Why Old Hollywood Will Win at the 2020 Academy Awards

Last year at this time, the Academy Awards were buzzing with anticipation about Netflix possibly cleaning up at the Oscars. There was a very real possibility that the Netflix-produced Roma would become the first Academy Award Best Picture winner from a streaming company (which didn’t happen – although Roma won three Oscars). But even though Netflix landed 24 Oscar nominees in 2020, the 92nd Academy Awards are shaping up to be a victory for Old Hollywood studios, not the New Hollywood streaming companies.

Old Hollywood versus New Hollywood

There is a war waging between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood.

Old Hollywood is composed of well-established studios that earn their money largely by making crowd-pleasing movies distributed through traditional movie theaters. New Hollywood consists of streaming companies that finance storytellers who want to create daring, original work that sometimes challenges audiences. And they’ve joined forces with streaming companies for many reasons, such as Old Hollywood not financing their work, and New Hollywood making them lucrative offers. 

New Hollywood has steadily attracted big-name talent consisting of Old Hollywood executives and storytellers. For example, New Hollywood has attracted the likes of:

  • Storytellers such as Alfonso Cuarón (who made Roma with Netflix), Martin Scorsese (whose The Irishman was financed by Netflix), Viola Davis, and Forest Whitaker (Davis and Whitaker signed production deals with Amazon Studios in recent years).

As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019, Netflix alone has been so successful at attracting talent that the company is changing how Old Hollywood studios compensate talent. 

It’s not accurate to say New Hollywood has disrupted Old Hollywood; more like New Hollywood has morphed out of Old Hollywood. And neither Old Hollywood nor New Hollywood has an exclusive lock on talent. All that said, Martin Scorsese’s widely reported diatribe against Marvel movies only hints at the resentment that New Hollywood artists feel about the way they’ve been treated by Old Hollywood studios. Old Hollywood companies, in turn, resent the way streaming businesses have developed movies with a streaming-first mentality, largely bypassing movie theaters and then expecting to have their films treated with the same respect and consideration accorded to films produced the traditional way. 

New Hollywood Gains Ground

New Hollywood is gaining ground when it comes to gaining artistic legitimacy. But this will not be a shining year for New Hollywood productions that have been nominated for major Oscars, most notably Netflix, which leads all studios with 24 Oscar nominations

Netflix’s most prominent noms include The Irishman (with 10), Marriage Story (six), and The Two Popes (three). The Irishman and Marriage Story are nominated for Best Picture. But being nominated and winning are not the same. In 2020, Netflix secured several Golden Globes nominations but was largely shut out. And the same thing will likely happen at the Oscars. The film pundits are predicting a poor showing for Netflix, and they’re probably right. Here’s why:

1 Netflix Faces Stiff Competition

Netflix-produced nominees are up against an extraordinary field of films, such as 1917Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, and Parasite. Old Hollywood studios showered the world with strong, critically acclaimed movies that also happen to be the types of movies that Oscar loves. Sony Pictures’s Once upon a Time  . . . in Hollywood is not only a career highwater mark for Quentin Tarantino, it’s also a movie about Hollywood – and Hollywood loves movies about itself. Universal/Amblin Partners’s 1917 is not only a career achievement for director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, it’s also the kind of sweeping, emotional drama that wins Oscars.

By most accounts, 1917 is the front runner, which has gained momentum following major wins at the BAFTA Awards and Golden Globes. If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is going to reward a more daring, independent movie, look for Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite to get the nod.

Parasite wowed audiences on its release, but its popularity might have peaked too soon. In 2019, Roma showed that a foreign film could get serious consideration for Best Picture. Roma may have paved the way for Parasite.

2 Netflix Did Not Make Movies That Oscar Loves

On the other hand, Netflix’s offerings, while impressive, are not easy for the Academy to fall in love with. For example, The Irishman is long (well over three hours) and bleak (gangsters face the ravages of aging). One wonders how many members of the Academy saw The Irishman all the way through. Marriage Story is also downbeat, telling the tale of a crumbling marriage (as one Academy voter said anonymously, “ . . . it’s getting harder and harder for me to care about entitled people’s marital relationships”). The very attributes that made the films personal works for their directors have likely turned off Academy voters. Although you could argue that 1917 is bleak, the movie’s grand scale and compelling portrayal of an underdog soldier fighting the odds play well with the Academy.

