Inside the Campaigns to Win an Oscar

From a New York Times story by Irina Aleksander headlined “Inside the ‘Blood Sport’ of Oscar Campaigns”:

Depending on how closely you’ve been following the Oscars race this year, you may or may not know the name Andrea Riseborough. Before Jan. 24, few outside of the film industry did. An actress from northeastern England, Riseborough began her career in​ theater and has worked steadily since. At 41, she has appeared in more than 30 films, including “Birdman,” “Battle of the Sexes” and “The Death of Stalin.” People like to say that the only reason she isn’t famous is that she inhabits roles so completely, she becomes unrecognizable.

But on Tuesday, Jan. 24, Riseborough was nominated for a best-actress Oscar alongside Cate Blanchett, Michelle Williams, Ana de Armas and Michelle Yeoh. No one predicted Riseborough’s nomination. She did not appear on pundits’ shortlists. There were no profiles of her in glossy magazines. “To Leslie,” the film about an alcoholic West Texas lottery winner for which she was nominated, had earned just $27,322 at the box office.

Within 24 hours, the reaction to Riseborough’s nomination went from surprise to scrutiny to backlash. It turned out that a small army of movie stars had championed Riseborough. Charlize Theron, Jennifer Aniston, Sarah Paulson and Gwyneth Paltrow hosted screenings. Others praised Riseborough’s performance on social media and beyond, including Edward Norton, Susan Sarandon, Helen Hunt, Patricia Clarkson, Pedro Pascal, Demi Moore, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bradley Whitford, Jane Fonda, Mia Farrow, Kate Winslet, Alan Cumming, Rosanna Arquette and even Blanchett.

The campaign was described as organic and grass roots, but some celebrities had posted suspiciously identical language, describing “To Leslie” as “a small film with a giant heart.” That Viola Davis (“The Woman King”) and Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”) were not nominated despite predictions to the contrary made it look as if a bunch of actors campaigned on behalf of a white actress, leading to the exclusion of Black actresses.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Oscars’ governing body, opened an investigation. Oscar campaign regulations forbid direct lobbying, and it turned out that some of Riseborough’s supporters, including Mary McCormack, who is married to Michael Morris, the director of “To Leslie,” had encouraged academy members to watch the film and publicly endorse Riseborough’s performance.

Cynthia Swartz, an awards strategist working on films including “Tár,” “Elvis,” “Women Talking,” “Till” and “Avatar: The Way of Water,” told me the campaign inspired her to look up the definition of lobbying, which is not comprehensively defined in the academy’s campaign regulations. “I don’t believe academy members should be posting about how they’re going to vote,” Swartz said, “or urging others to vote in a certain way.” Tony Angellotti, a consultant on “The Fabelmans,” put it less mildly. “There are very specific rules about direct outreach,” he said. “Clearly, here, those rules were broken.” Neither the director nor his wife are members of the academy. But consultants I spoke to said it didn’t matter. A couple joked that it was a little like the Jan. 6 insurrection: President Donald Trump may not have personally stormed the Capitol, but he encouraged others to do so.

In February, the academy announced that Riseborough’s nomination would stand, promising to clarify its regulations after the awards. But the controversy reminded everyone of the reality of the Oscars: that despite the big show of sealed envelopes being delivered via handcuffed briefcases, the votes — in Hollywood as in Washington, D.C. — are a result of a highly contingent, political process, handed down not from movie gods but from the very people who stand to benefit from it. “To say that Andrea Riseborough took a nomination away from Viola and Danielle, you cannot have this conversation without having the whole conversation,” said a campaign strategist with a film in the race. “You have to look at: ‘OK, well, what money was spent on the other campaigns? And who’s spending it?’ This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Oscar campaigns are often run by professional strategists, essentially a specialized breed of publicist. Their job begins as early as a year before the awards, sometimes before a film is even shot. They advise on which festival a film should premiere at, shape a campaign platform and hope that the film gains enough momentum to propel it into awards season. Sometimes several strategists work on a single film, and the war room of an Oscars campaign can grow to be as many as 10 or 20 people. All the stops along the campaign trail — screenings, events, other award shows — are an opportunity to workshop talking points and gauge the competition. And unlike the Golden Globes, which are voted on by 199 entertainment journalists, the Oscars electorate is a voting body of about 10,000 industry peers, which is nearly double what it was before the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that began in 2015.

