At the Oscars, the fresh-faced stars of the Irish movie Once seemed as if they had just rolled into Hollywood straight from busking on a Dublin street-corner. Hardly.
Glen Hansard, 37, lead singer of the Irish rock band The Frames, and Marketa Irglova, 19, a Czech singer and pianist, play struggling artists in director John Carney's romantic musical, which won the best song category for the ballad "Falling Slowly." The Oscar was the capstone of a long journey that started with a tiny movie that was made for $150,000 on the streets of Dublin and propelled by clever, slow-build marketing that relied on Hansard and Irglova's strengths as live performers.
Whether Once won the Oscar or not, the record label was prepared to get a significant sales bump from the telecast. Hansard and Irglova's stripped-down, honest performance stood in stark contrast to the glitzier production numbers of the other nominees. When Irglova had the unprecedented experience of getting a second shot at an Oscar acceptance speech after the orchestra played her offstage, she expressed something rare in Hollywood sincere gratitude. "This is such a big deal," said Irglova, the only woman in the Kodak Theater who appeared to have gotten ready without the help of a staff of 12. "Not only for us, but for all other independent musicians and artists that spend most of their time struggling. The fact that we're standing here tonight, it's just to prove no matter how far out your dreams are, it's possible."
The duo, who have performed in relative obscurity under the name The Swell Season since 2006, now have an Oscar and a Grammy. Once is the best-selling album on iTunes and the #9 DVD on Amazon. Their label expects sales of the album to triple in the next week. The pair is gearing up for a U.S. tour: Instead of the 75-seat clubs and bars The Swell Season played last year, they'll be headlining venues like Radio City Music Hall and the Coachella Music Festival. There was one other blessing the film wrought Hansard and Irglova fell in love while promoting Once last spring.
"They're a great story," says Steve Feldstein, a spokesman for Fox Home Entertainment, which released Once on DVD in December and expects to see a spike in sales at retailers mimicking the movie's ascent on Amazon. "There's nothing quite like the Oscars as a promotional vehicle. Their performance was wonderful. Their speeches were honest and fresh."
Fox Searchlight launched the film in limited theatrical release in May with a 16-city bus tour. Screening the movie for local press and closing with live Swell Season performances, the tour built on the goodwill the film had established with critics at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
In the fall, when Once was still in theaters, the Swell Season's record label launched another tour that rolled into Once's DVD release in December. "The film drove the album from the beginning," says Jack Hedges, marketing manager for Canvasback Music, the Sony BMG imprint that released the album. "But unlike most soundtracks, we had living, breathing musicians. These weren't actors who were singing songs." Rather than utilizing Top 40 radio or expensive TV ads, the label relied on the old-school marketing techniques of touring and press to sell their way to a gold record.
As Hansard and Irglova ran the backstage gauntlet of photographers and press after their Oscar win, Hansard revealed how he knew times were changing: "Getting a text from Bono is the biggest thing that can happen to an Irishman," he said. "It was one of those moments, getting praise from the high chieftain of our culture."