3 Old Hollywood Wants to Put New Hollywood in Its Place

The identifies of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters is a secret, but they’re widely perceived to represent the Old Hollywood establishment. The Academy has made changes over the past few years in an attempt to be more progressive and diverse, with mixed results. But it’s fair to assume that the Academy still represents an Old Hollywood perspective, which is decidedly anti-Netflix. As Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling of The New York Times wrote, “The academy’s old guard has resisted a dogged push by Netflix to join the best picture club, arguing that, since the streaming service does not release its films in a traditional theatrical manner, its offerings should be better considered by Emmy voters. (Helen Mirren, onstage at the most recent National Association of Theater Owners convention, used an expletive to refer to the company.)”

Change Is Coming

Of course, tastes are subjective. (If I could wave a magic wand, Once Upon a Time . . .  in Hollywood would win all the awards for which it is nominated.) But it’s only a matter of time before New Hollywood productions win Best Picture awards regularly. That’s because the Academy voters, whose composition is already changing, will eventually be composed of people who have grown up in New Hollywood. Meanwhile, the power holders of Old Hollywood will eventually pass away. As they do, they’ll take to the grave their animosity toward New Hollywood. As a result, streaming companies will establish a new normal for filmmaking. The question won’t be, “Can Netflix upstage the establishment?” but “Who is going to beat Netflix this year?”

Old Hollywood Loses Its Grip while Netflix Soars

Steven Spielberg has seen the future, and he doesn’t like it one bit.

At the 91stAcademy Awards, Netflix took home four Oscars including three for Roma, which had been nominated for Best Picture. In addition, Amazon Studios and Hulu both achieved Oscar nominations. Spielberg dislikes the notion of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominating movies from companies that stream movies in homes. So he reportedly wants to change the rules to block Netflix and its streaming competitors from nominating movies for the Oscars.

And Steven Spielberg is dead wrong. 

Spielberg believes in the purity of the big screen and the joy of experiencing a movie in a theater. He wants to keep a sharp distinction between movies shown in theaters and movies made by streaming services. As he told British TV network ITV News in 2018, “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

With Amazon Studios, Hulu, and Netflix landing multiple nominations at the 91stAcademy Awards, apparently he’s feeling threated. A spokesperson for Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment told IndieWire’s Anne Thompson, “Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation. He’ll be happy if the others will join [his campaign] when that comes up [at the Academy Board of Governors meeting]. He will see what happens.”

Defenders of Old Hollywood believe the Academy’s nomination rules are too lax. A movie need not be distributed exclusively in a movie theater to qualify; a movie simply needs to appear in theaters. In addition, Hollywood studios follow an unwritten rule that movies should appear in theaters for at least 90 days before becoming available on video or streaming. Netflix doesn’t play be those rules. For instance, Netflix’s Roma appeared exclusively in theaters for only three weeks. A rule change could, say, require Oscar nominees to make movies available for a minimum period of time.  

Reports of Spielberg wanting to change the Oscar nomination rules have been disputed, but the controversy has drawn attention to his opposition of streaming services – an opposition is on the wrong side of history for a number of reasons, including: 

Viewing Habits Are Changing

There’s a reason Netflix has become one of the biggest brands in the world. Audiences want the flexibility of seeing movies on their own terms: at home, on the go, and in theaters. Streaming services are accommodating them. When recently I moderated a discussion about Old Hollywood versus Netflix on my Facebook page, Facebooker Brian Schultz summed one of the reasons why viewers want choice:

The theatrical experience isn’t what it used to be. Projection quality differs from theatre to theatre, too many previews, rude ass moviegoers, and high ticket prices make staying at home a better option.

You can see some movies from streaming companies in theaters, too. You could have seen Amazon Studios’ Cold War (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film) and Roma in theaters, on a TV screen, or on a device. (I prefer seeing movies on big screens. But I don’t always have the time and money to go to the movies. I saw Roma at home and Cold War in a theater. Both experiences were equally satisfying.)

And streaming is becoming even bigger. Disney will soon launch its own service, Disney+. AT&T will launch its own streaming service, capitalizing on its ownership of Time Warner to feature content from WarnerMedia, a newly formed entity that includes HBO and Turner Broadcasting. 

Old Hollywood’s war against streaming is going to be harder to fight, especially with Disney putting its muscle behind streaming. You don’t mess with the Mouse.

