A grassroots Oscars campaign has led to a shock nomination for the star of a small, independent film. What does it tell us about the problems facing the Academy Awards?
The film industry’s most prestigious awards ceremony is no stranger to controversy.
There was the Will Smith slap and the time La La Land was announced as Best Picture — only for it to be revealed that actually, Moonlight had won.
But there have also been more serious rows about diversity and this year is no exception.
“And now, the five nominees for performance by an actress in a leading role…”Entertainment Tonight
It centres around one nominee in particular.
“Andea Riseborough in To Leslie”Entertainment Tonight
Normally in the run-up to the Academy Awards, you can predict who or what will be nominated because they’ve usually picked up other awards, like a Golden Globe.
Andrea Riseborough’s name hadn’t shown up anywhere and neither had the film she starred in.
To Leslie is a small independent drama with a tiny marketing budget that, due to a very limited release, only earned $27,322 at the box office.
So you might think that an outsider getting a nomination is a good thing, but this is why it was controversial.
Oscar nominees are picked by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which runs the awards.
Producers spend a lot of money on campaigns to get their films and their stars noticed, which is why the academy has rules about screenings, receptions, what can be sent directly to its members and who it can be sent by.
“What seems to be the issue here and the grey area is the Academy’s rule, specifically number ten about lobbying. What constitutes lobbying? What doesn’t? The academy doesn’t outright define it.”Clayton Davis, ABC News
Rule number 10 states that:
“Contacting Academy members directly and in a manner outside of the scope of these rules to promote a film or achievement for Academy Award consideration is expressly forbidden.”Regulations concerning the Promotion of films eligible for the 95th Academy Awards
But there are other ways to get your film out there.
According to Variety, anywhere between three to ten million dollars is usually necessary for a successful Oscars campaign.
That allows producers to distribute it widely and make sure it’s marketed properly without flouting those rules.
It creates a buzz around the film.
But what happens when you don’t have the money to do that?
Just weeks before the nominations were announced, some of Hollywood’s biggest names began pouring praise on Andrea Riseborough’s performance.
They included Jane Fonda, Edward Norton and Charlize Theron…
“I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s the kind of movie that stays in your mind.”Charlize Theron
Kate Winslett even hosted an online Q&A with the film’s director Michael Morris and Andrea Riseborough
“I wouldn’t change anything about how we made the film. It came to life just as it was supposed to. What I would absolutely change is having more money at a distribution level and having more support that way.”Andrea Riseborough
Michael Morris and his wife had launched a grassroots campaign, sending out a barrage of emails to Hollywood friends in the hopes of getting To Leslie seen and eventually nominated.
It worked, but it also led to a review for a potential violation of the lobbying rules.
Many argued that the Academy’s decision to investigate To Leslie’s campaign was unnecessary, pointing out that without the money this is the only way for smaller, independent films to stand a chance of getting a nomination.
Eventually, it concluded that it did “not rise to the level that the film’s nomination should be rescinded”.
The statement went on to say:
“Given this review, it is apparent that components of the regulations must be clarified to help create a better framework for respectful, inclusive and unbiased campaigning.”Bill Kramer, CEO The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
So Andrea Riseborough still has a chance of winning that golden statuette and may have opened the door for similar movies to get a nomination in future.
However, for some, what was frustrating about Riseborough’s nomination had less to do with the lobbying and more to do with who wasn’t nominated as a result.
Since its inception, only one non-white actress has ever won the award for Best Actress.
Four out of the five nominated actresses this year are white. Michelle Yeoh is of Malaysian Chinese descent.
Black actresses Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler were both tipped for Academy Award nominations this year but received none.
Their movies seemed to play the Oscars game perfectly: major advertising campaigns, millions at the box office, big Hollywood casts and deeply emotional performances… only to be beaten by a movie that had almost none of those things.
Whether its issues with diversity or the huge amounts of money needed to get a nomination, the Academy still has work to do.
This episode was written by Tomini Babs and mixed by Matt Russell.