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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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New Oscar rules: Can the Academy curtail awards season excess?

September 22, 2011 |  5:03 pm

Colinfirth The Oscar silly season has officially begun. That’s the only way to look at the new Motion Picture Academy rules governing how studios and filmmakers can promote their movies during Oscar season, a period that these days lasts longer than winter in Siberia. Being a sports fan, I’ve always thought that it was impossible for any organization to have more arcane rules than the NCAA, but the academy has easily topped that body. Its new regulations are intended to stop Oscar-season excess, but many believe they could easily lead to more over-the-top campaigning than ever.

When it comes to excess, nothing can really top an Oscar shindig like the one Arianna Huffington threw last February at her house for Harvey Weinstein’s “The King’s Speech,” which featured not just the A-list cast and filmmakers from the movie, but real British royalty, notably Earl Charles Spencer, brother of the late Princess Diana. The party generated tons of press and publicity, and was clearly designed to create buzz for the film, which ended up winning the Oscar for best picture.

According to the new rules, a similar party this year could offer just as much pomp and circumstance, just as long as it happened two weeks earlier, before the nominations were announced. Because “The King’s Speech” was already the favorite to win best picture even before the nominations, it seems clear that the party would have had just as much impact if it had been held in mid-January instead of early February.

Instead of truly cracking down on the lavish parties and endless stream of celebrity-studded Q-and-A screenings, the academy has embraced a half-hearted compromise. It has essentially decreed that in terms of parties and celebrity screenings, anything goes until the nominations are announced; but after Jan. 24, mum’s the word. As one awards campaigner complained to the Hollywood Reporter, “If you’re a nominee, you’re basically under house arrest for a month.”

In other words, after the Oscar nominations are announced, all the fun has to stop. Academy members can’t show up at any parties. Members are also prohibited from attending screenings that have receptions with food and beverages. Of course, it raises the question: If it is so important to protect what academy President Tom Sherak calls “the integrity of the Academy Awards process and the distinction of the Oscars” after Jan. 24, why isn’t it worth doing before Jan. 24 too?

The academy argues that there’s a method to its madness. It has to go easy on its prohibitions for social events like a Q&A celebrity screening because it needs to encourage members to see films as they should be seen — on a big screen. With DVD screeners readily available, bare-bones screenings have had poor attendance in recent years. As academy chief operating officer Ric Robertson acknowledges: “It’s a lot easier to get people into theaters if there is going to be a discussion with a director and actor afterwards.”

But at the same time that the academy is saying it wants to prod members to see films in a theatrical setting, it refuses to curtail access to DVD screeners. In fact, it is making seeing movies on a small screen even easier than ever. In its official release Wednesday, it said that the digital distribution of movies to academy members is now acceptable, meaning that the academy has no problem with its members watching nominated films on their computers and iPads.

The academy has every right to try to control the excess that has, in recent years, threatened to overshadow the awards themselves (which in 2012 will take place Feb. 26). The academy clearly is hoping to level the campaign playing field, worrying that the hoopla plays into the hands of the campaigners with the most money — i.e., the big studios. But the academy doesn’t seem to understand how the Oscar game is played today. As any pajama-clad Internet Oscar pundit already knows, the pecking order for the top Oscar films is already firmly in place way before the nominations are announced.

Last year is a perfect example. Long before the nominations were announced, the best picture race had been narrowed down to two films — “The Social Network” and “The King's Speech” — each one propelled by a savvy, big-spending Oscar campaigner, “Social Network” producer Scott Rudin and “King’s Speech” backer Weinstein. If the academy really wanted to level the playing field, it would put the most restrictive rules in place before the nominations, not after.

Of course, if the academy really wanted to bring a bit more sanity to the whole proceeding, it could move the Oscars up a month. The equation being: less campaigning equals less excess.

By the time the nominations arrive, the die is usually cast. And that goes for Oscar excess as well. One-upsmanship triumphed over art a long time ago. The academy’s Robertson deserves a big round of applause for saying that he wants people talking about the work, not “who threw a good party or ran a successful campaign.” But in today’s cutthroat competitive Oscar season, there’s only one thing on everyone’s mind: winning.

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--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Colin Firth photographed with his Oscar at the Governors Ball last February in Los Angeles.

Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times

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