Marketing for Oscar-Nominated Documentaries 2021

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April Simpson is a recent graduate of Film Studies from Anglia Ruskin University. With the Academy Awards coming up this week, she shares with us some thoughtful commentary on how the Oscar-nominated documentaries were marketed. 

I’ll be looking at each of the documentaries that have been nominated for the Academy Award 2021, and how each one has been marketed. I’ll be analysing and comparing their trailers and clips; posters; and online marketing such as interviews, both written and in video form. All of the films, ‘Time’; ‘My Octopus Teacher’; ‘Collective’; ‘Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution’ and ‘The Mole Agent’ have received intensive digital marketing campaigns, to varying extents, in the run up to the Oscars.   

Time 

This film was distributed by Amazon Studios, and released in October 2020 both theatrically and on Amazon Prime Video, marketed there as an original. The film concerns a mother of six trying to free her husband from prison in America. The poster is the main piece of marketing material an audience will see from this film, and I don’t think it’s very successful in selling the film or its message.   

The poster is in black and white, matching the colour filter that’s been put over the film’s footage. For the poster it reduces its eye-catching appeal, and appears blander that it could have been. The central image shows the main subject of the film Sibil Fox Richardson and her husband Roy, but is a romantic image that doesn’t represent the content most shown in the film, about Roy’s time in prison. This links with the title ‘Time’, not giving a clear idea of the documentaries’ subject to audiences. I think these works to make a confusing and vague first impression on audiences from this poster.  

The filmmaker behind ‘Time’ Garret Bradley took part in a number of interviews, as a way of raising the general awareness and profile of the film to the audience of these publications. These included Under the Radar Magazine, The New York Review and WBUR. Because of the very common word the film is named for ‘Time’, audiences may have trouble tracking down news and articles regarding this film from an online search, as did I.  

For Under the Radar and The New York Review, Bradley talks about her artistic intentions, the development process and message behind the film. Her themes of comparing the American prison industrial complex to slavery are very current and relevant to the current political climate in the US, but still remain tough sells for a general audience in terms of reach and appeal for entertainment. The interview for WBUR with Sibil and Roy themselves focuses on their personal story and their love. Their experience has a much broader emotional appeal as simply a tale of resilience and love, and also fits more into the ideas presented by the poster. There is some mismatch in how different stages of marketing seem at odds, in their tone and messages. 

A number of video interviews with the filmmakers are available on YouTube, but don’t seem to have reached a very wide audience based on their view figures. On Amazon Prime’s own channel their interview has 4.2K views, not an especially large number for an Oscar nominated film. A number of interviews were conducted for smaller YouTube channels, some with only 5K subscribers. This marketing is aimed towards quite a small audience compared to the reach of its trailers and clips, so had little overall chance at high engagement and viewing figures. Amazon’s official trailer has 167K views, and its official clip has only 6.5K. This could be due to the content not being of interest to the average viewer on YouTube who could have been shown these videos, with a low-key and slow feel to them. They are black and white clips, include slow piano music and quiet voiceovers, all very subdued and almost opposite to the average YouTube trailer and video. The predominantly young audience who engages with real world issues of the prison system, seemingly haven’t connected with the non-exciting or eye-catching marketing here.  

My Octopus Teacher 

This film was released by Netflix as an original in September 2020. It’s about a diver Craig Foster who studies an octopus for a year in South Africa. The film’s poster artwork on Netflix gives a clear and eye-catching image that sells what the film is about.   

This poster has centred the two main subjects of the film. This gets across the two parts of the documentary, nature focused animal information, and the emotional and metaphorical side of Foster’s narration. As well as it accurately representing the content, it is also is an inviting visual design. The composite shot has the darkened background of the underwater forest. It seems like it’s giving some element of mystery, inviting the viewer in to find out more about this environment. The title is clear enough, telling of both the nature side, and the lessons that Foster learns through his ‘octopus teacher’. It suggests a journey and friendship in an exaggerated way. I believe this title appeals on the poster for its fantastical nature and emotions.  

The directors and subject of the film have done lots of interviews, some for high profile internet publications. Some examples are Time Magazine, Nature in Focus and Business Doc Europe. A number are well known publications, but others are science and nature-based sites, with a much more niche and specific audience. These interviews will be easy to find online for audiences, because of the unique and easy to search film title, and the large amount conducted.  

