Andrea Riseborough and the Academy: Changes in the Oscar campaign
Oscar campaigns know the campaign rules and how to push them to their limits, but many Academy members don’t.
In the Academy’s Andrea Riseborough film, the loser is the actress herself. The towering 41-year-old British master (“Shadow Dancer,” “WE,” “Battle of the Sexes,” “Happy Go Lucky”) received an Oscar nomination for his commendable performance as a scrappy alcoholic. indie “To Leslie” (Momentum Pictures), but his name will also be remembered for his association with the grassroots awards show that subverted the traditional Oscar campaign process.
While some champion the underwhelming success of “To Leslie,” others decry the methods used to achieve it. So the Academy’s Board of Governors met this week via Zoom to discuss the process, a meeting that included such unhappy players as Whoopi Goldberg (co-star and producer of “Till,” which didn’t receive a nomination for Danielle Deadwyler), and Terilyn A. Shropshire (editing “The Woman King,” which didn’t feature SAG, Globe and CCA nominee Viola Davis).
Bill Kramer, the Academy’s CEO, came out with a quiet statement that while Riseborough could keep his nomination, the campaign rules needed to be further updated and clarified. “We have discovered social media and information campaign tactics that are cause for concern,” he said. “We deal directly with the responsible parties with these tactics.”
The Academy’s awards committee is meeting to figure out how to codify rule changes that will be presented to the board for approval. But let’s be clear: All Oscar campaigns and professional publicists in Hollywood are constantly breaking the Academy’s campaign rules. They know where the lines are and use clever methods to go straight to them, over them or around them.
Sending direct e-mails to members about a lecture is prohibited. Publicists are supposed to send invitations and the like through the Academy mailroom…but sometimes direct clients to reach out to friends on their own accounts for support while avoiding those they compete with. The idea is that your friends would never sell you.
“The rules are not that clear,” said one PR veteran. “It could be made clearer.” The Academy should be stricter. They need to make sure everyone at the Academy knows the rules from now on to avoid what happened in the past.”
The Academy does very little to enforce the rules that already exist. “The Academy doesn’t clap hands,” said a veteran Oscar strategist. “They don’t do anything to any of us. It’s an honor system.” The publicist said that they were last punished 23 years ago for sending out two DVDs for one film. Tickets were booked for the show: “I didn’t do any more.”
On the surface, “To Leslie” was not an Oscar contender. Not following the usual festival route to critical acclaim and awards, he premiered out of competition at SXSW last March. (He got it excellent reviews.) The film opened at the Monica Film Center on October 9, 2022, grossing $27,000 in its five-day theatrical run. Riseborough earned an Indie Spirit nomination in November, but did not receive any critical acclaim or SAG nominations.
UK Press via Getty Images
Riseborough’s grassroots campaign for “To Leslie” includes its director Michael Morris and his non-Academy wife, TV actress Mary McCormack (“In Plain Sight”), and Riseborough’s manager, Jason Weinberg, a former publicist. McCormack sent emails to support many Hollywood actors and got them: Charlize Theron held a screening at CAA in November, followed by private screenings at the homes of Edward Norton and Jennifer Aniston. Shelter PR joined Riseborough agency Narrative PR on the campaign. Together they compiled lists of actors for information.
Active Riseborough supporters flourished: tributes from Gwyneth Paltrow, Courteney Cox, Rosanna Arquette and Patricia Clarkson, as well as Susan Sarandon, Helen Hunt, Melanie Lynskey, Mira Sorvino, Minnie Driver and many more. Cate Blanchett also invited Riseborough at the Los Angeles Film Critics Dinner and the Critics Choice Awards.
It’s clear that the actors’ support was sincere and well-intentioned: they felt they were part of a cool movement, and Riseborough was genuinely admired. “When I saw him, his performance was depressing,” said Kate Winslet The Washington Post. “I wanted to support him. This is how we do it. In our industry, female actors are deeply supportive of each other, but it’s rarely written about. So there is nothing more wonderful than being able to shake hands with those you admire. We all look out for each other. It seems to be a surprise for people! Great work deserves recognition, that’s all.”
The film can be found on the Academy’s portal (price: $20,000). As the news spread, more and more actor-professionals watched it. With 218 being the magic number of votes for nomination, the viral reach of the Riseborough campaign was clearly there.
Private events are where the Riseborough campaign went wrong. Academy rules state: “Members may not be invited to, or participate in, dinners, luncheons or other similar events designed to promote an award-eligible film.” All meals should be “not excessive” and should be connected to a screening in the same place. McCormack and Morris hosted at least one non-screening event at their home.
Oscar campaigns may know the rules, but not all Academy members do. The Academy’s campaign rules are constantly changing; some are specific, others are more vague. Social media is the question on publicists’ minds. “How do you control society?” said one Oscar campaigner. “Social is open season. Tell all members of the Academy that they can’t promote anyone on social media? You saw a movie you liked and posted on Facebook or Twitter that you saw an amazing movie. It’s complicated.”
Frances Fisher has been constantly posting on Twitter and Instagram about Riseborough’s performance, including describing the Oscar voting process and urging people to vote for Riseborough because Davis, Deadwyler and the other contenders “it was closed”. Mentioning rival candidates is a big no-no.
With the March 12 Oscar show just weeks away, the last thing the Academy wants is another embarrassing scandal. They try to keep everything quiet and low-key in Riseborough. After all, the penultimate group to object are actors: the Academy needs them to attend the Oscars.
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