Three days after Andrea Riseborough’s Oscar nomination sent shockwaves through Hollywood, questions have arisen about possible violations to the Academy’s campaign lobbying rules.
On Friday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it had launched “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.”
The investigation follows an aggressive grassroots campaign that saw Hollywood heavyweights sing Riseborough’s praises in the weeks leading up to voting. Amy Adams, Kate Winslet, Charlize Theron, and Melanie Lynskey were among those who hosted Q&As, screenings, and posted about the little-seen “To Leslie” on their personal social media pages.
Supporters of the film and of Riseborough’s performance have said that their social-media posts have reflected genuine enthusiasm for the performance, and attempts to bring attention to a film that did not have the campaign budget of its rivals. In its release announcing the investigation, the Academy said, “We have confidence in the integrity of our nomination and voting procedures, and support geniune grassroots campaigns for outstanding performances.”
But some have called into question the so-called organic nature of the awards push – especially after actresses of color Danielle Deadwyler and Viola Davis, both expected to land Best Actress nominations, were pushed out.
According to a veteran Oscar campaigner who asked not to be named, “Jason Weinberg [Riseborough’s manager] mobilized an army of older white ladies. [You’re] not allowed to do that if you’re an Academy member. But when [a] manager tells you – if you’re [an] aging actress, what do you do?”
Weinberg, who didn’t answer repeated calls for comment from TheWrap, is a major player in Hollywood, with a star roster that includes some of the most famous women in Hollywood including Allison Williams, Christina Ricci, Naomi Watts. Weinberg is Riseborough’s manager, as well as that of Laura Dern, who hosted a Q&A for the film.
As early as November, Weinberg’s clients and others who shared representation by CAA began to show up for the film. According to the A.V. Club, Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, Courteney Cox, Edward Norton, Jennifer Aniston, and Minnie Driver all hosted screenings on behalf of the agency.
Then, in December and January, they took their efforts to social media. Meredith Vieira, Mia Farrow, Allison Janney, and Joe Mantegna all deemed “To Leslie” “a small film with a giant heart,” interestingly using the same specific phrase. Actress Mary McCormack, who is also a Weinberg and CAA client, as well as the wife of “To Leslie” director Michael Morris, retweeted several posts from those championing the movie on her Twitter and Instagram.
It wasn’t long after that commenters on Reddit started to notice a similarity in phrasing on various social media posts, particularly the phrase “a small film with a giant heart.” The Oscar campaigner source noted that the shared language of the posts, especially by McCormack and actress Betty Buckley, could imply they were written by the same person as part of a coordinated campaign.
Made for less than a million dollars, “To Leslie” was plucked from its SXSW premiere by Momentum Pictures, a division of Entertainment One. In October, the film released in a single theater for one week, collecting a measly $27,000 before heading to VOD.
According to a source with inside knowledge, Momentum – which has been accused of bungling its marketing of the film by co-star Marc Maron, among others – didn’t plan “a theatrical Oscar game … when they were buying the movie. Their plan was to put it in a couple of theaters, and then put it on VOD because that’s where they make their money.” The source continued, “Now they’re actually going to make some.” The source could not speak to Weinberg’s involvement in the grassroots campaign. However, Momentum was “lobbied at times to pony up money for a campaign.”
The film was able to pay $20,000 to the Academy to be placed in the members-only Academy Screening Room in early December, and also paid for direct mailings to members through AMPAS. Two public relations firms, Narrative and Shelter, also worked on the campaign.
The Academy rules focus heavily on the dos and donts of campaigning, but they are mostly devoted to the logistics of screenings, receptions, promotional items and emails. The section entitled “Lobbying” consists of a single sentence, the interpretation of which could determine whether Riseborough’s campaign is simply a grass-roots effort (which the Academy says it supports) or a violation of the rules. “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,” it reads.
The campaign regulations don’t contain specific penalties when someone is found to have broken the rules. In recent years, the AMPAS Board of Governors has taken action twice – once in 2014, when composer Bruce Broughton had contacted colleagues to bring attention to his eligible song “Alone But Not Alone,” and again three years later, when sound mixer Greg P. Russell violated campaign regulations that barred potential nominees from telephone lobbying. Prior to those incidents, producer Nicolas Chartier was found to have broken campaign rules in emails comparing his film, “The Hurt Locker,” to its main rival, “Avatar,” in 2010.
In the case of Broughton and Russell, their nominations were rescinded. Russell’s fellow nominees for “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” were allowed to keep their nominations, while Broughton’s nomination was removed and the category officially had only four nominees (as this year’s Best Actress category would if Riseborough’s nomination was to be rescinded).
In Chartier’s case, the producer’s tickets to the Oscar ceremony were taken away and he was barred from attending, but he retained his status as a nominee and received an Oscar when the film was named Best Picture.
When TheWrap first reached out to ask about Riseborough’s campaign in the wake of a Puck News article questioning the nomination, a source who asked not to be named said no one had lodged a complaint about the film with the Academy. Two hours later, the Academy announced it was investigating the campaigning around this year’s awards ceremony, without mentioning Riseborough by name.
Riseborough herself has not been accused of any campaign violations, making the removal of her nomination an unlikely outcome when the AMPAS Board of Governors considers the case at its regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday.
With the investigation ongoing, the question of what rules were broken, if any, loom large. One supporter of Riseborough’s, “Titanic” actress Frances Fisher, seems particularly vulnerable to discipline. She had initially started discussing the film back in early January, writing in a Jan. 9 post on Instagram, “With the multi-million dollar ad campaigns flying around, word-of-mouth on this #LowBudget masterpiece is building daily.”
In an Instagram post published Jan. 14, two days into Oscar voting, Fisher championed Riseborough again while pointing out that the actress would need 218 first-place votes to secure a Best Actress nomination. “Seems to be that Viola [Davis], Michelle [Yeoh], Danielle [Deadwyler], and Cate [Blanchett] are a lock for their outstanding work,” she continued. “Watch ‘To Leslie’ on the Academy Screening Room app and join the groundswell of support to honor Andrea’s fine work.” Interestingly, that “groundswell of support” phrasing, prominent in other posts from other celebrities, was included here.
In a subsequent post, she again raised the idea of putting Riseborough over Blanchett, Yeoh, Davis and Deadwyler on her ballot “because I think all the other ladies are a lock.”
In addition, a now-deleted post on the official “To Leslie” Instagram page quoted reviewer Richard Roeper as saying that while he liked Blanchett’s performance in “Tár,” he preferred Riseborough’s.
According to the Academy’s 2023 campaign regulations, members are expressly prohibited from referring to other nominees while campaigning.
Academy members found to have “‘singled out’ the competition by name or title” may be subject to a one-year membership suspension for a first offense and expulsion for any subsequent ones. Mentions include social media, including Facebook and Twitter, though it’s unclear if Instagram is held to the same standard. (The Academy did not provide additional comment, and Fisher’s representative declined to comment on her behalf.)
While the Academy looks into the campaign and the board prepares to meet next Tuesday, “To Leslie” is making the most of the spotlight. The film is headed back to select theaters in North America this weekend, with a U.K. release potentially following. Exhibitors, not Momentum, are leading the charge, with the Academy’s response to the controversy a major variable.
“I’m confident that there isn’t a huddle happening with the filmmakers and Momentum, like ‘How do we capitalize on this?’ That’s not happening,” the source with inside knowledge said. “Momentum is like, ‘Good on you. You guys did what you did, now live with the consequences for the moment.’”
Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Laura Dern hosted a screening, Q&A and/or posted on social media about “To Leslie.”