The Time interview is with Craig Foster and he talks in detail about the conservation intentions of the documentary. He talks about his founding of the Sea Change Project. He discusses his hope that the forest seen in the film will be recognised as an icon to be further protected. This element in interviews could have been a good marketing tool, because it has a wide appeal to modern environmental movements and awareness. This can get audiences interested because they care about nature conservation, and their empathy for wanting to protect the creatures in the film. It also discusses the viral nature of the documentary and its high Netflix views, this can appeal to people who’d watch because of its popularity, joining what others are talking about too. Other interviews like in Business Doc Europe are with the co-director, so focus on technical equipment and filmmaking more. This type of information will have less of an impact as marketing, because it appeals to a much smaller audience pool, who care about the technical side.  

With video interviews, they have been quite successful in their marketing on YouTube. One interview with SABC has 56K views, so has reached a substantial number of the audience, compared to those who would have seen the film on Netflix. Others with smaller channels such as TRT World Now and Expresso Show still have over 13K views. This is likely the viral nature of the subject, and easily accessible appeal. The non-heavy subject of nature seems easily shareable online, so these interviews are successful marketing. Others that are from environment focused YouTube channels have much less views because of the low audience subscribed. 

Collective 

This Romanian film was released worldwide in November 2020 and natively in February 2020. It’s about corruption in the Romanian healthcare system and investigation into a fire at a nightclub that exposed the hospitals. The documentary’s poster has a cinematic design that I believe is well suited to its audience for a piece of marketing material.   

The poster appears to be designed as if this is a narrative film, for a spy, intrigue thriller genre. The intention may be to gain a wider audience through this marketing that is reminiscent of that used by popular genres. This vague title of ‘Collective’ doesn’t reveal the subject of the film being healthcare, and its slow and serious tone. These factors could have been something to make the film appeal to less people, so they are not shown or hinted at on this poster. There is a suggestion of action from the image of the health minister Vlad Voiculescu with white lines going past his head, not matching with the real tone of the documentary. The images on the poster in conjunction with the title give a sense of an action spy theme, but are still vague to the exact subject. It could be eye-catching marketing, but with an overall muddied message given.  

‘Collective’ didn’t receive a very large marketing campaign overall, as it was released mostly by smaller Romanian studios, so a smaller number of interviews were done compared to the other documentaries. In the most high-profile interview with Mubi, the director of ‘Collective’ Alexander Nanau discusses his film. He talks about the investigations into the fire victims, and what this means for things like press freedom and corruption. This is a very detailed interview into heavy and sombre subject matter, not easily marketable as a film for a mainstream viewership. This interview being for Mubi, a publication focused on artistic aspects of film, already means the interview reaches an audience mostly already interested in film. It’s unclear whether the interviews raised awareness outside of this small audience.  

There were also a small amount of video interviews that are on YouTube, and haven’t been too successful as marketing based on their low view figures. The interview with Curzon received 723 views, this could again be because of the serious and technical information discussed, not of interest to most of the young YouTube audience. The serious and sometimes upsetting tone is difficult to market to the mainstream as entertainment. In comparison, the first teaser trailer for the documentary received a large amount of views.  

The act of releasing a ‘teaser’ is typical for narrative film, and high-profile movies that audiences already have familiarity and excitement for. I believe ‘Collective’ benefited from making a ‘teaser trailer’ that is similar to those of narrative spy thrillers, giving it 79K views on YouTube. It is a fast-paced trailer with dramatic shots, and a pounding drum score behind it. These increase the excitement and give it a high-energy tone. This is clever marketing to make this documentary appeal to a wider audience who are already fans of fictionalised versions of these types of stories. The trailer marketing campaign is in-line with the poster, both giving this same tone to reach a large audience with the film. The different stages of marketing are somewhat mismatched with one another, because the interviews don’t have this level of excitement, but instead focus on aspects that are less interesting and appealing to a wide audience, like politics, without any of the human emotional impact people relate to more.    

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution’ 

This film was distributed by Netflix and marketed as an original. Barack and Michelle Obama were executive producers with their company Higher Ground Productions. It released in March 2020 on Netflix exclusively. It’s about a camp for disabled people. And how the campers went on to campaign for disability rights in America. This poster that will be seen widely by the audience gives a light and happy tone, which helps sell the documentary well. 

The film’s title is displayed prominently, and it gives a very clear message. ‘Crip Camp: A disability revolution’ tells the audience both of the main themes of the documentary: being at Camp Jened then onto the civil rights movement. This title makes it clear, so it’s easier to get into the film, and has the famous producer’s names above. The Obama’s association with progress during the presidency can massively help sell the film, because it covers similar issues that the Obama’s fans will be interested in and passionate about. The design also shows the happy and uplifting feel the film has, marketing well matched for the content. 

