Oscars 2023: Academy Members as Social Media Influencers

Jan 26, 2023
Oscars 2023: Academy Members as Social Media Influencers

A brand new career has opened up for Academy members. It’s the same path open to just about about every kind of person: the influencer. Social media platforms have now given anyone a voice and a way to showcase themselves to sell stuff. Many of them are on YouTube — I follow quite a few, from Mav to Itsblitzz to Nomadic Introvert. And I also follow health, makeup, exercise. Two of my favorites are Hot and Flashy and Dominique Sachse. And that’s all before you even get to TikTok (yes, they’re there too, inevitably) and Instagram (naturally, a perfect fit). You follow them, you know them, you like them, you trust them and so you buy things they recommend. I have never bought anything from these influencers that I regretted. They don’t tend to recommend stuff that isn’t good. They know how to protect their brand reputation.

But there is another layer of influencer creeping in beyond those self-made ones mentioned above — the celebrity influencer. People like Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop empire. The Kardashians, if you can call them celebrities (I guess they are). Michelle Pfeiffer sells perfume now. Reese Witherspoon sells clothes. They have platforms with millions of followers and so why not brand their already famous images to sell things as a side hustle?

Social media influencing isn’t just about selling products. It’s also often about selling ideology. It is about aligning people as part of larger movements. In 2020, for instance, hundreds of celebrities had to signal their support for Black Lives Matter or and some many who didn’t were called out. Marching, making signs, black squares. True of political causes like the climate or abortion. The days of throwing red paint on a fur coat are long gone. It’s much much bigger than that now and it can make or break your career.

Social media has added more pressure in equal measure. It’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of a time when almost anyone can be famous and once you’re famous you’re either an influencer or a target. Sometimes both. Big Brother is always watching.

Andrea Riseborough earned a nomination yesterday for her work in the hardly-seen indie film To Leslie. It’s a good performance. She plays a drunk who abandons her son and tries to pull her life together. Reminiscent in some ways of bravura turns like Gena Rowlands in Gloria (1980) and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby (2006).  These kinds of movies have only two poossible endings. You’ll have to watch it for yourself to find out how this one goes. In the weeks leading up to the Oscar nominations yesterday, it seemed like an usual number of high-profile actresses, mainly, and some actors were suddenly on social media praising Riseborough’s performance, with the kind of hyperbole we don’t often see in, say, from film critics. In some instances it seemed to veer into something along the lines of “the greatest performance of all time by any living human.” Okay, it wasn’t quite that bad but that’s not far off.

Right away it was clear that someone powerful was pulling multiple strings here. Did Riseborough make the calls herself? Did someone else? A high-powered agent? The producer of the movie? What was going on?

Ultimately, the effort paid off. Riseborough would get a nomination, and along with Ana de Armas for Blonde and Michelle Williams for The Fabelmans seats at table were occupied that many hoped would be reserved for Danielle Deadwyler for Till and Viola Davis for The Woman King. I figured if Riseborough made it in Davis would be the first cut, but I will admit I was surprised when it was Deadwyler was left out too. It’s one of those things that just looks bad at a time when Hollywood is supposedly making a concerted effort to strive for equity, diversity, and inclusion. Jennifer Hudson was shut out in similar fashion last year, despite people like me championing her every day.

It’s hard out there for a pimp. I mean, it really is. Riseborough has been kicking around town a long time. She’s had a part here, a part there. Nothing ever really popped. I first noticed her in The Battle of the Sexes:

There is no replacing buzz in building regard for a performance. Riseborough was one of the ten nominees at the Independent Spirit Awards, one of the “gender-neutral” debacles we’ve seen this year. Good luck standing out in a group of ten. But we’re GOOD PEOPLE DOING GOOD THINGS! She had no shot up against Cate Blanchett or Michelle Yeoh. Wait, did that even happen yet? It’s all a blur.

Two things jump out at me immediately with this story. The first is that several prominent Academy members see themselves now as social media influencers, and if the Academy doesn’t do something to set standards about that it’s only going to get bigger and louder. Here are a few examples: in 2012, Ed Asner spearheaded  a campaign to take down Zero Dark Thirty, in 2016, there was a loud and vocal campaign by an actor to vote for Moonlight and not La La Land, in 2019, many high-profile Academy members were online using their platforms to vote for Parasite.

The thing about influencing is that it works. Trust me, I know. I’m sucked into it almost every day. If you like and trust the person you’re following, especially if they’re already famous, you will want to be part of their world somehow. The way you do that is by buying something they sell. As we speak, I am wearing TWO necklaces by Swedish jewelry designer Jonna Jinton. I only know who she is at all because of her amazing YouTube channel. When she sells a personally designed necklace who wouldn’t want to buy it if they could afford it?

While driving across country to see my daughter this past Christmas, I was caught in a historic “bomb cyclone” and was genuinely worried for the first time I might not make it — and I clutched my necklace and said to myself, “Be like the bison.” Was I ashamed of this? No. Should I have been? Maybe. Probably.