Streaming Services Offer Alternatives for Artists

Roma is an intensely personal movie from Alfonso Cuarón, who previously won multiple Oscars for directing Gravity. When Roma won multiple Golden Globe Awards in January, Cuarón was asked to comment on a perception that Netflix is threatening independent cinema. He replied:

My question to you is, how many theaters did you think that a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release? I just hope the discussion between Netflix and platforms in general should be over. I think those guys, platforms and theatrical, should go together . . . They both together can elevate cinema, and more important, they can create a diversity in cinema.

Anne Thompson of IndieWire recently provided some inside baseball on how Netflix ended up with Roma:

The studios could have acquired “Roma.” Participant showed ten minutes of footage to seven companies with global distribution. There were no passes and three offers. Four companies explained that because a black-and-white film in Spanish would not qualify for their Pay-TV output deals, they needed to see the film (which was still in post and not available to screen). Once they could see the film they’d be able to seek a waiver from their Pay-TV output partners, as The Weinstein Co. did on “The Artist.”

Participant explored the three offers and after a month-long negotiation landed on Netflix, which gave the most persuasive (and financially viable) marketing, distribution, and awards commitment. The studios weren’t willing to step up to Netflix’s bid for worldwide rights (a bit more than $20 million), which included a commitment for a substantial global theatrical release (excluding China — which Participant kept and will open in theaters, having just passed the censors).

Alfonso Cuarón  is not the only big-name director working with Netflix. Even an Old Hollywood stalwart like Martin Scorsese is leaping into the arms of Netflix. Scorsese’s forthcoming movie, The Irishman, will be distributed by Netflix in theaters and via streaming. The movie is reportedly a long-time passion project of Scorsese’s. Commenting on Netflix’s involvement in the film, he said, “People such as Netflix are taking risks. ‘The Irishman’ is a risky film. No one else wanted to fund the pic for five to seven years. And of course we’re all getting older. Netflix took the risk.”

An Interesting Turn

The debate could take an interesting turn if a major streaming service such as Netflix cracks into the movie business. The idea is not far-fetched. In 2018, Netflix was rumored to be a potential buyer for Landmark Theaters but reportedly backed out due to the cost. Nevertheless, speculation remains that Netflix may crack into theaters in 2019. Rationale:

Given the enormous cost of developing content, Netflix may stay firmly rooted in streaming for the near term, making Amazon a more likely candidate to buy a movie theater chain (also not a far-fetched notion with Amazon expanding into the brick-and-mortar grocery and retail industries).  

Something Is Happening Here

Meanwhile, Netflix addressed the Old Hollywood-versus-Netflix story with a thoughtful Tweet:

Which evoked replies such as these:

Instead of trying to move the goal line for streaming companies, the defenders of Old Hollywood need to ask why exciting directors such as Alfonso Cuarón are turning to streaming companies and why businesses such as Disney are changing with the times, too. Old Hollywood can change just as record labels eventually adapted their business models for music streaming. Meanwhile, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Spielberg? 

The Overlooked Triumph of “The Revenant”: Music

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The Revenant was robbed.

For all the Oscar nominations The Revenant has received, the movie was victim of a glaring omission: Best Original Score. The score, created by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto (with additional music by Bryce Dessner of the National), creates a sonic tapestry that deepens the emotional impact of one man’s struggle against nature and other men. The score also succeeds on its own merits for delivering an affecting blend of ambient sounds and melody, worthy of your attention regardless of your interest in the movie.

The score works for many reasons. First, the music complements the tension and sadness of the story, its violence, and the film’s natural beauty instead of trying to amplify it. A more conventional composer might have “piled on” by overwhelming the viewer with lush orchestration and rousing drums to dial up the action and remind you that you’re watching a stunning vista — much the same way that boldface, all-caps, and italics often serve to underscore a written narrative, and usually unnecessarily so.

But Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner have something else in mind: the strings, percussion, and bass add texture and nuance to the movie’s many emotionally powerful moments.

For instance, “Goodbye to Hawk” builds slowly with a sad cello that gently suggests the emotion welling up inside the protagonist, frontier guide Hugh Glass, after he experiences a profound loss in the wilderness of 19th Century America. A single cello descends and floats for more than a minute. But at the 1:40 mark, “Goodbye to Hawk” changes course, taking on a more foreboding mood. A percussive sound repeats itself over a rising bed of strings and a thudding bass.