A large number of written interviews with the filmmakers were published online, some being sites with large audiences such as IndieWire, Deadline and Slate. The directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht were emailed for IndieWire where their discussion focuses a lot on the emotional story behind the film, and how they tired to engage the audience. They say they tried to use proven entertainment formulas to sell the film to a wide audience, not just the disabled audience. This interview as a piece of marketing works well, because it tells the viewer that there was a specific aim to get them to watch the film, everyone is explicitly catered to which can warm them to the subject matter. There is empathy created by the filmmaker James, because he talks about his own issues with disability, giving emotional links for the audience with the interview and film subject.  

For ‘Crip Camp’ there were also many podcast interviews and video interviews done. Barack Obama was the moderator for the interview on the Netflix Film Club YouTube channel. This celebrity presence in the marketing will be a good draw for an audience, and will help to spread the video through word of mouth and sharing online virally. The Obama interview has 8.4K views, a large amount compared to other interviews, so this shows marketing with well-known figures helps distribute it to new viewers. The BFI interview has 1.2K views, likely because it doesn’t included well known people, and it focuses on a more in-depth look which wont capture as wide an audience as the viral videos have. The podcasts interviews have a smaller listener number anyway because of the format, but some were with popular sites like The Washington Post. This is a minority of the marketing, but is to a wider scope than other documentaries that didn’t include as many types of media in their campaigns.  

The trailer on Netflix’s YouTube page for ‘Crip Camp’ has 651K views, by far the largest number for these documentaries overall. There are lots of reasons why this trailer, and also official clip, have been widely seen online. The Netflix name is a good selling point, for brand recognition and also because the reach and access of the home streaming service. During the 2020-2021 pandemic Netflix is a popular viewing platform for those who want to stay home, or during theatre closures. A happy tone and upbeat music play throughout the trailer, and it is both emotionally uplifting, and positive. It begins with a comical clip of the campers joking, a good hook for the YouTube viewer to be hooked into the rest of the trailer. This marketing is successful because it brings a very happy vibe which immediately makes people associate the documentary with that good feeling.  

The Mole Agent 

This is a Chilean documentary from September 2020. Its about a man who goes undercover within a nursing home to spy on someone who the client believes is being mistreated. Although this deals with the potential of people being abused, it has a comical and light-hearted seeming poster.  

At first appearance, this could easily be a poster for a fictional spy film. It has a stylish design with the exaggerated eye that maybe intended humour. The two men on the poster are also in exaggerated positions, they are playing up their real life personalities in a fictionalized way. This is marketed in this way, like it’s a narrative movie, because the audience is familiar with this popular style. The text used for the title is a ‘noir’ style, further fitting with the genre. I don’t believe this marketing fits the actual tone of the film in a very honest way. The documentary actually contains a more sombre, and deeply emotional tone, themes of old age and loneliness aren’t seen on this poster. It’s marketed in a somewhat mismatched way for a poster, unrelated to the actual themes. 

This film did not receive a very large media marketing campaign compared to others, because it’s a non-western film, with a smaller budget. The interviews with Deadline and The Guardian were high profile publications, but other interviews weren’t very visible online from a search of the films title. The Director, Maite Albberdi talks about how she was involved in the events to make for a better documentary. Although there was a real investigation, the director pushed to hire Sergio. This was so the film would have a charming and humorous main character. This interview works in some ways as marketing, because it gives interesting behind-the-scenes information about how it was designed to be better for the audience. The way in which it doesn’t work is in revealing that the events of the documentary aren’t organic. A documentary viewer may be turned off from the film if events were manipulated and fabricated in this way. This Guardian article mentions how the start of the film uses high contrast, to muddy the line between fictional Noir and documentary, which may be a detriment in marketing to non-fiction fans.  

None of the video marketing has been very successful based on the amount of views the videos have received on YouTube. A reason could be the target audience of YouTube’s average viewer, in opposition to the target audience of ‘The Mole Agent’. The documentary is centred around the older generation, and a nursing home. Both of these points gear it to an older viewership, a smaller amount in general for film viewers. The viral nature of the platforms means these interviews haven’t gained much traction, for the content that could be considered boring or uncomfortable for youth.  

The style of the trailers themselves is in line with the poster, presenting itself as a classic spy film. The official trailer on Dogwoof’s channel gained 69K views, a high amount for this type of documentary. This is because it’s marketed very similarly to fiction, done to attract the audience of that genre. The mysterious music used gives a sense of intrigue, making a viewer want to find out more information that is left out. The title card flashed up in the trailer of ‘One Mission’ is similar to that used in Hollywood films also, it gives an additional sense of drama. These marketing materials for ‘The Mole Agent’ are successful in themselves, but upon viewing the film leaves behind this whole tone, replaced by a serious look at life in the nursing home. It could give a vague, or mixed message, when viewed with the official clip on Dogwoof channel, because this shows Sergio trying to use a phone in a slow-paced clip without much style. This clip got slightly over 700 views, maybe because of the confusing tone shift across marketing.   

