By the time the Oscars unfold on the red carpet each year, most of the starting stars have spent months traveling the world, attending premieres and screenings, and meeting with industry VIPs to promote their films and themselves.
Oscars campaigns is a multi-million dollar industry. While the Academy has strict rules to ensure that outstanding films and performances win fairly and honestly, this year’s unexpected nomination Andrea Riseborough in the Best Actress category sparked a debate about how the process works.
In the aftermath of the controversy, Academy president Janet Yang told Sky News that after this year’s ceremony, we would be revisiting the campaign’s rules, with a particular focus on the “changing environment” of social media. “We are going to fasten our seatbelts and look very carefully at the regulations that have been in place for some time,” she said. “There are a lot of things that have not been addressed in the current campaign regulations that we believe need to be addressed now.”
How does the campaign work?
The campaign can include anything from publicity to red carpets to putting actors on relevant interviews, all to build a narrative that the movie and its stars are Oscar-worthy. Why do movie studios do this? Well, 301 movies were eligible for this year’s Oscars – they need to get their movies noticed.
The academy has strict rules regarding the “annual ritual” of the campaign, which include limits on the number of mailings studios can send, as well as promotional items, lobbying, and admissions.
Not surprisingly, candidates are prohibited from publicly making negative or derogatory statements about their rivals. Penalties for those who break the rules may include disqualification, and any existing member of the Academy (usually the previous winner) may be suspended or expelled.
Life on the Campaign Trail
At the Oscar nominees party held in London in February, a few days after the Oscars luncheon in LA, the stars of Banshees Of Inisherin colin farrellBrendan Gleeson and Kerry Condon have rubbed shoulders with other nominated actors, including Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, as well as industry bigwigs.
“This is crazy!” Condon said when asked about the work that is going on in pre-season. “It’s like a completely different skill where you have to be good at, talking to people, taking pictures of yourself and all sorts of things you wouldn’t think of as an actor. And you need to get good at them quickly.”
For some, it’s all good fun. Take everything everywhere and at once star Quan, who does not hide his excitement. “The audience that has embraced the film in the way they did is beyond anything we ever imagined,” he said. “I really enjoy awards season… it’s been a crazy ride.”
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But it can be hard work. Producer Gareth Ellis-Unwin picked up the 2011 Academy Award for Best Picture for The King’s Speech and is now voting for the Academy Awards (and the BAFTAs). “It surprised me,” she says of the film’s campaign, which lasted over three months. “It was like running for local office.”
In 2016, former winner Susan Sarandon spoke out against the process, comparing it to the race for the US presidency in terms of cost and length. Speaking on a panel at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, she called for campaign finance reform. “People have to be available for months and someone has to pay for that,” she said.
Twelve years after his win, Ellis-Unwin, who is now head of film and animation at the charity Screen Skills, says things are changing.
“Now you can concentrate on a movie project or TV show and not spend the same marketing expenses as you did 10 years ago. Our distributors joked that it cost about $30 million to promote our film for the awards ceremony, which is twice the film’s budget.”
Why was Riseborough’s nomination a surprise?
The British actress’s nod for her role in To Leslie – a small independent film in which she plays an alcoholic single mother who wins the lottery – was unexpected as there had not been much hype around her before.
And because black actresses who had such hype – Viola Davis, for The Woman King and Danielle Deadwyler, for Till, missed out. While Davis, Deadwyler and others were apparently playing a more traditional campaign, Riseborough’s nomination came after praise on social media from A-listers including Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Edward Norton.
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There is no suggestion that Riseborough herself has done anything wrong. But the controversy has raised questions about what the campaign looks like in the future and has reignited debates about opportunity and racism in the film industry.
Shortly after this year’s nominee lists were announced, the Academy launched a review to ensure no campaign rules had been broken. After a brief investigation, the organization said it had uncovered “social media tactics and information campaigns that have caused concern” around To Leslie, but not to the point of making Riseborough lose her head.
Yang told Sky News it was an “extraordinary situation” but no rules had been broken “based on existing rules”.
Can voters really be persuaded?
As for the aggressive campaign, industry insiders say it started with a disgraced manufacturer Harvey Weinstein; reportedly launched a whisper campaign against Steven SpielbergSaving Private Ryan in 1999 when it competed for best picture alongside his own film Shakespeare in Love – which he won. Since then, the Academy has tightened its campaigning rules.
Addressing the Riseborough controversy, Jenelle Riley, columnist for US entertainment publication Variety, says “an entire industry is dedicated to campaigning”, but Academy voters will ultimately choose the movies and stars they think are worth it.
“The academy will do what they want and they will vote for what they want,” he says. “No one can force you to mark her name on the ballot. If people voted for her, it’s because they want to.
“Anyone who has seen To Leslie will argue that she did not deserve a nomination … the truth is that wealth is just embarrassing. Part of me thinks they should increase the number of nominees.”
Will Riseborough win?
There may be a last-minute mix-up, but that seems unlikely. Not necessarily because of the campaign investigation, but because the Best Actress category looked like a two-horse race Cate Blanchett (Tar) and Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All At Once) before the nominations were announced.
“The nomination is a win” for Riseborough, says Matthew Belloni, former editor of The Hollywood Reporter and co-founder of digital media firm Puck.
However, she says she doesn’t believe the investigation hurt her chances. “If anything, I think it garnered some votes because people didn’t like that this campaign was criticized. The members I spoke to thought it was ridiculous that they were potentially being punished for it,” he said.
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Future policy changes?
Belloni describes the To Leslie campaign as innovative because it bypassed traditional means of advertising, threw parties and placed “talents in a circle of interviews and handshakes.”
Without a big budget behind them, they built a social media support instead.
Even though the Academy has decided not to accept Riseborough’s nominations, Belloni believes the scandal will lead to further changes to the rules restricting social media activity.
“I think this will make a difference. I think we will see new rules and update the Academy’s code of conduct in the age of social media,” she said.
You can watch the Oscars on Sunday March 12 from 11pm in the UK exclusively on Sky News and Sky Showcase. For everything you need to know ahead of the ceremony, don’t miss our special Backstage podcast, available now, as well as the winners’ special episode starting Monday morning.