Within two minutes, anger and resolve overtake sadness, creating a kind of strength inside of Glass that he will draw upon throughout his perilous adventure. The strange, repeating electronic percussion sound feels something like a Native American drone. The composition is minimalist in nature — and yet signals a change in mood more powerfully than a wall of sound would have.

The score also combines melody with an unstructured ambience depending on the needs of the scene. The composers (principally Sakamoto and Noto) know when the music needs to suggest with ambient effect, rather than carry a scene with melody. For example, “First Dream” consists of a curious mixture of strings, piano, and percussive effects that narrate an otherworldly experience in which Glass dreams of his past life.

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But the score sprinkles in melody at the right time, too. “Out of Horse” is a sad but sweet excursion, with the ondes Martenot instrument creating a flute-like melody that carries a key scene in which Glass seeks an unusual form of natural refuge from the elements.

Ryuichi Sakamoto has described working on The Revenant score as “the return from death” — and he is not exaggerating. He began work on The Revenant as he was recovering from throat cancer. At first he hesitated to work on the score. As he told Fact magazine, he was afraid he was too weak to collaborate with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who has a reputation for being a difficult work partner. But he admired Iñárritu’s work and decided to seize what might have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a 63-year-old man staring down mortality.

He explained to Fact his use an ambient music thusly: “Since the beginning, I always thought the real main character in this film is nature . . . So to respect the sounds of nature, I thought the music shouldn’t be too narrative. I wanted my music to be like a part of the sound of nature.”

In the same interview, Alva Noto added, “I think we both created a lot of sounds where you could think of nature. A lot of sounds that are like a breath. They don’t always have a melodic quality — we’re just creating a space, a feeling. So I think they’re things that people might understand as sound design rather than music.”

The strength of The Revenant score, its understated interplay with nature, may very well be why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences overlooked it. The score is just not flashy enough. There are no moments that listeners can easily latch on to and hum along with, as with the Star Wars movies.

Both Sakamoto and Nova agree, as is evident in their interview the Fact. As Nova put it, “[The Academy] couldn’t understand that these many noises had musical qualities. Which is very important, because we both come from a strong electronic background where every sound is important, not just the melodic ones.”

Fortunately, music listeners don’t need the Academy to dictate our tastes. We have the power to immerse ourselves in music on our own. And I hope you will immerse yourself in score for The Revenant.

Related:

The Fader, “In Conversation with the All-Knowing Ryuichi Sakamoto,” Ruth Saxelby, 4 December 2015.

NPR, “Review: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto & Bryce Dessner, ‘The Revenant’,” Tom Moon, 30 December 2015.

The Wellesley News, “A Glimpse inside the Broody Soundtrack of ‘The Revenant,’ Scored by Ryuichi Sakamoto,” Ruth Jiang, 10 February 2016.

The Ugly Beauty of “The French Connection”

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An art teacher once told me that a beat-up pair of tennis shoes is a lot more interesting to draw than a brand-new pair. I thought of my art teacher’s advice as I re-watched The French Connection during Oscars weekend.

The movie is justly famous for its gritty adaptation of Robin Moore’s book about two New York detectives who attempt to stop a French-based crime ring from distributing a large heroin shipment to the United States. The movie turned Gene Hackman into an international star and featured one of the most memorable car chases in film history. But 45 years later, I am equally impressed at how director William Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman captured the grime and decay of 1970s New York. In the city’s fractured streets, they found a brutality that made New York fertile ground for drug abuse.

The French Connection endures as a testament to the appeal of ugliness, which we see through the perspective of its main character and the urban locations Friedkin chose as a backdrop for the drama.

A Fascinating Protagonist

The main character, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, is based on the real-life detective Eddie Egan, who, along with his partner Sonny Grosso, was the focus of Robin Moore’s book. Doyle and his partner, Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (portrayed by Roy Scheider), combine hunches and dogged investigation to try and stop French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) from importing a massive shipment of heroin into the United States.

