oscar-thumbHarvey Weinstein is generally considered an Oscar marketing genius. The Hollywood producer’s aggressive campaign helped push Shakespeare in Love to a surprise Best Picture victory over Saving Private Ryan in 1999.

But Weinstein’s effort was so effective it led to a ban by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on private cocktail parties, exclusive post-screening Q&As and other flashy events during Oscar season.

Because of the restrictions, Hollywood studios now have to rely on more subtle techniques to push their films and stars into the spotlight.

The blockbuster and the sleeper

This year, in an ironic twist, Weinstein blames his subtle marketing strategy around Django Unchained for Quentin Tarantino’s failure to garner a Best Director nomination.

The Weinstein Company decided not to send screener DVDs of the film to Academy members in December in order to encourage members to see it on the big screen.

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in a still from Django. Image via unchainedmovie.com

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in a still from Django Unchained. Image via unchainedmovie.com.

Django Unchained still earned five nominations, including Best Picture, so it’s difficult to determine if the lack of screeners actually hurt Tarantino’s chances, or if there simply wasn’t enough room in the Best Director category for everyone.

One of the most surprising inclusions in this year’s nomination pool is the indie film Beasts of the Southern Wild, which earned four Oscar nods, including a Best Director nomination for Benh Zeitlin.

Quvenzhané Wallis stars in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Image via imdb.com.

Quvenzhané Wallis stars in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Image via imdb.com.

Beasts’ long journey to Oscar contender began a year ago when it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Strong word of mouth and success at prestigious film festivals (including winning the Caméra d’Or at Cannes) helped build buzz and critical acclaim.

Beasts is Zeitlin’s first feature film. He was under 30 when he made it with a budget of only $1.8 million, proving that sometimes a grassroots campaign can catch the Academy’s attention.

As Richard Brody pointed out in The New Yorker, the movie’s “anti-political, by-the-bootstraps view of essentially political matters” –  in this case, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – led to a “sentimental consensus that won it an audience and a batch of nominations.”

Lincoln’s silence and Affleck’s snub

In contrast to Django’s unconventional approach and Beasts’ organic one, the studio behind Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln decided to let the film speak for itself. The film’s director and producers have refused to campaign for it.

Stacey Snider of Dreamworks explained that “energy is finite. There is only so much you can do. These filmmakers gave it all to the film.” She added that she is confident that Oscar voters ultimately judge films on their merits, not the amount of glad-handing done by their makers.

Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln. Image via thelincolnmovie.com.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. Image via thelincolnmovie.com.

But while Daniel Day-Lewis is considered a shoo-in for the Best Actor prize on February 24, the film seems to have lost its momentum having failed to win any of the other major awards for “best picture” since its leading 12 nominations were announced.

On the other hand, Argo seems to have benefited from the perceived “snub” of Ben Affleck being left out of the Best Director category.

At the beginning of awards season, Argo was considered an underdog, but Affleck has won the Golden Globe and the Directors Guild Award for Best Director, and the film won the Golden Globe, Producers Guild and multiple critics associations’ awards for Best Picture.

Although a Best Director Oscar remains out of reach for Affleck, the Academy may be encouraged to compensate by rewarding Argo in other categories.

Ben Affleck directs and stars in the film Argo. Image via argothemovie.warnerbros.com

Ben Affleck directs and stars in the film, Argo. Image via argothemovie.warnerbros.com.

Oscar campaigns go negative

Marketing efforts for Oscar-nominated films run the gamut from print ads and television commercials to Twitter campaigns, but one of the biggest trends this Oscar season is negative campaigning against other nominees.

As Gregg Kilday points out in the Hollywood Reporter, negative campaigners need to criticize competing films subtly, never publicly or in writing, at the risk of alienating Oscar voters.

In 2010, The Hurt Locker producer Nicolas Chartier was banned from the Oscar ceremony after emailing a friend and urging them to vote for his movie rather than “the $500 million film” –  a not-so-subtle reference to Avatar.

If Oscar campaigns are in many ways similar to political ones, a key difference is that it’s better for candidates to keep a sense of humility and humour about themselves and their films, rather than publicly knocking the competition.

Ben Affleck is a master at this. Speaking in the press room after the Golden Globes about his perceived Oscar snub, he joked, “I also didn’t get the acting nomination. And no one’s saying I got snubbed there!”