Why Small Films Deserve a Chance at the Oscars

Here’s why small low-budget films deserve a chance at the Oscars.

The Oscars have traditionally been a rich man’s game. Wealthy actors star in big films that make millions of dollars, and they reward themselves for their achievements every Spring. The films aren’t always extremely popular, but they are always visible. And they always manage to break the bank. But winning an Academy Award isn’t just about performing in a big movie. Sometimes, the effort it takes to win an Oscar – especially in the Acting categories – costs more than the budget of the film that the actor was in. The Oscars are the big leagues, as they should be, but sometimes they can get too exclusive.

This year, the Oscars have been shadowed by the controversy of one Andrea Riseborough and her race for Best Actress. Riseborough starred in a small indie film called To Leslie which only made about $27,000, less than the average school teacher’s salary. Most people haven’t even heard of the film, so when she earned a nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role, they began to question just how it was possible. Right now, most people think Riseborough cheated her way into the Oscars. But if the movie had been a box office smash, would they still be suspicious?


Winning an Oscar Takes Money

When an actor wins an Oscar, it’s not just something that falls into their lap. Huge campaigns are planned. Massive public relations companies are employed. And lots of time is spent rubbing elbows with the more influential members of the Academy. In order to win one of these awards, one has to be talented, certainly, but there are a whole series of awards leading up to the Oscars that create a kind of yardstick to see how popular an actor is with their peers and if they’re worth the Academy’s time. An actor is expected to attend this series of award ceremonies on a trail that winds its way all across America and into the massive ballroom that seats every notable person in the entertainment industry. It’s a dog and pony show that parades an actor in front of their fellow performers, and it often takes just as much work as making a movie.

If an actor thinks they have a shot at an Oscar, they’ll have to hire at least one PR company, and they’ll have to hire someone to manage their campaign. It’s a long journey of meeting with people and convincing them you’re worthy of holding that small golden statue. And it has to be done that way. You can’t just email people and tell them you’re competing for an Oscar. People have been banned from the Academy for doing that. As a result, the campaign for Oscar winners has become institutionalized to the point where the award might be a better measure of how well an actor can charm their peers instead of how well they can act.

Related: Breaking Down Who Could Win the Best Actor Oscar

This may be why so many people question Andrea Riseborough’s nomination. The actor’s PR campaign was particularly tiny. It was a self-funded effort – though people are questioning that as well – that hired two smaller PR companies, and where you would typically see billboards or huge advertisements for other Oscar-nominated films, you would barely notice a whisper of To Leslie. Her campaign has been described as “grassroots,” receiving most of its support from other actors posting on Instagram. Riseborough missed several Academy lunches considered an essential part of an Oscar run, and her resumé is considerably shorter than other actors. When she finally secured the nomination, everyone was amazed that this star of a film no one had heard of even got its foot in the door.

The Oscars Should Consider Smaller Films

Andrea Riseborough in a car in the rain
Rooks Nest Entertainment / BBC Films

It shouldn’t be surprising that indie films and uniquely artistic efforts at filmmaking manage to get into the Oscars. This award ceremony should be focused on the greatest achievements in all of cinema, not the select few of an elitist group of artists. Yes, the Oscars are meant to be the major leagues of film competition, and it deserves to maintain its place at the top of the mountain. But every once in a while, the Academy should question whether they’ve forgotten the reason they started awarding films in the first place.

Related: 18 A-List Actors That Only Have One Oscar Nomination

Andrea Riseborough’s performance as an alcoholic single mother was moving and displayed a degree of talent that shouldn’t be dragged through the mud by rumors of dishonesty. Yes, it’s problematic that no Black actors are on the Best Actress or Best Actor list of nominees. But Riseborough is being targeted because of her smaller budget. Furthermore, there is currently no evidence that the actress got her nomination unethically. When a non-blockbuster film demonstrates exceptional talent, it deserves to be nominated for awards, regardless of whether those who made it have connections in Hollywood. The greatest award in the film industry deserves to be about talent and not money.