February is a packed month for digital advertising. It not only encompasses the Super Bowl, but the Academy Awards and Valentine’s Day as well, making advertisers spring into action to get their message across. We’ve got our eye on the six studios whose films made it to the coveted Best Picture list this year, and the diverse ways in which they ran their digital ad campaigns.
And the Oscar goes to…
Netflix: Low Ad Budget, High ROI
Netflix is a fascinating example of a brand that is constantly adapting their business model and marketing strategies. The company received little acclaim for original motion pictures until 2014’s
“The Square” received a Best Documentary nomination. Fast-forward to 2020, when Netflix racked up 24 nominations, more than any other studio.
Two of those 24 were Best Picture nominations for “The Irishman'' and “Marriage Story.” Netflix adopted different digital approaches for each film, investing 796,000 ad dollars in “The Irishman '' and $433,100 in “Marriage Story” between August 1 and January 30.*
Ads for both films were placed heavily on entertainment sites in addition to the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times websites. The top site for the “The Irishman,” however, was CNN.com, perhaps indicating Netflix’s desire to promote the film to a massive audience regardless of their Academy membership status. “Marriage Story” ads were predominately display (62% desktop display and 35% mobile display), while “The Irishman’s” top formats were 31% desktop display and 53% desktop video.
Sony: A Tale of Two Films
Sony Pictures also has two films in the Best Picture category this year, and they couldn’t be more different from each other. Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” was a surprise summer blockbuster amid the influx of Star Wars, and Marvel hits. “Little Women,” the first major-studio film from Oscar-nominated director Greta Gerwig, is the only female-directed film to be nominated for Best Picture this year.
“Once Upon a Time” was released theatrically on July 26 and had made it to DVD and Blu-Ray before the Oscars votes were even due. To keep buzz strong and secure nominations, Sony spent $2.6M on digital. The dominant format at the start of the campaign was desktop video, which accounted for $1.3M in August alone, but by January Sony expanded their ads to Facebook and desktop display to get the word out.
“Little Women,” which was released on Christmas Day, had almost an identical digital ad budget during the same exact time period: $2.3M. Desktop video spiked in December with a $1.5M budget allocation and 72M impressions.
New Disney Subsidiaries Race Ahead
Fox Searchlight (now Searchlight Pictures) has won Best Picture four times since 2009. This year their entry, “Jojo Rabbit,” is a dark comedy whose digital ad breakdown mirrors that of Sony’s films: $2.4M in the past six months, with desktop video dominating at $2.1M of that total and peaking at 50M impressions in November.
Searchlight’s sister studio, 20th Century Fox, also had a name change due to the Disney acquisition: they are now 20th Century Studios. Their film “Ford v Ferrari” has the largest digital ad budget of all the Best Picture nominees. At $5.3M since August, it also shows a more equitable mix of ad formats. Desktop video tops out at 50% ($2.7M), with significant spend on desktop display, Twitter, and Facebook. Of note: their impressions across formats are divided more equitably than the spend across formats (see chart below), and the top publisher was ESPN.com, which is also owned by Disney and was likely selected for its popularity with car racing fans.
Social Media Plays a Leading Role for Universal and Neon
“1917,” released by Universal Pictures on Christmas Day, is a cinematic curiosity due to its real-time timeline and the cinematography that makes the entire film appear to be a single shot. It’s also one of only two Best Picture nominees buying a substantial amount of social media ads, despite Fortune magazine’s prediction that social media marketing would reach an all-time high for this year’s Oscars. Universal spent $1.8M on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter ads in December and January alone; this was more than half of their total $3.4M budget.
“Parasite” is unique in that it is also nominated in the Best International Feature Film category. This does not happen often, though it did happen last year with “Roma.” Indie studio Neon distributed “Parasite” in the US. Like “1917,” “Parasite” was promoted heavily via social media ads, although Facebook was not among their platforms of choice. Twitter received $498,000 of “Parasite’s” $1.3M digital budget, and YouTube collected $590,400.
Warner Brothers’ Unlikely Hero
The Best Picture shocker this year is Warner Brothers’ “Joker,” which had the lowest digital ad budget out of all Best Picture nominees from major studios. At only $1.6M, spend reached an all-time high in September (a month before the film came out) and didn’t come anywhere near those numbers again. It’s likely that Warner Brothers assumed “Joker” had no shot at a Best Picture nomination, both because it is a comic book movie and because reviews of the film were divisive, to say the least. Indeed, at the same time Warner Brothers was tabling “Joker” ads they were investing in ads for “Just Mercy,” which had a similar total ad budget and which saw a huge uptick in desktop video in December. “Just Mercy” did not receive a single Oscar nomination in any category.
While we can’t tell you who will take home the Oscar statuette this year, we can give you insight into the ways hundreds of brands purchase digital ads. Whether it be movie studios marketing their films during awards season or brands marketing goods and services across the B2B, B2C, or D2C landscapes, Pathmatics Explorer gives you insight into the spending habits of hundreds of companies across every vertical market. Schedule a custom insights session to see how advertising data can inform your company’s decisions.
*Unless otherwise stated, all budgets mentioned here reflect the time period between August 1, 2019 and January 30, 2020.
With over a decade of experience across digital marketing, content, creative, and PR, Sarah is a creative and dynamic thinker who loves to delight clients with unique and relatable content. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Sociology.