OSCARS 2023: What Nominationgate Tells Us About The Oscars

To Leslie
Image via Momentum Pictures

It is the Academy’s goal to ensure that the Awards competition is conducted in a fair and ethical manner, and we are committed to ensuring an inclusive awards process. We are conducting 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. We have confidence in the integrity of our nomination and voting procedures, and support genuine grassroots campaigns for outstanding performances.

The above is a statement that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released on Friday. It is purposefully vague, but those of us who know the Oscars know what they are talking about. There was a nomination in this year’s list that seemingly came from out of nowhere. It wasn’t Michelle Yeoh for Everything Everywhere All At Once or Brendan Fraser for The Whale. No, it was the surprise nomination of Andrea Risebourogh for To Leslie that most likely brought about this review.

Never heard of To Leslie? You’re not alone. It debuted at South By Southwest in March of last year and had a brief theatrical run where it earned just a little over a whopping $27,000 dollars. And, no, I am not mistakenly leaving zeroes off the end of that gross. That is all that it made.

How could a film that no one saw, released early in the year to no acclaim and no box office, garner a Best Actress nomination? Well, that is the issue at hand.

To Leslie 2023 Academy Awards
Image via Momentum Pictures.

There was a very successful grassroots campaign to get Risenbourogh nominated. Oscar winners such as Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet held special screenings at their homes for their Academy member friends and Winslet and fellow Oscar winners Mira Sorvino, Helen Hunt and Susan Sarandon sung Risenbourogh’s praises on social media. Needless to say, this word of mouth campaign worked and Risenbourogh got a nomination.

Some of you not in the know might think that what happened in the above paragraph was horrible and tarnishes the legacy of the Oscars. You might think a review is definitely necessary and changes need to be made. Campaigning like this shouldn’t be associated with the Oscars at all.

Here’s the thing, campaigning is nothing new. It is a long standing tradition dating back to the start of the Oscars. Every year, the industry trade magazines a full with “For Your Consideration” ads advising Academy members to consider nominating this film or that actor. If the digital version of the trades match the print version, the January 11 edition of The Hollywood Reporter had 14 of these ads, 5 for Women Talking alone (2 at the front of the issue, three on the back, including the back cover). The same week’s Variety had 16 “For Your Consideration” ads.

But the issue here is that these types of ads aren’t always effective. Yes, nominated films such as Tar, The Fablemans, and The Banshees of Inisheran all had ads that ran in one or both trades. But you can argue that they would have gotten nods anyway. However, films like Armageddon Time and Good Luck to You, Leo Grande got nothing from the the ads they ran. The Academy has gone on record to say that they have received no formal complains about To Leslie’s campaign. But I can imagine that informally that some publicist at a party somewhere moaned about spending thousands of dollars in ads for their client and getting bupkis while Risenbourogh gets a nomination just because Edward Norton sent out a tweet (to be fair, To Leslie does have an ad in that Hollywood Reporter issue too).

The Academy has had a rather skewed view of why is acceptable campaigning and what is not. Way back in 2014, Bruce Broughton had his Oscar nominated song Alone But Not Alone removed from contention because the Academy thought he crossed a line with his attempt to get nominated. In 2017, a similar thing happened to Greg P. Russell, who had his Best Sound nomination rescinded when it was found out that he called and e-mailed Academy members to ask them to keep him in consideration. By all accounts, the people behind the To Leslie campaign does not appear to commit any of these particular sins, but the Academy has to figure out if Jennifer Aniston holding a movie night for her Academy member friends is also a violation of the weird ethics involved in campaigning.

This kind of hair-splittin – buying ads is fine but calling people individually is bad – is infuriating. But instead of getting up in arms over the way campaigning is done, perhaps we should dedicate some time examining why campaigning needs to be done.

The Academy presents the Oscars as the final word of everything that is great in the world of film. It’s not. It’s a highly politicized, deeply flawed system. You have to look no further than the Best Documentary category to see that.

The Oscars never recognize the best in film. They recognize great films that fit into their unwritten rules of what an Oscar-worthy film is. It should make money, but not too much money. It shouldn’t be science fiction, comedy or horror. It should be released in December. Are you playing a real person? In a historical epic? battling a disease that will ultimately take you life? All the while fighting injustice? Congratulations. Here’s your nomination.

Needless to say, this mercurial approach to its nominating process results in a lot of snubs. You have to be truly exceptional break through this invisible barrier to a nomination. This year has provided a number of exceptions to the above rules. But sometimes to become one of these exceptions, you have to grab the attention of the Academy members. That is what the makers of To Leslie did.

Most critics have singled out Risenbourogh’s performance as being spectacular and more than deserving of an Oscar nomination. But it wouldn’t have gotten a nod if it wasn’t for the social media and screenings done by the Hollywood elite. The film and her performance would have evaporated into the ether, soon to be forgotten.

This whole brouhaha reminds me of back in 1987, when Sally Kirkland underwent an Oscar campaign to get a nomination for her work in Anna. It was a great performance in a small, indie film, one that would have been ignored if not for its Oscar campaign. Only difference then is that Kirkland led the campaign, going so far as to cook dinner for Academy members. She got a nomination, but lost to Cher that year.

Should things be different? Absolutely. The Academy presents itself as egalitarian, but the bigger movies from bigger studios have a distinct advantage over the smaller indie films. They have the money for all those trade ads and billboards and mailers. The smaller films have to catch the Academy’s eye any way they can. If the review decides that social media and the other inventive ideas To Leslie used to promote itself is not longer kosher, it will be gatekeeping of the highest order, a point singled out by Marc Maron and Christina Ricci in their comments on this controversy.

The Academy in its statement tries to present an image of itself as trying to be fair. But what this whole controversy shows is just how unfair the Oscars really are.


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About William Gatevackes 1988 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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