The Academy Awards race is many things, but at its core, it is a campaign. The voting body that decides the winners is made up of only several thousand people, and the classes that determine most of the nominations are a small fraction of that. And while the powers that be would have you believe that each voter casts his or her vote for each award based purely on merit, putting to use the years of experience in the industry requisite to have a vote in the first place, it turns out that what really gets a contender some juice is good old-fashioned campaigning. Name recognition, positive exposures, press-the-flesh meetings — the dark arts of the campaign trail work, and work well, in this setting and others.
Last year, I looked at which films were advertised in industry publications during the period of time leading up to the Academy Award nominations. I found that some movies with predominantly minority casts did not have the kind of advertising support that the films that went on to receive nominations did. Although there’s no proven direct line between advertising buys and eventual votes — Oscar campaigns are like political campaigns; they go beyond mere ad buys — counting up the aggregate investment in industry publications is a solid way to gauge who’s going out of their way to get their film in the mix.
So which movies were advertised the most by studios this season in the run-up to the Jan. 24 Oscar nominations? Who’s spending like they think they can score an Oscar nomination?
I measured the aggregate space (in square inches) that was devoted to paid “For Your Consideration” advertisements1 in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety weekly magazines between Oct. 18, 2016 and Jan. 13, 2017. This year, on the advisement of advertising buyers who contacted us last year, both the typical issues as well as the contender specials — the five supplemental issues of The Hollywood Reporter and six issues of Variety devoted specifically to individual Oscar races and contenders — were inventoried. Here are the live-action, English-language films2 that advertised the most since mid-October, which is about the earliest anyone bothers running these kinds of ads.
“Loving,” Focus Features’ film about the relationship that would go on to fell statutes against interracial marriage, and “Manchester by the Sea,” a story from Amazon Studios about an Irish-American attempting to handle emotional trauma, have been bolstered by well-heeled campaigns. Both have benefited from paid inserts — splashy mini-magazine features devoted to a single film — as well as regular ad buys.
Still, you can’t buy buzz. Only the latter film is a favorite to win an Oscar — “Loving” has struggled to remain in the conversation. I turned to Paddy Power, an overseas gambling site that’s maintained odds for the acting, directing and best picture categories ahead of the Oscar nominations, to gut-check what we’re seeing in the advertising realm.3
Looking at the best odds on the table for a given film — the chance that Damien Chazelle wins best director for “La La Land,” Natalie Portman’s best actress odds for “Jackie,” Mahershala Ali’s odds to win best supporting actor for “Moonlight” — there’s no relationship between those odds and a film’s advertising in the trades. “Moonlight” has barely spent a dime, while “Manchester by the Sea” is spending like it’s trying to IPO. We’ll see whether or not you can buy an Oscar.
Drilling down on specific races can be tricky — is an ad for “Fences” a push for a best picture nod or an acting nomination for Denzel Washington? But I can zero in on some contested races, whose ads are more straightforward. One of those is animation, and the race to be the best in that category looks to be busy.
The advertising campaigns can’t predict nominees — last season, the folks behind “Love & Mercy” and “Steve Jobs” spent a whole lot of money to demonstrate that point pretty clearly — but they can tell us what’s a priority for studios and what the money behind the work is pushing for. Here’s how hard the push for nominations has been:4
In case you were wondering, your eyes do not deceive you: It would appear that, yes, Seth Rogen thinks he could win an Oscar for “Sausage Party.”