‘To Leslie,’ Part II: Inside the Hunt for the Next Surprise Low-Budget Oscar Campaign (Column)

11 March 2023

A veteran producer and sales agent once told me that, for a billion dollars, anyone could buy their way into the Oscar race for Best Picture. In recent months, that prediction proved altogether generous.

While not a Best Picture contender, Andrea Riseborough’s performance in “To Leslie” demonstrated the potential of DIY campaigning to chart a surprising path into a major Oscar category. Controversial or not, and despite all the potential campaign violations it raised, Riseborough’s Best Actress nomination got the attention of other established actors who work on low-budget movies with limited resources. As one veteran awards consultant told me this week, “People are now going to say, ‘Where’s my Andrea Riseborough campaign?’”

The answer to that question requires some meticulous number-crunching as well as ample chutzpah. The Oscar race is often a Trojan horse for cinema that would go otherwise unrecognized by the U.S. industry, but in the past that usually has meant the Best International Feature Film category. Oscar season can elevate movies from around the world like nothing else — but Riseborough’s “To Leslie” nomination suggests that low-budget American movies struggling for attention can get a boost, too.

While I saw “To Leslie” as a hokey melodrama, Riseborough’s nomination in a movie that premiered under the radar at SXSW last year and cost less than $1 million indicates undeniable opportunity for smaller projects. As a case study, it suggests you need at least one moderate star in their cast — preferably someone respected, but underappreciated — in order to consider the hard costs of a campaign.

As this weekly column looks at problems and opportunity within the film community, it’s worth noting that the Riseborough nomination represents both ends of that equation: problem and opportunity. The bad part: Riseborough leveraged Hollywood access that made the uneven playing field especially clear. There were women in color in contention for the same category and Riseborough’s ability to tap famous friends for free support led to charges of a racial imbalance in play. If so, that’s a byproduct of larger forces at work within this troubled industry.

There’s no question that “To Leslie” proved that cost-effective strategies can work in favor of certain movies with no other option. It seems so obvious that it’s surprising it took decades of Oscar-season bloodbaths for grassroots tactics to break through. The closest modern comparison I could find was Marion Cotillard’s 2014 nomination for the Dardenne brothers’ “Two Days, One Night,” a French-language Cannes winner released in the U.S. by IFC Films, which certainly didn’t have the budget for a costly FYC campaign. After Cotillard became a surprise Best Actress winner at New York Film Critics Circle, word of mouth started to build, and enthusiasm for Cotillard’s turn as a desperate woman fighting to save her family spread quickly among her acting peers.

“Two Days, One Night”

Canal+/La Wallonie/Casa Kafka/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Cotillard was already widely recognized as an awards-worthy performer: She won seven years earlier for “La Vie En Rose,” and “Two Days, One Night” was directed by two of Europe’s most revered directors. However, plenty of other DIY acting campaigns coalesced in recent years around actresses who, like Riseborough, have been hiding in plain sight. Sienna Miller in “American Woman” and Lois Smith in “Marjorie Prime” come to mind.

In these cases, the movies are asterisks to the performances themselves, with actors whose significant careers root them in a community of influential peers. They also have major social capital. Riseborough’s agent, Jason Weinberg, reps countless Academy members from the actors branch and — this is crucial — didn’t hesitate to ask them all to watch the movie. Awards consultants told me that while they always push managers and talent to turn to their Rolodex and tap famous friends for help, the request usually goes nowhere. Hollywood thrives on transactional relationships; reps usually resist pushing other clients to chip in unless there’s something in it for them. Post-Riseborough, that may change.

In the case of “To Leslie,” the makeshift campaign team — which included Wineburg and actress Mary McCormack, whose husband directed the movie — had no problem taking the shameless route. They inundated their network with requests for support, provided them with assets and talking points, and turned their limited funds into a part of their appeal. That’s a lot more aggressive than contenders inviting their voting peers to an event; if they can’t come, there’s always a link. It’s all hint-hint, nudge-nudge. The more overt approach from the “To Leslie” team also created liabilities; actress Frances Fischer’s post singling out other contenders was flagged as a major violation. The campaign was willing to take the risk.

