I'm Still Big—It's the Pictures That Got Small

Despite sagging ratings, bad hosts and ambivalence about unheard-of nominees, the Oscars remain golden with advertisers

While manufacturers of some consumer goods want to be a part of Hollywood’s big night, the movie studios, ironically, aren’t as likely to be a part of it (even though Paramount and Walt Disney Pictures have bought in this year). That’s because of Academy restrictions on the studios’ marketing. No ads are permitted in support of nominated films, their sequels or their prequels, or any movie that opens before the end of April.

Not that it would matter to the marketers of many motion pictures. “The summer tentpole [movies] with big enough ad budgets to afford it don’t have any incentive to buy time during the Oscars,” says Russell Schwartz, the former marketing chief of New Line Cinema who now runs movie-marketing firm Pandemic. “Those are the big action movies, and the people watching the Oscars, that’s not the same demographic.”

Despite their downward ratings trend, the Oscars could be poised for a comeback. Kantar’s Swallen expects a bump this year with the return of Billy Crystal, who’s deftly handled the gig eight times before. This is compared to last year’s production, which will live in infamy for the disjointed hosting talents of Hathaway and Franco. That telecast drew about 38 million viewers, down some 9 percent versus 2010.

If more viewers do tune in, it may well have more to do with the choice of host than with the crop of nominated flicks, hardly a constellation of box office hits—aside from the period drama The Help, based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. Compare that to past years, when blockbuster nominees like Avatar and Titanic lifted Oscar viewership.

The Tree of Life, The Help, Moneyball


Still, don’t expect the Oscars to offset any static viewership with a flood of commercials.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences carefully monitors the volume of ads, allowing for only eight to 10 minutes of commercials per hour, including promos for ABC shows. That’s far fewer commercials than air during the typical prime-time program, which loads up on 14 to 16 minutes or more of ads in an hour. This year’s Super Bowl, by comparison, featured 13 to 14 minutes of ads per hour.

Selling more time might dilute the average price of a :30, Swallen points out. Naturally, the Academy has resisted doing so. The Oscars’ lighter commercial load is also attractive to advertisers like Hyundai, which will use the telecast to promote its Genesis and Equus models as well as the new Azera.

Says Hyundai’s Shannon: “The uncluttered environment is almost unprecedented. It really allows us room to breathe.”

If Oscar doesn’t pull down greater ratings this year, it won’t be for a lack of promotion.

ABC will capitalize on the event with an entire day of Oscar-related content, giving advertisers plenty of chance to bask in the little man’s golden glow. The network will kick off Sunday’s programming slate with an Oscar-themed Good Morning America, proceed with live coverage of red-carpet arrivals, then later in the evening air Jimmy Kimmel Live: After the Academy Awards with guests including nominees George Clooney and Meryl Streep.

ABC also has bolstered its digital tie-ins, rolling out a new generation of its Oscar mobile app and giving fans a look behind the scenes with features like “Backstage Cam.” Meantime, the already content-rich has been enhanced with still more history of the awards and interactive features.

Advertiser messages are integrated with coverage via all those digital platforms, which has Kantar’s Swallen wondering whether the Oscars might develop a base of multiscreen viewers, like the Olympics has.

Says Swallen: “It’ll make the franchise that much more valuable and accessible to a broader range of advertisers.”

Photo Illustrations: Darrow