After a review of the unconventional awards campaign that helped the British actress secure a surprise best actress nomination for microbudget movie "To Leslie," the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) said on Wednesday they won't take any action against Riseborough or revoke her nomination.
But, in a statement, which didn't mention Riseborough by name, AMPAS boss Bill Kramer said the investigation found "social media and outreach campaigning tactics that caused concern. These tactics are being addressed with the responsible parties directly."
A no-budget film's surprise nomination
Riseborough pulled off the most surprising coup of this awards season. Her best actress nomination, for playing a struggling alcoholic mother in "To Leslie," came out of nowhere.
When the motion picture debuted at the South by Southwest film festival last March, most critics praised Riseborough's harrowing performance.
But before the grassroots campaign pushed it over the Oscar line, almost nobody else had seen it.
"To Leslie" made less than $30,000 (€27,500) at the US box office, making it one of the lowest-grossing movies to ever score an Oscar nomination.
Riseborough was also a no-show in nominations for the various awards — the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, the BAFTAs — usually seen as Oscar predictors. (She did get nominated for the Independent Spirit Awards, however, which honor smaller movies often overlooked by the Academy Awards).
It was so surprising, many called foul and accused Riseborough and "To Leslie" director Michael Morris of violating Oscar campaign rules, which forbids anyone lobbying for a film or an award from directly contacting other Academy members and outlaws any "public communication" that casts other films or performers in a negative light.
'To Leslie' used a 'grassroots' celebrity campaign
The "To Leslie" team appears to have used insider connections to Hollywood stars to help juice their nomination campaign.
Morris and his wife, actress Mary McCormack, showed "To Leslie" to their friend, shock jock Howard Stern, at a private event last summer. Stern then featured the movie on his popular SiriusXM radio show.
"To Leslie" co-star Marc Maron hosted Riseborough on his popular podcast WTF.
Other celebrity colleagues got behind the film. Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Edward Norton hosted screenings. Kate Winslet and Amy Adams moderated a virtual Q&A session with Riseborough. Cate Blanchett, a best actress nominee this year for "Tar," even praised Riseborough's performance at her acceptance speech at the Critics' Choice Awards on January 15.
The biggest push came online. Major Hollywood studios often spend millions in TV and print ads to try and win over Oscar voters. But with no money to put into traditional advertising and promotion, the "To Leslie" team took to social media, encouraging VIPs to post, tweet and otherwise get the word out about the movie and Riseborough's performance.
Hollywood trade magazine Variety reported on an email McCormack sent to famous friends asking them to "post every day" from the start of Oscar nomination voting on January 12 to its close on January 17, and even including images and suggested hashtags to use in the posts to get maximum social media reach.
"It's about the most fully committed, emotionally deep, physically harrowing performance I've seen in a while," praised Edward Norton in one tweet.
On Instagram, Gwyneth Paltrow said Riseborough should win every award, including "all the ones that haven't been invented yet."
Power, privilege and echoes of #OscarsSoWhite
For many, this smacked of unfair privilege. Not everyone, after all, has access to a Rolodex as impressive as those of Riseborough, Morris and McCormack.
There have even been accusations of institutional racism: Riseborough, a white actress, got nominated for a tiny film which did almost no conventional marketing, while two major performances by Black actresses — Viola Davis in "The Woman King" and Danielle Deadwyler in "Till" — were shut out, despite both being in bigger, more successful movies and spending months on the campaign trail, doing private Academy screenings, meet-and-greets and endless press promotion.
"We live in a world and work in industries that are so aggressively committed to upholding whiteness and perpetuating an unabashed misogyny toward Black women," "Till" director Chinonye Chukwu said in response to Deadwyler's snub.
It was an echo of the sentiment that gave rise to April Reign's #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2015, when the activist, and film lover, called out the Academy for systematically overlooking Black artists.
The #OscarsSoWhite movement helped push through major changes at the Academy, including a multi-year effort to diversify its voting body, an effort many credit with the best picture Oscar wins for "Moonlight" and "Parasite" just a few years later.
Social media, a game-changer
But framing Riesborough's "To Leslie" campaign as a story of power and privilege misses the role social media played in her surprise upset.
Personal promotion, even leaning on friends in the industry to back your movie, is nothing new.
Back in the 1940s and 50s, when actors were signed on contract to a single studio, Academy members were forced to vote as a block. Fox actors voted for Fox films, Warner Brothers' talent for WB movies. MGM, which famously had "more stars than there are in heaven" on contract, won the Oscars year after year.
More recently, aggressive producers have been known to bend or break the Academy rules to give their contender an edge. The most shameless was the infamous Harvey Weinstein, who once commissioned two-time Oscar-winning director Robert Wise ("West Side Story," "The Sound of Music") to write an op-ed praising Weinstein's award contender "Gangs of New York" and calling on the Academy to give its director, Martin Scorsese, an Oscar.
More broadly, talking up your awards contender at an Academy screening or other event — the Hollywood calendar during awards season is packed with private dinners, luncheons and other glad-hander opportunities — is both commonplace and expected.
The big difference with Riseborough's campaign is that it happened not behind closed doors at VIP events but in public online, where everyone could see.
The Academy's regulations restricting direct lobbying were designed for an analog era where if you wanted to promote your contender, you paid for a billboard or took out a newspaper ad. What you said in private was, for the most part, your own business.
But in the age of social media, the line between the public and private, between one's personal opinion and a promotional advertisement, has become blurred beyond recognition. Instead of blaming Riseborough and a small indie film for understanding how to play the online game, the Oscars are probably realizing now that they should update their rules for the 21st century.