Oscars Final Word: What ‘Birdman,’ ‘Boyhood’ and ‘American Sniper’s’ Ads Are Saying

Top contenders are all reaching for a message that can resonate in the final week of voting

Last Updated: February 10, 2015 @ 2:18 PM

With one week to go in Oscar voting, it’s time to make a last impression.

So just as the top contenders do every February, this year’s Oscar-nominated movies are looking for a message that will resonate with voters as they cast their ballots – for the tagline and the image that’ll turn an undecided voter into a backer.

The final messages may not change many minds, but they’re a time-honored part of the Oscar campaign – and in a race as close as this year’s, if you can stick the landing, you could gain a crucial edge.

So what are the top contenders saying with their current trade ads and billboards in Los Angeles? We’ve looked at a few of the Oscar hopefuls, and tried to decode their messages. (Some of the Best Picture nominees haven’t really adjusted their campaigns, and aren’t included.)

“BOYHOOD”
Ad line: “One Family’s Life. Everyone’s Story.”
Message: “We’re the most universal of the nominees.”

After waging a quiet campaign for the last few months, “Boyhood” stepped up in phase two with new images and a new line emphasizing how everyone can relate to the family story. Rather than the shot of a young Ellar Coltrane lying in the grass, the new ads prominently feature Ellar and Lorelei Linklater in bed with their mother, Patricia Arquette, as well as other shots of family life.

The endgame campaign is clearly designed to play up the universality of the film, though some of the ads also drop in the line “Cinematic History 12 Years in the Making” to remind voters of how it was made. But the central thrust is clear: We’re not a movie about a singular math genius, or a crazy actor, or a lone serviceman. We’re a movie about you.

See video: Wrap Screening Series: ‘Boyhood’ Director Richard Linklater Clears Up ‘Misunderstanding’ of the Best Picture Oscar Nominee (Video)

Imitation Game ad“THE IMITATION GAME”
Ad line: “Honor the Man. Honor the Film.”
Message: “Don’t we owe Alan Turing an Oscar?”

The Weinstein Company, which has a long history of finding endgame messages that resonate, began laying the groundwork for this approach even before nominations, when the quotes in its ads suddenly shifted from praising the film to praising the importance of Alan Turing, the mathematician and codebreaker played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

The new ads take it one step further, playing up the injustices done to Turing, who was prosecuted for being gay even after helping win World War II for the Allies. And the tag line couldn’t be more blatant: If you want to help right the wrongs done to Turing, the way to salute him is to vote for the movie about him.

(Netflix is trying a spin on this in its ads for the documentary “Virunga,” in which its current tagline is “CONSIDER THIS: Only 880 mountain gorillas remain in the world.” In other words, we owe the gorillas an Oscar, too.)

Also read: ‘Virunga’ Is Netflix Documentary Gem: How Filmmakers Are Trying to Bring Down Big Oil

Birdman ad“BIRDMAN”
Ad line: “Risk. Above All.” And “Love. Above All.” And “Truth. Above All.”
Message: “Whatever you want us to be, we are.”

The tag lines used in Fox Searchlight’s most recent ads for the presumed frontrunner seem mutually contradictory: How can Alejandro G. Inarritu’s wild, black comedy be about risk above all and love above all, and truth above all? If it’s really above all, shouldn’t they have to pick just one?

Or you could say that the Risk ad is all about the filmmaking challenges undertaken by Inarritu in the way he created a movie that has the one continuous shot, and the Love ad is about the personal relationships at the heart of the movie, and the Truth ad is about the character’s inner struggle. The movie has become the frontrunner most likely because of the risks its creators took, but it can’t hurt to suggest that there’s more to it than daring filmmaking.

See video: Wrap Screening Series With ‘Birdman’s’ Michael Keaton: ‘We Knew We Were Onto Something Risky’ (Video)

American Sniper billboard

AMERICAN SNIPER”
Ad line: none
Message: “Whatever side of the controversy you’re on, we’re right with you.”

The endgame for “Sniper” isn’t much different from the initial ads, which are all based around images of Bradley Cooper, playing Chris Kyle, holding a rifle and looking down. But those images have always been among the most striking and effective of any contender – and crucially, they suggest a duality that is key to the film gaining widespread support among voters.

If you see Kyle as a hero, you can see in the photos the skilled, implacable and proud marksman who protected our freedom. If you see him as a victim of misguided U.S. policy, the fact that he’s always looking down means that you can read a hint of doubt and uncertainty in his manner. If you see him as altogether too eager a killer, his stance suggests that he’s bearing a burden that isn’t evident in Kyle’s book, and may or may not be there in Clint Eastwood‘s film.

You want moral ambiguity from Eastwood? One recent ad featured a prominent quote from the New Yorker’s David Denby above a shot of a pensive-looking Cooper: “‘American Sniper’ is both a devastating war movie and a devastating anti-war movie.”

Also read: Why ‘American Sniper’ Is Still Taking Fire: Awards, Box Office and the Real Chris Kyle

Selma ad“SELMA”
Ad line: “One Movie Makes You Stand Up and Cheer.”
Message: “We’re the kind of old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing movie that normally wins Oscars.”

If there’s something missing from this year’s race, it’s a triumphant, feel-good movie like “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist” and “Argo,” the films that have often won in recent years. “Selma” is too serious to be that, with unsettling echoes of current racial injustice – but the enormous victory of Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, and the eloquence of his speech when the march concludes, gives it the kind of rousing finale missing from its competitors (except maybe “Whiplash”).

So that’s what Paramount is focusing on in the final ads. With the controversy over the film’s depiction of LBJ largely played out and the perceived “snub” of Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo as constant subtext, it’s time to remind voters that it’s the only main competitor to end in a true blaze of glory.

Then again, some “Selma” ads also remind voters of the history: the laudatory quotes in last Sunday’s L.A. Times ad came not from film critics, but from congressmen and a former president.

See video: TheWrap Screening Series: ‘Selma’ Tackles ‘Timely’ Race Issues Say Cast, Director (Video)

Theory of Everything ad“THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING”
Ad line: “Consider Everything.”
Message: “We are large. We contain multitudes.”

Focus Features is sticking with a line they’ve been using for a while, which makes reference not only to Professor Stephen Hawking’s quest to find a unifying theory of the universe, but to the enormity of his struggle and the size of the film’s canvas.

Also read: Eddie Redmaybne Dedicates SAG Award to People Living With ALS

And since “Consider” is pretty much awards-season speak for “Vote for,” it also doubles as a pretty straightforward way of saying “Vote for us.”

Which, after all, is the real message of every ad for an Oscar contender these days.

Voting ends on Tuesday, Feb. 17, with the winners announced at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 22.

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