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Oscar relaxes campaign constraints

Awards hopefuls still in partying mode, sending screeners despite piracy worries

During the last awards season, Hollywood was on red alert. This year, it’s dimmed to a pale pink — or perhaps even green.

There seem to be more parties, more discs being handed out and less stringent handling of the screeners.

But perhaps it’s just that the studios are being more transparent in their efforts this year.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ executive administrator Ric Robertson explains that though studios aren’t meant to stage parties or events that only target Academy members, it’s a difficult area to police.

Eyebrows were raised when dozens of film biz vets (read: voters) were invited to a lavish Spago bash for the DVD release of “Shrek 2.”

Meanwhile, the studios have lavished an array of private parties and events on invitees for potential best picture nominees –gatherings populated almost entirely by Acad voters.

But studios will say that these events were well within the guidelines and happen every year.

“Direct lobbying of Academy members is inappropriate, but it doesn’t take very much knowledge of the way Hollywood works for a studio head, or a director, for example, to put together an invitation list of business associates and friends for an event which includes a large number of Academy members,” says Robertson. “There’s a big gray area here.”

Robertson adds that abuses generally come to the Academy’s notice when a rival distributor or studio perceives an inequity.

“Everyone wants to know the regulations are enforced equally,” says Robertson. “They don’t want to see someone else get away with something they can’t.”

In terms of penalties, Robertson says the easiest remedy for ignoring the rules and regulations — which aim for fairness and dignity on the promo side — is to subtract a couple of tickets to the awards show from a studio’s allotment.

Meanwhile, the convoluted screener situation continues to cause controversy, despite the fact that priacy is still the sudios’ no. one concern.

And the Cinea debacle, with no screeners having used the technology and test machines not getting to the studios in time for this awards season, has added to the stress.

According to MPAA statistics, disc and online piracy costs its members $3.5 billion per year.

After last year’s court case, the MPAA now, however, no longer has jurisdiction over screeners. The case arose when independents accused the studios of antitrust violation after screeners were banned to all but Acad members.

Individual studios have now been left to make up their own minds what to send out and to whom.

The specialty divisions of the majors are already in campaign mode, sending out screeners to most Acad voters, guilds, critics and selected press for Focus’ “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “The Door in the Floor,” Fox Searchlight’s “Kinsey” and “Sideways” and Newmarket’s “The Passion of the Christ,” among others.

The major studios are largely limiting their screeners to Acad voters.

Last year, studios only sent out tapes. (A few indies, like Lions Gate, sent DVDs.) But members and studios agreed that videotape was a tech step down from DVD, so the disc has made a comeback.

Each studio is going with its own watermark system this year, sending out DVDs with personalized codes identifying individual voters.

Titles expected to go out include MGM’s “De-Lovely,” Sony’s “Closer,” “Spanglish” and in technical categories, “Spider-Man 2.”

The Academy issued a get-tough Academy Standards booklet last year, with veiled threats for members, voters and studios if they broke the rules about promoting pics, but because there were no apparent violations and repercussions, there have been a slew of parties and events this year.

Though few people in Hollywood really believe you can “buy” an Oscar, the Acad wants to dispel the perception that the more expensive the campaign you launch, the more likely you are to win.

In terms of screeners, last year voters were asked to sign a declaration, basically saying that each of them would accept full responsibility for the fate of any tape they received. Only one Academy voter was identified and caught pirating pics last year.

Some were offended by the declaration. This year, WB asked members to sign a similar pledge, but it was a much milder version.

The Cinea system was touted as a great solution, but the company tripped. The Academy had never before taken a stance, pro or con, on screeners. This year, they offered an implicit endorsement of home viewing and Cinea in particular by sending out letters offering Cinea machines.

However, when Cinea failed to deliver test machines in time, the plan collapsed.

Last week, the Academy sent a letter to its members stating that the Cinea experiment had failed even though the company is still planning on sending out players to Acad voters this Thanksgiving.

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