With a controversial e-mail from a producer of "The Hurt Locker" kicking up dust, Oscar season once again has a case of public mudslinging on its hands. But for all the messiness, it may result in little more than the loss of a few party tickets.
Late last week, "The Hurt Locker" producer Nicolas Chartier sent an e-mail to a group of peers and friends, at least some of whom are members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, asking them to vote for "The Hurt Locker" and "not the $500 million film" -- in other words, "Avatar." But after the e-mail came to light this week, Chartier, a first-timer to the rigors of the awards circuit, sent out a message apologizing for his initial e-mail, citing his "naivete, ignorance of the rules and plain stupidity."
Academy rules clearly bar campaigning that creates a negative impression of another film. And though whispering about a rival is common, an e-mail making a flat appeal for one film by deriding another, for budgetary or any other reasons, would almost certainly be out of bounds.
Although the eventual impact of Chartier's indie-first argument on
voters is unclear -- the Academy historically has liked movies that
were box-office successes -- the effect on the Academy itself, and
the film, could be more tangible.
The Academy, which learned of the e-mail this week, is looking into various forms of discipline, with the group's executive administrator Ric Robertson spearheading the decision process. The "nuclear option," as one consultant put it, would be to remove the film from best picture contention.
But there's almost no chance the group would do that, according to those familiar with the Academy's voting process. At the most, it would take away Chartier's Oscar tickets -- a slap on the wrist, to be sure, but also an interesting twist, given that Chartier had to wage a battle with the Academy to be included as a producer in the first place. (The movie has four credited producers, and the Academy typically allows only three to take the stage at the Kodak Theatre.)
It could also stop Chartier, who is not a member of the Academy, from joining the body. If he won best picture, Chartier would be eligible for a virtual automatic membership, but the board of governors could take the nearly unprecedented step of rejecting him. But this, too, might be a tough sell. After a brouhaha with "Crash" producer Bob Yari a few years ago over his non-credit for that film resulted in a lawsuit -- costing the Academy money and public standing -- the organization is unlikely to want to risk that kind of fight again.
There's precedent for the Academy scrutinizing the mudslinging -- and not doing much. In the
2003 race, DreamWorks, campaigning for "The House of Sand and Fog,"
took out an ad that made a similar plea -- it asked voters to choose
the movie's Shohreh Aghdashloo for supporting actress over
front-runner Renee Zellweger of "Cold Mountain." She stayed in
contention (although Zellweger won anyway).
The Academy says it won't announce its decision until after ballots are due next Tuesday, if at all, presumably to avoid interfering with the race. It's a decision that fits with the group's cautionary reputation, but also a strange one. Stories like this already affect the race, and the delay of nearly a week can give the impression that the Academy is soft on negative campaigners, pretty much the last thing it wants to do.
There's another layer of back story to the "Hurt Locker" fracas. Among many of the other principals on the film, Chartier is perceived as an outsider. They've grimaced as he's made some of his publicity moves, including this one. A French American financier who runs a Los Angeles-based company called Voltage Pictures, Chartier is a foreign-sales specialist, and he's uniformly regarded as the driving force in getting "The Hurt Locker" financed and off the ground.
But according to several sources, there's little love lost between him and the film's writer, Mark Boal, and director Kathryn Bigelow. And even though they were said to make bids to get him approved by the Academy, the spin among those working on the film has been to present him as a rogue element who doesn't speak for distributor Summit Entertainment, Boal, Bigelow or a third producer, Greg Shapiro. In an interview with 24 Frames on Thursday about the initial e-mail, Boal said, "I knew nothing about it, I think it's incredibly stupid and wrong and I hope he stops."
Summit also repudiated Chartier's e-mail. "An enthusiastic and naive producer made a mistake," a studio spokesman said. "When we found out about it we asked him to stop immediately, we let the Academy know and he's making amends."
The gambit to put some distance between the film and Chartier will probably be successful, especially when you consider that the movie is up against "Inglourious Basterds," a contender from Harvey Weinstein -- a man known for speaking, er, boldly, about competitive movies.
How much the to-and-fro between competitors has an impact on the final vote is an open question. Four years ago, Lionsgate's Jon Feltheimer, whose company was pushing Oscar hopeful "Crash," caused a ruckus when he said publicly that he had made phone calls on behalf of the film. The Academy took a look; other films wondered if it could prompt a backlash. A few weeks later, "Crash" won best picture.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker." Credit: Summit Entertainment