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Social media is giving Oscar film promoters a hard time

Loud and fast, social media comments have complicated movie promoters' Academy Award strategies

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:15pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:15pm

The lights haven't even come up yet after the November 11 world premiere of Selma at the AFI Fest when the tweets start rolling out from the Egyptian Theatre, virtually all of them praising Ava DuVernay's Martin Luther King biopic and the performance of its star, David Oyelowo, in soundbites that are the stuff of any publicist's dreams: "A triumph." "One of the greatest performances you'll ever see." "Powerhouse." "Oscar contender across the board. Typing thru tears."

In a matter of minutes, a handful of tweets from a single screening of a movie that only goes on limited release in US cinemas at Christmas - and won't have a general national release until January 2015 - have transformed the upcoming Academy Awards race, providing the latest illustration of the way in which one of Hollywood's oldest and most important rituals has been upended by what is still a fairly new phenomenon: social media.

For the behind-the-scenes strategists enlisted to run Oscar campaigns, managing the media narrative around a particular film or performance and persuading academy members to cast their votes one way or another has never been an easy task. In the age of social media, with film writers racing to deliver instantaneous reactions to a new movie even before they've left their seats and the most extreme opinions often grabbing the most attention, the process has become vastly more complicated.

In an Oscar season widely regarded as relatively weak, several highly anticipated films - including Men, Women & Children, Fury and Interstellar - have seen their Oscar hopes lifted and then either dashed or diminished by reactions on social media, sometimes before the film has even been reviewed by major critics or hit the multiplex. Others - including Boyhood, Birdman and now Selma - have been buoyed by rapturous enthusiasm on Twitter and Facebook.

With Oscar prognostication increasingly treated like a blood sport, one in which an initial rush of sometimes-overinflated acclaim can be quickly followed by an equally outsized backlash, the internet's unruly din can throw a carefully planned awards strategy off course in an instant.

"It's like an echo chamber of a kind of blather," says Terry Press, president of CBS Films and a veteran strategist behind Oscar pushes for films that include American Beauty and Gladiator.

"It's comments pinging off each other. You can declare, 'This is a masterpiece', and then somebody two minutes later, just to get traffic, will tear you down and say, 'This is by no means a masterpiece'. It feeds off itself," she says.

The power of that echo chamber can cut both ways, as evidenced perhaps most vividly by the fluctuating fortunes of Interstellar. Months before this awards season kicked into gear, the Oscar prospects for Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic already seemed written in the stars. Sight unseen, many Oscar watchers pegged it as a likely best picture nominee, if not the film to beat.

In the long run-up to the movie's worldwide release this month, Paramount Pictures unrolled a publicity campaign designed to bolster that perception, cultivating an air of importance and landing its director and stars on the cover of Time magazine.

Then seemingly overnight, just as Interstellar was finally poised to hit cinemas, its awards odds appeared to go, by general consensus, from a slam-dunk to a question mark. The reason? Based on a few early screenings, the same Twittersphere that helped amplify the hype around the film suddenly changed its tune.

" Big Hero 6 and Interstellar open this week as different SF films," one film writer, James Rocchi, tweeted to his 11,000 followers. "One is made explicitly for children & the other is animated, from Disney."

In decades past, consultants hired by the studios to promote their films during awards season could slowly build a campaign through festival screenings, academy events, advertising and press appearances by a film's talent. Those methods for spreading the word are still important, but the internet has sped up the metabolism of the Oscar race exponentially.

It’s comments pinging off each other. You can declare, ‘This is a masterpiece,’ and then somebody two minutes later, just to get traffic, will tear you down. It feeds off itself
TERRY PRESS, PRESIDENT OF CBS FILMS

With social media bringing an untold number of new armchair critics into the conversation and giving each his or her own megaphone, a single poorly received screening can quickly torpedo a film's awards hopes. Such is the case with Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children. Met with a wave of negative reactions on social media following its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, the drama went on to gross less than US$1 million domestically.

"Once, taking a film to Toronto in early September meant just a few hundred people talked about it, and you could let that resulting conversation and publicity seep through the stratosphere for a few months," says Oscar consultant Tony Angellotti.

"You could bank stories, hold news, embargo reviews. Now everyone is aware of what's happened in Toronto before the filmmakers' flights have hit the tarmac. Everything and anything goes into the echo chamber. The noise is profound - and profoundly stupid in some cases."

Stupid or otherwise, the noise can help as much as it hurts. Positive early reactions on social media to Richard Linklater's coming-of-age drama Boyhood eventually drove the film to be considered to have a lock on a best picture nomination.

To the extent that they can then, Oscar strategists, like studio marketers, need to use tools such as Facebook and Twitter proactively, says Marc Karzen, chief executive of RelishMIX, a company that consults on social media strategy for movies and TV shows.

"If things are going well at festivals or otherwise, you want to fan the flames and build the momentum as much as you possibly can," Karzen says. Once the buzz around a film sours, he notes, options become far more limited. "It's not like you're going to go back and re-cut the movie."

Ultimately, of course, when it comes to the Oscars, the only opinions that truly matter belong to the 6,000 or so voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That audience differs significantly from that of filmdom's Twitterati, notes Cynthia Swartz of Strategy PR/Consulting, who is overseeing the campaigns for Boyhood, Birdman and Wild, among other films.

Academy members represent an older demographic (the median age is 62, according to a 2012 analysis) that tends to be far less active on social media than the pundits who track the Oscars for a living. "I don't think many academy members are looking at Twitter so much that it would actually influence their votes," Swartz says. "I think it's possible that all of this [noise on social media] has a lot more impact on people who cover the Oscars than it does on actual Oscar voters."

CBS Films' Press, however, counters that although many Oscar voters may not be posting their own preferences on Facebook and Twitter, they nevertheless can't help but pick up on the digital gyrations of buzz secondhand. When actors are making the rounds on the morning and late-night chat shows, she says, references are inevitably made to any awards heat surrounding their performance.

With months of campaigning still to go and a number of major films yet to open, this year's Oscar race is still very much in flux, and there's plenty of time for the various horses on the track to shift positions before the nominations are announced on January 15.

For an Oscar strategist trying to navigate the roiling digital waters, Press says, it ultimately comes down to this: "There's only one goal, and that is to get people to watch the movie. That's it. Because once they've seen the movie, they make up their own minds. If people love a movie, they love it no matter what the Twittersphere says."

Los Angeles Times