A Hollywood Reporter analysis of the strategic decisions behind the push for Universal’s World War I epic and Netflix’s divorce tale — from doubling down on a film festival marathon to engaging gamers in a late-entry sprint.
By the time Sam Mendes stepped off a flight from London to New York in late November to appear at the first screenings of Universal’s 1917 for awards voters, Noah Baumbach’s Netflix movie, Marriage Story, had played at more than 30 film festivals around the world. Universal and Netflix had both begun plotting their awards strategies for the films before the champagne flutes were cleared from last year’s Oscar parties, back when Mendes was still building World War I trenches out of clay at Bovingdon Airfield in England and Baumbach was cutting takes of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver embroiled in a marital battle from an editing room in New York.
The two movies couldn’t be more different, but taken together, they tell the story of the nuance and complexity of the modern Oscar campaign — studio versus streamer, spectacle versus stars, sprint versus marathon. 1917 scored 10 nominations on the strength of a campaign that emphasized its crafts and the big-screen experience; Marriage Story collected six by stressing its performances and screening the film ubiquitously.
If there was an award for most miles traveled in support of an Oscar film, Baumbach would surely win this year’s. Sparing no expense, Netflix methodically unspooled his movie over the past five months, beginning with its premiere in Venice in August and hitting standard campaign stops like Telluride, New York and London, as well as more unusual detours like Thessaloniki, Greece; Tokyo; Los Cabos, Mexico; and Milwaukee. The Academy often rewards films with more showmanship or higher societal stakes, so the strategy with the quieter, character-driven movie focused on the leads, also the stars of two of the year’s blockbusters — The Avengers‘ Black Widow and Star Wars‘ Kylo Ren — to grace magazine covers, red carpet photocalls and TV appearances. The notoriously shy Driver received a Telluride Film Festival tribute, Johannsson gave a one-year Netflix subscription away to the audience of Ellen, and both actors hosted Saturday Night Live.
Netflix also deployed other pyrotechnics, including rescuing the shuttered Paris Theatre, Manhattan’s last single-screen movie palace, just in time for the premiere. Often cast by competitors as the literal murderer of the moviegoing experience, Netflix subsequently signed a 10-year lease. As Baumbach trotted the globe, Netflix sent swag to reporters that communicated the movie’s themes of love, loss and home, including a cozy white blanket and a his-and-hers coffee-table book with replicas of the letters the characters write to each other. Perhaps Netflix’s biggest flex was keeping Marriage Story in theaters for 30 days, the longest window ever for one of its films — longer, even, than the 26 days Martin Scorsese got for The Irishman, and an eon for a company that eschewed any theatrical window at all until 2018.
1917, by contrast, was a piece of big-screen bravado, designed for the theatrical experience. The Universal film’s coming-out party was not at a festival but an AMC multiplex Oct. 3 in New York, where Mendes, Deakins and others delivered a panel at New York Comic-Con, talking about the film’s virtuosic camerawork, intended to convey the brutality of combat via the experience of one continuous shot.
Mendes hadn’t even begun shooting 1917 until April 1 and was still working into November, forcing Universal to drop its contender onto Oscar voters’ laps at the last possible moment in a burst of bicoastal screenings on Nov. 23 and 24. Where Marriage Story touted its stars, 1917 pushed its below-the-line talent, prominently featuring the 15-time Oscar-nominated Roger Deakins, production designer Dennis Gassner and composer Thomas Newman, all of whom garnered nominations. In December, a week after Prince Charles attended 1917‘s London premiere, Steven Spielberg, whose company, Amblin, produced the film, hosted a tastemaker screening in L.A. To promote 1917 as a piece of immersive storytelling that excited gamers as well as Oscar voters, Universal solicited an endorsement from a video game influencer named Ninja.
After a strong showing at the Golden Globes on Jan. 5, where 1917 won best drama and director, the $90 million film got a box office boost. Universal added the Golden Globes logo and wins to its TV and print advertising in a marketing push that ultimately helped send the movie past $200 million worldwide. Because Netflix has released neither box office nor streaming numbers for Marriage Story, the film’s monetary value to the company is harder to gauge. But Netflix made clear the significance of its Oscar campaign when it sent subscribers a Jan. 28 email inviting them to “Explore our 2020 Academy Award nominees.” It’s a message meant for Netflix’s 167 million global members. If some of this year’s 8,469 Oscar voters click too, that’s a bonus.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.