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Oscar: Law and order

As sked tightens, Acad forms committee to look into excesses

Oscar is trying to clean up his act — but lawyers are lurking around him.

On April 30, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences prexy Frank Pierson told Variety he is forming a committee aimed at “reducing the intensity of the campaigning. We all share the belief that it threatens the integrity of the Oscar. The implication is that the Oscar can be bought by an intense campaign.”

A lot of media attention was given to this past season’s campaigning and spending — involving parties, Q&A sessions and testimonials from past Oscar winners — but it’ll be difficult to effect changes without bumping into antitrust and restraint-of-trade issues.

Bruce J. Prager, partner in Latham & Watkins, the global antitrust and competition practice, compares the Acad’s moves to the national cry for limits on campaign spending. But there’s a key difference: The government doesn’t have to worry about competitive issues.

The Academy includes producers and executives who work at rival studios. “When competitors adopt rules to govern themselves, there’s a concern that the rules not stifle competition,” says Prager. “While they’re trying to protect the integrity of Oscar, they have to be aware there may be antitrust implications that have to be taken into account.”

One vet Oscar strategist also points out that it’ll be hard to limit promotions when a film is in theaters or has just been released on video. It’s typical for a studio to promote a new release with parties, events, Q&A sessions and special screenings, “So how can you ask them to cut back at Oscar time?”

Prager agrees: “How do you define what is campaigning for an Oscar as opposed to promoting a film? That’s a very hard distinction to make.”

Every year, Oscar strategists devise new ways to reach voters. A few years ago, some pundits fretted over the “for your consideration” ads that appear in publications including Variety. But to ask for a cap on advertising is to flirt with restraint-of-trade charges. And thanks to protections such as the First Amendment, it’s dicey for an org to instruct people to refrain from parties or speaking out about their favorites.

However, the Acad’s case is hardly hopeless. Some voters suggested to Variety that the Acad impose disincentives rather than rules — for example, if an Acad member publicly endorses a nominee, the voter would be barred from voting that year (or at least voting in that category).

One studio exec, who’s an Oscar voter, muses, “The Academy now has a hand-slapping process if you disobey its campaign rules. (Violators are docked tickets to the Oscar show.) But frankly, I don’t think it’s as harsh as it should be.”

While AMPAS members know an Oscar cannot be bought, they worry that the public believes an Academy Award does come with a price tag. A public misperception has been fueled in the past few years as entertainment journalists have spent as much time covering campaigns as they have on weighing the merits of the nominees.

As for the fight to clean up the campaigns, “I think it’s a good thing,” says New Line prez of domestic marketing Russell Schwartz, who adds that the goal should be to make things equal between indies and majors.

“With a level playing field, the excesses will go away. It’s about putting respect back into Hollywood. And the press will have to be the medium to do that.”

Though he declined to name its members, Pierson told Variety the campaign-reform group is a small committee, comprising members of the board of governors from various disciplines. And they’ll meet with studio and film people to explore solutions.

For example, Pierson said he’ll meet with Harvey Weinstein in N.Y. this week. “I know Harvey, too, is concerned.” On Oscar night, the Miramax co-topper expressed an eagerness to work with the Academy on the rules of campaigning.

Aside from campaigns, Acad execs point to the kudocast’s declining ratings as further evidence that action needs to be taken.

The Acad announced last year that the 76th ceremony will be held Feb. 29, nearly a month earlier than usual (Variety, July 22-28), but it didn’t hand out the rest of its voting timetable until last week.

A key goal is to underline the primacy of the Academy Awards, which some feared had become anticlimactic. One hope was that other kudocasts would fall by the wayside.

In the new sked, the Acad has retained the crucial six-week window between the time noms are announced and the Oscarcast — a period when a nominated film can earn the bulk of its box office.

But the changes will be crucial for Oscar strategists and nominees. Dec. 31 at midnight remains the end of the awards-eligibility period. Usually, there are 11 weeks from that date until the Oscarcast, but that time frame has been reduced to eight weeks. This means potentially the same amount of campaigning, but in a shorter period of time.

Most concede that smaller and indie films could be hurt by the new timing. Many cited “Monster’s Ball,” which bowed after Christmas and slowly built word of mouth. A little film won’t have that luxury this year.

But one campaigner says small films won’t necessarily be hurt: “They’re just going to have to change their timing.”

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