The Oscars race is split into Phases 1 and 2: before and after the nominations, which is akin to the divide between the presidential primaries and the general election. “Phase 2 is all about honing your narrative and defining yourself in the race,” Lea Yardum, who is working with a couple best-picture nominees this year, told me. “Some narratives form themselves but others are — I don’t want to say crafted by us, but they form themselves and we amplify them.”

Think about everything you know about this year’s Oscar nominees and, chances are, it was proliferated by an awards consultant. “Top Gun: Maverick” saved the movie business with its nearly $1.5 billion at the box office. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is the exuberant sci-fi romp that created some much-needed opportunities for Asian American actors. “All Quiet on the Western Front” is the biggest antiwar film ever (despite still technically being a war film). Vote for “The Fabelmans” if you love Spielberg and the movies and “Tár” if you want to go with the unanimous critics’ pick.

“Every year, everyone goes into a campaign armed with statistics — oh, the statistics!” Yardum told me. An Asian actress has never been up for an Oscar, so vote for Michelle Yeoh: It’s her time. Did you know Jamie Lee Curtis has never been nominated? She’s due. Spielberg hasn’t won a best picture Oscar since 1994. Is it helpful to know what gas prices were the last time he won? (A strategist has that handy: $1.11 a gallon!) Narratives don’t always work, but a good narrative can triumph over a bad movie. Just consider the moving comeback of Brendan Fraser, who was nominated for his performance in “The Whale,” a movie that was panned by critics.

Negative narratives are usually attributed to the diabolical workings of rival strategists: the stories about abusive directors, overblown budgets, whether the real people behind biopics should really be celebrated. (See: “A Beautiful Mind.”) “They try to change someone else’s narrative by adding dirt to the layer,” Angellotti told me, citing the old rumor that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck didn’t really write “Good Will Hunting.” A more recent example that strategists still talk about is when “Green Book” was up for best picture in 2019. The week the nomination ballots went out, a story resurfaced about the director of the movie, Peter Farrelly, and a joke he used to play 20 years earlier that involved exposing himself. (Farrelly apologized the same day.) The film still won, but many believe another best-picture campaign planted the story.

Everyone in the industry insists that negative campaigning has become less prevalent than it used to be. And yet when a veteran strategist with a client in the race told me how opportunistic it was for the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” cast to visit the site of the Monterey Park shooting on the eve of the nomination announcements, I’m pretty sure I got to experience it firsthand. “Do they not know the shooter is Asian?” the strategist asked. “It’s not a racially motivated crime.”

For those paying attention to this year’s narratives, it was not a mystery where the backlash to Riseborough’s nomination was coming from; or the backlash to the backlash, articulated by Christina Ricci (represented by the same public-relations firm as Riseborough) in a now-deleted Instagram post. “Seems hilarious that the ‘surprise nomination’ (meaning tons of money wasn’t spent to position this actress) of a legitimately brilliant performance is being met with an investigation,” Ricci wrote. “So it’s only the films and actors that can afford the campaigns that deserve recognition?” Suddenly, being backed by a studio had become a negative narrative of its own. Many awards consultants spoke to me on the condition of anonymity because they didn’t want to face repercussions from their studio bosses. Others didn’t want to be seen as taking credit. “We prefer to be invisible,” a strategist working on several films this year told me. And yet here they were, seemingly sparring out in the open.

