The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is considering action against a producer of The Hurt Locker who sent multiple e-mails urging academy members to vote for his movie in the Oscar best-picture race and "not a 500 million dollar film" - an obvious reference to close-competitor Avatar.
The e-mails by Nicolas Chartier, one of four nominated producers for The Hurt Locker, violated the academy's rule against sending mailings that "attempt to promote any film or achievement by casting a negative light on a competing film or achievement", according to Academy spokeswoman Leslie Unger. Chartier put up the financing to make the front-running film.
The initial e-mail was sent on February 19. Subsequent e-mails, posted by the Los Angeles Times, showed Chartier giving more specific instructions, asking Oscar voters to rank The Hurt Locker at No 1 and Avatar at No 10 on this year's preferential ballot for the newly expanded best-picture category.
Hurt Locker distributor Summit Pictures said in a statement it was "completely unaware of any e-mails that were sent until we were alerted by the Academy earlier this week".
Chartier, after being confronted by Summit executives, worked with the studio and the academy to draft an apology for his actions, said Summit spokesman Paul Pflug.
"My naivete, ignorance of the rules and plain stupidity as a first-time nominee is not an excuse for this behaviour and I strongly regret it," Chartier wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Associated Press. "Being nominated for an Academy Award is the ultimate honour and I should have taken the time to read the rules."
Avatar's distributor, 20th Century Fox, declined to comment on the e-mails, as did director James Cameron or anyone connected with the 3-D science-fiction sensation - Hollywood's biggest modern blockbuster but so far second to The Hurt Locker in this season's movie award race.
The motion picture academy itself will hold off on announcing how exactly it plans to discipline Chartier until Oscar voting closes at 0100 GMT Wednesday. Unger refused to speculate on what action might be taken.
Possible measures include public censure, taking away Chartier's Oscar tickets, and the unlikely option of removing The Hurt Locker - about a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq - from best-picture consideration, according to several academy members familiar with the situation.
It's also possible that if The Hurt Locker wins, the academy will not extend membership to Chartier, as it does to most new Oscar winners, the members said.