By conventional Hollywood standards, "Get Out" shouldn't be an Oscar darling. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is usually averse to horror movies, and almost never rewards films that come out early in the year. What's more, the academy typically favors industry stalwarts, not first-time filmmakers like writer-director Jordan Peele.
But "Get Out" broke all the rules, earning four nominations including best picture, best director and best original screenplay, marking another twist in a highly unusual yearlong path from last year's Sundance Film Festival to the Oscars red carpet. The movie is the first February release to earn a best picture nomination since "The Silence of the Lambs" won the top prize in 1992.
The unexpected success of the $4.5-million socially conscious thriller, released by Universal Pictures, is more than just a quirky Hollywood anomaly. It serves as a reminder that studios, even in a seemingly ossified system, can find success by betting on fresh talent and edgy ideas that connect with audiences.
"Get Out," about a young black man who visits his white girlfriend's parents and is ensnared in a terrifying plot, has benefited from a wave of cultural momentum behind its satirical take on race in America. The movie became a surprise hit, grossing about $255 million at the worldwide box office, and continued to resonate with audiences during news cycles about the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and athletes protesting during the national anthem. Now it has a decent shot at the business' top honor, which will bring a big boost of prestige to the winning studio and filmmakers.
"It's the wildest dream that has become a reality," said Peele in an interview. "There were so many stigmas around this movie that I assumed would keep it from being nominated — the horror stigma, the stigma about movies earlier in the season, and the stigma around some of the imagery in this movie."
The journey of "Get Out" illustrates the challenge of campaigning for a movie that hit theaters more than a year before the ceremony.
A year ago, Comcast-owned Universal had successfully sold "Get Out" to audiences as a high-concept scary movie, spending tens of millions to make the film a commercial winner. But when awards season began in the fall, the studio had to remarket the film in a way that would get the academy's notoriously older and whiter demographic to take it seriously.
Even getting horror-averse voters to see "Get Out" was a formidable undertaking, said Jason Blum, one of the films' producers.
"It was very, very challenging getting eyes on the movie from members of the academy," Blum said in his Los Angeles office. "I would be surprised if more than 20% of academy members had seen the movie by the end of August."
The critical response and the social impact gave the studio the confidence to put the muscle of a full-fledged awards campaign behind the movie, said Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Pictures. Universal declined to say how much the studio spent on the campaign to target academy voters. However, studios typically spend $4 million to $5 million for a robust rollout, which includes spending on television ads, billboards, screenings and flying filmmakers around the country to awards events.
"It became very clear that the narrative of the movie had evolved beyond a very satisfying genre film to a piece of cinema," Langley said. "We were able to pivot our marketing to do just that."
Whereas Universal's initial marketing focused on the movie's scary scenes, the Oscar campaign emphasized the reviews that praised its timely themes. Campaign billboards prominently featured a famous close-up up of the tear-streaked face of Daniel Kaluuya, who earned a best lead actor nomination for playing the main character Chris, with quotes from major publications about the film's relevance.
As part of the campaign, the studio made a coffee-table book featuring dozens of pieces of artwork that fans of the movie sent to Peele on social media. Audience members created art inspired by the film's imagery such as the deer antlers, the hypnotic teacup and Chris sinking into the floor.
To keep the buzz going, Universal in January created a special Twitter hashtag with a promotional emoji for "the sunken place," the film's best-known metaphor for the marginalization of black people.
"It's become a way for people to express that their voices are being suppressed," said "Get Out" producer Sean McKittrick.
It was never a sure thing that "Get Out" would be a success, financially or critically. When Peele gave McKittrick his 30-minute pitch over coffee at Fratelli Cafe on Melrose Avenue in 2013, he was known only for doing sketch comedy on "Mad TV" and Comedy Central's "Key and Peele." Nonetheless, McKittrick quickly agreed to make the film and have Peele write the script.
McKittrick saw "Get Out" as a chance to make a movie that had never been put on the big screen before, with its unusual mixture of scares, comedy and social commentary. The danger was that there were so many ways the project could go awry, given the sensitive subject matter. (The first scene is a "Halloween"-style suburban horror movie opening meant to echo the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin). So when Peele said he wanted to direct, McKittrick agreed.
"The tone was so tricky," McKittrick said. "It was such a delicate story that could veer too far into comedy, too far into horror, or too far into satire."
They shopped the movie to a handful of distributors, all of whom passed. When they were scouting locations and zeroing in on cast members, an assistant from Blum's production company Blumhouse heard Peele talking about the project in a radio interview. Blumhouse Productions, known for highly profitable microbudget horror hits such as "Sinister" and "The Purge," joined McKittrick's company QC Entertainment as producers in January 2015. Blumhouse has a distribution deal with Universal Pictures, which signed on to give "Get Out" a wide release.
The studio and filmmakers made key marketing decisions early on, preserving elements of mystery to intrigue moviegoers. For example, Peele objected to an early cut of the trailer that revealed a climactic twist involving a set of car keys, despite the studio's desire to showcase as many intense moments as possible. The studio relented, and the trailer, released in October 2016 at the tail end of a divisive election season, drew 29 million views in its first 24 hours. Keeping plot points under wraps helped ensure that people could watch the movie multiple times and have different experiences, Peele said.
"I believed this movie was a risk, and a risk with a lot of potential upside, but as long as we were taking that potential risk, let's build the movie so that the plot creates its own person-to-person marketing campaign," Peele said.
In another unusual tactic, Blum pushed for a premiere at Sundance, believing that a positive early response from critics would propel the movie at the box office. That idea could have backfired severely, because Universal had already set the film up for a wide release that was just weeks away. If the movie bombed with reviewers, there would be no time to change release plans.
"It was a risky thing to do because it's much harder to open to a general audience if you flop at Sundance," Blum said. "But it was a calculated risk. I thought it was unique enough and compelling enough that it would appeal to a festival audience."
That gamble paid off, too, with the movie earning a rare 100% Rotten Tomatoes score, giving the studio an early confidence boost.
"Get Out's" commercial fortunes were another sign that the movie was more than just a typical horror film. It opened with a solid $33 million and ranked No. 1 at the domestic box office. The next weekend, the movie collected an additional $28 million, a mere 15% decline from the prior week. Horror movies, as a rule, drop at least 50% in the second week after they open.
To build interest, the studio made sure to market the film to black moviegoers. The first trailer launched during the 2016 BET Hip Hop Awards, and Chance the Rapper hosted an early Q&A screening to promote the film and bought tickets for people in Chicago. "Get Out's" debut audience was 39% black, 36% white and 17% Latino.
A year later, "Get Out" is again in a familiar underdog position. In the race to the March 4 awards presentation, "Get Out" and Universal are facing heavy competition from 20th Century Fox's specialty film unit Fox Searchlight, which released two of the front-runners in the race — Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."
In order for "Get Out" to beat the odds again, the studio and filmmakers need to convince voters that this is the movie people will remember when they think about cinema in 2017.
"The movie keeps presenting itself in different ways that prove its relevancy," Langley said. "That critical mass is reached where it becomes something beyond a film. It becomes a cultural phenomenon, and that's what we've been experiencing since we released it."