However, even as the “To Leslie” team traded subtlety for overstatement, the campaign didn’t cost zero dollars. Among the participants it employed was Narrative PR, which certainly didn’t work for free, and Shelter, which reps Riseborough. One awards consultant estimated to me that the “To Leslie” campaign likely cost somewhere in the realm of $250,000. (The “To Leslie” team did not respond to a request for comment.)

That’s a high-end figure for movies with no serious awards budget. Let’s take a look at the indisputable price tags that every modern Oscar campaign must incur to even consider the possibility of a nomination.

It has been widely reported that the Academy charges $20,000 for a movie to appear on the Oscars’ all-important streaming platform, the Academy Screening Room. However, as an Academy spokesperson confirmed to me last year, the Academy does offer discounts to movies that can prove they were made on low budgets and lack the ability to pay the full amount. Nevertheless, assume $20,000 is the starting point for ensuring that all 10,000 voters can see the movie.

Then there’s the built-in Academy e-mail blasts. Limited to once a week and costing $2,500 per blast, they’re the most reliable way to keep reminding members about the movie. If we estimate that the average awards campaign lasts six months, from November through February, that’s 24 weeks of weekly email blasts at a cost of $60,000.

Many talented publicists will work on a monthly retainer fee in the $5,000-$10,000 range. Assume the higher estimate on that and you have another $60,000 for a six-month campaign. That brings us to $140,000, and we may as well toss in a $10,000 slush fund to cover random expenses.

Screenings can get costly, but if you call in some favors and make friends with private screening rooms, you have the starting point for a guerrilla Oscar campaign for $150,000 — not nothing, but for a movie like “To Leslie” that cost around $1 million, certainly a manageable expense.

Still, the final pièce de résistance here is priceless: Have an established face, ideally one who has never been nominated before.

Actors of this caliber crop up all over the place, but they’re often hiding on the periphery of festivals, navigating projects that may or may not stand out. In the case of “To Leslie,” the movie’s presence at SXSW is notable because when it showed up there a year ago, it looked on paper like many other movies that had done the same, and never considered awards prospects months down the line.

In the past, SXSW has been a critical launchpad for talent in its most nascent form: Exactly 15 years ago, the 2008 edition launched everything from Greta Gerwig in “Nights and Weekends” (which caught the attention of Noah Baumbach) to Barry Jenkins’ charming first feature “Medicine for Melancholy” and the scruffy Safdie brothers debut “The Pleasure of Being Robbed.” Yet in 2022, the festival opened with “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” now the Oscar frontrunner for Best Picture, and it had “To Leslie.” So it stands to reason that with SXSW taking place in tandem with the Oscars this weekend, some new movies may be jockeying to follow similar trajectories. (Disclosure: SXSW and IndieWire are both owned by PMC.)

This time, A24 has big plans for “Problemista,” the first feature from “Los Espookys” creator Julio Torres, and MGM/UA’s “Bottoms” is positioned as a major crowdpleaser, a wild queer high school comedy from the team behind “Shiva Baby.” Both movies didn’t pre-screen ahead of the festival as their distributors aim to wield the SXSW buzz as a weapon for future release plans. But what about those smaller movies with major actors overdue for wider appreciation? I happened to see one.

“Story Ave,” the debut feature from writer-director Aristotle Torres, revolves around the experiences of a troubled Bronx teen (Asante Blackk) who lacks a supportive father figure and falls into a criminal lifestyle. He finds some measure of paternal support after attempting to rob a middle-aged MTA worker who coaxes the kid into staying with him and charting a better path forward. The older man in question is played by Luis Guzman, a 66-year-old likable Hollywood face who — like Riseborough! — has yet to be nominated.

The prospects of a lo-fi Best Supporting Actor campaign write themselves. Guzman could tap a cadre of top-tier filmmakers who have employed him over the years, from Paul Thomas Anderson to Steven Soderbergh, along with the actors who obviously treasure his skill. It wouldn’t hurt to point out that the last Puerto Rican actor to be nominated was Benicio del Toro for “21 Grams” … two decades ago.

