It's Saturday evening in Brentwood. Inside the home of producer Mark Johnson, a casually dressed, bearded Mexican director named Alfonso Cuaron is caught in a crush of Hollywood partygoers who have come to shake his hand, share a drink, sample some shrimp in pesto and gush over his film, "Y Tu Mama Tambien."
Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer leans against a wall, deep in conversation with Variety editor in chief Peter Bart. Another Oscar winner, director Steven Soderbergh, wearing his distinctive black-framed, rectangular eyeglasses, schmoozes with reporters while simultaneously fending off on-the-record contact, saying, "No press! No press!" Even Frank Pierson, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is here -- as a co-host, no less.
All in all, an amiable and festive gathering of Hollywood elites, and clearly helpful to Cuaron's own Oscar hopes. And, had it been thrown by a studio instead of an individual, strictly forbidden.
Although the Academy Awards are more than three months away, Hollywood's great race has begun, and its campaign route winds through a sprawling but highly entertaining gray area in which it's sometimes hard to tell the socializing, which is part and parcel of Hollywood, from the politicking, which the academy frowns upon.
In any case, the town is awash in would-be Oscar candidates out pressing the flesh at parties, private screenings and a blizzard of year-end gatherings where academy voters might just happen to congregate. The proximity of other awards shows is a factor too; Thursday's announcement of the nominees for the Golden Globes -- given by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., and often seen as playing New Hampshire primary to Oscar's election night -- got things going in earnest.
In an effort to ward off the more brazen attempts to woo votes, the academy each year goes to great lengths to police the Oscar campaigns. To the outside world, the rules may seem obsessive, arcane, even something to wink at. But to the academy -- and the studios and independent distributors with Oscar-worthy films to promote -- the provisions carry the high seriousness of the California penal code, or the DMV rule book, at the very least. To wit:
On screenings: "The Academy encourages the screening of eligible films in a theatrical setting for its members. However, such screenings should not be accompanied by receptions, buffets or other refreshments, nor should such screenings feature the live participation of the film's artists before or after the screening."
On screening schedules: "Screening schedules or notices or upcoming screenings may be mailed to members, but only in letter format (8 1/2" x 11" paper, no photographs, no glossy or card stock) or postcards (maximum size 4"x6," logo and title only, no photographs, no key or other art, no glossy stock.)"
On events: "Receptions, dinners or other events to which Academy members are invited and which are specifically designed to promote a film or achievement for Academy Awards consideration are expressly forbidden."
Yet just as politicians have figured out ways to skirt federal campaign finance laws, savvy studios and publicists know just how far they can push the envelope regarding Oscar regulations.
'The American Way'
The rules prohibit studios from inviting academy members to question-and-answer sessions with the stars? No problem. Send out invites to the Hollywood guilds representing directors, actors, writers and producers, many of whose members -- surprise, surprise -- are also among the 6,000 or so card-carrying members of the academy.
"Campaigners take the rules seriously but that doesn't mean they don't try to get around them -- and that is OK; it's the American way," said Tony Angellotti, an Oscar campaign consultant who advises the studios on strategies to win nominations and awards. "It's not like anyone is saying, 'What rascals.' They are saying, 'I wish I had thought of that.' "
This season's tactic of choice seems to be the celebrity Q&A. The post-screening discussion session is a time-honored Hollywood practice. But the sessions have proliferated this year, morphing into a series of glitzy events where the stars take questions from an audience and then mingle among the crowds at catered receptions.
For example, the Screen Actors Guild is hosting a series of "conversations" this month with people like George Clooney, making his directorial debut in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," and Nia Vardalos of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." The Directors Guild of America's Sunset Boulevard theater is the site of 11 Q&A's this month. The studios are behind most of these, trotting out the Oscar-hopeful stars and directors of films including "The Hours" (Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, director Stephen Daldry); "The Emperor's Club" (director Michael Hoffman); and "One Hour Photo" (Robin Williams).