'12 Years A Slave' Telling Voters "It's Time" – But How Will It Resonate?

By Pete Hammond, Deadline.com

"It's Time".

That's the message seen for the past few weeks on the 12 Years A Slave billboard as you drive on to the 20th Century Fox lot. And since the film earned nine Oscar nominations it has frequently been the slogan of choice for the Fox Searchlight contender in  newspaper and television ads.  A highly emotional close-up of star Chiwetel Ejiofor as the man forced into slavery and just two words to accompany it: "It's Time".

So is it resonating with voters? Are they paying attention? And how do you interpret the message, clearly aimed at Academy voters, that the studio is trying to send for its Best Picture nominee?

It's Time for a serious film about slavery to win Best Picture?

It's Time for any film about the black experience to win Best Picture?

It's Time for a film with a largely black cast, theme, black director and screenwriter to win?

It's Time those Academy members who have resisted seeing it, because they think it's too brutal, stick their screener in their DVD player and watch.

Whichever way you look at it, it's an effective and simple way of getting the film's message across. Two words, that's all.

The ad not only can be interpreted as shining a light on a very dark period in American history, it also shines a light on the Academy's fairly dismal record of awarding its top honor to any movie about the black experience. In fact there has been only one Best Picture winner in the 85 years the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars that even remotely qualifies in this regard. In 1968, In The Heat Of The Night , a murder mystery set against the racial divide in a small Southern town, won Best Picture and four other Oscars just a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King (the ceremony was even postponed two days out of respect). The votes were in before the King assassination, but it seemed then that "It's Time" would have been an appropriate way to describe that victory. However, outside of lead actor Sidney Poitier — who also co-starred in another racially themed Best Pic nominee that year, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner —  this movie  featured a largely white cast, white producer, screenwriter and director (Norman Jewison).

12 Years A Slave makes a much bigger statement: The film has been honored widely with Best Picture awards from the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Movie Awards, the Producers Guild (in a tie with Gravity), and most recently BAFTA, but the victories have been narrow (it went 1 for 7 at the Globes, 2 for 10 at BAFTA and 3 for 13 at the CCMAs). Co-producer/director Steve McQueen has made impassioned speeches at all of them, though apparently it's not time for a black director to win as he has lost consistently to Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron in that category at most precursor awards (ironically, there was a Picture/Director split the year of In The Heat Of The Night, with The Graduate's Mike Nichols winning the directing awards over Heat's Jewison).

The bigger question now is how effective this new ad strategy will be. For those voters who are even paying attention to this award season's onslaught of advertising (and most of the contenders have been adopting slogans, from Nebraska's "Dream Big" to The Wolf Of Wall Street's "The Movie Of Our Time" to Philomena's "The Most Loved Movie Of The Year") will they respond to 12 Years A Slave's two little words, even subconsciously? Or do they rebel against any overt suggestion that "it's time" for anything but what they personally believe is the Best Picture of the Year? After all, voters might believe "it's time" for a science fiction film to finally win Best Picture and vote for Gravity. Or they might feel "it's time" for David O. Russell and vote for American Hustle after Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter brought him so close in recent years. Or maybe "it's time" for a movie about older people, so they vote for Nebraska. After all a lot of Oscar voters are old. Younger members might feel "it's time" for a love story between a guy and his mobile device to win and vote for Her. 

12 Years A Slave  is undeniably an important film and that seems to me the key overall message Searchlight is sending. And they are trying to keep it pertinent to these times. Even though the film is about a specific story set in the mid-1800′s slave-trading in many forms continues to this day. 12 Years A Slave is trying to spark discussion about that  too.  Today the studio even sent a media alert that the movie will have a special screening Febraury 26th (the day after Oscar voting ends)  at the United Nations Headquarters  in New York , followed by an address by McQueen to the United Nations diplomatic community . The director recently met with United States U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power  and has become a patron of the Organization 'Anti-Slavery International'. The release says the event is part of the activities for the Commemoration of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

This kind of thing isn't new. Every year many Best Picture contenders try to raise the level of discourse. Just look at what Philomena has done for issues about the Catholic church and opening up information about adoptions.  The real Philomena Lee and the film's Oscar-nominated Steve Coogan even met with the Pope and had a photo opp and Vatican screening for God's sake! I recall in 2009 the once consumer-driven Joe Popcorn-style campaigns for the top contenders Avatar, The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds turned very serious as final voting approached. Avatar's campaign started stressing its environmental credentials. Locker, sold more as an action war film on initial release, started putting its filmmakers on panels with experts exploring the effects of the Iraq War. Basterds replaced the swastika on its ads with a Star Of David and screened at the Museum Of Tolerance.

In the past three years, the Best Picture winner has strayed from heavyweight issues with the likes of The King's Speech, The Artist and Argo triumphing. So is it time  for 12 Years A Slave to bring back a social conscience? Guess we will find out the answer to that March 2nd when that final envelope is opened at the 86th annual Academy Awards. Right now though It's Time to vote, Academy members. And in this incredibly tight and competitive year it will be interesting to see what message you send.