,  “Any awards process is partially a popularity contest, and if anyone has done anything to alienate people, it’s going to affect the vote.”

5. Know the media

Figuring out which media outlet to target is a universal concern — and one that isn’t so simple anymore.  

While speaking on NPR, Rice said that publicists used to focus only on trade publications.  Then they recognized that consumer media could reach both Academy members and general audiences, so they altered their approach.

“Now there’s a shift into the Internet,” Rice said. “It has created a minefield of challenges to see who is reading, watching and listening.”

Medavoy agrees that today’s media landscape has changed how he reaches audiences. He notes that in the 1980s, television was the key public influencer, whereas now the media is more fractionalized, requiring a broader reach.

6. Use social media wisely.

Hollywood is finding that despite the universal infatuation with social media, in some cases, it is more a result than a tactic.

While social media is something people are thinking about in Oscar campaigns, it doesn’t play a big part, Swartz said.

“One of the things you hope to achieve in a campaign is to get people talking to each other, and certainly social media is one of the ways [that happens],” she said. “So if you do your job right with other things, such as screening and publicizing the film, you’ll increase the talk among people who are voting. So in a secondary way, social media plays a role.”

However, Swartz said that she sees growth in online advertising at relevant industry sites.

If blogs fit into your definition of social media (many blogs are one-way publications), then Oscar campaigns embrace them.

But rather than trying to blanket every movie blog, PR pros in the movie business look for sites that have become top influencers.
All PR pros should consider this kind of targeting when tackling social media.

7.  Realize that “winning” isn’t everything.

Sure, winning Best Picture will dramatically increase a film’s revenues after the awards, but its revenues likely already increased after the pre-nomination Oscar campaigns, the nomination announcements and the awards campaigns — all of which reached the general public.

Likewise, any efforts you put into your PR campaign will yield returns, even if your expectations have fallen short of your goals.

With film campaigns, the whole process not only increases ticket sales, but also boosts the careers of everyone associated with the contending films.

The glory of the win itself can fade, and the contenders can become just as highly regarded as the winners.

“It becomes a combination of a popularity contest and timing,” said Medavoy. “How do you say a film is the best when there are movies that didn’t win, which over time prove to be just as good or better?” 

Mark H. Osmun
Mark H. Osmun is a Silver Anvil winner and a consultant in Northern California. He is author of the novel and screenplay “Marley’s Ghost.”


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