Oscars campaigning has been around as long as there have been Oscars, but the modern playbook was invented by Harvey Weinstein at Miramax in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Weinstein popularized the practice of sending out VHS screeners, demanded that actors clear their schedules for awards season and relentlessly lobbied academy members. Studios generally held their noses at aggressive campaigning, but Weinstein, unable to compete with their budgets, wasn’t above a shameless publicity stunt.

For “My Left Foot,” one of his first Oscar campaigns, he got Daniel Day-Lewis to go to Capitol Hill to speak with lawmakers about the Americans With Disabilities Act. For “Il Postino,” a 1994 Italian-language film about a mailman who befriends the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, he persuaded more than a dozen celebrities, including Julia Roberts, Samuel L. Jackson and Madonna — none of whom appeared in the film — to record poetry readings for the film’s soundtrack. “The thing that’s horrible when you think about it is Harvey was really persistent,” said Cynthia Swartz, who helped run Miramax’s awards campaigns for more than 10 years. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer from a celebrity to do a poetry reading or wear a Marchesa dress. Knowing what we know now, it’s chilling and frankly scary to think how far that that behavior extended. He was always asking celebrities for things and being extremely aggressive about it.”

Weinstein was widely rumored to wage whisper campaigns against his competitors. The last time Spielberg won a best-director Oscar was in 1999 for “Saving Private Ryan,” which lost an epic behind-the-scenes battle for best picture to Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love.” “For Harvey, campaigning was a blood sport, and I don’t think it had ever been a blood sport before,” Terry Press, who was then Spielberg’s head of marketing at DreamWorks, told me. “Everybody wants to win. But Harvey wanted to win and kill everything else.” Many of the top consultants working today came out of the Miramax school, including Swartz, Angellotti and Lisa Taback, who went in-house at Netflix in 2018.

A number of regulations that the academy has issued since then to police campaigning have been in response to tactics pioneered by Weinstein. Today campaigners can reach out to academy voters only via approved mailing houses, and only once a week, and if a reception accompanies a screening it may only provide “nonexcessive food and beverage.” In Phase 2, no food or drink is allowed at all, including water. “I think the academy is full of it sometimes with this stuff,” a strategist with several films in the race told me. “You know, people have jobs. If you want them to see a movie at 7 p.m., and they’re coming from work, give them some popcorn and a water, my God! What are you trying to prove? I’m of the opinion that you could buy someone the most expensive lobster dinner and it is not going to change the way they vote. The only thing it might do is entice them to come see the movie — maybe.”

The campaign industry that exists today has grown with and around the rules. With mailed screeners no longer permitted, films are typically uploaded to the academy’s online screening room at a cost of $20,000. Because campaigners can’t contact academy members directly, they try to reach them other ways, such as with $90,000 cover ads in the trades and paid email blasts through the guilds. Then there are the endless screenings, live score performances, dinners, trade round tables, precursor awards and special magazine issues — this publication also does one — all a part of a symbiotic ecosystem that is fed by the awards business.

Once streaming platforms entered the arena and the best-picture category grew to 10 films, the campaign business expanded. Whereas a major studio might spend anywhere from $5 million to $25 million on an Oscars campaign, Netflix was estimated to deploy upward of $40 million on “Roma” in 2019, more than double the film’s production budget. The following year, Netflix spent a reported $70 million on its Oscar campaigns, which included “Marriage Story” and “The Irishman.” (A Netflix representative described those estimates as inaccurate.) Sometimes campaign spending has less to do with securing nominations than awards-hungry talent. “When there’s a race for the biggest names in the business, part of that is, ‘How are you going to support my film?’” an awards consultant told me. All of this is further reinforced by financial incentives. A nomination means that an actor’s or director’s fee goes up considerably. And the awards consultants who deliver those nominations get bonuses: upward of $25,000 for a best-picture nomination; another $50,000 for a win.

