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Inside the Academy's Quest to Be Known as More Than Just the Oscars

First CMO is lifting the veil on a famed but faceless organization

Christina Kounelias, a veteran marketer of Hollywood movies. | Photo: Jeremy Goldberg; Styling: Marcus Clark; Hair: Ian James/The Wall Group; Makeup: Emily Moses/Solo Artists

Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald, the Geico gecko, Mr. Clean—brand icons so embedded in the global mind-set that babies can recognize them before they can even speak. And then there’s Oscar, that distinguished little gold man honoring achievement in film, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1929.

So why would the Academy, of all things, find it necessary to undertake a consumer- facing marketing and branding overhaul?

Surely no member-based organization (with the possible exception of the United Nations) gets more exposure than the Academy. The annual Oscar ceremony endures as one of the most popular televised events in the world and that rare thing for advertisers: a chance to reach tens of millions of people in one shot. And yet, the nearly 7,000-member Academy has remained a largely inscrutable body, steeped in secrecy much like those sealed envelopes it’s famous for—and it’s been a mystery not only to the public at large but even within the Hollywood community. As Craig Zadan—a producer of the Academy Awards show who has belonged to the organization since 1991, and producer of films like Chicago and Hairspray—says, “All those years, I didn’t know anything about the Academy other than the Oscars—and I was a member.”

The Costume Exhibit, Presented in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the show features more than 150 pieces from films like Shakespeare in Love, The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. | Photo: Richard Harbaugh/©A.M.P.A.S. 

Enter Christina Kounelias, a veteran movie marketer who, three years ago, was recruited by Academy CEO Dawn Hudson to be the first chief marketing officer in the association’s history and to, as Kounelias explains, “tell the Academy’s story and put a human face on the organization.”

Cornered at the splashy, celebrity-strewn Academy Governors Awards ceremony this month in Hollywood, Hudson recalls her first meeting with Kounelias, who, before stints at New Line Cinema and later Warner Bros., cut her teeth in movie marketing at Miramax in New York during its ’80s heyday, working on films like My Left Foot and Sex, Lies and Videotape. (“I was the twenty-first employee, when their office was in a barely renovated two-bedroom apartment at 48th and Madison,” she notes.) At that initial meeting over lunch at Culina in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Hudson remembers Kounelias speaking frankly about the Academy being “too impersonal and unapproachable” and the need for the organization to embody the same passion as the films its members produce. “Three years later, it’s mission accomplished,” reports Hudson. “She has elevated the Academy.” 

Sketches of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, slated to open in 2017. The Academy, which led a $300 million capital campaign for the project, says it will be the “premier museum devoted to exploring and curating the history and future of the moving image.”| Photo: ©Renzo Piano Building Workshop/© Studio Palifekete Architects/© A.M.P.A.S.

Photo: ©Renzo Piano Building Workshop/© Studio Palifekete Architects/© A.M.P.A.S.

Back at the association’s fortress-like headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard (where you are required not merely to show your government-issued ID but to leave it with a stern-faced guard), Kounelias takes a seat at a large conference table to lay out her game plan. The Academy is, she explains, “this thing everybody knows. You’re sitting there, watching the Oscars: ‘I’d like to thank the Academy.’ And it all sounds very important and official and fantastic, but it also feels faceless.”

From top, Marilyn Monroe, Sidney Poitier in Lilies of
the Field and Joan Crawford on the set of Grand Hotel. |  
Photo: ©A.M.P.A.S.

Kounelias—a second-generation Greek-American who grew up in Parsippany, N.J., and whose first job, by either chance or destiny, was behind the candy counter of the local Loews movie theater—adds, “We used to have something here that internally we jokingly called ‘Academy 364.’ Like, OK, yes, we know we pop up on that one, big day, Oscar Sunday, once a year, but what are we doing the rest of the year? And it’s a lot.”

That it is. The marketing and rebranding push led by Kounelias and the Santa Monica-based creative agency 180LA encompasses everything from a reimagined, video-rich website (designed and built by Trailer Park) and sleek new brand identity (a new, golden logo, which for the first time ties the Academy to the Oscar, features the statuette housed within an imposing “A” shape) to a hit cultural event (the current Hollywood Costume Exhibit, presented by Swarovski, where iconic wardrobe pieces from the likes of The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars and Titanic are featured in an engaging interactive display), a major civic project (the forthcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, designed by Renzo Piano and Zoltan Pali and located on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or Lacma), and the Oscar ceremony itself. All of it is meant to underscore not just the Academy’s rich history, considerable assets, and numerous programs and events, but also its new openness.

The Academy’s site, Oscars.org, is now as cinematic as a studio release, packed with elements like a series of short films under the header “Academy Originals,” wherein members talk about their love of and work in cinema. There’s director Brett Ratner, relating how he convinced his high school history teacher to let him out of taking a test and instead show the class a movie he’d made with his Super 8 camera. Casting director Marci Liroff recounts how Henry Thomas came to be cast as the lead in E.T. (basically, he cried on cue for director Steven Spielberg—and here, we bear witness to that magic moment). Videos and still photos from the Academy’s vast library—including everything from Audrey Hepburn’s screen test for Roman Holiday to the home movies of Ginger Rogers and George and Ira Gershwin—are housed here, too. For even the most casual student of film, culture and history, wading through this trove becomes a delightful time suck, no matter where in the world you happen to be. (Before, the Academy’s materials could be accessed only if you paid a visit to its Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills.)