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Gene Hackman plays Popeye Doyle as an unlikeable person. He is a racist. He drinks excessively. He treats women like sexual conquests. He is also so reckless in his pursuit of Charnier that he is willing to  jeopardize the lives of his fellow police officers and any innocent bystander who happens to be in the vicinity when it’s time to draw his pistol and chase the bad guy. At the same time, his dogged pursuit of Continue reading

Movie Trailers Shine As Digital Stars

With the 2016 Academy Awards fast approaching, Google has created a terrific piece of event-based content by ranking the popularity of the trailers for the Oscar Best Picture nominees. Google ranks The Revenant Number One based YouTube trailer views, which is ironic given that a trailer promoting a film made for the big screen was likely watched on tiny mobile phone screens. The Google analysis also underscores the important role that trailers play in the digital era as both a promotion and a form of viral entertainment, and even user generated content.

In the days of movie-going yore (aka before the Internet), studios usually dropped movie trailers in dark theaters as commercials bunched together before the marquee attraction. Studios hoped that trailers would create natural word of mouth to complement PR and advertising campaigns.

Watching trailers in dark movie theaters remains an inevitable part of today’s movie going experience. But the trailers have become high-concept productions distributed like morsels of viral content across the digital world, becoming so important that trailer launches get covered just like movie releases do. The popularity of the trailers for another Oscar-nominated movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, demonstrates the new reality of how we experience trailers.

The release of the trailers to promote The Force Awakens not only built anticipation for the latest movie in the vaunted series, they also became causes for celebration in and of themselves. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures enjoyed a special advantage with The Force Awakens trailers: each one tapped into a built-in fan base. The Star Wars films have been around since 1977. They have become a permanent cultural fixture like the Beatles have. So each trailer for The Force Awakens was guaranteed to generate interest among fans already eagerly awaiting the December 2015 release of the movie. (By contrast, The Revenant trailer was introducing an unknown movie when the trailer appeared on YouTube in July 2015.)

But Disney certainly didn’t take the popularity of Star Wars for granted. All the trailers were well-edited visual and sonic journeys. Taken together, the three trailers acted as a trilogy of sorts, revealing different details about the plot of The Force Awakens, giving you glimpses of new characters, and reminding us of the glorious return of Han Solo and Chewbacca. They were released months apart, with the first trailer landing in November 2014, the second in April 2015, and the third — in a brilliant masterstroke — on October 2015 during an ESPN Monday Night Football game, thus ensuring strong cross-platform viewing.

And, wow, did audiences respond. The second trailer set a Guinness World Record for the most viewed movie trailer on YouTube within 24 hours, with 30.65 million views amassed in one day.

The third and final trailer generated 130 million views across all social platforms (including 83.3 million views on YouTube and Facebook) within just six days of its release. As of February 26, 2016, all three trailers had accumulated 188,460,826 views on YouTube alone, according to YouTube analytics.

But of course we don’t just watch trailers. We like them, share them, talk about them, and play with them, as The Force Awakens trailers demonstrate. All three have earned nearly 1 million shares and 1.26 million likes. The trailers have inspired user-generated versions that became viral themselves, including recreations by a U.S. Navy crew, a Lego version, and a mash-up with the 1987 Mel Brooks comedy Spaceballs.

Movie trailers work because they not only build buzz but also contribute to the bottom line. According to a Google study, nearly seven out of 10 consumers aged 13-24 view YouTube trailers before deciding which film to watch at a movie theater. YouTube also reported that from 2014-15, there had been an 88-percent year-over-year increase in movie trailer views on YouTube via mobile devices, which is significant because 56 percent of searches for movie tickets come from mobile devices.

Trailers generate advance ticket sales, especially when they are linked to mobile ecommerce apps such as Fandango to create a seamless buying experience after you view the trailer. It’s not surprising that advance sales for The Force Awakens really did break the Internet months before the movie opened, as websites and mobile apps struggled to meet the demand for tickets. Trailers optimized for mobile devices are the perfect type of content that appeals to consumers when we experience “micro-moments,” which Google defines as moments when we use our mobile devices to decide what to do, where to go, and what to buy.

Movie trailers will continue to entertain and inspire fan-generated content. In addition, we should expect movie trailers to integrate more effectively with the mobile experience. According to Google, mobile has overtaken the desktop as the primary way we conduct searches overall. To turn those mobile searches into revenue, businesses need to do more than offer useful information such as their names, addresses, and phone numbers (or, in the case of movie theaters, movie times). To succeed in the mobile era, businesses need to convince searchers to become customers by sharing compelling content and an easy purchasing experience. Movie trailers linked to purchasing apps such as Fandango do so now. Movie trailers with the purchase functionality embedded in them will become more common.

