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In an effort to rein in what many in Hollywood felt was excessive Oscar campaigning last winter, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on Wednesday issued new rules governing how studios and filmmakers can tout their movies to voters this season.
The guidelines seek to curtail some of the lavish parties thrown by studios and encourage the actual viewing of films in theaters. The changes could give a boost to smaller outfits that don't have as much money to spend on campaigns.
Last January, weeks ahead of the Academy Award nominations, Sony rented Wolfgang Puck's Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills for a swank affair celebrating the DVD release of "The Social Network," its strongest Oscar contender. About the same time, Warner Bros. feted Christopher Nolan and the cast of "Inception" at a private home in the Hollywood Hills, hoping to boost its Oscar prospects.
The fancy affairs attracted Academy members as well as reporters and were only two events in a calendar stuffed with expensive lunches, dinners and other gatherings touting actors, directors and films considered to be Oscar candidates.
The one-upmanship of last season frustrated many in the movie business, particularly those working on behalf of smaller films, who found it tough to compete with the extravagant affairs thrown by studios. Even some Oscar campaign consultants working on behalf of bigger films expressed irritation at the proliferation of events, feeling pressured by their clients to keep up with the competition.
After a series of discussions and meetings this summer, the Academy has issued new rules that seek to set clearer boundaries on campaigning ahead of the 2012 Oscars, which will be held Feb. 26.
In some respects, the new rules are a bit more relaxed: Prior to the announcement of Oscar nominations, there are no restrictions on events aimed at Academy voters that actually entail showing a film. Previously, the nearly 6,000 voting Academy members could only be directly invited to screenings with no ancillary events, like question-and-answer sessions with actors.
This change was initiated, Academy leaders said, because many of the hundreds of bare-bones screenings that studios typically host for Academy members have been sparsely attended.
"We want to do everything we can to get our members to see the films in a theatrical setting. So we are easing up on the rule about Q&A," Ric Robertson, chief operating officer of the Academy, said Wednesday. "It was made clear to us that it's a lot easier to get people into theaters if there is going to be a discussion with a director and actor afterwards."
It's a decision many Oscar campaigners are celebrating.
"I applaud the Academy for seeing that the added value of a canape or a Q&A might encourage members to attend a screening without clouding their judgment on the quality of the work on display," said veteran Oscar campaign strategist Cynthia Swartz.
After nominations are announced Jan. 24, Academy members will still be permitted to attend screenings with panel discussions, but affairs with food and beverages are prohibited. In addition, the Academy has restricted the number of promotional events that a single person from a film may attend — a rule that seems likely to benefit films with larger casts.
Robertson hopes this restriction will not hamper smaller films but rather will encourage campaigners to involve others besides actors and directors in promotional events, such as cinematographers or costume designers.
"In general, this is all good because it is an attempt to level the playing field," said Oscar campaigner Leslee Dart. "But if you've got a one-man tour de force performance versus another movie with an ensemble cast with 17 actors, obviously you can put 17 people on two panels and you've got 34 opportunities."
"But," she added, "it's never a level playing field in this business. The most you can hope for is to encourage Academy voters to see the movie, and to see it on the big screen. I think the new rules are an effort to do that."
The Academy is also prohibiting members from attending events after nominations are announced that do not include a film screening but still seek to promote a specific movie or an individual nominee. Last year, for instance, the Weinstein Co. hosted a number of lunches and dinners with the cast of "The King's Speech," which won four Oscars, including best picture. This year, Academy members won't be able to attend such events.
The Academy also issued regulations concerning new technology — most significantly, it's extending the rules banning negative campaigning to social media. That means a tweet like the one actor Albert Brooks sent Sept. 17 — "This afternoon at two I'm going to beat up someone from 'The Help' to promote 'Drive' " — might be banned.
Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this report.