Social media is, naturally, an important tool of the newly approachable Academy. Kounelias points out that just two years ago, before she recruited managing director of digital media and marketing Josh Spector, a former head of content and marketing at Comedy.com who is central to the organization’s social media strategy, the Academy’s followers via all social channels was a combined 400,000. Today, it’s 6 million. She projects that figure to grow even more after next year’s Oscar telecast, noting that both the show and the promotional campaign in support of it will have a heavy social component.

As much as the Academy is working to promote its cool website, social media presence and state-of-the-art museum (for which ground will be broken next spring), the annual Oscars show remains by far its most important project, and best promotional opportunity.

It’s not yet Thanksgiving but the buzz is already building around the 87th annual Academy Awards, airing Feb. 22 on ABC and hosted by Neil Patrick Harris. Talented as he is, Harris will surely have a hard time topping Ellen DeGeneres, host of the 86th annual Academy Awards earlier this year, when it comes to social media impact and brand ambassadorship. Recall the “epic selfie” that resulted from DeGeneres handing her Galaxy Note 3 smartphone to Bradley Cooper, whose star-studded shot, posted to Twitter, promptly broke the Internet and would come to be seen by 37 million people. Samsung’s media agency, Starcom MediaVest Group, got credit for negotiating a product placement that Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Lévy estimated was worth up to $1 billion in publicity for the brand. (The show, broadcast March 2 on ABC, was the most watched entertainment telecast in a decade, attracting 43 million viewers in the U.S. and earning a 12.9 rating among adults 18-49—the third straight year the program enjoyed a surge in ratings.)

Photo: Bruce Glikas/Film Magic

To the men in charge of the Oscars telecast, such moments are not mere stunts but integral to the show’s vibrancy, and success.

“All these things that were dreams for the social media kingdom are also part of marketing the show—and as a result, we started building an audience that was not only bigger but much younger,” says Zadan, who, with partner Neil Meron, is producing the Oscars for the third year running. “It all relates back to marketing and what Christina has done in terms of moving the Academy forward in social media.” Adds Meron: “There’s an energy Christina brings that reflects the whole makeup of the Academy. Dawn, Cheryl [Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy] and Christina are a great triumvirate.”

The producers go back several years with Kounelias, to when she was a marketer at New Line and the duo was working on the 2007 film Hairspray, starring John Travolta. They would find a trusted, media-savvy partner in Kounelias early on.

After completing Hairspray, Zadan remembers getting a peek at the studio’s marketing plan for the release. It was not a happy moment. “It was really horrible,” he recalls. (He would not elaborate, except to say it “didn’t sell the unique quality” of the product.) “So, Neil, Christina and I got together and basically redid the campaign, and that campaign was what sold the movie.”

He continues, “One thing Neil and I are obsessed with when we produce something, no matter what it is, is that the job is not done when you finish the project—it’s only done when you finish the marketing. If you do a good job and produce something good and the marketing isn’t any good and nobody sees it, then what’s the point?”

Kounelias calls reteaming with Zadan and Meron “a happy reunion.” The CMO works hand-in-hand with the producers on every aspect of marketing the Oscars. Previously, the shows were promoted in a “generic way,” Zadan says. “What we did with Christina was, we decided that had to change.” One idea that stuck was “Only on the Oscars,” a tagline that would be used in promotions featuring legendary moments from past shows—be it Barbra Streisand appearing at the event for the first time in 36 years or a performance by the cast of Les Misérables.

For the coming Oscars, the Academy has turned to its agency partner of a year and a half, which is handling key art, graphics and more around the show.

How, one might wonder, did 180LA, a relatively small shop, land the Academy business—in the entertainment capital of the world, teeming with creative talent, a place that larger agencies with much bigger accounts and thicker client rosters have been flocking to in recent years?

As Kounelias tells it, the agency was first brought to her attention by Ford Oelman, a New Line expat she recruited two years ago to head creative strategy. Oelman had searched for an agency to work on a video project for the Academy, meeting with several shops to no avail. Then came 180—headed by managing partner and CEO Michael Allen and managing partner and CCO William Gelner—whose work on Expedia and HP he admired.

Oelman put in a call to 180 CMO Stephen Larkin, who shocked pretty much everyone at the Academy when he said he was jumping in his car and heading right over. “He was the only one who did that,” Kounelias recalls.

Since that moment in April of last year, the relationship has grown to include the creation of what Oelman describes as “an entire identity system” for the client. The agency’s work includes not only the Academy’s brand identity but also short-form videos, design, strategy, advertising and, for the Oscars in particular, oversight of all marketing communications and even elements of the legendary red carpet.

“It would have been easy, I think, to have gone to a traditional entertainment vendor—and there are a lot of brilliant ones here that work with all the studios,” Kounelias says. “But we’re not strictly entertainment ourselves—there’s an educational piece to us, a philanthropic piece to us. We wanted somebody who understood the unique ground we occupy.” She adds, “They took the time to learn who we are.”

It didn’t hurt that she and Larkin—the member of 180’s management with which the Academy continues to work most closely—clicked on a personal level. “He’s a Boston guy, I’m a Jersey girl,” she says. “It was an organic fit.”

Larkin sums up the reborn Academy in his characteristically no-BS, New England style: “For many years, this was an organization that was very protective—they held it tight and didn’t expose much of this brand beyond that one night of the year. What Christina and her team did was open up the curtain and share it.”

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