When the nominations for the 95th Academy Awards were announced on Jan. 24, Andrea Riseborough’s nomination for Best Actress for her performance in independent film To Leslie shocked the film world. This isn't because people thought Riseborough’s performance was unworthy of recognition, but because of her unprecedented path towards landing a spot in the incredibly competitive Best Actress category.
To Leslie was filmed with a budget of less than a million dollars, grossed only about $27,000, and had virtually zero awards buzz prior to the Oscar nomination window opening. Riseborough was nominated for Best Lead Performance at the Independent Spirit Awards, but other than that had not been in the conversation for a nomination. Nevertheless, when the category was read out, Riseborough soared above previous Oscar winner Viola Davis (The Woman King) and other strong competitors like Danielle Deadwyler (Till) and Olivia Colman (Empire of Light).
Riseborough’s campaign was not pushed by mega–studios like Disney or Netflix (who have departments filled with people whose sole jobs are to get films and performers Oscar nominations), but by A–list actors who praised her performance on Instagram and Twitter.
On his Instagram, Edward Norton posted in support of Riseborough, writing “I don’t post a lot about films or actor performances ... But for those interested in really great acting I’ll share that Andrea Riseborough’s portrayal in ‘To Leslie’ just knocked me sideways.”
Kate Winslet also supported the wave of praise for Riseborough, saying that her performance in To Leslie was "the greatest female performance on screen I have ever seen in my life."
Riseborough’s nomination signals a massive shift in how films and performances are promoted for awards season. Rather than spending millions of dollars on parties and Q&A sessions, perhaps film producers and studios should look to social media endorsements to gain steam for nominations.
It's the perfect model for the future. But it is surprising that after a decade of influencing and social media advertising legitimizing as an industry, Riseborough is the first to use social media exclusively to get into the conversation. Taking its cost–effectiveness into account, it's almost inevitable that awards season campaigning would eventually land on Instagram.
Perhaps even more compelling than Riseborough’s path to a nomination was the intense pushback on her grassroots campaign, which culminated in a recent investigation by the Academy. The investigation was conducted to see if To Leslie’s marketing tactics violated Academy guidelines. Ultimately, Riseborough’s nomination was not rescinded, but Academy CEO Bill Kramer said that the Academy discovered “social media and outreach campaigning tactics that caused concern” that they will look into further.
The Academy's reaction seems like it would have been more appropriate in 2013 than in 2023, as social media has solidified its status by now as the center of not only society and popular culture, but also, to a large extent, commerce and advertising. Especially when viewership for the Academy Awards continues to decline, perhaps the Academy should be embracing this turn to social media and using it to modernize awards shows. Using social media could make not just voters, but the general public, more aware of the films and performances in consideration, and prevent awards shows from becoming obsolete or culturally irrelevant.
Riseborough is not favored to win the Oscar for Best Actress, but successfully getting a nomination after essentially a two–week grassroots campaign that didn't involve hosting lavish events or a slate of high–profile interviews and magazine shoots, is a major win in itself. It has the potential to alter the course of awards campaigning forever, as many more film producers or campaign teams may see that social media campaigns get to the voters more effectively than any other method at this moment in time.
Win or lose, Riseborough’s nomination is the most significant of this category, and will likely be the moment from this awards season that is remembered for years to come.