Will the Academy Address Riseborough-gate?

Andrea Riseborough
The "grassroots" campaign to secure Andrea Riseborough an Oscar nomination for best actress is being investigated by the Academy. Photo: Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
January 30, 2023

An actor called me yesterday, and he was a little pissed. What’s the big f-ing deal?, he asked. Seriously! I don’t know this woman from Adam, but what did she actually do that was so wrong? 

This guy (he didn’t want his name mentioned, but he agreed I could discuss our conversation) has been an Academy member for years and always votes. And, as we know, said voting often occurs after intense campaigning by studios and streamers, including invites to hosted screenings and pleas to watch the movies—just like the ones that turned the push for the British actress Andrea Riseborough and her tiny film, To Leslie, into the subject of an Academy investigation regarding possible rules violations, as I first reported in Thursday’s What I’m Hearing.

This stuff has gone on forever, the actor continued, and I agreed. He’d seen some of the lobbying for Riseborough, especially the social media activity. He ended up not even watching the film—too much to see, he said, and it didn’t look like his cup of tea—but he was neither surprised nor offended when Riseborough’s name was included with the best actress nominees on Tuesday. Who cares?

I think my new buddy’s experience is probably pretty typical of others in the actors branch. He’s definitely not alone in thinking that the Academy— preoccupied by race and inclusion in the aftermath of the #OscarsSoWhite scandals—probably wouldn’t be investigating the situation if Riseborough hadn’t “pushed out” Black frontrunners Viola Davis (The Woman King) and Danielle Deadwyler (Till), even though we have no idea about the identity of the No. 6 vote-getter. Still, Whoopi Goldberg, who is a producer of Till, is an influential voice on the board of governors, representing the actors branch. I can only imagine that she’s pissed that her movie was snubbed.  

Where the actor and I differed, however, was on the point about whether the actual Academy guidelines should matter. I kinda think they should. People may consider this stuff silly—to outsiders, it definitely is. And it may seem weird that multi-million-dollar campaigns by the major conglomerates are OK, but aggressive emails and calls by individuals somehow aren’t. But there are rules governing campaigns, and they exist for a reason. If you think Oscar season is unseemly now, it would quickly devolve into Purge-style lawlessness, with harassment and outright graft, if the detailed guidelines didn’t exist. The Oscars is a business, a nearly $100 million a year television licensing business for the Academy, and ABC pays those fees based partly on the legitimacy of the awards. That’s fragile—just look at what’s happening with the Golden Globes—so at least the continued perception of integrity matters. The rules are confusing, hamfisted and incomplete, but at least they provide a mechanism to maintain integrity.  

As I discussed on Thursday, it’s pretty clear that To Leslie filmmaker Michael Morris, his wife, the actress Mary McCormack, manager Jason Weinberg, and others either broke or stretched beyond credulity those rules about harassing—sorry, lobbying—members via email and calls. And if actress Frances Fisher was in any way involved in the campaign, she definitely shouldn’t have been telling people to vote for Riseborough because Davis, Deadwyler and the other contenders were “a lock.”

I won’t get too into the nuances here, but the Academy rules actually discuss emails. “Film companies may not send a member more than one email and one hardcopy mailing per Monday through Sunday seven-day period for each film the company represents,” the rules read. And there’s an Academy-managed e-blast system you’re supposed to use. That applies to those working with campaigns, and it’s specifically intended to prevent the kind of relentless contacts that many received from McCormack and others. The Riseborough campaign has been described as “grassroots” and “organic,” but let’s be honest: McCormack knew her husband would benefit professionally from Riseborough’s nomination, so she went nuts.

I texted with two reps for actors who posted on social media, and they said the clients were contacted over and over again, with pleas to watch the movie, attend a screening, host a screening, post on social, etc. One said they were invited to McCormack and Morris’s home several times for events/screenings, even though they’ve never met. That happens during Oscar season, but these contacts were relentless, and outside the Academy’s official middleman service. That actor feels a bit embarrassed now, according to the rep, even though they did like Riseborough’s performance and felt justified in voting for her; they just feel manipulated.

Think about it: If Lisa Taback at Netflix, or one of the other big studio awards campaigners, were thwarting the specific correspondence rules, there would be outrage in that community. They don’t do it because they are sensitive (meaning afraid of) the rules, and they know the history. I mentioned on Thursday that songwriter Bruce Broughton was disqualified back in 2014, and remember in 2010, producer Nick Chartier was banned from the show for emailing members to vote for Hurt Locker and “not a $500 million film”—a reference to Avatar. Even if the letter of the rules aren’t violated, the Academy has leeway for situations that simply smell bad. “It should not be assumed that any tactics or activities not specifically addressed by these regulations are acceptable,” the rules state.     

My position may not be popular. I’ve noticed the awards media is all lining up behind Riseborough, which isn’t too surprising if you know how the Oscar season works. Most outlets that cover the race need access to actors—for the articles, the podcasts, the photo shoots, and the lucrative panels and Q&As that can pay pundits $500 a pop during the season. No shame there, that’s just how this ecosystem operates, and I’ve been a part of it too. But if you read defenses of actors doing things that got non-actors punished, you should at least know there are incentives to take that position.

Weinberg, who began his career as a publicist, is also known for working the press, dangling access in exchange for favorable coverage. He went quiet with me when I started asking about the campaign, but several people I talked to say he’s been bragging about the tactics. There may even be emails from him that the Academy will want to look at, though I haven’t seen any yet.    

I don’t think they’ll do anything anyway, my actor friend noted. On that front, I kinda agree—at least not in the way of punishment. Disqualifying Riseborough would invite more scrutiny on all Oscar campaigns, something the Academy definitely doesn’t want, and the others involved here aren’t expecting to go to the Oscars anyway. The Academy’s unsigned statement on Friday, ahead of its board of governors meeting on Tuesday, teased that “changes to the guidelines may be needed in a new era of social media and digital communication.” 

That’s what I think will happen. We’ll get some new rules on what digital communications are allowed, what’s not, how campaigns can post on social media, and then we’ll see how it all plays out until the next crafty creative person decides they really, really want an Oscar.