Luis Guzman

Getty Images

Then there’s the movie itself. “Story Ave” provides Guzman a heartfelt showcase. He playing a damaged soul overwhelmed by regrets but keen on a second chance to do some good, and it’s a solid display of his ability to juggle contradictory emotions onscreen. As long as “Story Ave” comes out sometime this year, there’s no question Guzman’s team could hack a path to an Oscar campaign using the Riseborough playbook.

SXSW itself isn’t leaning into that potential. When I asked the festival’s newly minted film and TV producer Claudette Godfrey about the hunt for the next “To Leslie,” she shrugged it off. “Filmmakers always ask if a name actor will help them get into the festival,” she said. “Believe me, a lot of films with actors we recognize don’t get in.” A lot of SXSW movies don’t line up with industry consensus and wouldn’t resonate during awards season, even if they did feature good performances. “We have room to play things that are not 100 percent polished and maybe a little bit more raw,” Godfrey said.

She added that they urge filmmakers not to base their potential on the outcomes from previous years. “This is something we touch on all our orientations and our filmmaker welcome lunch — expectations,” she said. “We suggest to filmmakers to focus on what’s actually happening in the moment.”

If there’s one area of awards season that has remained immune to the influx of campaign spending, it’s the short film categories. Veteran documentarian Marshall Curry was nominated three times in a dozen years, so it struck me as notable that he finally won an Oscar for directing a narrative short film, “The Neighbor’s Window,” in 2019.

“There’s no money in selling a live-action short and so there’s no campaign money either,” Curry told me. “I think for those categories, most people just watch the films and vote for what they like. There’s not much marketing you can do or much momentum a campaign can build. The main thing you are trying to do is get people to just  watch the short films — and then they’ll decide for themselves what they liked.”

Curry pointed out that any Oscar campaign has to look at the work as having a larger goal. “I always tell people any money spent on the Oscars should really be focused on the larger strategy of getting people to watch your film,” he said. “It is always a long shot that any film can get nominated, let alone win, so make sure any money or effort has a real collateral benefit — to get people to watch the thing you had spent years making.”

This year, Danish documentary “Ivalu” marks the seventh nomination for producer Kim Magnusson, whose M&M Prods. cranks out Oscar-worthy short films on the regular; he won a decade ago for producing “Helium,” and has strong opinions about the state of short film campaigns.

“Short films don’t have the manpower and the money mostly to pay big campaign offices and publicists,” he told me over Zoom. The year he won for “Helium,” he added, the animation short category was seen as an upset because the high-profile Mickey Mouse short “Get a Horse!” lost to the French film “Mr. Hubolt,” and that was when he knew they had a chance. “It was the best movie that year, and that was when I realized that people were actually watching the shorts.”

“Ivalu”

Magnusson worried last year that when Riz Ahmed won as a producer of “The Long Goodbye,” in which he also starred, too many stars would try to storm the Oscars through short film race. Sorry, Taylor Swift, but easier said than done.

“I’m glad the Academy didn’t acknowledge those sort of campaigns,” Magnusson said. “Too many people thought the shorts were the fast track for the Oscar.” Still, Magnusson acknowledged that the shorts race had grown far more competitive and confessed that he was frustrated by the pressure to build out an awards budget for projects that generate no discernible revenue. “We always try to find a little money to do a little more campaigning,” he said. “But I would rather use that money to make a new film.”

Ultimately, anyone with an eye toward pulling a Riseborough in the awards season has to really drill down on the ROI. Get a second opinion. Read the reviews. The performance has to work on its own terms, the movie can’t be a total misfire, and there has to be another upside to the investment beyond the possibility of a nomination — ideally, this budget amounts to a marketing spend for all the talent involved and could chart a path toward finding more work. Every screening and event presents an opportunity to make that case. Buy your way into Oscar season if you must, but each dollar spent should double as an investment in whatever happens next.

As usual, I invite readers to share their feedback on this column via email: [email protected]

Check out earlier columns here

For more Oscar talk, check out this week’s Screen Talk.

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