Acad getting personal

New Oscar regs target members

Oscar has a message to campaigners: Behave or you’re out.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences this week sent out a list concerning “the promotion of films eligible for the 76th Academy Awards.” While the roster includes a few new regs — screening tapes may be sent out at any time and Acad members cannot be quoted in ads — the biggest news is in the preamble.

It states that “any Academy member who has authorized, approved or executed a campaign activity that is determined by the board of governors to have undermined the letter or spirit of these regulations will be subject to suspension of membership or expulsion from the Academy.”

In the past, studios were threatened with loss of tickets to the award ceremony, or worse, but this year is the first in which there’ll be personal accountability.

Underlining this get-tough attitude, the Acad has this time issued not “guidelines” but “regulations,” a subtle but important shift.

‘More clear and emphatic’

“We wanted more clear and emphatic rules, to make it more clear and emphatic what the penalties will be,” Acad president Frank Pierson told Daily Variety on Wednesday.

The regulations are put out annually by the Acad’s public relations branch exec committee, chaired by Richard Kahn.

But there are more get-tough policies to come. Accompanying the rules was a cover letter that stated campaigners can expect “a second document which will articulate a set of ethical guidelines by which the Academy board expects all participants in the awards competition to abide.” This document will be assembled by a group of a dozen members of the various branches, assembled by Pierson.

Kahn, a member of the group, said Wednesday, “Our guidelines are very specific. The future document deals with the broader arena of conducting campaigns.” He said the new statements will come out sometime between now and the fall.

Pierson added, “We’re eager to get feedback from the studios and distributors.”

Screener scramble

In the first of this year’s two key changes, the Acad has removed any mention of when award strategists can begin mailing out screeners — meaning cassettes and DVDs can be sent out whenever the studio chooses, effective immediately. Previously, Oscar voters could not receive them earlier than Nov. 1.

The accelerated Oscar ceremony (Feb. 29, a month earlier than usual) has thrown off the timing of kudos strategists, but most agreed with one campaigner who said Wednesday that “common sense would say don’t do it before September.” But others said they won’t wait too long, for fear their films will get lost in a December mailing glut.

One idea being floated at the studios is disposable DVDs — discs that are treated so that the recipient has a limited time (say 48 hours) to watch a disc after he or she has opened the package; after that, the disc is no longer readable. This solution may appeal to studio execs concerned with piracy and the selling of Academy screeners on eBay. As long as the packaging conforms to Acad rules, disposable discs would not concern the org.

The second big change in the regulations is Rule 3: “Any form of advertising that includes quotes or comments by Academy members is prohibited.” In other words, a member can write an op-ed piece (positive or negative) for any publication, or state their preferences, but a studio cannot quote it in any ad.

Reprinting praise

This past season, newspapers published pieces by Robert Wise praising Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols saluting “Adaptation” and Michael Chabon praising David Hare’s screenplay for “The Hours.”

Only Wise’s comments were used in an ad. A year earlier, Wise and Stanley Donen, among others, were quoted in ads trumpeting “Moulin Rouge.”

The Academy issues campaign guidelines every year; most of the rules are in reaction to issues that troubled members. Other complaints this past season include the number of parties given in honor of Oscar contenders and the proliferation of Q&A sessions involving filmmakers. These were addressed but not changed significantly.

Kahn said the org respects individual privacy and “the right of all citizens to gather and honor someone. What concerned us as a group was cases when Academy members were invited, though they were absolute strangers to the host.” He said the forthcoming ethics document will address that kind of activity.

The Acad’s watch over campaigning is understandable. Media reports in the past few years have increasingly ignored the contributions of the contenders and have instead focused on campaigns. Pierson admits “most of the objectionable campaigning comes from our own members,” since studio execs, publicists and contenders are usually Acad voters.

‘Out of control’

“The general consensus is that this (campaigning) has been spinning out of control. Academy members know you can’t buy a vote, but the public perception is growing that voters are influenced by campaigning.” If that perception becomes accepted wisdom, Pierson said, “that would be a disaster for all of us: the Academy, the studios, and the Oscar winners themselves, because it tarnishes the honor that goes with the award.”

He said of the crackdown, “Everybody is behind it. There was consensus right down the line, including studio people we consulted.”

The wording in this week’s guidelines is firm but vague — which on Wednesday evoked fear in some, mystification in others. Clearly, the vagueness is intentional: It allows AMPAS to address new campaign techniques that haven’t been invented yet, and it takes into account First Amendment rights and restraint of trade: The org can ask for self-policing but can’t forbid anyone to throw a party or hold a Q&A session.

The preamble states, “It is the Academy’s goal to ensure that the awards competition is conducted in a fair and ethical manner.”

Acad exec administrator Ric Robertson is charged with enforcing the regs. In the past, the org has revoked Oscar tickets for studio violations. However, some studio execs have privately confided that a loss of tickets is a minor concern if a contender wins. It’s doubtful, however, that anyone would similarly shrug off the loss of membership.

So far, no studio has ever faced the ultimate penalty — “a film losing its eligibility for awards consideration in one or more categories” — though that’s been a rule for years.

Kahn said the name change from “guidelines” to “regulations” was intended “to bump up the seriousness of what we articulate each year.”

He added that the tighter rules and ethics document were designed to remind members that “Oscar is the most important symbol of excellence in our industry, and we must not allow it to be sullied.”

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