By the time the Academy Awards rolls out the red carpet each year, most stars in the running have spent months travelling the world, attending premieres and screenings, and schmoozing with industry VIPs to promote their films and themselves.
Oscars campaigning is a multimillion-dollar industry. While the Academy has strict rules to help ensure standout films and performances win fair and square, this year’s unexpected nomination of Andrea Riseborough in the best actress category has sparked debate about how the process works.
In the wake of the controversy, Academy president Janet Yang told Sky News campaigning rules will be revisited again following this year’s ceremony, with the “changing environment” of social media in particular to be looked at. “We are going to buckle down and look very closely at the regulations that have been with us for a while,” she said. “There are a lot of things that weren’t addressed in the current campaign regulations that we feel need to be addressed now.”
How does campaigning work?
Campaigning can include everything from advertising to red carpets to placing actors for the right interviews, all to build the narrative that a film and its stars are Oscar-worthy. Why do film studios do it? Well, there were 301 films eligible for this year’s Oscars – they need to get their films noticed.
The Academy has strict rules around “the annual rite” of campaigning, which include limitations on the number of mailings that studios can send, and also on promotional items, lobbying and parties.
Nominees are, unsurprisingly, banned from making negative or derogatory statements about their rivals in public. Penalties for those who breach the rules can include disqualification and any existing member of the Academy (typically a previous winner) could face suspension or expulsion.
Life on the campaign trail
At a reception for Oscar nominees held in London in February, a few days after an Oscars luncheon in LA, The Banshees Of Inisherin stars Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Kerry Condon rubbed shoulders with fellow acting nominees including Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, as well as industry bigwigs.
“It’s crazy!” Condon said when asked about the work that goes on in the run-up. “It’s like a whole other skill that you have to be good at, chatting to people and getting your picture taken and all sorts of things you wouldn’t think of as an actor. And you have to get good at them fast.”
For some, this is all good fun. Take Everything Everywhere All At Once star Quan, who has made no secret of his excitement. “The audience embracing the movie the way they did is beyond anything we ever imagined,” he said. “I’m enjoying awards season very much… it’s been a wild ride.”
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But it can be hard work. Producer Gareth Ellis-Unwin picked up his best picture Oscar for The King’s Speech in 2011 and is now an Academy Awards (and BAFTAs) voter. “It surprised me,” he says of the campaign for the film, which lasted for more than three months. “It was like running for local office.”
In 2016, former winner Susan Sarandon spoke out against the process, likening it to the race to become US president in terms of the cost and length. Speaking on a panel at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, she called for a reform to campaign finance. “People have to be available for months and someone has to pay for that,” she said.
Twelve years on from his win, Ellis-Unwin, who is now head of film and animation at the charity Screen Skills, says things are changing.
“Now you can bring a focus to a film project or TV show and not have the same marketing spend you had 10 years ago. Our distributors joked that it cost something like $30m to market our film for the award ceremony, which is twice the budget for the film.”
Why was Riseborough’s nomination a surprise?
The British actress’s nod for her performance in To Leslie – a small indie film in which she plays an alcoholic single mother who wins the lottery – was unexpected because there had been no substantial buzz surrounding her beforehand.
And because black actresses who did have that buzz – Viola Davis, for The Woman King, and Danielle Deadwyler, for Till missed out. While Davis, Deadwyler and others seemingly played the more traditional campaign game, Riseborough’s nomination came in the wake of praise on social media from A-listers including Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Edward Norton.
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There is no suggestion Riseborough herself did anything wrong. But the controversy has raised questions over what campaigning looks like in the future, and reignited debates around opportunity and racism in the film industry.
Shortly after this year’s shortlists were announced, the Academy launched a review to ensure no campaign rules were broken. After a short investigation, the organisation said it discovered “social media and outreach campaigning tactics that caused concern” surrounding To Leslie, but not to the level that Riseborough should lose her nod.
Yang told Sky News it was an “unusual situation” but that no rules were broken “based on the existing rules”.
Can voters really be swayed?
When it comes to aggressive campaigning, industry insiders say it began with disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein; he reportedly started a whisper campaign against Steven Spielberg‘s Saving Private Ryan in 1999, when it was in the running for best picture alongside his own film Shakespeare In Love – which went on to win. The Academy has since tightened its campaigning rules.
Addressing the Riseborough controversy, Jenelle Riley, features editor for US entertainment publication Variety, says there is a “whole industry devoted to campaigning” but Academy voters will ultimately choose the films and stars they believe are worthy.
“The Academy is going to do what they want to do and they’re going to vote for what they want,” she says. “Nobody can force you to check off her name on a ballot. If people voted for her, it’s because they want to.
“Anyone who has seen To Leslie is not going to argue that she didn’t deserve to be nominated… the truth is, there’s just an embarrassment of riches. Part of me thinks they should increase the number of nominees.”
Can Riseborough win?
There could be a last-minute upset, but it seems unlikely. Not necessarily because of the campaigning investigation, but because the best actress category looked set to be a two-horse race between Cate Blanchett (Tar) and Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All At Once) even before the nominations were announced.
“The nomination is the win” for Riseborough, says Matthew Belloni, former editor of The Hollywood Reporter and a founding partner of digital media company Puck.
However, he says he doesn’t believe the investigation harmed her chances. “If anything, I think she picked up some votes because people didn’t like that this campaign was castigated. Members I’ve talked to thought it was ridiculous that they were potentially being punished for this,” he said.
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Future rule changes?
Belloni describes the To Leslie campaign as innovative, having bypassed the traditional avenues of advertising, throwing parties and putting “the talent on a circuit of interviews and handshaking”.
Without a big budget behind them they instead built up support on social media.
Despite the Academy deciding not to take away Riseborough’s nomination, Belloni says he believes the scandal will lead to further rule changes limiting social media activity.
“I think it’s going to change things. I think we’re going to see new rules and it’s going to update the Academy code of conduct for the social media age,” she said.
You can watch the Academy Awards on Sunday 12 March from 11pm in the UK exclusively on Sky News and Sky Showcase. And for everything you need to know ahead of the ceremony, don’t miss our special Backstage podcast, available now, plus a winners special episode from Monday morning.