For 'Compliance' Star Ann Dowd, One Expensive Oscar Campaign

Magnolia Pictures wouldn't pay for screeners, so the character actress spent $13,000 for her own; Oscar winner Melissa Leo tells THR she should be reimbursed.
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An abbreviated version of this story appeared in this week's print edition of The Hollywood Reporter.

Being the subject of Oscar buzz should be an unadulterated thrill, but for one first-time contender it has come at considerable expense.

Ann Dowd, a veteran character actress, earned the best reviews of her career for her performance as a restaurant manager targeted by a sadistic prankster in Craig Zobel’s controversial indie Compliance. The low-budget film was one of the standouts at January’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was acquired by Magnolia Pictures, which released it this fall. It never played in more than 21 theaters and grossed just $319,285. But Dowd’s performance, for which she was paid just $100 per day for 16 days, resonated enough to land her -- with virtually no campaigning -- the National Board of Review’s best supporting actress award and Indie Spirit and Critics’ Choice award nominations.

VIDEO: 'Compliance' Featurette

So why, then, did Magnolia not send screeners of Compliance to SAG’s nominating committee and/or the Academy’s acting branch?

Matt Cowal, Magnolia’s senior VP of marketing and publicity, tells THR they would have -- if Compliance had made money. “This is a film that, unfortunately, we’re going to take a loss on,” he says. “If it had worked, like some of our films have, we would have supported Ann with a terrific end-of-the-year awards campaign, like we did for Melancholia and I Am Love.” Instead, he says, “When a film is already out on DVD, supporting actress awards buzz does help, but it’s not a game-changer on the film’s bottom line, so we just are trying to be as responsible as we can.”

Dowd, a soft-spoken, working-class wife and mother of three kids, tells THR that the lack of screeners from Magnolia -- while her fellow contenders, few of whom have garnered the number of accolades that she has and almost all of whom were better compensated, had theirs paid for -- prompted her and her husband to make a difficult decision: to foot the bill themselves, putting $6,000 on their credit card and borrowing $7,000 from friends. They feel that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her and that a nomination could change the course of her career, so they want to give her a fighting chance.

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Two years ago, another veteran character actress, Melissa Leo, paid for several “for your consideration” ads promoting her performance in The Fighter. At the time, Leo said she did so because she had not been offered the same opportunities for media exposure as her younger and bigger-name competitors. The ads were criticized by some for being tacky, but the resulting controversy prompted many to rally behind her cause, and she ultimately won the best supporting actress Oscar. Leo tells THR that Dowd's situation “sounds a little familiar.” She adds, “I applaud her bravery in forging ahead, because there’s only regret to be had if she doesn’t give it her all in this moment. And I really hope they reimburse her and her husband.”

Dowd, meanwhile, says the whole experience has been an eye-opener. She emphasizes that she feels entitled to nothing and grateful for everything that has come her way this season, and says, “I had no idea what goes into bringing a name into the spotlight. It never occurred to me. I just had never been in that arena before.” Now, unless Magnolia elects to reimburse the actress -- which Dowd hopes they will, “not because they owe me anything” -- she and her husband will have 13,000 more reasons than most Oscar contenders to be crossing their fingers on nominations morning.