A funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars. Jared Leto almost blew his position as the favorite to win the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. His moving performance as the AIDS-positive transgender Rayon in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB was racking up a lot of awards season wins. And going into the Golden Globes, he was not only a virtual lock for their award, but for the Oscar as well. But then he almost blew it by making some silly homophobic cracks about body hair removal when he won his Globe. Was his portrayal a truly sensitive work by a serious actor? Or was he a macho jerk merely playing ‘dress up’?
The press slammed him for his immature jokes and raised questions about his actual attitudes towards those who are transgender or those with AIDS. By the time his name was announced a short week later when he won the SAG Award for Best Supporting Actor, Leto had wisely cleaned up his act. This time, he gave a serious and eloquent speech that paid great heed to the themes of the movie - AIDS and discrimination. And he reassured his colleagues and the public that his reputation as a serious artist was deserved.
I believe the Oscar is now safely a lock again for him. But this story illustrates how tenuous an actor’s ‘brand’ can be, particularly during awards season. No actor ever just wins an Oscar because they did great work. They win for a number of reasons. One must give an acclaimed performance, yes, but a number of other factors can be just as crucial. Is it your time? Are you due? Are you likable? Does the choice seem serious or artistic? Do you take the craft seriously? Do you care about awards? These are all factors that influence voters, and Leto’s missteps in his first very public appearance as an award winner at the Globes, began to jeopardize his chances because he blew a number of such factors.
Sometimes celebrities forget their need to ‘sell the brand’. A movie and a career don’t just happen without marketing. And missteps in such marketing can be the difference between an Oscar winner and an Oscar also-ran. And no matter what the product is, can of soup or movie actor, the properties that make it distinct make it a brand. It’s the promise to the consumer to deliver the goods. If a brand does deliver on what’s it is supposed to do then chances are it will be successful. If Jared Leto breaks the ‘brand trust’ in regarding his performance in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, then maybe the Academy members won’t award him for it.
A brand’s promise is shaped by the brand’s nature, its capabilities, and its comparison to its competition. A brand can shift and adapt to a marketplace, but it never wants to be left in anything other than ship-shape. Otherwise, a brand can falter, be it Progresso or Leto. After all, everything has a certain ‘shelf life’, no?
Speaking of ships, let’s examine what happened to Robert Redford’s dashed Oscar hopes this year for his performance in the shipwreck film ALL IS LOST. Back in October, most pundits were predicting he’d win the Academy Award for it, let alone be nominated. His performance and the movie were getting a ton of press, accolades and attention. Redford was a beloved legend in the town, a leading man for over six decades, and the father of the independent film movement in America with his Sundance Institute and Film Festival. Surely, the Oscars would give this actor his due, as he’d never won an acting Oscar.
But then, there were no more rounds of press with Redford. No talk shows, no big interviews, nada. With many other movies opening featuring award-worthy lead male performances like that of Leonardo DiCaprio in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and Joaquin Phoenix in HER, Redford suddenly had new competition. And Lionsgate, the film’s distributor, didn’t push him out into the public. They failed to capitalize on the buzz by releasing the film on more screens.
Redford reckoned that all the branding mistakes made by Lionsgate contributed to him being passed over when the nominations were announced January 16. He said, "In our case, I think we suffered from little to no distribution. And so as a result, our distributors — I don't know why, they didn't want to spend the money, they were afraid, they were just incapable, I don't know."
If you’re not out there spending time and money on any brand, you can get lost in the shuffle. Even with a reputation like Redford’s as one of Hollywood’s biggest heavyweights, he was an afterthought for too many voters who were paying attention to newer films opening with full-court presses during the current rounds of press junkets.
The world of marketing is filled with such stories. From market leaders like 9-Lives losing their dominance due to dormant advertising for a decade, to Schlitz beer’s fall from grace when they cheapened their ingredients and the consuming public rejected the inferior recipe, to United pulling their “Rising” campaign in the 90’s because their airline experience was not rising above the competition.
How brands are presented can shape their future for the better or the worse. If Redford had been on more talk shows, he most likely would be in Oscar contention. If Leto had made more snarky gay jokes at SAG, he might have been perceived as someone unworthy of film’s highest honor. If Lindsay Lohan had concentrated on acting instead of partying, she may not now be slumming on a new reality show. How far the mighty can fall.