What are your favorite examples of movie trailers that have become celebrated for their entertainment and marketing value?

Three Oscar-Winning Movies That Rewrote History

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Oscar-nominated movies should place more importance on historical accuracy than storytelling — at least that’s the conclusion you might draw from the criticisms lodged at American Sniper, The Imitation Game, and Selma. An angry cabal of tut-tutting, self-appointed guardians of public taste have attacked the directors of these movies for having the temerity to (gasp) take liberties with the real-life events that inspired the films (with Zaid Jilani of Salon characterizing American Sniper as a hideous pack of lies corrupting the minds of an unsuspecting moviegoing public). But American Sniper, The Imitation Game, and Selma are not the only Oscar-caliber films that have interpreted history to tell compelling stories. Here are three more from the annals of Hollywood history — all of them critically acclaimed, and all of them Oscar winners:

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  • Amadeus. This movie proved to be the high-water mark of the careers of Tom Hulce, who famously portrayed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a spoiled prodigy with a fondness for scatological humor, and F. Murray Abraham, who depicted Antonio Salieri, the erstwhile bitter rival of Mozart. Amadeus earned the scorn of historians who took major issue with the movie for grossly overstating the rivalry between the two men, especially the suggestion that Salieri had a hand in Mozart’s death. As Alex von Tunzelmann of The Guardian wrote (indulging in some bitter reflection years later), “Some fine research into Mozart’s annoying personality doesn’t really make up for the fact that the entire premise of this film – that Salieri loathed Mozart and plotted his demise – is probably not true.” But the critics were nothing more than voices screaming into the void, well after the movie had secured its place in film history by winning a slew of awards, including an Academy Award for Best Picture and designation on AFI’s “100 Years . . . 100 Movies” list.

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  • Braveheart. Mel Gibson’s 1995 lionization of 13th Century Scottish warrior William Wallace won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Braveheart also launched a cottage industry of naysayers who scoffed at the movie’s many inaccuracies, such as taking liberties with the way the famous battles were fought, and depicting Scottish badasses running roughshod in kilts and cool face paint. In fact, kilts were not popular in Scotland until the 17th Century, and that whole face paint thing had gone out of style by Wallace’s time. But Gibson wasn’t going to allow facts to interfere with a good story, and audiences responded. The film grossed $210 million globally.

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  • JFK. In 1966, New Orleans District Attorney Garrison began an investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy. As a result, he prosecuted a guy named Clay Shaw, alleging that Shaw and some right-wing cronies colluded with the CIA to kill Kennedy. Garrison’s case was so flimsy that it took a jury less than an hour to acquit Shaw. The curious case remained on history’s dust heap until Oliver Stone decided to make an epic three-hour movie out of Garrison’s questionable work. The resulting movie, JFK, drew a firestorm of criticism for distorting one of the most tragic events in American history. (Jon Margolis wrote in the Chicago Tribune that JFK was “an insult to the intelligence.”) JFK grossed more than $200 million worldwide, won two Oscars (for editing and cinematography) and landed Oliver Stone a Golden Globes Best Director win.

Dig a little deeper, and you will discover many more examples, such as Gladiator and The Passion of the Christ. (Apparently, the further back you go in history, the easier it is to play by your own rules. And Mel Gibson is a repeat offender.) What do these distortions tell us?

  • Moviemakers make stories, not history lessons.
  • Moviegoers listen to each other and sometimes to critics. But they could care less what historians think.
  • If you hate a movie, the louder you scream about it, the more publicity you’re giving the film.

Finally, if you go to movies to learn about history, you get the history you deserve. What are some notable inaccurate movies on your list?

Real-Time Marketing Is More Than an Oscars War Room

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The Academy Awards, Grammys, and Super Bowl constitute the peak of real-time marketing season. Throughout February, brands ramp up their efforts to generate instant buzz by capitalizing on the unexpected and exciting drama that unfolds throughout the course of these high-profile events. But as my recently published Gigaom report indicates, real-time marketing is more than a brand tweeting from a social media war room during the Oscars. Real-time marketing has become more influential across the entire marketing funnel, from awareness building to customer retention. To maximize the value of real-time marketing, brands should stop treating it as a one-off tactic and instead connect real-time marketing to their strategies across the customer lifecycle.