Plenty of celebrities host screenings during Oscar season to try to win votes or get a nomination for a film or an actor. It has even been thus, for decades. But that’s different from social media influencing.

Gangs of New York, William Goldman, Miramax and Robert Wise

Back in the early days of the Oscars, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York was up for Best Picture. Robert Wise had said something nice about him. Ever the resourceful campaigner, Harvey Weinstein turned that into an FYC ad and a controversy was born. Some said it was so distasteful that it turned voters off and led to a crackdown on personal campaigning.

Scott Feinberg, way back in 2012, wrote this about that pivotal year (2003):

Nine awards seasons ago, two op-eds — both involving the Miramax film Gangs of New York (2002) — motivated the Academy to begin cracking down on “distasteful” Oscar campaigning, an effort that continues to this day.

The first appeared in Variety on Feb. 2, 2003, and was penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men). In the 811-word piece, which was entitled “Crashing the Party for Poor Marty,” the Academy member lambasted Gangs and its director, Martin Scorsese, who had yet to win a best director Oscar, and who — largely for that reason — was regarded as that year’s frontrunner. (Roman Polanski wound up winning for The Pianist.) At the beginning of the piece, Goldman claimed to have been an early fan of Scorsese, but went on to refer to him as a “giant ape director” and said he “sure doesn’t deserve” to win for Gangs because it “is a mess.” He closed by saying, “I guess if you can’t move people legitimately, you do what you have to do.”

The second appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News and the Long Beach Press-Telegram on March 6, 2003, just as Academy members were mulling over their final ballots, and was penned by — or least credited to — Oscar-winning director and former Academy president Robert Wise (West Side Story and The Sound of Music). In the 500-word piece, the 88-year-old said of Gangs and Scorsese, “It’s a film that is, for me, both a remarkable movie in its own right, and in many ways a summation of his entire body of work.” He asked, “Could this be the year that Oscar catches up with the rest of us and recognizes the wonderful body of work of this great director, and the huge achievement that is Gangs of New York?” Just days later, Miramax took out ads in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety that blared the headline: “Two Time Academy Award Winner Robert Wise Declares Scorsese Deserves the Oscar for Gangs of New York.”

Feinberg makes it clear that it wasn’t exactly against the rules, but it was perceived as distasteful for some of the most famous members to reveal which movie or filmmaker they intended to vote for, thinking it might influence other voters in an unfair way. The reason there are FYC ads at all is because members aren’t supposed to be out there campaigning for other contenders. Not to mention, that this was all precipitated by Miramax as a way to combat William Goldman’s earlier smear against Gangs of New York. Still, there does seem to be something mildly unethical about this:

The publicist explained that he had independently reached out to Wise, a known fan and friend of Scorsese, to see if he was “interested in rebutting criticisms of Gangs” — almost certainly a reference to Goldman’s op-ed — by writing an op-ed supporting its director. According to the publicist, Wise said he was interested and asked the publicist to draft a letter around several talking points that he specified, after which Wise was faxed a copy and issued his authorization to print it. (Wise’s wife did not dispute this account.)

The idea of using Robert Wise, a beloved and legendary Academy member, as an ad turned people off. Now, of course, they wouldn’t have to do that because there are bloggers like me who would have gone after Goldman. I was, of course, around back then but my site wasn’t yet a blog – there were no blogs then. It was just an internet site that not many people read.

Irwin Winkler wrote an op-ed in Variety to counter William Goldman’s piece, but it feels like the damage was done just by saying what was true out loud. Gangs of New York was not premium-quality Scorsese, by any means. But many people did want Martin Scorsese to win an Oscar so badly they were willing to overlook that part of it. Goldman was right and honest. But it was also damaging to whatever balls Miramax was juggling back then from a campaign standpoint.

Janet Maslin had the best quote about Gangs of New York when she wrote, “the Academy loved Gangs of New York until they actually saw it.”

I don’t think Riseborough should be derided, or blamed, or punished for her nomination leaving no room for Deadwyler or Davis. It wasn’t her fault. Rather, we should look at the bigger picture. The Academy has to somehow confront the idea of its members taking to social media to publicize or bring awareness to or help push a contender. They have to decide if that is what they want to do.

And those of us who work the circuit have to ask ourselves why our own consensus can quickly become so limited by year’s end that Riseborough had to resort to this kind of tactic to be considered. We mainly take our cues from buzz or what other members are thinking. Riseborough’s performance, for whatever reason, had no buzz at all. Partly because she had no way of standing out as an older white character actress whose movie no one saw, from a production company with no money to spend on a pricey Oscar campaign, because many of those who cover film do so with a political agenda in mind, how to move the needle in terms of identity. But it was also because playing a drunk or an addict isn’t exactly earth-shattering by now. We’ve been there, done that.

I, for one, am going to use this moment to do some self-reflection about the game of Oscar and whether those of us who predict/cover the race are not being open enough to a wider range of possibilities. Why are we so quick to say “it won’t happen.”

For Riseborough, her name, unfortunately,  will always be associated with the way she was nominated, and not for the role. But at the very least, by now, people know her name.

Source: awardsdaily