Letter warns members Journal could 'scoop the Oscars'

Could the Wall Street Journal scoop the Oscars?

In a letter accompanying the 4,200 ballots mailed out Tuesday, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences president Robert Rehme urged members not to cooperate with a telephone poll being conducted by the WSJ.

If the newspaper succeeds, it would mark the biggest breach in Oscar secrecy in 50 years — and from the tone of Rehme’s letter, it’s clear that he’s taking the threat seriously.

In the letter, the Acad topper warns that the Journal “recently made the most concerted attempt in history to predetermine the outcome of our awards in six categories.” He then states that during the week of Feb. 24-March 1, “at least a dozen reporters” phoned “as many of our members as possible.”

Dick Tofel, VP, corporate communications for Dow Jones and Co., which publishes the Wall St. Journal, said, “We make it a policy not to comment on stories we may or may not publish. We have never done in the past what has been suggested we are doing now.”

Tofel did, however, single out two of the letter’s items. He said the Acad’s claim that WSJ reporters had not been identifying themselves was erroneous. “They are identifying themselves,” Tofel said.

Rehme’s assertion that the WSJ had “disavowed any knowledge of the project” was also false, according to Tofel. He said that the Los Angeles bureau simply referred the call to the Gotham office.

While Rehme says most voters declined to cooperate, “if just a few hundred of us were inveigled into participating, the Journal stands a good chance of scooping us before Oscar night. That would be unfortunate in the extreme, of course.”

Rehme, who speculated that the newspaper got the members’ phone numbers from a studio screening list, concluded that he’s “confident that this year’s assault on our privacy will at least sensitize all members to the reality of the danger” and that any similar polls would be met with “stony silence.”

Breach of ’39

If the scoop occurs, it would mark the biggest breach of Academy secrecy in 50 years. In its early days, the org gave the press a list of winners prior to the ceremony, with the understanding the results would be embargoed until after the rites.

But the Los Angeles Times in 1939 printed the winners in its 8:45 p.m. edition, which kicked off a tradition of secrecy that has been scrupulously maintained since then.

This is the third assault this year on the Acad’s traditionally well-oiled voting machine.

The day before the nominations were announced, Web site Ain’t-It-Cool-News printed a list that it claimed were the finalists for the noms. The list, however, was traced to an ABC worker who had been guessing at the results, for the purposes of testing the network’s Oscar news site.

This week, the Academy realized its 4,200 ballots mailed to Southland voters had not arrived. Though delivered to the BevHills Post Office, the ballots were mistakenly identified as third-class mail; some remain missing, while others were found in a warehouse in the city of Bell.

Deadline extended

The Academy on Tuesday mailed out the new ballots, and on Wednesday announced that it is extending the Oscar voting deadline two days, until March 23.

Staffers from Acad accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers must tally members’ final answers in only three days to be ready for the March 26 kudocast.

“They’ll have to work longer hours,” said Acad spokesman John Pavlik. “But I don’t think they’re worried. If they hadn’t felt confident that they could handle (the extension), we wouldn’t have agreed to it.” Pavlik also pointed out that Pricewaterhouse always cuts its final ballot counting close.

Wasting no time, film companies with nominees immediately phoned Daily Variety to place ads for the extra two days.

As reported in Wednesday’s Daily Variety, only two bags from the initial batch of eight have been found.

“If the original (white) ballot should arrive at some point,” explained Rehme, “members should discard both it and the return envelope that arrived with it.”

Rehme added that voters outside California, whose ballots were mailed a week earlier, can still use the first ones.

Yet in a letter to members, he encouraged all voters not to procrastinate.

“Since we’ve all just had a vivid illustration of the vagaries that even first-class mail can be subject to, I’d recommend that you post this new ballot as soon as you’ve had a chance to think your selections through.”

‘No impact’

And to answer what’s on everyone’s mind, the extra voting time will “have no impact on the show,” insisted Pavlik. “It actually doesn’t do anything for us except give members time to feel more secure about their decisions.”

However, “I’m sure there’ll be some jokes and Billy (Crystal) will have a great time with it.”

As for the missing mail bags, “it’s in the hands of the post office, but if we don’t find out what happened soon, we won’t pursue anything until the show’s over. We can’t afford to take the time (to search).”

The 72nd annual Academy Awards will be broadcast March 26 on ABC from the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium.

(Army Archerd contributed to this report.)

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