Real-Time Highs and Lows at the Oscars

The widespread perception of real-time marketing consists of companies building brand awareness by creating content that capitalizes on a time-sensitive event, such as a news development. Oftentimes, brands rely on social platforms, especially Twitter, to engage their audiences in real time. The popular definition might be limited, but it’s one that marketers can understand intuitively, and it has taken hold.

In 2011, David Meerman Scott’s Real-Time Marketing & PR helped trigger the adoption of real-time marketing as we know it today, although many thought leaders such as Regis McKenna and Monique Reese paved the way for Meerman Scott. By 2013, brands were experimenting widely with the insertion of real-time content into current events, with spectacular successes and failures resulting.

The Oscars have encapsulated both the rewards and drawbacks of event-related real-time marketing. The 85th Academy Awards in 2013 saw many businesses dropping real-time duds. As Jay Baer noted on the Convince & Convert blog, brands such as New York Life, Special K, and Bing used Twitter to spread content that ranged from the confusing to the ham-handed. The real-time content that night was so bad that David Armano asked whether real-time marketing had jumped the shark. But at the 86th Academy Awards a year later, Samsung pulled off a real-time marketing coup when the brand supplied Ellen DeGeneres with the camera that she used to snap the star-studded selfie that shook the world, a joyous image that depicted stars ranging from Bradley Cooper to Jennifer Lawrence hanging out together. Within 45 minutes, her selfie became the most reweeted content ever, and Samsung was enjoying 900 mentions a minute on social media.

But the Academy Awards constitute just one night for creating real-time content — albeit an important one, as are the Grammys and Super Bowl. What are some ways brands create real-time marketing beyond a single event?

Real-Time Marketing Across the Customer Lifecycle

Brands continue to swarm around major events such as the FIFA World Cup to generate impressions and social followers by sharing real-time content. But brands, agencies, and merchants are using some of these same techniques for multiple marketing objectives across the customer journey, influencing marketing tactics ranging from website development to media buying.

Continue reading

Do You Trust Your Audience? A Lesson from a Great Movie

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Do you trust your audience?

Before you answer “Sure!” make sure you watch the famous “Sam the Lion” monologue from the Oscar-winning movie The Last Picture Show. In just four minutes, Director Peter Bogdanovich offers a lesson on earning the trust of your audience, one that applies to any content marketer.

The scene focuses on Sam the Lion, an older denizen of a small Texas town, who fishes with two boys, Sonny and Billy, on a modest pond known as the tank. After the three idly shoot the breeze, Sam reminisces about a passionate affair from his past, a fleeting relationship that has remained strong in his heart as he ages.

And that’s all there is to the scene: Sam (played by Ben Johnson) sharing a fond memory with Sonny (played by Timothy Bottoms) and the mentally challenged Billy (played by Sam Bottoms) on a lake. No gunplay. No massive fist fights. Not much of anything — on the surface at least. And yet, the scene is beloved by movie critics (it was a favorite of Roger Ebert’s), and Johnson’s performance won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1972. Why? Because the moment reveals poignant truths about longing, regret, and growing older.

The monologue unfolds naturally. Sam makes small talk about fishing and turtles. He takes in the scenery of the pond and the mesquite trees, which triggers a memory of an affair between Sam and a woman.

“I brought a young lady swimming out here once,” he muses. “It was after my wife had lost her mind. And my boys was dead. Me and this young lady was pretty wild, I guess.”

Sam discloses that he and the woman shared moments of crazy passion on the pond, skinny dipping and racing each other on horses in the water.

“Kind of a crazy thing to do, but we done it anyway,” he says, before telling Sonny that the affair ended. And then, the payoff: “Being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do,” Sam muses. “Being a decrepit old bag of bones, that’s what’s ridiculous. Getting old.”

