ANALYSIS: Studios downplay effect of new Oscar campaign rules

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences distributed new rules for Oscar campaigns, but the studios aren't likely to tone down their efforts.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences distributed new rules for Oscar campaigns, but the studios aren't likely to tone down their efforts.

With summer half over and film marketers turning their attention from popcorn flicks to award contenders, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences distributed new rules for Oscar campaigns this month. Designed to rein in what has increasingly become a vicious and boundary-pushing area of film promotion, the new regulations, upped from previous "guidelines," offer a strict ultimatum: Behave, or you and your film will face the consequences. "Any Academy member," reads the Academy's release on the subject, "who has authorized, approved, or executed a campaign activity that is determined by the Board of Governors to have undermined the letter or spirit of these regulations will be subject to suspension of membership or expulsion from the Academy." The statement also warns, "More serious violations could result in a film losing its eligibility for Awards consideration." Clearly not the result Oscar campaigners are after. So with studio prestige and millions of dollars in ticket sales at stake, can the Academy's new line in the sand make Hollywood play nice? Probably not. Oscar campaigning has been a hot topic for years. In fact, the weeks leading up to the awards show often feature as many stories about the studios' campaign tactics as they do about the films themselves. But last year, scandal broke with a louder crash than usual when Miramax - notorious for its fierce tactics - came under fire when a letter from Academy member and well-known director Robert Wise appeared as an op-ed piece promoting Martin Scorsese and his Gangs of New York for Oscar consideration. Some of the text of that letter later appeared in advertisements for the film. It turned out Wise's letter had been written by a Miramax publicist, sparking a vitriolic debate on what constituted a breach of the spirit of fair campaigning, and what was simply a new tactic. Whatever observers felt about the Miramax move, it turned out it had broken no rules. "Over the years, those guidelines were developed toward excessive or extreme campaigning," explains Richard Kahn, chairman of the Academy's PR branch executive committee, which developed the guidelines. "Our goal always was to ensure that all the films that were submitting themselves for consideration are as much on a level playing field as possible. At the end of this season, we found ourselves looking at what had transpired. We found almost 100% adherence to those guidelines. The areas we found objectionable were areas we had not addressed in the guidelines." But despite the Academy's get-tough attitude in trying to address all possible scenarios this year, most Oscar campaign specialists say the new rules are not affecting their plans. "There is nothing that made me or anyone I work with say, 'This spells the end,'" says an Oscar PR consultant. "There's nothing very different for us." Aggressive tactics here to stay Despite a general sentiment that Miramax perhaps went too far with its Gangs strategy (or even just thought of the approach first), studio insiders say they are unlikely to back away from aggressive campaigning with so much at stake. The new rules do give a heightened awareness, since the previous penalty was just the slap on the wrist of forfeiting tickets to the event. But while the Academy rules sound tough, actually kicking out a Harvey Weinstein - or even a studio marketing head - from the Academy would take a flagrantly unethical act, not the kind of nudging at the edge of ethics that some studios resort to in a competitive field. Even then, it would be tough to do. "Clearly, people were taking advantage of loopholes in the rules," points out one studio executive. "But I think every year they will try a new tactic. Basically, anything not written in stone is open to interpretation." Of greater consequence to marketers was the Academy's decision earlier this year to move up the date of the awards in an attempt to curtail long campaigns and boost ratings in the crowded awards-show season. The 2004 show will take place on February 29, almost a month before its usual March airdate. Academy officials hope that by shortening the window between a film's release and Oscar night, it will cut down on the reams of promotional materials and events aimed at Academy voters. But once again, marketers are looking for ways to do business as usual, rather than downgrade their approach. "These things go in beats and rhythms, and you have to figure out new rhythms," says one PR person of the new schedule. "It's going to make people more hurried, and maybe where people had time to watch 20 movies, now they only have time for 15. There is no margin for error. It's more hectic." Campaigns in crunch time Traditionally, most Oscar contenders come out between September and December, creating a crunch time for both marketers and the voting members who watch the films. Studios routinely send out elaborate boxes of their nomination-worthy films to every voter. With another crowded field this year (more than a dozen films debuting in the fall have Oscar buzz), timing the sending of those films is an art. Too soon, and voters forget your movie. Too late, and they're crushed under the burden of having to watch too much in a short time. So this year, the Academy is allowing studios complete autonomy on when to send out their films. Last year, films could not go out before November 1. But the rules only allow each film to be sent once. So for maximum Oscar potential, timing really is everything. "It's really going to take some strategy to figure out when you let your movie out of the gate," says a studio exec. "It'll be interesting to see who does what." While the changes in Oscar policy may not make campaigning a genteel endeavor, they will provide the media with more angles for stories on campaigning. So this year as the studios maneuver within and around the new rules, the race to watch may be between entertainment journalists to see who provides the most insight to the behind-the-scenes battles. ----- Upcoming contenders With Fourth of July fireworks just fading and hot summer nights still in full effect, it may seem too soon to start hunting for Oscar contenders. But it's certainly not too soon to start promoting them. In a year that has seen a lack of high-concept films in the early months (not forgetting Finding Nemo), the tip of the iceberg of award-worthy films finally slid into sight with July's release of Seabiscuit. This true story of a downtrodden jockey, a misunderstood trainer, and a thoroughbred horse who rose from the ashes to become an American icon won't have the field to itself for long, however, despite a champion publicity push by Universal- DreamWorks. In the next few months, the superheroes of summer will terminate their run in theaters, and the high-minded fare of fall will take over. By Christmas, expect our hankies to be drenched with tears as stories of love, honor, war, redemption, and combinations thereof vie for dollars, kudos, and press. December promises what many hope will be a crowning moment in film: The last segment of Peter Jackson's epic success, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. But other future features have already starting building buzz as well. Here are a few of the titles that are bound to generate excitement in the media, if not in the nominations as well. Miramax: The Magdalene Sisters, The Human Stain, Kill Bill, Cold Mountain Disney: Open Range, Under the Tuscan Sun, The Alamo New Line: Secondhand Lions Warner Bros.: Matchstick Men, The Last Samurai Universal: Intolerable Cruelty, Peter Pan Fox, Miramax, Universal (co-production): Master and Commander Dreamworks: House of Sand and Fog

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