Soon, we will witness the yearly spectacle where the film industry gets together and celebrates what they’ve decided were the best movies of the year. This year’s crop of Oscar nominees are all stellar examples of what movies can achieve, from the pulse-pounding action of Mad Max, to the thoughtful and subdued drama of Spotlight. But even the best films of the year don’t become successful through quality filmmaking and story-writing alone. It takes a good marketing campaign to convince people to go out and watch these movies, and it takes a lot of time and effort to make a good marketing campaign.
We’ve done a fair bit of promotional work ourselves, and we know a thing or two about marketing. So to give you an idea of what goes into these campaigns, we decided to take a look at the marketing for each Best Picture nominee.
Right out of the gate, all of the advertising for The Big Short promised two things: an all-star cast and an exposé on the 2008 financial crisis. The posters and the trailers were always quick to highlight the talent on screen, and it’s hard to blame them when they had big names like Christian Bale and Brad Pitt to work with. Aside from this, they also tapped into the undercurrent of public anger, emphasizing the movie’s harsh denunciation of the people and institutions who caused the crisis. Still, making fairly dense explanations of complicated financial concepts into a captivating story plot could have been difficult, even with a great cast and populist anger behind it. Luckily, The Big Short‘s marketing team managed to find a consistent, energetic tone that remains light and fun without diminishing the seriousness of its subject matter. The result was a campaign that successfully angled the movie as an entertaining crowdpleaser, nevertheless one with a poignant and timely message.
*SPOILER ALERT* It should be said that this marketing was slightly misleading. While it emphasized the ensemble cast and often seemed to imply that they would work together, very few of the major characters ever actually interact throughout the movie. It also struck a tone of righteous indignation, of crusading heroes who were taking on a corrupt industry, but it actually follows people who figured out the crisis was coming and chose to exploit it rather than fight it. It’s still a scathing indictment of everyone involved, but it’s a bit more nuanced in its depictions than the populist marketing might lead you to believe.
It’s tempting to say that a movie with two cultural icons like Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks doesn’t need any advertising, and unfortunately the studio may have taken that to heart. Along with requisite trailers and TV spots, Hanks and Spielberg certainly made their rounds in interviews and appearances leading up to release. Otherwise, marketing was a bit sparse, however for the little bit of marketing there was, it was done pretty effectively. Bridge of Spies is a modern take on a classic concept, harkening back to the days of the Cold War thriller, and the marketing reflects that. From the poster’s dramatic juxtaposition of Hanks between the U.S. and Soviet flags to the sharp music cues and quick cuts between powerful moments in the trailers, it has all the hallmarks you’d expect of a classic prestige flick.
Some of the advertising, particularly the TV spots, may focus a bit too much on the action moments, considering the movie’s focus on negotiation and tension, but that’s a pretty common phenomenon in these sorts of dramas. The real question is why Spielberg’s name is so small on the poster? He may not be the box office draw he was back in the Jurassic Park days, but he’s still Spielberg. For marketing purposes, you’d think they’d want to draw some attention to that.
As one of the nominees that made the rounds through the indie circuit on its way to the Oscars, Brooklyn had a more subdued marketing campaign than some of the other movies. They touted its indie credentials, including the enthusiastic response it got at Sundance, and let loose its charismatic star with the unpronounceable name, Saoirse Ronan. Other than that, however, Brooklyn marketers laid a bit low. They did have a leg up on creating material for the campaign though, as the movie itself has a deep well of gorgeous visuals to draw from. Anyone who’s seen the marketing for this movie is surely familiar with the masterful shot of Ronan’s face, her piercing eyes gazing longingly into the distance.
The trailers in particular squander this advantage, as they are rather rote recitations of the entire plot. The worst sin a trailer can commit is telling you too much, and every one of Brooklyn’s trailers essentially lays out all major events throughout the course of the movie. With only the slightest hint of music and narration to tie the various scenes together, they read more like cliff notes than trailers, and they certainly didn’t drive interest in the movie the way they should have.
Mad Max is the only one of these nominees that was also a huge summer blockbuster, and therefore one of the only one on the list with a massive marketing budget. This gave them a good amount of creative freedom, which they made good use of. Pre-release, the marketing team delivered some inspired publicity stunts, such as a reverse car wash that caked participants’ cars in dust and made them look like something out of Fury Road‘s wasteland. There was also a smart social media push, with active Facebook and Twitter campaigns posing questions to fans about the series’ post-apocalyptic setting.
