Hollywood loves a good underdog story, and the 2023 Academy Awards nominations are proving just that.
There has been a plentitude of unexpected nominations across ballots for titles like Everything Everywhere All At Once, Aftersun, and Living. What’s exciting about this is that it proves audiences are hungry for more than just the star-studded box-office money grabs that studios love.
However, be advised that these aforementioned films have actually been part of official award-season campaigns funded by major studios.
What’s really of interest, and what’s really getting the studios in a fuss, are the grassroots campaigns that are not funded by the Hollywood awards machine.
For instance, actress Andrea Riseborough earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Performance for the indie film To Leslie because her peers came out in droves on social media to praise her performance during the crucial voting window. The nod was so unusual that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opened an investigation reviewing their procedures for grassroots campaigns, but discovered that Riseborough's campaign didn't violate any of the AMPAS regulations.
And Riseborough isn’t the only grassroots campaign success story of this awards season.
How Are Indie Filmmakers and Composers Getting Oscar Noms?
Less talked about, but also of major importance, is the nomination of composer Mark Smythe, who just earned his first Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) nomination for Outstanding Score for an Independent Film. Smythe’s score for The Reef: Stalked is going up against far more recognizable titles: Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, Everything Everywhere All at Once, and The Whale.
Paste Magazine recently sat down with Smythe to find out how he was able to break through the noise and get his aquatic horror score heard in an industry that so loves to honor the brand names of composing.
For starters, Smythe was well acquainted with what goes into an awards campaign. He was the COO of the SCL up until 2021. Therefore, having spent a good amount of time liaising with publicists and publicity departments at studios, he knew the process of scheduling screening and Q&A events as well as what it would cost to do his own.
That didn’t mean it was easy.
When AMC, the owners of Shudder where the film streams, declined to help, saying that there was no budget left for the film (since one award email blast to members can cost up to $10,000), Smythe had to take things into his own hands. He created his own “fancy-looking” title card for his entry using the SLC Awards logo and the logo from the film.
However, when Smyth saw names like Hans Zimmer on some of the other 155 entries, he almost didn’t hold an SCL screening and Q&A for himself, worried that people would simply vote for the usual names based on reputation.
Luckily, he was persuaded by close friends to go through with it and was glad he did. Smythe said that the screening turned out to be a key part of the word-of-mouth campaign, in addition to attending as many SCL events as he could. He then sent out tons of emails, addressing people by name and playing up the David-versus-Goliath angle.
Some of the best advice Smythe gives here is to get creative and use your personality to your advantage. He plastered his campaign slogan; “Vote Mark, Vote Shark,” all over his social media. He even began doing his own mock interviews using stuffed animals, using ridiculous humor to stand out. The idea was that if could be just different enough, people might notice. It seems to have worked.
Both Smythe and Riseborough’s success is good news for those that don’t have a major studio backing their awards campaign. They’ve proven that, though difficult, if you put in the work, it is possible to usurp the studio juggernauts. Who knows, maybe in the future we’ll begin to see more success from similarly disadvantaged campaigns.
Do you have any tips for filmmakers wanting to do a grassroots campaign? Let us know in the comments!
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