The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King dominated the Academy Awards in 2004, and the story behind the film's Oscar campaign is a struggle almost as fascinating and unlikely as Frodo's trip to Mordor. When little-known director, Peter Jackson, decided to bring J. J. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings to the big screen in the new millennium, the task in front of him was nothing short of gargantuan. Backed by New Line Cinema, Jackson was given the scope and resources to make the trilogy he envisioned, and the first installment, 2001's The Fellowship of the Ring was duly recognized at the 74th Academy Awards with a massive 13 nominations.
However, Jackson's opening Middle earth gambit "only" picked up gongs in technical categories - music, makeup, cinematography and effects. This was not unusual for a fantasy movie. The merest sight of a goblin or broadsword usually had the Academy running for the exit when it came to the night's biggest awards and The Two Towers suffered a similar fate, nominated for 6 and winning in sound editing and visual effects.
When it came time to end the trilogy with The Return of the King, New Line Cinema were desperate to defy tradition and snag the top gongs, both as a tribute to the hard work that had gone into the groundbreaking trilogy, and as one final statement to solidify the franchise's success. The plan worked, and The Return of the King won each of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for, matching the record for most wins by a single film and earning the best nomination/win ratio in history.
No small amount of effort went into The Return of the King's Oscars campaign. According to a 10th anniversary report by Vanity Fair, New Line's then-President of Theatrical Marketing, Russell Schwartz, hired a specialist team consisting of PR experts, publicists and awards consultants from a variety of different demographics and openly told then "it'll be a disaster if we don't win this f**king thing." In all Oscar bids, a lot of politics and handshaking goes on behind the scenes before nominations and voting takes place, but New Line's campaign budget almost doubled between The Two Towers and Return of the King, rising to over $10 million.
One of the most interesting, and perhaps controversial tactics, used in Return of the King's Oscars campaign was pitching using the weight of the entire trilogy. Many in the movie business felt that The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers hadn't been given their due at the industry's top awards ceremony, mainly due to the dismissive attitude towards fantasy fare. Using this to their advantage, New Line's campaign ads referenced the achievements and impact of the entire trilogy, rather than just its final entry. Naturally, this play had its detractors, but driving home the epic, game-changing scale of the entire project helped to solidify The Lord of the Rings as a true cinematic feat worthy of an Oscar before it bowed out for good (sort of). This logic tracks, since The Return of the King is not unanimously considered by fans as the best entry in the trilogy, despite being the only one to win Best Picture.
To say this aggressive campaigning worked would be a huge understatement. In addition to the awards and smashed records, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King broke two Hollywood stigmas. It was the first fantasy film to win Best Picture, and the win also marked the first time in 2 decades the gong had gone to that year's highest grossing release. In a world where the Oscars are trying so hard to keep popular blockbusters away from the Best Picture award that they launch a misguided attempt at a brand new category for "popular" films, it's still astounding that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King achieved what it did at the 76th Academy Awards.
Source: Vanity Fair