Fetes seek approval under 'social occasions' rules

Is the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences backing down from its get-tough policy on Oscar-season parties?

As part of its efforts to “clean up” Oscar campaigning, the Acad has said private parties are not meant to serve as “lobbying occasions.”

Acad prexy Frank Pierson told Daily Variety Tuesday that he hasn’t softened his stance. “We have not backed down from anything that we initiated in this arena,” he said. “What we are trying to achieve was a general cooling-off of the intense campaigning, which included, last year and the year before, an increasing number of parties that were clearly only thrown for the purpose of lobbying undecided Oscar voters.”

But Pierson allowed that private parties are an arena that’s hard to police. “There are degrees of these things,” he said. “It’s a little bit like pornography. You can’t define it exactly. But you know it when you see it.”

Spelling out the rules

In September, the Acad mailed to members the booklet “Academy Standards,” concerning conduct for members and contenders during awards season. Under the headine of “social occasions” are guidelines concerning distribs’ sponsorship of parties that might influence the Oscar race.

But the weeks before the Jan. 17 due date for Oscar nominating ballots featured a flurry of private events honoring awards contenders. There were house parties teeming with Academy members and a hectic regimen of lunches, cocktail parties and private screenings.

  • “In America” director Jim Sheridan was celebrated at a Jan. 13 lunch at Le Cirque in New York, sponsored by Fox Searchlight, and a Jan. 9 house party hosted by Val Kilmer and Robert Evans in the Hollywood Hills.

  • Paul Rudd hosted a Jan. 8 screening of Miramax’s “The Station Agent” at New York’s Soho House.

  • New Line chairs Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne and Film Society of Lincoln Center director Richard Pena hosted a Jan. 10 cocktail reception honoring Peter Jackson as part of a Film Society weekend dedicated to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. (Jackson, who was in New Zealand at the time, didn’t attend.)

  • T Bone Burnett threw a 50th-birthday party on Jan. 10 for “Cold Mountain” director Anthony Minghella.

  • Focus Features honored “Lost in Translation” director Sofia Coppola with a luncheon at Guastavino’s in New York on Jan. 14.

Acad-approved?

Distributors insist these events met with approval from the Acad. A Fox Searchlight spokesman said the Jim Sheridan events weren’t “lobbying occasions,” even though there were plenty of Acad members present. “We’re very conscious of the Academy rules concerning events and are respectful of them,” the spokesman said. “(Academy exec administrator) Ric Robertson has been very helpful to us in navigating through this new terrain.”

A Focus Features spokesman said the “Lost in Translation” lunch was a press event. A Miramax rep said the company wasn’t involved in Burnett’s party for Minghella.

Sources at all of these companies said there’s an ongoing dialogue with the Acad to make certain no lines have been crossed.

Robertson acknowleged he’d been part of that dialogue. “I sometimes get calls from someone questioning an event, so we investigate. If I get assurance from the party-giver that it was not targeted to our members — which is a key element of our regulations — that’s the end of the story. Otherwise, there’s more investigation.” Robertson also reiterated, “We’re not backing down on our get-tough stance.”

Last year, parties proliferated. There were scores of private events for “The Hours” in New York, London and L.A. Academy member Irwin Winkler threw a party for Oscar-nominated director Martin Scorsese. And, before he decided to crack down on campaigning, Academy president Pierson was one of the hosts of a party for helmer Alfonso Cuaron, whose “Y tu mama tambien” was an Oscar contender.

This year, distributors and Academy members are cautiously trying to tailor their party planning to the Academy’s criteria. And campaigners are watching rivals scrupulously, to make sure nobody gets away with anything.

Mad scramble

But in a shortened awards season with no clear front-runner, they’re also scrambling to bring greater exposure to their candidates.

AMPAS doesn’t offer clear guidelines about which social events are permissible and which ones are forbidden. Instead, it asks Academy members to monitor themselves. It prescribes a series of “self-tests for whether a dinner or a party really is a dinner or a party, as distinct from a tactical maneuver in an Oscar campaign.” One of the questions: “Is the host paying for the evening or is a studio or production company footing the bill?”

In the case of Fox Searchlight, it openly is footing the bill, but that still doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a violation. “In America” is currently in release and the writer-director is publicizing the film. However, it would be a clear violation if the guest list consisted only of Acad members.

In addition, recent weeks saw several distribs throw parties tied to the Broadcast Film Critics Awards, an event attended by a sizable contingent of Academy members. Are such events “lobbying occasions” if they were scheduled to honor talent saluted by another organization?

The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. does not have such strictly defined rules against events and gifts, but it has worked hard in the past few years to clean up its image. That hasn’t stopped its members from attending a party this year at the home of Fox exec Jim Gianopulos or accepting the champagne sent to HFPA members by Peter Jackson, the sake from Sofia Coppola and the Burberry calendar from Focus.

The “Academy Standards” booklet asks if the host of a party has been asked to host an event and wonders if the goal of the party is “the hope that a fair number of guests will come to feel they are ‘close’ to a picture’s director or star, and gain a sympathetic appreciation of the artistic difficulties faced and overcome during the production of the film?”

Answering yes to any of these questions, the Academy says, puts one in “treacherous ethical waters.”

Gray zone

But events like those for Sheridan highlight a gray zone in the rule book, in which the Acad’s earnest efforts to improve the tone of the Oscar race are colliding with the entrenched publicity strategies of an industry that depends on premieres and other networking events to raise the profile of its most prestigious films. The Sheridan events of early January might not have given a boost to the box office of “In America” (then several weeks into its release) — but they didn’t hurt.

Pierson said the measures set forth in the Acad’s booklet appear to be working. “If they do work,” he stated, “it will be because the Academy guidelines reflect in spirit the general feeling of the film community, not something we are trying to stuff down unwilling throats.”

(Pete Hammond contributed to this report.)

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