With just a few days until the Academy Awards, "No Country for Old Men" has all but secured its status as front-runner for best picture. Yet only three months ago, "Atonement" was the Hollywood favorite.
They didn't serve free popcorn for either film, and they didn't change the endings. So what caused the shift?
While Hollywood is hesitant to admit it, the answer is largely: marketing.
"'No Country' had very solid marketing and distribution in Miramax," said Anne Thompson, an editor at Variety magazine. "It also has at its disposal a very active, powerful producer in Scott Rudin."
Since 1980, Rudin has produced 81 films, including "There Will Be Blood," another best picture nominee, and "The Queen."
According to Thompson, Rudin spent months at Miramax's New York offices, overseeing three trailers, five print campaigns and multiple TV spots for "No Country." And when that was done, he headed to Hollywood to promote the film on the West Coast.
The Academy bars studios from throwing lavish dinners and receptions for voters. But the studios schedule screenings with celebrities, mail DVDs and create expensive advertising campaigns, including "For Your Consideration" ads that appear in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. (Insiders estimate that Variety brings in half of its annual ad revenue from the studios in the three months before the Oscars.)
Campaigning is "all about maximizing the number of eyeballs that see your movie," said "No Country for Old Men" publicist Cynthia Swartz. "How can you get people to see challenging films that might not thrive without [the boost] from critical acclaim and nominations?"
This year, "maximizing eyeballs" proved especially challenging. Nov. 5, the day the writers' strike began, was precisely the time the studios normally rev up their campaigns.
The cancellation of the Golden Globes didn't help, either. Typically, studios get a box office lift after actors spend time on the red carpet talking about their roles.
The strike "definitely made things more difficult," Swartz said. Given the circumstances, studios had to rethink their strategies, focusing instead on trailers, morning shows that were not off the air and ads (who hasn't seen the ubiquitous TV commercial for "There Will Be Blood" featuring best actor front-runner Daniel Day-Lewis shouting "I've abandoned my boy"?)
Producers also found other solutions. First and foremost? Press — and a lot of it. "Juno" has been the greatest beneficiary. In the last few months, New York magazine ran an article entitled "Oscar Futures: Is 'Juno' This Year's 'Little Miss Sunshine'?"
Entertainment Weekly published a profile on the screenwriter, Diablo Cody, suggesting readers "meet the sharp-minded Hollywood outsider whose tender adoption comedy, 'Juno,' is being called this year's 'Little Miss Sunshine.'"
And Ellen Page, the film's star who turned 21 on Thursday, was the perfect cover girl. She was spotlighted by The New York Times magazine and Vanity Fair, appeared on "Oprah" and "David Letterman" (after he struck a deal with his writers), hosted "Saturday Night Live" and was to join Barbara Walters for her legendary Oscars special — an honor rarely afforded young starlets.
These appearances hardly are coincidental, especially with Page's being the film's major draw (though she's not considered the front-runner to win best actress).
"Every movie is promoted differently," Swartz said. "You look at the movie and lead with the film’s strengths."
Those strengths normally are straightforward: acting, directing, writing and cinematography. But "No Country" developed an unexpected advantage: When they've had a chance to talk, the film's actors — such as best supporting actor front-runner Javier Bardem — have been unusually articulate about the film’s plot and subtext.
"The actors have been incredibly introspective and reflective," Swartz said. The Coen brothers, who directed the film, didn’t encourage analytical talk. But moviegoers and the media welcomed it.
Miramax, Rudin, the Coen brothers and Swartz — a longtime Hollywood publicist — have been an effective team, Thompson added.
Another strategy that helped "No Country" is what Thompson calls "slow burn": Debut at Cannes in May, appear in the fall festivals, open in limited release for the holidays and increase the number of screens after the Oscar nominations are announced.
It’s a long, costly proposition. But it allows offbeat films such as "No Country" to gain momentum. Then — over time — the film becomes a "must-see."
That said, according to insiders, this very tactic actually may have hurt "Atonement."
"'Atonement' got some incredible reviews at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, but then [the studio] held the movie back," Thompson explained. "They should have screened it more."
But, in the end, marketing — for better or worse — is defined by the film itself, said Wall Street Journal movie critic Joe Morgenstern.
"Every marketing person will tell you that you can't market anything," he said, "if you don't have the product."