Mad Max didn’t just have smart viral and digital marketing–it was also great at the basics. From the first trailer that dropped at San Diego Comic-Con (a common but still effective venue for big budget genre fare), they showed a talent for cutting together trailers that emphasized the movie’s fast-paced, visceral action. But the real triumph, and one that was backed up by the movie itself, was in attracting women to the movie. Placing its female lead, Imperator Furiosa, front and center on most trailers and posters, helped the film attract an often ignored demographic. Action-oriented summer blockbusters, especially ones with sci-fi influences, are often considered to just be for men. This marketing strategy let the world know this would be a different kind of blockbuster.
Ridley Scott, the director of The Martian, was also the director of the groundbreaking 1984 Apple Super Bowl ad, so it’s not surprising that he would push for experimental advertising for his movie. What might be surprising, especially if you’ve been critical of some of his recent work, is how effective it was. Scott and his team filmed a few short promos detailing the backstory of the film’s characters and the mission they’re on. These promos provided a glimpse into the world of The Martian beyond just recutting scenes from the movie, and they served as fun entertainment in their own right. With the same sharp humor as the actual movie, along with a cameo from science icon Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the promos represented a more polished and professional attempt at viral marketing than we usually see.
What really helped make this approach so successful was that the marketing captured the tone and humor of The Martian so well. The promos were essentially small extensions of the film itself, made by the actual director, so they felt far more authentic than these kinds of viral marketing campaigns usually do. In the end, The Martian‘s wonderment at the miracles of science, buoyed by Matt Damon’s captivating performance, proved to be a huge hit with audiences, so letting them get a taste of that beforehand amped up excitement for the movie. Considering The Martian‘s massive box office success, we may be seeing more campaigns like this in the future.
The campaign to rally viewers for The Revenant and the campaign to get the Academy to nominate The Revenant were virtually indistinguishable from each other. They managed to find a theme that worked effectively on both fronts: how brutally difficult it was to film. Media coverage and promotional materials constantly emphasized the extreme weather conditions, director Alejandro Iñarritu’s insistence on only using sparse natural light, actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s brush with hypothermia…the list goes on. This message sought to impress Academy voters with the sheer dedication to the craft of filmmaking on display, while at the same time making audiences curious to see what the result of such painstaking methods might be.
The marketing for this movie also managed to tap into people’s love for Leonardo DiCaprio. His lack of an Oscar to call his own has become an inescapable part of the cultural conversation surrounding the star. The Revenant‘s marketers cleverly seized on this trend, playing up his method acting and the trials he underwent, all but outright saying that this was the movie he finally deserved to win for. And hey, DiCaprio is currently the prohibitive favorite to win Best Actor, so it certainly seems like it was an effective strategy.
Room‘s marketing team may have had the trickiest job out of any of the nominees. The movie is an indie darling like Brooklyn, which inherently may turn some people off, but while Brooklyn is a relatively light and uplifting affair, Room is a more heartbreaking experience. Even among those who loved it, the team found that few people were willing to recommend it to friends due to its difficult subject matter. They tried to tout its critical acclaim and the universally-praised performances of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, but a movie like Room often seems to have a limited appeal.
Concerns like this lead to an unusual pivot in marketing strategy between its limited release in October and its wide release at the end of January. Marketers made the somewhat controversial decision to reveal that the two main characters manage to escape their confinement into the outside world halfway through the movie, and used that to rebrand it from a weighty thriller to a hopeful drama about a mother’s love. Ads, posters, and trailers were suddenly filled with imagery from the back half of the movie, emphasizing their wonder of newfound freedom. This isn’t misrepresenting the movie, mind you, it’s a legitimate theme contained within the work, so it wasn’t merely a cynical move. It was a smart attempt to change the conversation when the current one wasn’t working.
After the more creative campaigns of the past few movies, we close things out with Spotlight, which had more conventional marketing in line with Bridge of Spies or Brooklyn. The familiar rollout of posters, a trailer highlighting the serious drama, and plenty of cast interviews was in full effect. Much like The Big Short, the film’s advertising focused on the ensemble, as Spotlight was another movie with a cast full of stars like Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo. The marketers were also sure to mention the high degree of praise the movie’s acting received. One really interesting aspect of the campaign was the involvement of the real journalists whose investigation the movie is based on. They made rounds to discuss the process of the actual investigation and how it compared to the movie, further amplifying the movie’s “based on a true story” credentials.
While the campaign may have been largely conventional, you have to keep in mind how a campaign must suit the movie it’s advertising, and this one suited Spotlight perfectly. The movie is a quiet, understated testimony to the daily grind of journalism, and one that lets small moments speak volumes. A big, flashy campaign would have clashed horribly with this style. As safe as the marketing may have been, it set viewers’ expectations for Spotlight exactly where they needed to be, and for that it deserves a lot of praise.