Inside the ‘Blood Sport’ of Oscars Campaigns

A campaign for best actress can cost up to $5 million. There’s no question that To Leslie’s distributor, Momentum Pictures, didn’t spend it. The film itself was made for less money, with Riseborough and Michael Morris helping to fund the campaign themselves. Nevertheless, PR firms were hired. A social media campaign was organized. And several people were working on their phones to rally support, including McCormack and McCormack and Riseborough’s manager Jason Weinberg, whose client list includes some of the film stars who supported the actress. “Melee,” as this campaign style is called, is not uncommon. Everyone does it, advisers tell me, but they’re usually less open about it. “You know, it wasn’t just ‘We’re the little engine that could,'” a veteran strategist told me with a few customers in the race. “It was more than that.”

The thing about actors is that they tend to like a certain type of performance – big, physical and full of interesting “choices”, which is all Riseborough. (Kate Winslet called it the greatest performance by an actress she had ever seen.) The actors who promoted Riseborough probably believed they were simply campaigning for an overlooked and worthy performer. Is it possible that some didn’t know they were breaking regulations? Of course it’s possible. Have you seen what happens when actors get together for a cause? It can be clueless, but it’s usually well intentioned. (See Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” video from the early days of the pandemic.) But in doing so, they sidestepped the vast Oscar machine that has sprung up since those early Miramax days.

The Academy’s regulations are a bit like the Talmud: insanely specific in certain places – mailings about a film may only contain “a crude, uncredited synopsis” – and vague in others. There’s even a clause that basically says: respect the spirit of these rules, as they pertain to things we haven’t even thought of. Every year, campaign strategists call the academy and ask if certain things are okay, like menus and party invitations. If anyone with a good Rolodex could handle this system, what’s the point of the Oscar consultants hired to navigate it?

But it also seemed to raise a bigger question about who is the true underdog in an Oscar race. Is it the actress without a studio or millions behind her, or the one with studio backing and fewer connections? Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of The Woman King, a blockbuster released by Sony, argued with the latter in The Hollywood Reporter and addressed Riseborough’s nomination head-on. “My issue with what happened is how people in the industry are using their social capital,” she said, adding, “People are like, ‘Well, Viola and Danielle had studios behind them.’ But we just saw very clearly that social capital is more valuable.” Maybe, but certainly, starring in a $50 million critically acclaimed studio film is also valuable and the only reason those who work in the dark care about you play oscars At the end of the day, campaign play is about finding the most compelling narrative, one that inspires people to root for you.

The academy most likely upheld Riseborough’s nomination because she had not personally violated campaign rules. But few expected the verdict to be different. Punishing those involved in the campaign would mean a move against Hollywood’s biggest names, which the Academy needs to star in its films and appear at the awards. “This city doesn’t move without actors,” a veteran strategist told me. “If you fell for this campaign, well, that’s an indictment against Charlize Theron, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton. But the truth is, if I did, I’d end up in the academy jail.”

It is worth remembering that the Oscars were created as a marketing tool to lure people into watching movies and how football was broadcast on Monday nights to boost ratings. “It’s not the Nobel Peace Prize,” Lundberg told me. That doesn’t necessarily stop some Oscar winners from pretending it is. At best, a nomination can extend a film’s theatrical run and get more people to watch it long after it’s left theaters. But that’s exactly what it is: an ad created by a professional organization to sell you movies even if – and especially if – their quality is obviously declining. “Every year everyone talks about what a great year that was for movies,” Angellotti told me, “and the public is like, ‘Really?'”

Many of the films nominated this year are a product of the Covid years. Spielberg wouldn’t have made The Fabelmans if he hadn’t been stuck at home, contemplating mortality and wondering what stories he hadn’t already told. (The answer turned out to be his own.) “Everything Everywhere All at Once” had to halt production early and Yeoh had to film via Zoom, which is also how Blanchett learned to conduct for “Tár.” Filmed on remote islands with a small cast, The Banshees of Inisherin was a particularly pandemic-friendly production. Cinemas, meanwhile, have been closing faster than audiences could follow, and box office numbers for 2022 fell short of the year’s meager forecasts. (Cinema admissions have shrunk by half in the last four years.) All of which is reason to wonder how much Oscar drama this year, or any other, is being produced by the very people whose job it is to make us watch . The Riseborough controversy, while uncomfortable for those involved, ultimately resulted in many more people watching To Leslie. (Momentum Pictures re-released the film in select theaters.)

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