2014 Best Picture Winners for Ad Copy


Nebraska movie poster Just as we can learn a lot from the ads running during the Super Bowl, I also like to check out the Oscar nominees for Best Picture to see how they handled their teaser materials.

In 2014 there are nine candidates in the big category. Looking at their marketing efforts, we can uncover valuable clues about promoting our own new introductions in a highly visual form to an oversold audience with a vast number of choices.

I’m using movie posters to compare key copy lines among Best Picture nominees. This works for our purposes because posters appear in theaters and in other physical locations before and during a film’s release–environments that are highly competitive for audience attention and interest. Plus, there’s a limited amount of “real estate” for copy on a poster. About all you get to work with is a slogan that will anchor the movie’s ad campaign, plus the visual. Imagine your own logo and tagline, or your book cover.

1. Nebraska

I led with this poster because it has no copy. A lot of art directors will love this approach, and in this case, so do I. But not always. Because there’s a flip side. Such as, it’s a good thing the preview trailer was done so well, so we could understand how complex yet relatable this amazing film’s characters were going to be. Bruce Dern’s Einstein-like profile is gorgeous and stark here, much like his performance, and much like the realities of aging. But we have no words on this piece to give us any clue about those film highlights. I wonder if this kind of artistic approach doesn’t hurt box office numbers at least somewhat, when for some, first impressions become buying decisions.

2. Philomena

“These two unlikely companions are on a journey to find her long lost son.” This line appears above the poster with a picture of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan sitting together looking rather normal. Meaning, I don’t find them that unlikely; he could be her nephew, a social worker, etc. Now that I know more about the movie, I don’t think the marketing team did their best work on this one. It’s actually rather scandalous, how she lost her son. And it’s Dame Judi Dench… if nothing else, you can promote her awesomeness above all else, right?

3. Her

A Spike Jonze Love Story The tip you can take from this tagline is that because Spike Jonze is famous in his field, and his brand of storytelling has a following, it’s worthwhile to use his brand name as a key element of promotion. Especially with a nondescript title like “Her” for a strange movie with a plot that isn’t typical blockbuster material. A man in the near future falls in love with his operating system? Oh, cool, Spike Jonze made it.

4. American Hustle

Everyone Hustles to Survive This tagline on its own is just so-so. The movie is in a heated 3-way race for favorite to win big at the 2014 Academy Awards (along with 12 Years a Slave and Gravity), and a ton of people bought tickets, so I searched a little deeper for marketing prowess early on. The previews looked really good, and we should note there was more copy to back this line up in the second trailer: Some hustle for regret. Some hustle for love. Others hustle for truth. But we all hustle to survive. Okay. It seems poetic. But I’m not sure what it means, or if it’s true. So it wouldn’t be good for your copy, unless you have that kind of star power to support it.

5. Captain Phillips

Out Here Survival is Everything Hmmm. This movie is nothing like American Hustle, yet they both have themes of survival. Or, at least their teaser advertising is telling us that’s what we should be most interested in. Are we? In this case, yes. The visuals supporting this copy help distinguish it–huge ship/little rowboat. And no disco styling on Tom Hanks. These marketers also made room for other copy tricks to help promote the film’s main attractions for various audiences, including the validation of “From the director of The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Based On The True Story.” As in, THE true story. It happened once, and it was intense.

6. Dallas Buyers Club

Dare to Live/Fight for your Life/Sometimes it takes a hustler to change the world. Wait–what? Depending on what version of poster or ad you saw, you might think this was a movie about taking risks or being a maverick, or hustling. I guess. Changing the world seems like a stretch, but I haven’t seen the film and it’s up for Best Picture so I can’t say anything is wrong with its theme. Only with its various marketing copy stabs and they way they a) are talking about survival, again, like a lot of other movies in this category zzzzzz and b) are not different enough from each other to bother being different. If you’re going to do A/B/C testing, then hone in on distinct qualities. Otherwise, focus your energy on coming up with your best from the start.

7. 12 Years a Slave

The Extraordinary True Story of Solomon Northrup. Eh, it’s fine. The reviews of this film, and the subject matter, seem to make its marketing a bit of a trivial point. Just watch the trailer and you’ll see the acting is fantastic and there are plenty of powerful scenes. That Solomon was a real man who lived this ordeal and wrote a book about it afterward, makes it all the more extraordinary–and this one-liner speaks to that. But what I liked better was a different line, which came near the peak of the preview, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live!” The big concern for this movie is how many haven’t watched it, perhaps shying away because it’s hard to take this level of painful truth. The marketing team might have captured more of an audience from posters and billboards early on by adding “He didn’t survive: he lived.”

 8. The Wolf of Wall Street

Earn. Spend. Party. I give this one 2nd Runner Up in the Winning Copy category. This movie is reported to be a riot:  funny, irreverent, even obscene. I can’t wait to see it, because I like who made it, who stars in it, and also because sometimes I just want to use media to escape to a fantasy land and be entertained. That’s what the slogan promises this film will depict: earned hedonism. The poster also shows a bit of crazy to back up the debauchery. Tips to take away: 1) I’m a longtime fan of the triple play tagline like this one. Words or short phrases in a triad is a great go-to for page headers, subtitles and more. 2) For your one-line introduction, a good bet is to sum up the coolest/most desired thing you’re going to deliver.

9. Gravity

Don’t Let Go My winner for Top Copy in marketing among the 2014 Best Picture nominees, for an intriguing film about an astronaut (spoiler alert?), untethered, in outer space. There are several versions of ads and posters for this giant of a movie, and no matter how tiny the body/how vast the space behind, or how big the heads in their helmets/how close to the black void beside them, what you see is someone very alone and very much in need of something to hold on to. (You ever feel that way?) If not an umbilical cord of some sort, or each other, or a caribiner to hook onto a space station…. perhaps hope? Is that possible in this scenario?

Stunning art and inpirational copy cause you to wonder what the hell, can that really happen, can someone be in space like that unattached? OMG–you’re already saying don’t let go before you even buy your ticket. Winner. Your takeaway: whether you sell giant movies or tiny widgets, your audience is always human. Never forget about the human condition when you write your copy. It connects us all.

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