In the Oscars Homestretch, What Are the Ads Really Saying?

“The Power of the Dog,” “Belfast,” “CODA” and others are trying hard to make a last impression on voters

Has some imagination gone out of Oscar campaigning?

As online voting for the 94th Academy Awards begins on Thursday morning, it might be time to ask that question. There’s lots of money being spent on Oscar ads this year, lots of billboards and magazine ads and such, but nobody seems to be looking for that new image or tag line that will resonate in the homestretch of a long awards season.

In fact, pretty much all the ads we’re seeing in Phase 2 are just like the ads we saw in Phase 1: Images from the movies, copy touting all the other awards they’ve won and nominations they’ve received, and quotes from critics about how great the movies/performances are.

That wasn’t always the case. Films like “The King’s Speech” typically came up with new tag lines in the homestretch, and some have introduced memorable visuals as well. If you think back a few years, you might remember the giant billboard for “The Wolf of Wall Street” billboard on Sunset Blvd. that didn’t even include the name of the film, just a photo of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill and huge letters spelling out, “BECAUSE IT’S AWESOME.” Or you could recall the dazzling shot of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling standing with their backs to the camera looking out across Los Angeles, which occupied a striking and completely wordless “La La Land” billboard on a prime spot above the block that contains the Viper Room.

Coming up with that new pitch in an attempt to nail things down in the Oscars endgame is a time-honored tradition, but it seems to have fallen by the wayside this year. (And hey, maybe a strong endgame is overrated: After all, “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “La La Land” both lost.)

Still, we’ve perused the ads and listened to the speeches and driven Sunset to see the billboards — two dozen of which are now owned by Netflix, which has put multiple “The Power of the Dog” signs in all the key places. Here are our thoughts on the messages that are being sent by the top contenders in the home stretch this year.

The Power of the Dog ad
“The Power of the Dog” ad / Netflix

“The Power of the Dog”
Message: We’re No. 1.

Who needs a new message when the old one is working? Jane Campion’s Western has been near the top of Oscar-watchers’ rankings all season, and it’s the one film without any significant missteps to slow its momentum. (We don’t really count Campion’s ill-considered but certainly not ill-intended comments to the Williams sisters at the Critics Choice Awards as a misstep that could affect voting.)

So to counter the idea that “Power of the Dog” might be too divisive to win, Netflix is relying on all those other awards it has already won to make a pretty persuasive case (although it occasionally detours into a more elegant, allusive and haunting image of a candle, a shrine to the film’s unseen Bronco Henry character, and a man’s forearm). 

Kenneth Branagh on “Real Time With Bill Maher” / HBO

Message: It’s not just about Belfast.

The advertisements for Kenneth Branagh’s film haven’t changed substantially, but in recent weeks Branagh himself has been emphasizing not the film’s roots in his childhood memories of Belfast in 1969, but the universality of a story about violence between neighbors.

On “Real Time With Bill Maher” last Friday, he drew ties between the conflict that erupted in his hometown in 1969, pitting Protestants against Catholics, and the civil rights movement of that same decade in the United States. And in a taped message at the Producers Guild Awards the following night, he finished his speech with a line that could cover everything from divisions in the U.S. to the conflict in Ukraine: “Sadly,” he said, “there are many Belfasts.”

“CODA” ad / Apple

Message: Feel us, feel good.

The surprise winner of this year’s SAG Ensemble Award has one thing that distinguishes it in this dark and troubled year: It’s the most openly emotional and joyous of the major nominees. And as the SAG audience showed, it feels good to give awards to a scrappy underdog that came out of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and features a largely deaf cast. (A scrappy underdog, mind you, that landed the biggest deal in the history of Sundance and is now backed by Apple.)

So joy has been the keynote of the film’s Phase 2 campaign, which uses reviewers’ lines like “It’s impossible not to love,” “downright euphoric” and “an emotional powerhouse.” If voters are looking for a feel-good movie in feel-bad times, Apple is reminding people that this is the one.

Rita Moreno and Steven Spielberg at the Directors Guild Awards / Getty Images

“West Side Story”
Message: Don’t you love Steven and Rita?

Ariana DeBose is the film’s likeliest winner, and she’s featured front-and-center in most of the Phase 2 ads. But at awards shows and screenings, the attention invariably goes to director Steven Spielberg (the recent DGA Awards were essentially a four-hour Spielberg lovefest) and to actress and executive producer Rita Moreno (the only person who can upstage Spielberg by sitting next to him).

Venus and Serena Williams
Venus and Serena Williams at the Critics Choice Awards / Getty Images

“King Richard”
Message: Don’t you love Venus and Serena?

Almost every time Will Smith has won an acting award for playing Richard Williams in “King Richard” this season, he’s pointed out how thrilled he is to have done so in the company of Venus and/or Serena Williams, the tennis champions whose rise to glory is chronicled in the film. The Williams sisters are executive producers on the film in which Smith plays their father, and they’ve been very visible on the awards circuit, particularly in recent days.

And when those tennis icons are in the room, all attention goes to them and to the movie they represent: At the recent Critics Choice Awards, everybody knew who the biggest stars in the room were even before Jeremy Strong bowed down to them as he took the stage after “Succession” won. 

Endgame ad-campaign honorable mentions

  • To “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and “Spencer,” for stark and arty billboards that let voters fill in all the info themselves.
  • To the documentary short “Audible” (one of three Netflix nominees in the category), which gets a billboard of its own on a key stretch of the Sunset Strip between the Chateau Marmont and Crescent Heights Blvd., where Netflix is also advertising “The Power of the Dog,” “The Lost Daughter,” “The Hand of God” and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.” It’s definitely unusual for a short film to get a showcase on that stretch of prime real estate.  
  • To “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” which seems to have a more aggressive campaign than all the other animated feature nominees combined, with a variety of different messages: It’s the critics’ favorite, it’s the movie about family, it’s the movie that shows the joy of filmmaking…

These campaigns have another seven days to get their messages across: Oscar voting begins on Thursday morning and ends next Tuesday evening. We’ll know which films made the best last impression on March 27 at the Dolby Theatre.