“Winning awards has become the guiding principle of our industry, and it’s what’s destroying it,” Amanda Lundberg, the chief executive of 42West, which is working on the “Top Gun: Maverick” campaign, told me. (The publicity firm also consulted on “To Leslie” until December, when another firm took it over.) “It’s gotten to a place where every single filmmaker thinks their movie is an award contender.” Last year, Lundberg had a meeting with a filmmaker who wanted to discuss a best-picture campaign but hadn’t yet shown Lundberg the actual film. “It’s like we’re award fetchers,” she said. “Like you can just order that with me as if I’m 1-800-Oscar.”

Lundberg worked for Miramax, starting in 1988 and again beginning in 2002. Despite all the new academy regulations, Lundberg believes the appetite for Weinstein’s tactics is as insatiable as ever. “Here’s the thing,” she said. “Everybody hates Harvey, and he’s in jail, and he should be. He’s a criminal and he raped people. But people liked his results, and they still want them.” Lundberg continued: “People are desperate to win awards. And we’ve guided it here because we’ve rewarded it with money and prestige. So what happens when people want something that’s limited? Do the math. It causes all sorts of behavior, and people lose where the line is.”

Riseborough may not have secured her nomination if it weren’t for the complex math behind how nominations are tabulated. In Phase 2, Oscar winners are voted on by the entire academy. But in Phase 1, with the exception of best picture, they’re selected by their peers — i.e., actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors and so on. Members of the acting branch list their top five choices in order of preference, but not all of them vote. In other words, you don’t need the whole academy to like you; only actors, and only a small fraction of them.

Much of the criticism leveled at the Riseborough campaign has been about how strategic it seemed despite being described as organic. McCormack encouraged her social circle to post about the film daily, a directive that the actress Frances Fisher — she played Kate Winslet’s mother in “Titanic” — seemingly took to heart. She posted about Riseborough almost every day during the week of nominations voting. “Hello actors branch of the academy!” Fisher wrote on Instagram, addressing the voters directly. In another post, Fisher broke down the math of just how few of their votes it would take to get Riseborough nominated, citing a story in Deadline Hollywood: “#AndreaRiseborough can secure an #Oscar nomination if 218 (out 1,302) actors in the Actors Branch nominate her in 1st position for #BestActress.” (The academy disputes the accuracy of those numbers; Fisher declined to comment.) And though campaign regulations forbid mentioning competitors by name, Fisher urged the acting branch to choose Riseborough, because it “seems to be that Viola, Michelle, Danielle & Cate are a lock for their outstanding work.”

A best-actress campaign can run to $5 million. There is no question that the distributor of “To Leslie,” Momentum Pictures, did not spend that. The movie itself was made for less, and Riseborough and Michael Morris helped pay for the campaign themselves. Still, P.R. firms were hired. A social-media campaign was organized. And several people worked their phones to drum up support, including McCormack and McCormack’s and Riseborough’s manager, Jason Weinberg, whose roster of clients includes some of the movie stars who endorsed the actress. “Hand-to-hand combat,” as this style of campaigning is known, is not unheard of. Everybody does it, consultants told me, but they’re usually less overt about it. “You know, it wasn’t just, ‘We’re the little engine that could,’” a seasoned strategist with a few clients in the race told me. “It was more than that.”

The thing with actors is they tend to like a certain kind of performance — big, physical and full of interesting “choices,” all of which Riseborough’s is. (Kate Winslet called it the greatest performance by a female actor she had ever seen.) The actors who campaigned for Riseborough probably believed they were simply championing an overlooked and worthy performer. Is it possible that some didn’t know they were violating regulations? Of course it’s possible. Have you seen what happens when actors come together for a cause? It can be clueless, but it is usually well intentioned. (See Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” video from the early days of the pandemic.) But in the process, they circumvented the vast Oscar machinery that has arisen since those early Miramax days.