Last Picture Show (1971)

The scene succeeds because Bogdanovich trusts the audience to appreciate quality of the writing (by Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich) and the strength of Johnson’s acting. For instance:

  • Notice the absence of music. There are no syrupy strings to overplay the movie’s hand, no audio cues to tell us, “You’re watching an emotional moment. Time to let the tears flow.”
  • Similarly, the camera work does not overplay the scene with excessive close-ups to hammer home the emotional content of Sam’s monologue. The camera caresses Sam’s face through a slow build that permits the audience to drink up the scene instead of being hit over the head.
  • The characters are natural and authentic. Throughout the movie, Johnson portrays Sam as an aging man who carries himself with quiet integrity, and during the monologue, Johnson stays true to the character he has built. He does not lapse into showy emotion. And the boys act as boys do. Sonny is at turns bored and somewhat curious, while Billy watches at the water. The boys do not cock their heads in awe, as a director in a lesser movie might choreograph a scene. You know the “cocked head” moment in a movie, right? It’s that scene we often see in noble, well-meaning movies when a director tries to lead the audience by the nose.

You don’t need to be a Hollywood director to learn from Bogdanovich. Content marketers can apply his lessons in many ways. For instance:

  • When you select topics for thought leadership (whether for white papers or blog posts), choose ideas that will teach your audience instead of hyping your own services and products. Trust your audience to understand the difference between self-promotion and thought leadership, and to reward your thought leadership with positive word of mouth and even potential business.
  • Don’t clutter your writing with excessive adjectives and hyperbole. When you share an insight, trust your audience to draw its own conclusions and appreciate the value of your idea. Flowery, overwritten language is the equivalent of a movie scene that hits the audience over the head with music that grasps at the heartstrings.

Finally, earn the trust of your audience by being authentic and believable. Sam the Lion’s monologue worked because all the collaborators involved in the scene created a moment that was believable and true to the essence of the movie. When you trust your audience, you earn its trust, too.

Do you trust your audience?

Ellen DeGeneres, the Oscars, and the Era of the Visual Storyteller

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The defining moment of the 2014 Academy Awards happened in the audience and on Twitter. While the Oscars ceremony lumbered along with the usual moments of awkward onstage patter and stars showcasing their plastic surgery, Ellen DeGeneres snapped the selfie that was seen around the world: a joyous moment of herself surrounded by stars such as Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. According to The Washington Post, it took less than 45 minutes for DeGeneres to break President Barack Obama’s record for the content with the most retweets. Welcome to the Academy Awards in the era of the visual storyteller.

Thanks to social media platforms like Instagram, more than half of adult Internet users post photos online, and we post more than 300 million images a daily on Facebook alone. Pinterest is the third-most popular social network after Facebook and Twitter. Recently, Twitter paved the way for more visual tweets by making previews of Twitter photos and Vines more prominent in your content stream. With one selfie posted on her Twitter feed, Ellen DeGeneres tapped into our visual storytelling zeitgeist.

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The post went viral because so many viewers actively participated in the Oscars on their own social spaces in real time. The Academy itself posted selfies and show updates on Twitter — a smart move from Oscar that taps into natural human behaviors.

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Backstage at the Oscars

Winners

Simply watching major events like the Academy Awards and Grammys is a passé experience. These days you can go backstage and rub elbows with the stars thanks to second-screen capabilities offered by forward-thinking organizations like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Of course, the Oscars are a notoriously hit-and-miss affair, with onstage entertainment reaching soaring highs and lows — sometimes in the same act. On February 24, the Oscars hit a home run by giving fans the kind of entertainment we crave: access to the stars. And a brush with fame is the perfect antidote for today’s celebrity-obsessed culture.

The Oscars Backstage Pass gave anyone with a computer screen a chance to tour the audience through the eyes of the camera operator, hang out with the news media and watch Anne Hathaway pose with her Oscar in the news room, and get a glimpse of George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Grant Heslov celebrating their Argo Best Picture award backstage.  If you were patient, you could catch glimpses of stars having relatively unguarded moments — such as Jamie Foxx breaking into spontaneous dance while he awaited an official photo op.

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One of my favorite backstage moments occurred when I noticed Quentin Tarantino, looking torn and frayed with his Best Original Screenplay Oscar, in obvious thrall of Jack Nicholson — then putting on his serious game face for his official photo op:

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Tarantino

Meantime, in the audience, you could feel the tension on Anne Hathaway’s face before the Best Supporting Actress Award was named, and then the relief when she won:

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The Backstage Pass offered five different screen choices, ranging from the audience shot to the host view. The clarity of the resolution was excellent, and even the somewhat muddy resolution of the backstage lounge added to the “you-are-there” charm (as was the case with the Grammy Awards behind-the-curtain access).

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