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The Nation

Academy Gets Tough on Oscar Campaigns

The group tightens its rules and threatens to disqualify any film with offending ads.

July 03, 2003|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, casting itself as tough-guy enforcer in the Oscar campaign wars, on Wednesday flashed a weapon it has kept under wraps until now: the possibility of kicking a film out of competition if its marketers go too far.

In its strongest bid yet to rein in the excesses of recent Oscar campaigns, the academy also put its voting members on notice that anyone who undermines the "letter or spirit" of the rules could be suspended or expelled from the academy.

The stern warnings grew out of the organization's review of the last Oscar season, during which an outcry erupted over an ad taken out on behalf of "Gangs of New York" director Martin Scorsese. On Wednesday, the academy responded to that furor -- in which it was revealed that a Miramax Films publicist had drafted the ad language attributed to former academy president and Oscar-winning director Robert Wise -- by announcing a new policy forbidding "any form of advertising that includes quotes or comments by academy members."

Overall, "I think everybody agrees, including the studio heads themselves, the money being spent this year to advertise directly to academy voters was just getting out of hand and creating an impression that ... academy members can be bought or influenced, and that would be a disaster for everybody," academy President Frank Pierson said.

"I don't think any of us believe academy voters vote anything but their conscience," he said, "but there has been so much media exposure about these [Oscar] ads and the controversy [attached to them] that it could begin to erode public confidence and it could tarnish the honor of the award."

Until now, the biggest deterrent in the fight against unseemly campaigning was to deny offenders sought-after tickets to the glitzy televised Academy Awards ceremony.

"It was not a very strong stick to hold over anyone's head," said Richard Kahn, a past academy president who chaired the committee that developed the new rules. "It was symbolic more than anything else."

That view was echoed by a top studio marketing executive.

"Nobody cares if you take away tickets," said the executive, who asked not to be named. "Big deal. So some lower-level studio executive doesn't get to go. Boohoo. That is no punishment."

The academy billed the changes, for the most part, as an exercise in tightening language and clarifying definitions. It did take pains to note, however, that the genteel-sounding term "guidelines" had been replaced with no-nonsense "regulations."

Pierson said the threat to strip a film of its eligibility was designed to get Hollywood's attention.

"It's a weapon we've never used, but we are definitely putting it out there," though it would apply only to the best picture category, he said.

What the effect will be in the real world of big-money Oscar campaigning is anyone's guess. The studios and their consultants have shown themselves to be adept at staying ahead of evolving restrictions, such as those issued Wednesday. Speaking practically, movies are a group effort, and it remains to be seen where the blame would be assessed -- would it be the head of the studio who pays or someone lower down the food chain or even one of the myriad private consultants who sell their expertise to the highest bidder every Oscar season?

In fact, Pierson said, the academy had stayed away from the disqualification gambit because of fears of "collateral damage" to the actors, directors and other creative people who worked on a movie.

Millions of dollars are spent each year to try to reach academy voters through "for your consideration" ads in trade papers and major publications, including The Times. Most studios consider the money a shrewd expenditure given the financial windfall for a winner, such as this year's best picture winner, "Chicago."

For sheer intensity of campaigning, most people date the current run-up in Oscar warfare to the 1998 season, when Miramax's "Shakespeare in Love" pulled off an upset to defeat DreamWorks' "Saving Private Ryan."

A few years ago, the academy put its foot down when studios started presenting their annual deluge of tapes in ornate packaging. And in recent years, voters have been invited to parties and private screenings where Oscar candidates press the flesh.

Academy President Pierson himself, for instance, was co-host of an A-list cocktail party late last year on behalf of Alfonso Cuaron, the director and co-writer of "Y Tu Mama Tambien."

The academy's new campaign rules and rhetoric do not appear to take aim at those kinds of events, although regulations already on the books ban "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."

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