The marketing campaign that helped The Return of the King sweep the Oscars

Today’s Variety has an interesting article about how ten years ago The Return of the King was nominated for—and won—an astounding 11 Academy Awards.  Only two other films have won that many Oscars: Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997).  Even more significantly, The Return of the King was the first fantasy film ever to win Best Picture.

The Variety article, “11 Oscars to Rule Them All: An Oral History of The Return of the King‘s Best-Picture Win,” by Alex Suskind, chronicles the decision by New Line Cinema to launch an all-out campaign to win Oscar gold for the last film in its ambitious big-screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Suskind’s article fascinates me on all kinds of levels.  I’ve read the entire trilogy (and The Hobbit) many, many times since performing in a children’s play version of The Hobbit when I was in junior high.  When I mentioned at a cast reunion a year later that I’d enjoyed reading The Hobbit, older cast members pointed me toward The Lord of the Rings.  When the films came out I loved Peter Jackson’s dynamic retelling of Tolkien’s masterpiece (even though, grumble, I felt Jackson’s decision to omit the “The Scouring of the Shire” from The Return of the King ruined the trilogy’s structural symmetry and made the ending less than satisfying).

As a specialist in rhetoric, I’m intrigued by the extent of New Line’s marketing campaign to get Academy recognition.  And as a cinephile, I love reading people’s recollections in this article of what it was like to be at the 2004 Academy Awards and realize, award by award, that The Return of the King just might have a chance to win in every category.

Some of my favorite quotes from the article:

Laura Carrillo (senior vice president, creative advertising, New Line, in 2004): We had selected The Ant Farm to be the agency of choice for the entire trilogy, from audio through print. I think the flow you see within the ads comes from this agency being with us for five years as we developed the campaign.

Julian Hills (president of print advertising, The Ant Farm, in 2004):  If you look at the [campaigns for] Fellowship and The Two Towers . . . they are a bit all over the place. They will use a border for some, a different typeface for another––there is no real cohesive look to them. What we did for Return of the King, we created a look that was very specific. We created sort of a sub-brand. It was obviously Lord of the Rings, it was obviously Return of the King, but it was obviously the Academy campaign. When you looked at the Hollywood Reporter and you came to one of these ads, there was absolutely no doubt in your mind what you were looking at.

Russell Schwartz (president of theatrical marketing, New Line, in 2004): I remember the person who ended up winning for best foreign language film, the director just blurted out, “Thank God the Lord of the Rings was not in this category.”

Bob Shaye (co-C.E.O., New Line, in 2004): When Spielberg [presenting the award for Best Picture] said, “Let’s see what we got here,” and he slowly opened the Oscar envelope, and then with his inimitable dramatic pause looked up and said, “It’s a clean sweep,” that was pretty exciting.

David Tuckerman (domestic-distribution president, New Line, in 2004): We were all trying to figure out some way to celebrate this thing. I just sat there and said, “You know what? Let me find out how much it’s going to cost us to make a ring. Because it is Lord of the Rings.” And that’s what happened. We made 12 of those rings, and 12 people at New Line got them. It looks just like a Super Bowl ring, except it’s not as expensive.

With this year’s Academy Awards coming up Sunday night, it’s appropriate to remember the Oscars sweep that made it possible for genre films like Gravity and Her to be taken seriously as Best Picture contenders.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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