Awards Season Launch: The Best Picture Race

When Julia Roberts hosted a January screening of “Biutiful” to showcase Javier Bardem’s Acad-nominated performance, it seemed like a passionate way for an Oscar winner to show support for her “Eat Pray Love” co-star. However, as genuinely heartfelt as Roberts may have been in her enthusiasm for the movie, her private event and subsequent effusive interview with Entertainment Weekly was just one more stop on a campaign trail that was perceived as overrun with Academy members trying to wield their influence on the Oscar vote. Even awards campaigners ended the 2010-11 season believing it was time for a change.

It might sound like a champagne problem to anyone outside Hollywood, but taming the round of glitzy post-nomination receptions and member-sponsored screenings has become a priority for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Changes enacted this season present rules for everything from the number of Q&A sessions in which any person associated with a film may participate down to when food can accompany a screening.

Though a well-placed campaigner says last season’s festivities had become somewhat “unseemly,” the Academy’s changes, at least for the post-nom time frame, are more about maintaining the value and integrity of the award itself. In fact, losing the credibility of that 8 1/2-pound trophy is bad for publicists, party planners and such print publications as Variety — any entity that has helped turn awards season into Awards Season.

“The perception that the Academy Award can be bought is the last thing anyone wants,” says veteran awards consultant and Academy member Tony Angellotti.

Another campaigner says the five-week glow Oscar nominees enjoy before the ceremony should be about letting the work speak for itself, rather than making the nominee speak for the work in an endless procession of panels, parties and pressing palms. Wise words if you happen to be a circuit veteran like Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks, but it could transform the whole process for an actor who’s experiencing the rush of a nomination for the very first time.

Most campaigners say the rule changes have done little to affect their day to day, even though it’s most likely going to mean most events and screenings will happen in the pre-nomination months.

“We’re all testing it right now,” says strategist Lisa Taback. “We just have to respect the rules. I don’t want to say that they’re good or bad.”

Of course no alterations can quell whisper campaigns after Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 24, but in the meantime, restrictions are somewhat lighter for pre-nomination campaigning.

Unlike previous years, campaigners can directly invite Academy members to screenings and Q&As; members are free to attend and eat the food served there. Not only is this good news for publicists whose main goal is to get as many people as possible to the movies they represent, it also serves the Academy’s intention to have its members see films on the bigscreen (the policy on digital delivery and screeners notwithstanding).

Encouraging theatergoing dovetails into the Academy’s other major move, which leaves room for anywhere between five and 10 best picture nominations, depending on how many films earn a No. 1 ranking on the ballot.

It’s largely a move to correct some of the inherent statistical anomalies of the Academy’s voting process, but it’s also keeping prognosticators and campaigners on their toes. Still, most campaigners aren’t counting votes to find out where their films stand. They’re still doing it the old-fashioned way: getting people into theaters, gauging reactions and spreading the word about their films.

AWARDS SEASON LAUNCH:

Acad muzzles the clink and guzzle scene | New rules redraw Oscar’s picture, doc, toon races | Tricky pics spend years en route | Fest test weeds out all but Oscar’s best

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