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Does an Oscar matter in the age of digital media?

Oscars Academy Awards
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

The Oscars have always been — and still are — the most important awards for the filmmaking community. The nominations for the 88th Academy Awards get announced Thursday morning. But as digital and social media open up new avenues for more effective marketing, it's not the only game in town when it comes to drumming up attention to an art house film.

"I would never say that it's not still important to have an Oscar," said Tom Piechura, who heads East coast entertainment marketing at 42West. "It will remain the industry standard. But is it easier now to succeed without it and with social media? Yes."


Marketing an art house film has always been a grassroots effort, said Piechura, who was the vice president of public relations at Miramax and worked at the company during the "Pulp Fiction" and "Shakespeare in Love" Oscar runs.

"In the pre-social media age, it meant getting upscale markets in New York and Los Angeles to notice your film and then hoping you would get water cooler buzz to eke out into the heartlands," he said. "Now that social media is available, I do think there is an opportunity to something more national right away."

Not only can social media give you wider audience right away, but it can get you access to the right audience, said independent film marketing consultant David Weitzner.

Weitzner previously was president of worldwide marketing for 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures, where he oversaw marketing for blockbusters including "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," the original "Star Wars" and "Alien." He's currently the director of the summer program and a part-time lecturer at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

"As a guy who spent millions and millions of dollars, I was always buying against a set of demographics," Weitzner said. "What I ended up with is a lot of bills on my desk for a lot of money. It didn't go to waste, but I didn't have the alternative media forms that they have today. … Social media allows you to participate in real time, and more than that, social media allows you to understand what audiences want. I never got to get in front of the faces of my audience."


The thing is getting an Oscar can bring in money. A Hollywood Reporter study estimates that the best picture nominees and the winner get an additional $300 million in economic impact from more people being interested in seeing the film.

When a film starts buzzing at film festivals that it may be an Oscar contender, a source with industry knowledge said that often the entire marketing budget will pretty much be earmarked for "For Your Consideration" campaigns.

The Independent reported that the average Oscar film costs $5 million to market, $3 million for advertising and marketing and $2 million on entertainment and travel costs.

Even besides the potential revenue, there's the egos. One source said that often filmmakers and production companies that believe they have award-calliber films insist in their distribution contracts that the deal includes an Oscar-season release date and marketing push.


And, limiting yourself to an award campaign can also cost you.

There are unspoken rules that come with trying to snag an Oscar, including when your film is in theaters. Traditional films trying to get an Oscar nomination are typically released in October, November and December, missing the summer season. On top of that, there are industry ads that films are expected to run in trades such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to get in front of those key Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters, which are much pricier than digital media campaigns.

Not that it really matters. Even with the cheaper costs of running digital media campaigns, no one wants to leave money on the table, said Weitzner. Any savings just gets pushed into additional marketing materials, he said, and several industry experts said budgets are getting bigger than ever.

The bigger problem is by the time the awards are given out, most of the films are out of theaters, said Weitzner. That's assuming that these art house films were able to persuade a movie chain to give them screens.

With the lack of ticket revenue, studios then count on a boost in DVD sales. Those numbers are dwindling, Weitzner said. Industry organization Digital Entertainment Group said that overall home-entertainment sales dropped 6 percent in 2015 to shy of $13 billion. While digital sales of movies rose 18 percent last year, sales of DVD and Blu-rays went down 12 percent. Physical rentals decreased 8 percent, as well.

What that leaves studios reliant on is digital distribution methods such as Netflix and Amazon, as well as video on demand, Weitzner said. But, he feels these films — from a marketing perspective — may have been better off had they focused on these avenues instead of trying to push the films during Oscar season.

"Why place yourself under the pressure if we can take the film and do a deal with Netflix and promote that film aggressively through social media?" he said. "We don't have to worry about the Oscars. We don't have to worry about whatever. We can build the buzz about the film — this assumes that is a good film — and we can build word and have that work to our advantage."

Gillian Smith, senior account executive of digital at ID-PR, said there's also alternate places that arthouse films can go to to get an audience besides an Oscars run. Having a strong social media presence with original content like behind-the-scenes footage or memorable GIFs can promote the film. For example, she pointed out the viral image of Jacob Tremblay from "Room" having a lightsaber battle with Oscar Isaac from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" backstage at the Golden Globes.

There are also other publications besides the traditional industry trades that can build an audience for your movie, including Twitter and Reddit Q&As, she added. It's no longer limited to your traditional interview, Smith pointed out.

"I think there are different ways of reaching different audiences," she said. "I think for someone like me, I might respond to A24's 'Ex-Machina's' GIFS, but if they are running ads for 'Ex-Machina's' awards nominations, that's something that will get my dad. It's still effective for a certain audience, but it's not the be-all end-all for a more clued-in, digitally native cinefile."