In the Academy’s Andrea Riseborough fracas, the loser is the actress herself. The respected 41-year-old British thespian (“Shadow Dancer,” “W.E.,” “Battle of the Sexes,” “Happy Go Lucky”) earned an Oscar nomination for a lauded performance as a down-and-out alcoholic in scrappy indie “To Leslie” (Momentum Pictures), but her name will also be remembered for her association with the grassroots awards push that upended the traditional Oscar campaigning process.
While some champion the underdog success of “To Leslie,” others decry the methods deployed to achieve it. That’s why the Academy Board of Governors met on Zoom this week to discuss the process, a meeting attended by unhappy players such as Whoopi Goldberg (co-starred in and produced “Till,” which did not earn a nomination for Danielle Deadwyler), and Terilyn A. Shropshire (edited “The Woman King,” which did not earn a slot for SAG, Globe, and CCA nominee Viola Davis).
Academy CEO Bill Kramer emerged with a quiet statement that while Riseborough could keep her nomination, campaign rules must be further updated and clarified. “We did discover social media and outreach campaigning tactics that caused concern,” he said. “These tactics are being addressed with the responsible parties directly.”
The Academy’s awards committee will convene to figure out how to codify rule changes, which will be brought to the board for their approval. But let’s be clear: Every Oscar campaigner and professional publicist in Hollywood breaks the Academy’s campaign rules all the time. They know where the lines are and they go right up to them, or over them, or around them in clever ways.
Direct emails to members about a performance are forbidden. Publicists are supposed to send invites and such through the Academy’s mailing house… but sometimes they direct clients to reach out to friends in their respective branches for support, while steering clear of anyone they compete against. The idea is your friends would never give you away.
“The rules are not so clear-cut,” said one PR veteran. “They could be made clearer. The Academy has to be stricter. They have to make sure everyone in the Academy knows the rules henceforth, in order to avoid what’s happened in the past.”
The Academy does very little to enforce the rules it already has. “The Academy doesn’t slap hands,” said one veteran Oscar strategist. “They don’t do anything to any of us. It’s an honor system.” The publicist said the last time they were punished was 23 years ago, for sending out two sets of DVDs for a film. They were docked tickets to the show: “I didn’t do that again.”
On the surface, “To Leslie” was not an Oscar contender. It didn’t take the usual festival route towards critical acclaim and awards, premiering out of competition at SXSW last March. (It did receive stellar reviews.) The film opened October 9, 2022 at the Monica Film Center, grossing $27,000 in its five-day box office run. Riseborough earned an Indie Spirit nomination in November, but did not win any critics group accolades or a SAG nomination.
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Riseborough’s grassroots campaign for “To Leslie” came from its director, Michael Morris, and his wife, TV actor Mary McCormack (“In Plain Sight”), who is not an Academy member, and Riseborough’s manager, former publicist Jason Weinberg. McCormack sent emails seeking support from many Hollywood actors, and got it: Charlize Theron hosted a screening in November at CAA, followed by private screenings hosted by Edward Norton and Jennifer Aniston at their homes. Shelter PR joined Riseborough’s agency, Narrative PR, on the campaign. Together, they built lists of actors for outreach.
Active Riseborough supporters burgeoned: Gwyneth Paltrow, Courteney Cox, Rosanna Arquette, and Patricia Clarkson, among others, plus social media tributes from Susan Sarandon, Helen Hunt, Melanie Lynskey, Mira Sorvino, Minnie Driver, and many more. Cate Blanchett called out Riseborough at both the Los Angeles Film Critics dinner and the Critics Choice Awards.
Clearly, the actors’ support was sincere and well-meant: They felt like they were part of a cool movement and Riseborough is genuinely admired. “When I saw it, her performance floored me,” Kate Winslet told The Washington Post. “I wanted to support her. That’s how we do it. In our industry, female actors are profoundly supportive of each other but that’s rarely written about. So there is nothing more wonderful than being able to hold hands with those you admire. We all look out for each other. It seems like this is a surprise to the people! Great work deserves to be acknowledged, that’s all there is to it.”
The movie is on the Academy portal (cost: $20,000). As the word got around, more actors-branch members watched it. With 218 as the magic number of #1 votes to land a nomination, the Riseborough campaign’s viral reach was clearly there.
Private events are where the Riseborough campaign went wrong. Academy rules state: “Members may not be invited to, and members may not attend, any dinners, lunches or other such events that are intended to promote an eligible film for awards consideration.” All meals must be “non-excessive” and attached to a screening at the same location. McCormack and Morris hosted sat least one event without a screening at their home.
Oscar campaigners may know the rules, but not every Academy member does. The Academy’s campaign rules constantly morph; some are specific and others more vague. Social media is the question on publicists’ minds. “How do you control social?” said one Oscar campaigner. “Social’s an open season. Tell all Academy members they can’t promote someone on social? You saw a film you liked and post on Facebook or Twitter that you saw an amazing film. It’s complicated.”
Frances Fisher posted constantly on Twitter and Instagram about Riseborough’s performance, including descriptions of the Oscar voting process, urging people to vote for Riseborough because Davis, Deadwyler and the other contenders were “a lock.” 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 distracting scandal. They will try to keep all things Riseborough quiet and on the down low. After all, the next-last-group it wants to antagonize are the actors: The Academy needs them to attend the Oscars.
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