New lobbying rules in effect — in Hollywood

January 23, 2012

For the lucky actors, actresses, filmmakers and craftspeople who receive word early Tuesday morning that they’ve been nominated for an Academy Award, the call is certainly unadulterated good news.

But for the people who mastermind Oscar campaigns, Tuesday launches four weeks of carefully navigating new rules instituted last year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that amount to the showbiz equivalent of campaign finance reform.

The new regulations address what has become an escalating arms race at Oscar time, as producers and studios have become increasingly aggressive and profligate in promoting actors and films for awards.

Oscar-specific marketing campaigns can run the gamut from a few million to tens of millions of dollars, with the promotional budget often outstripping the amount of money it took to make the film (and whittling away whatever earnings it might accrue from an Oscar win), exchanging profit for prestige.

The new strictures may remind Washingtonians of rules that specify what kinds of foods, and under what social circumstances, federal employees could enjoy the last holiday season without running afoul of ethics guidelines. For example, until Tuesday actors and filmmakers related to eligible films could attend an unlimited number of parties and screenings, and for the first time they could specifically include Academy members. (In the past, filmmakers were forbidden to invite Academy members to those events.)

After Tuesday, artists associated with nominated films can only appear at an Academy screening twice up until Feb. 26, when the awards are conferred. They may appear on a panel or in a question-and-answer session before or after the screenings, but those events may not include a reception where food and drinks are served. And until the polls close on Feb. 21, no Academy member “may be invited to or attend any event, including breakfasts, lunches, dinners, parties and receptions, that in any way promotes or honors a nominated film, a nominee, or is attended by a nominee or anyone with a direct association with a nominated film” (other than one of those two sanctioned screenings), and nominees themselves are expressly prohibited from attending such events.

In a preamble to the promotional regulations, which were announced in September, the Academy explained that they reflect the organization’s effort “to maintain a high degree of fairness and dignity in the process” of promoting, nominating and voting for films, and to ensure that “the voting members of the Academy make their choices based solely on the artistic and technical merits of the eligible films and achievements.” (Efforts to reach an Academy spokesman were unsuccessful at press time.)

When the rule change was announced, some observers predicted that the awards season — which begins at the end of the summer with the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, gains momentum when critics and guilds announce their awards at the end of the year, and acquires warp-speed velocity with the Golden Globes in January — would become even more frantic now that filmmakers and marketers could lobby Academy members directly.

But that hasn’t necessarily come to pass, according to Michele Robertson, whose public relations company MRC has handled general and Oscar-specific marketing campaigns. Robertson hasn’t noticed a marked uptick in ballyhoo in recent weeks, although she says, “I have been invited to more [events] and have noticed more Q&As.” As someone who’s planning how best to reach the electorate she’s a part of, she says, “The question is of balance: Are we having too many or not enough? You want to get people’s attention, but you don’t want to be over-zealous.”

Although many filmmakers applauded the rule change as a way to level the playing field for tiny independent companies to compete with the likes of Warner Bros. and Sony, some noted that the timing should have been reversed, with campaign limits set in the pre-nomination period. After all, it’s nominations — not wins — that can make a difference to such relatively tiny movies as last year’s “Winter’s Bone” or this year’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” whose lead actress, Tilda Swinton, was nominated for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award.

“We want to get into the playoffs,” said David Fenkel, president of Oscilloscope Pictures, “Kevin’s” distributor. “It’s a big element for a movie that’s independently released.”

In addition to restricting lobbying, the Academy tightened its guidelines aimed at negative campaigning, which has grown apace with spending in recent years. Presumably in an effort to counter the kind of whisper campaigns surrounding such recent best picture front-runners (and eventual winners) as “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Hurt Locker” and “The King’s Speech,” the Academy added social media such as Facebook and Twitter to its existing ban on “anyone directly associated with an eligible film attempting to promote a particular film or achievement by casting a negative or derogatory light on a competing film.”

Although the Academy’s plea for fair play is admirable, it’s difficult to see how the rule will be enforced, says Scott Feinberg, who blogs about the Oscar race for The Hollywood Reporter. “While everyone seems to agree with the intent and spirit of what they’re trying to do,” he says, “my fear is that their greatest impact could be that they simply drive untoward campaigning underground and further muddy the process.”

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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