Lessons learned from these marketing campaigns 

One lesson that can be learned from how to market a film using its poster, is matching it accurately to the film’s content for a clear message. The examples of My Octopus Teacher and Crip Camp give clear messages of the main subject through the image and title. They also represent the emotional tone well.  

Collective and The Mole Agent are presented through posters like narrative films, taking creative license with the representative of real-world events. The other example, Time, shows a much happier tone and romantic image, which doesn’t match the bleak tone of the film. These mismatches across the marketing can be confusing for an audience when they are in conflict with another piece of marketing, mostly interviews. Additionally, Time’s poster was black and white plain text, less eye-catching or visually pleasing when compared with My Octopus Teacher’s poster with visual depth. It’s important for a poster to have high visual appeal and marketers can learn from the successes of some shown here. 

A marketing lesson from the films Collective and The Mole Agent is in how they used features of narrative film marketing in their trailers too. Tropes and techniques are used as they would be for fiction, so it helps attract the same audience.  As it’s a larger audience than the one for documentaries, these trailers have benefited in YouTube views. Both their style, and format of trailer, appear similar to fiction which is successful at first, but another lesson from it is the confusing tone shift for viewers, between the very serious interviews and the documentary itself.  

Another thing learned from these films is not to name the title a common word. This would make the film hard for audiences to find online, such as ‘Time’ and ‘Collective’ having many unrelated results because of the common words. The other three films discussed do a good job of having a unique title, all displayed prominently on their own posters. A title like this makes all interviews and trailers more accessible through word-of-mouth. 

Although some of the written interviews published online didn’t flow with the other marketing, they can teach lessons about audience appeal and relevant content for current trends. Current global trends are talked about when directors talk about their intentions behind the films. With My Octopus teacher it’s environmental conservation, with Time it’s civil rights for minorities. These issues attract a socially minded audience, and the interviews have a wide viral appeal because of the social trends. They can be marketed as an ethically good documentary, with educational value.  

A lesson learned is that interviews with smaller and niche publications don’t always reach a large audience, compared to a few with big publications. For example, My Octopus Teacher did interviews with YouTube channels and magazines centred around science, nature and environmental issues. These have appeal to a very small portion of the general audience, so this marketing won’t be widely seen, only by those already invested in this interest. Crip Camp was able to do a large amount of interviews overall, but with magazines well known amongst film fans and also general audiences. IndieWire, Deadline and Slate had Crip Camp interviews, so this gave the film a wide reach of Netflix views, and a good lesson for marketers to use viral type sites as advertising.    

One good lesson that can be learned from these film’s marketing, is having personal and emotional messages to draw in the audience. With Crip Camp, the interviews focus on the director’s personal story, so this marketing has strong emotions, it makes people relate and feel an emotional connection to the film. It can make people want to watch, compared to certain other interviews focusing on technical details. Some interviews for My Octopus Teacher focused heavily on filming technique, a topic that can be hard to understand or just uninteresting because its technical for most readers. The lesson learned may be keeping with the director’s emotions towards their subject, such as in other interviews for the same film where passion for nature is discussed instead.   

Another thing that could be learned for marketers is about the overall tone of the subject compared to its marketing material, and if it can appeal to a casual moviegoer as entertainment instead of only a dedicated documentary and academic audience. The overall topics in Collective and Time, although they are powerful stories and documentaries, are off-putting subjects for a more causal viewer. This is not fully reflected in trailers and the discussed posters. Collective’s trailer puts more focus on the sections aside from medical details, leaving out scenes of gruesome things from their trailers. This omission is because they don’t want to be off putting to potential viewers, and have a less upsetting tone. The same is done with Time, where the trailer leaves out details of the crimes of armed robbery, a detail that again could turn the audience off from the documentary. These types of marketing present a more digestible version of events for the benefit of wider appeal.  

One of the biggest draws for Crip Camp is the celebrity producers, and the name recognition they can bring. There’s a clear lesson in how the involvement of the Obamas led to a much higher number of YouTube views than the videos without them in. We can see how their involvement drew the audience, compared with the other nominated films, and also other marketing for Crip Camp that had a smaller reach overall. Celebrity endorsement also gives higher prestige to the film, in terms of its recognition.  

Written by April Simpson

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