New rules: Academy gets serious over Oscar parties, screenings and social media

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the official rules for “promotion of films eligible for the 84th Academy Awards” (i.e., Oscar campaigning) today and there were some interesting changes.

It was expected the Academy would crack down on some of the events that skewer the line between Oscar promotion and, say, home video or theatrical release promotion (such as Sony Picture’s “The Social Network” home video event last year), but that didn’t happen.  Instead, the Academy set some clarifications and opened filmmaker access to some screenings for nominated pictures in a big, big way.

As noted in the AMPAS release, “Prior to the nominations announcement (January 24, 2012), there are no restrictions on screening events to which Academy members may be invited. These events may include the live participation of individuals involved with the film (Q&A panel discussions, etc.) as well as receptions with food and beverage. After the nominations have been announced, Academy members may continue be invited to screenings that have filmmaker participation elements but receptions are not permitted. While there is no restriction on the total number of screenings of a particular movie, no one individual from the film can participate in more than two panel discussions. Previously, Academy members could not be invited to any screening event that included live participation of the filmmaker(s) or a reception either before or after the nominations had been announced.”

The fact that studios can now hold their own screening events not under the guise of guild screenings or by third parties is pretty substantial.  They can clearly go after just Academy voters if they want and, moreover, can drop having to participate in third party screening series such as the Variety or Envelope staples (ouch).  Chances are they won’t, but those series are certainly no longer mandatory to try and get at voters.  Additionally, the “no restrictions” part of the screening events is quite extraordinary.  Does that mean DreamWorks can hold an Academy screening of “War Horse” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall?  Can The Weinstein Company have an Academy screening of “The Iron Lady” at the United Nations in New York? Could a studio buyout the Landmark or the Arclight for a week before nominations for non-stop Q&A’s and screenings for their potential films?  According the new rules, yes, yes they can…if the studios want to spend that money.

Oh, me. Oh, my.

The other distinction here is that studios can now use talent more effectively to help lock down a win during the post nomination period.  Whether that will help secure a win in the major categories remains to be seen.  Most voters have seen all the films already and as we’ve learned over the past two years, scandals or controversy (“The Hurt Locker” producer, Melissa “Consider This” Leo) have had little effect on the final results because most members send in their ballots within the first two weeks.  However, if the studios are smart, they could use these screening events to push some of the secondary categories where the overall membership may not have as passionate a pick in mind such as cinematography, original score, costumes, make-up, editing, etc.  Considering “talent” can only appear at two screening Q&A’s this might be the smartest use of their time.  You can be sure though, that the first two weeks of final campaigning will be packed with events in theaters as large as possible to get as many members in as possible. 

The Academy is still allowing for digital downloads and screeners, but you can are argue by opening the floodgates for special screenings they will encourage members to view the contenders in the manner which they were intended, on the big screen.

Oh, but if you aren’t having a screening or in the Oscar club, well, that’s the bad news.   As noted in their press release, “Additionally, after nominations are announced and until final polls close, members may not be invited to or attend any non-screening event that promotes or honors a nominated movie or individual nominee. Nominees themselves are also prohibited from attending such events. Academy-sanctioned events and awards ceremonies presented by the various guilds, critics groups and other organizations are exempt.”  The “other organizations” is where the Academy gives themselves an “out,” but this is meant to cut down on private circuit parties held by members at member homes to push a candidate.

Additionally, the AMPAS made some noise on the social media front effectively banning negative campaigning on such platforms.  This is a bit odd since it’s hard to find any studio who blatantly campaigned against another studio’s nominees on twitter or facebook, but it may be a warning over negative tactics overall. Here’s their exact wording from the official rules: “Ads, mailings, websites, social media (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) or any other forms of public communication by 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 or achievement will not be tolerated. In particular, any tactic that singles out “the competition” by name or title is expressly forbidden. Academy members that violate this Rule 16 will be subject to a one-year suspension of membership for first-time violations, and expulsion for any subsequent violations.”

The “any other forms of public communication” is the kicker here and no doubt has a very broad definition.  Watch your E-mails members.

This pundit’s favorite rule, and one I believe the Academy will be very sensitive this year, is #14, “Telephone Lobbying.”  It’s been banned for sometime, but with the stakes so high with the new 5% rule to land a best picture nominations, it’s going to be hard for some members, campaigners and filmmakers to control themselves.  

In any event, if Wolfgang Puck catering hasn’t gone public, they might consider doing so now.  They are going to be much busier than normal this season.

A full list of this year’s rules are available here.

For year round entertainment commentary and award season news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter @HitFixGregory.