Courting rituals

Oscar campaigners exploit looser rules in the U.K.

After a screening of “Sideways” at the Covent Garden Hotel, one BAFTA member emailed the publicist to complain that the cookies served at the event were too sweet.

That’s one headache, at least, that Oscar campaigners don’t have to deal with, since Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences rules forbid bribing voters with snacks.

Most British Academy of Film & Television Artists members aren’t so churlish about the greater freedom for campaigners afforded by the Brit Acad. They appreciate the refreshments, they like getting commercial DVDs with extras as well as vanilla screeners, and they particularly enjoy the Q&A sessions with stars and filmmakers.

BAFTAs’ more relaxed and mature attitude to such events has served the org well during its recent period of expansion.

It has encouraged the studios to pour money into courting BAFTA voters. That in turn made more Brit industryites feel it was worthwhile to join their Acad, helping to shed its image as a bastion for old fogies.

Roughly 500 BAFTA members also belong to AMPAS. BAFTA’s looser rules means that the studios can target this swing vote more aggressively than Oscar regs would allow.

This year, BAFTA has tightened its rules a notch to clamp down on the wilder excesses, putting a stop to the annual deluge of glossy brochures, magazine articles, books and soft toys, not to mention full-color emails clogging up members’ mailboxes.

That reflects fears, widely discussed in the media, that smaller pics (particularly British ones) without deep PR pockets were being trampled in the BAFTA race by meretricious Hollywood fare that could afford to bombard voters into submission.

“Tightening the rules definitely did work,” says BAFTA chairman Duncan Kenworthy. “A few borderline cases did create some back and forth with distributors, but it did have the net effect of leveling the playing field.”

Some campaigners fear the rules will get progressively stricter, ultimately bringing BAFTA into line with AMPAS.

“AMPAS members really resent the fact that we can even give them a drink at a screening. As though one glass of cheap white wine would buy their vote,” says veteran London-based PR maven Liz Miller.

But, Kenworthy says, “I don’t think probably we will ever get to the absolute restrictions of the American Academy. Our members really appreciate the question-and-answer sessions, for example, and that’s also one of the few campaigning areas that favor British distributors.”

This year saw more Q&As than ever, with everyone from Javier Bardem to Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio to Renee Zellweger, Jude Law to Al Pacino and Alexander Payne to Taylor Hackford trooping through London to tubthump their contenders.

The new restrictions did cause some confusion. DreamWorks was blocked by BAFTA from sending out 5,000 Shrek toys. But the studio did send out a Tom Cruise documentary along with its “Collateral” screener, even though BAFTA officials thought they had forbidden it.

Pathe was told to withdraw its offer to send out copies of the book on which “The Motorcycle Diaries” was based. How else could voters judge the merits of the screenplay adaptation? complained Pathe’s reps.

BAFTA film chairman David Parfitt says he sympathizes with that argument, and will review this restriction next year.

Columbia TriStar sent out several glossy brochures that exceeded the new limit of “four sides of A4 paper.” It escaped censure on the grounds that the rules hadn’t been made sufficiently clear, causing annoyance among other distribs who felt the studio had obtained an unfair advantage.

Of course, campaigning isn’t a precise science, and no one can be sure how their efforts are influencing voters. Much debate has focused on whether “Sideways” got only one nomination because it didn’t send out screeners, or because it was too American for British tastes. But maybe it was just the fault of those damn cookies.

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