The academy’s regulations are a bit like the Talmud: maddeningly specific in certain places — mailings about a film may include only “an unembellished, creditless synopsis” — and vague in others. There’s even a clause that basically says, Mind the spirit of these rules, as they apply to things we haven’t even thought of yet. Every year campaign strategists call the academy, asking if certain things are OK, such as menus and party invitations. If anyone with a good Rolodex could bypass this system, then what is the point of the Oscar consultants hired to navigate it?

But it also seemed to open a larger question of who the true underdog is in an Oscars race. Is it the actress without a studio or millions of dollars behind her, or the one with studio support and fewer connections? Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of “The Woman King,” a blockbuster released by Sony, argued the latter in The Hollywood Reporter, addressing Riseborough’s nomination directly. “My issue with what happened is how people in the industry use their social capital,” she said, adding, “people say, ‘Well, Viola and Danielle had studios behind them.’ But we just very clearly saw that social capital is more valuable.” Perhaps, but surely starring in a $50 million critically acclaimed studio film is valuable too and is the entire reason that those working in obscurity make a play for an Oscar. At the end of the day, the campaign game 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 didn’t personally violate campaign rules. But few expected the ruling to go any other way. Penalizing those involved with the campaign would mean a move against Hollywood’s biggest names, whom the academy needs to star in their movies and show up to the awards. “This town doesn’t move without actors,” one veteran strategist told me. “If they came down on this campaign, well, that’s an indictment of Charlize Theron, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton. But the truth is, if I did it, I would be in academy jail.”

It is worth remembering that the Academy Awards were created as a marketing device to entice people to see movies and, like football, used to air on Monday nights to boost ratings. “This is not the Nobel Peace Prize,” Lundberg told me. That doesn’t necessarily stop some Oscar winners from acting as if it is. At best, a nomination can extend the theatrical release of a film and drive more people to watch it long after it has left theaters. But it is just that: an ad created by a professional organization to sell you on movies even if — and especially as — their quality is in evident decline. “Every year, everyone talks about what a magnificent year this has been for movies,” Angellotti told me, “and the public is going, ‘Really?’”

Many of the films nominated this year are a product of the Covid years. Spielberg wouldn’t have made “The Fabelmans” if he wasn’t stuck at home, contemplating mortality and wondering which stories he hadn’t told yet. (The answer turned out to be his own.) “Everything Everywhere All at Once” had to shut down production early and film Yeoh over Zoom, which is also how Blanchett learned to conduct for “Tár.” “The Banshees of Inisherin,” filmed on remote islands with a small cast, was an especially pandemic-friendly production. Movie theaters, meanwhile, have closed faster than audiences could keep track of, and 2022 box-office numbers fell short of the year’s meager predictions. (Theatrical attendance has shrunk by half in the last four years.) All of this is a reason to ask just how much Oscars drama, this year or any other, is manufactured by the very people whose job it is to get us to watch. The Riseborough controversy, though unpleasant for those involved, has ultimately led to many more people seeing “To Leslie.” (Momentum Pictures re-released the film in select theaters.)

Looking ahead, some wondered if the only way to save the movie business from itself is to go back to the innocent pre-Miramax days of more restrained Oscar campaigns. If running a rule-abiding campaign can’t be done without millions of dollars, then the next logical step would be addressing those inequities. But instituting spending caps is a nonstarter, as it would mean big losses for the trades, screening rooms, caterers, consultants, stylists and any other entity that benefits from awards business. “Who’s going to call The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter and say we can’t take out ads anymore?” Angellotti said. “That’s called restriction of trade. I don’t see it as a viable situation.” Not to mention that many Oscar strategists are themselves voting members of the Marketing and Public Relations branch of the academy.

This year, Terry Press is once again working with Spielberg, who has a well-documented aversion to Oscar campaigning. She admitted that spending limits were an intriguing if unrealistic idea. “I’m cutting off my nose to spite my face here,” she said, “but I would love to see somebody go all the way and spend nothing on any of this.

“Because then,” she added, “it’s really going to be about the movie.”

Irina Aleksander is a contributing writer for the New York Times.

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