Imagine you're at a lavish film industry party sipping champagne and nibbling fancy finger food. The head of major Hollywood studio has cornered you, glass of bubbly in hand, and is passionately babbling about his or her awards-nominated titles in the hope of securing your vote. It's the middle of the awards silly season and there have been soirees, screenings, DVDs, phone calls, letters and hampers to appeal to voters -- plus countless newspaper, TV, radio and internet ads propping up the cause.
Awards are marketing opportunities not just an excuse for a party.
The legendary Harvey Weinstein, of Miramax Pictures, was that hypothetical studio head on plenty of occasions in the 90s, espousing the virtues of his products to carefully selected people. Throughout the course of the decade Miramax would spectacularly ramp up Hollywood's culture of 'for your consideration' chest-thumping, latching on to the huge benefits that could be reaped. The Academy Awards was, after all, created by a studio executive (Louis B. Mayer, in 1929) as an annual industry back-slapping fest used for building and nurturing brand awareness of a small number of companies on a global stage.
Nowadays armies of publicists and marketers, allocated budgets in the tens of millions, go full tilt spreading studio scuttlebutt in the lead-up to the Oscars in February. The US film industry's night of nights is so big that the distribution strategies of every major studio are constructed around it and hundreds of millions of viewers across the world tune into it every year. Companies that take golden statuettes collect a seal of approval on one hand and a financial shot in the arm on another, particularly via ancillary platforms.
In Australia, during the lead-up to our more modest equivalent of the Oscars -- the Australian Academy of Cinema Television Arts (AACTA) Awards -- tumbleweeds roll through the publicity circuit. No distributors hound local industry members for their vote; no chunks of marketing budgets are allocated to spruiking nominated films; no screeners are distributed; no parties are held. Comparing the monolithic commerce-driven empire of the American studio system with the heavily government subsidised and often fragile state of the Australian film industry is far from a level playing field, but marketing disparity in the context of how distributors react (or don’t react) is an odd one for several reasons -- and a largely unexplored publicity angle carriers of low-cost content ought to serious consider exploiting.
Take for example the recent case of Rolf de Heer's domestic thriller The King is Dead! It opened in July on a paltry number of screens, barely enough to make it eligible for AACTA consideration. With a next-to-nothing advertising budget, it was always going to be a film in which word of mouth would -- or could -- play an important role.
The film received a reasonable if tepid response from critics but one theme emerged quickly: the supporting performance of veteran character actor Gary Waddell, as an air-headed meth-addict, was a hit.
Deciding to tip my own toes in the PR / film advocacy circuit -- not for any professional or personal relationship to the project (I have none) but a) as a fan of Waddell's performance and b) to gauge what sort of interest campaigning even on a small level might yield -- I compiled a list of critics' kudos along with an impassioned appeal to voters.
Instead of pushing for a nomination -- or waiting to see if it got one and milking the benefits -- the film was rushed to DVD. When Waddell's performance was in fact nominated for an AACTA (the film's only run on the board) the physical marketing materials (DVD covers, posters etc.) could not, of course, reflect it, or the award it may go on to receive.
Most disappointingly, platforms that could serve the film's interests -- such as websites, blogs and particularly social media networks -- have not been used to promote it. My intention isn't to single out the film's distributor, which probably marketed the film on a shoestring budget (despairingly, The King is Dead! doesn't even have a website) because the pattern is industry-wide.
Snowtown hit DVD shelves in late September 2011. The cover proudly declared it was the winner of the Audience Award at the Adelaide Film Festival, but a much more substantial feat had been omitted: the film's 10 AACTA nominations, which were announced the month before. The Hunter DVD, released July 2012, did not mention the film's whopping 14 AACTA nominations (it won only two). Ignoring AFI kudos isn't always the case: the DVD of Japanese Story, for example, proudly declared in large gold letters that it won 8 awards.
Why aren't marketing departments latching onto the benefits of AACTA branding? The short answer is that they probably don't see the value. Part of the problem concerns the re-titling of the awards, meaning the organisation must re-establish their branding, and that takes time. But for a small film like The King is Dead! the benefits are already there. National media exposure cannot be a bad thing.
Neither can the awards themselves, for the nominees and winners, and there are 16 ways from Sunday to go about pursuing them. Imagine a viral video of The King, in character, threatening to burn voters' houses down (reliving a memorable scene from the film) if they didn’t vote for him. It would be cost-effective and could spread like wildfire, servicing the film's AACTA chances and delivering a marketing shot in the arm in the lead-up to a DVD release.
The heft of the AACTA and the extent to which its brand can benefit the films it shoulder taps are also, to a point, what the distributors make it, as Hollywood's cyclical self-congratulations has demonstrated. The words 'Academy Award' might not have meant much in 1929, when the event began, but thanks to enthusiastic backing from the studios it soon did. The more AACTA branding is used on DVDs and marketing materials, the more it becomes "a thing", and in turn distributors and the wider industry collect the benefits.