The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences confirmed Friday that it is “conducting a review of campaign procedures” in the wake of Andrea Riseborough’s surprise Oscar nomination for the small indie film “To Leslie.”
The Academy released a statement Friday regarding the campaign, though it didn’t mention “To Leslie” specifically.
“It is the Academy’s goal to ensure that the Awards competition is conducted in a fair and ethical manner, and we are committed to ensuring an inclusive awards process,” the statement reads. “We are conducting a review of the campaign procedures around this year’s nominees, to ensure that no guidelines were violated, and to inform us whether changes to the guidelines may be needed in a new era of social media and digital communication. We have confidence in the integrity of our nomination and voting procedures, and support genuine grassroots campaigns for outstanding performances.”
The drama, which grossed only $27,000 at the box office, has come in for scrutiny for the targeted campaigning conducted by its supporters on behalf of Riseborough.
Since Tuesday’s nominations, the industry has been hotly debating whether her campaign violated any of the rules and guidelines established by AMPAS. Since Riseborough’s name was called, rumors have been circulating that she could be disqualified. In fact, according to multiple sources, the Academy is meeting next Tuesday, where Riseborough will be on the agenda. In addition, sources also reveal that although the Academy has been inundated with calls and e-mails regarding Riseborough’s inclusion, no formal complaints have been filed.
If you drove through West L.A. during the past winter months, you’d see countless billboards for awards contenders like Netflix’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Paramount’s “Top Gun: Maverick.” You wouldn’t have seen any for “To Leslie,” the Momentum Pictures drama that garnered Roseborough a nomination over the likes of Viola Davis (“The Woman King”) and Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”). But her grassroots effort assembled the support of stars like Edward Norton, Jane Fonda and fellow nominee Cate Blanchett, who all publicly praised the actress’ work. “To Leslie” was directed by Michael Morris, and his wife Mary McCormack proved to be instrumental in assembling an army of A-list endorsements Riseborough. In an email obtained by Variety, McCormick provided language and details for friends to share via social media and other avenues when touting “To Leslie’s” leading lady.
Several questions need to be answered in the coming days as Riseborough’s nomination continues to be the talk of the town.
Did Riseborough’s camp break the Academy’s rules?
There’s nothing wrong with encouraging Oscar voters to watch a movie by touting its merits. But some rival campaigns say that “To Leslie” used “aggressive tactics” that cross a line.
And there’s precedent for disqualifying movies and artists for breaking the rules. In 2014, Bruce Broughton, a then-executive committee member of the Academy’s music branch, was nominated for original song for the title track “Alone Yet Not Alone.” After it was discovered that he had emailed members of the music branch to make them aware of his submission during the voting period, his nomination was rescinded.
In the case of Riseborough, critics have yet to find a “smoking gun” that shows a direct solicitation from Riseborough to Academy members. But others who worked on her behalf have been accused of violating the rules. If so, does that make Riseborough, who is also an executive producer for “To Leslie,” responsible?
“Titanic” star Frances Fisher, an Academy member, was one of Riseborough’s most vocal advocates, sharing multiple posts about her performance on social media. However, some of those posts could also violate the Academy’s rules, particularly no. 11 “References to Other Nominees,” which states that “any tactic that singles out ‘the competition’ by name or title is expressly forbidden.”
In a post from her personal Instagram account dated Jan. 14, Fisher wrote: “To my fellow Actors in The Academy – According to Pete Hammond writing for Deadline, Andrea Riseborough can secure an Oscar nomination if 218 (out of 1,302) actors in the Actors Branch nominated her in first position for Best Actress.”
She continues: “Seems to be that Viola [Davis], Michelle [Yeoh], Danielle [Deadwyler] & Cate [Blanchett] are a lock for their outstanding work.”
While not “illegal” to champion a movie or performance you love, the reference to Yeoh, Deadwyler, Blanchett and Davis is where Fisher seems to have made an error. But that would not implicate Riseborough directly unless there’s a way that Fisher was directly involved with the film itself.
If a formal complaint is filed, this could result in Fisher receiving a one-year suspension from the Academy, as Part C of the rules read: “Academy members who are found to have violated this regulation will be subject to a one-year suspension of membership for first-time violations.”
Again, there have yet to be any formal complaints filed in relation to “To Leslie.”
Who funded this “self-funded” effort?
Oscar campaigns are expensive efforts involving parties, consultants and advertisements that carry steep price tags. The “To Leslie” campaign apparently was self-funded. But it did enlist two PR firms, Narrative and Shelter, along with event planners like Colleen Camp, to help draw attention to the movie. Who paid those bills? Momentum Pictures? Riseborough? Some third party? Inquiring minds want to know.
What does “lobbying” mean to the Academy?
In the weeks leading up to AMPAS voting, Riseborough’s self-campaign began to take off with help from her manager Jason Weinberg, Narrative PR and Shelter PR. Nevertheless, most awards pundits assumed the actor was a long shot after other contenders landed ley nominations from the Golden Globes, SAG and other major precursor awards.
But the personal appeals of her high-profile friends may have carried her over. And those associations may be the result of Riseborough’s stacked resume, one that includes movies such as “Birdman,” “The Death of Stalin” and “Battle of the Sexes.” Lots of Oscar contenders do Q&As with other actors or talent as a way to draw attention to their movies. But the question is whether the support of Riseborough’s friends constitutes the kind of lobbying that the Academy prohibits.
Could Riseborough have her nomination rescinded?
It’s possible but also highly unlikely.
For various reasons, nine nominations have been rescinded throughout the 95 years of the Academy. That includes Charlie Chaplin for his film “The Circus” (1928) at the first ceremony to the most recent occurrence of Greg Russell, who was removed for best sound mixing for “13 Hours” (2016),
While there’s no evidence that Riseborough violated any Oscar rules, the team may have utilized loopholes to garner the recognition they felt she deserved.
Riseborough’s friends figured out that in order to secure a nomination, they only needed 218 of the 9,579 AMPAS members to write her name down. And they used that math to their advantage.
The size of the Actors Branch was 1,302 members this year, the largest of the Academy. If every member casts a ballot (they don’t), a nominee needs 218 votes to secure a slot. If there are fewer votes, the required number also drops. But, again, there’s nothing wrong with crunching numbers and disqualifying Riseborough would require hard evidence that has yet to materialize.
How will this affect future awards campaigns?
If no actions are taken, you’ll see many prominent studios and strategists executing the same tactics next awards season. You might also see the Academy clarifying some of its own rules to close some “loopholes.”
Riseborough isn’t the first to self-fund her campaign. Sally Kirkland famously wrote letters to voters and spoke with any available journalist to promote herself in the tiny dramedy “Anna” (1987), while Melissa Leo’s infamous “CONSIDER” ads were purchased in route to her win for “The Fighter” (2010) and intended to show her glamorous side in contrast to her work in that film as a blue-collar mother, walked just up to the edge of what was permissible. Character actor Ann Dowd scraped about $13,000 from colleagues and her bank account to send DVDs to Academy members for her acclaimed work as a restaurant manager in “Compliance” (2012) but failed to land a nomination.
“There are going to be many tough conversations in the future,” one studio publicist tells Variety, who asked to remain anonymous. “Our bosses and clients will expect us to go out and get Ed Norton and think that’s all it will take. Andrea’s nomination is not normal. It’s a miracle. If it weren’t, many of us wouldn’t have jobs.”
There’s a cottage industry that’s emerged around the Oscars, one that generates a lot of money for strategists and advisors. Riseborough may have imperiled that and could be facing blowback for working outside the system.