Why IFC Films’ Boyhood Will Win Best Picture*

Each year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences throws a little party. At first glance, the Academy Awards ceremony, better known as the Oscars, is all glamour, politeness, and gratitude. Behind the scenes, the battle between movie studios in the year leading up to the big event can be as bloody as an episode of Game of Thrones. So, why exactly do film studios covet these tiny gold men with such fervor?

Last year’s broadcast earned ABC the Oscars’ best ratings in 14 years, attracting 43.7 million viewers in the United States alone. (Some have speculated that viewership nears 1 billion globally, but that figure has come under some scrutiny in recent years. Whatever the exact number, a whole lot of folks around the world tune in on Oscar night.) So, the film that wins the most awards in the most important and competitive categories then goes on to enjoy the “Oscar bump,” equalling more tickets and DVDs sold, more money, more attention, and the prestige that can earn a legacy of viewers that lasts decades. In short: it’s a pretty big deal.

This year, the big surprise and exception to the usual Oscar madness is the organic, authentic groundswell surrounding a small, passion project produced by an independent studio with a decidedly more elegant strategy to woo voters. [Full disclosure: IFC Films is a ZEFR client.] That film is Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater, filmed over the course of 12 years, starring Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and newcomer Ellar Coltrane as the boy we watch mature before our very eyes.

ZEFR Insights spoke with IFC Films Director of Digital Marketing Steven Cardwell about Boyhood’s unique Oscar campaign on YouTube, how to preserve the integrity of a beloved film during a competitive awards season, and how the IFC Films strategy might just help Boyhood bring home that coveted Best Picture statue and all the glory that goes along with it.

ZEFR Insights: Ten-minute long, behind-the-scenes featurettes on YouTube do not normally attract the impressive amount of views that IFC Films has for Boyhood. What inspired the decision to upload it to the platform and who do you hope is watching it, especially considering Academy voters are notoriously “older” and YouTube viewers tend to be younger?

Steven Cardwell: We knew there was such a compelling story behind the making of Boyhood, and we wanted to create a piece that could live on its own, and actually be a piece of content people would seek out, to get a peek behind-the-scenes of the 12-year process. What we found was that after people saw this piece, a flood of emotions came rushing back, similar to how they felt after seeing the film. Entertainment and news outlets (USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, etc.) were quick to pick it up and ran very compelling think-pieces around the featurette which we’ve never seen before. We knew that if we were able to get back into the cultural conversation, with tons of views on the video, we’d eventually reach Oscar voters. Because our film came out way ahead of the awards crop (and even earlier when you think about the premiere at Sundance last January) we had a lot of noise to compete with during the fall awards season.

We knew that if we were able to get back into the cultural conversation, with tons of views on the video, we’d eventually reach Oscar voters.

ZEFR: In terms of an “Oscar campaign,” no studio wants to be overly ambitious and come out looking as if they are too eager to be praised, but to win Best Picture is obviously one of the most effective ways to get a film seen now and for years to come. How do you balance the idea of essentially advertising specifically to a voter (or even filmgoers) about being nominated without losing the integrity of the work of art, especially with a small, passion project such as Boyhood?

SC: The film really speaks for itself. You can try to manufacture a campaign, but few rarely succeed at that route. With the critical success of Boyhood, we saw that the film had struck a chord with people due to its universal themes. After all, everyone has a childhood; everyone has parents. And lots of people are parents, too. The beauty of Boyhood is that it speaks to different people in different ways. In the same regard, I know watching this film 12 years from now will be a completely different experience than it was for me when I saw it a year ago.


ZEFR: Do you monitor the comments beneath the clips you upload? Beneath the featurette, for example, there are YouTube users who are sharing some truly emotional responses. Forgetting Oscar voters for a minute: Are these the people you hope to reach and what led you to this pre-Oscar YouTube campaign? What do you do with those insights, or hope they do for Boyhood?

SC: I love reading the comments and I am a big believer of digging deep into insights because there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained if you really take time to look under the hood. In reading the comments on the videos, I was very interested in seeing how Boyhood affected people in different ways. When we premiered the film at Sundance, a 19-year-old kid stood up, in near tears, telling us he’d just watched a movie about him–his life. But then parents, teachers, grandparents–you name it–all began to echo the same sentiment. It was really remarkable to see how unique the film could be, depending on the lens in which you viewed it through. I think social media played a huge role in helping us reach a younger demographic, one who might not have been too interested in an “art-house” film with a run-time of nearly three hours, that didn’t have huge explosions or really any big plot. But the organic conversation took off and it would never have reached the level of success it did without the impact–and aid–of social media.

The organic conversation took off and it would never have reached the level of success it did without the impact–and aid–of social media.

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ZEFR: You’ve also uploaded a music video for the song “Hero” by Family of the Year. Of course, in terms of content, music is one of the most-watched categories on the YouTube platform. Is this a strategy IFC plans to continue using to help bring attention to a film?

SC: It’s a funny story about “Hero.” The director Richard Linklater had a few “music consultants” on the film (mostly interns) who helped give input on “the songs of the moment.” Family of the Year was a relatively unknown band (and on the near brink of poverty) but the intern had just discovered them (and even helped him get over a breakup!) We knew that was going to be the song for the trailer once we heard it in the film and doing a remake of the music video made sense since it felt like such an integral part of the film. It was also another opportunity for us to put out a piece of content to get people talking about it around the DVD release.

ZEFR: IFC Films has also updated the trailer for Two Days, One Night on YouTube, indicating it too is a nominee (Best Actress, Marion Cotillard) that also includes a title-card advertisement for Boyhood. What drives the decision to cross-promote related footage (in this case, two Oscar nominees) and not upset the viewer who came to see a particular video?

SC: We took advantage of the opportunity to push an awards message to people viewing our other content on YouTube. It’s a great way to remind people who were seeing our other videos that we are the studio behind Boyhood.

ZEFR: In what other ways, beyond Oscar season, does IFC hope to achieve with their YouTube strategy? We mentioned music is a giant on the platform, but so are films and film trailers. How does IFC hope to innovate and utilize the social aspect of YouTube to generate attention toward its films year-round?

SC: We release, on average, around 50 to 60 films per year across our three distribution labels (IFC Films, Sundance Selects, and IFC Midnight). As such, we have a lot of video content: trailers, clips, featurettes, and even music videos! Having a smart video/asset distribution strategy is integral to our success. We’ve been successful at finding new audiences by cross-promoting our content. So much of our business is in the digital realm. We were the distributor that pioneered the day-and-date release model (when our films are released in theaters and On Demand at the same time), giving art-house fans all over the country the ability to watch indie films that might not otherwise reach them theatrically. YouTube has been a huge marketing tool for us in that regard.


*Disclaimer: ZEFR recognizes anything can happen and wishes all of the nominees the best of luck.


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