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Oscars: It's the night of the long knives

It is a night of glittering statues, pristine red carpets and gracious speeches. But behind the air-kisses and smiles at the annual Oscars ceremony, dirty, expensive, battles go on, with competitors more than willing to knife each other if it means taking home a trophy.

After all, winning means more business at the box office and higher fees in the future. Not to mention the bragging rights and publicity.

This year, perhaps because of the recession, which has made the financial stakes of an Oscar win so much higher, the tactics appear to have sunk to depths even lower than those in the past. Hence the controversial announcement by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences this week that it was banning a producer of The Hurt Locker -- the Best Picture favourite -- from attending Sunday night's ceremony.

It is the first such order in the organisation's 83-year history and an extraordinary rebuke for "negative campaigning", given that the worst punishments previously handed down have involved nothing harsher than a studio's ticket allocation being reduced.

The ban was provoked by the producer, Nicolas Chartier, allegedly sending out a mass email to friends and colleagues, many of them academy members, encouraging them to vote for his low-budget Iraq war thriller and "not the $500m film" -- a to James Cameron's Avatar.

The academy said: "Chartier recently disseminated an email to certain academy voters and other film industry figures in which he solicited votes for his own picture and disparaged one of the other contending films. The executive committee of the academy's producers branch, at a special session late on Monday, ruled that the ethical lapse merited the revocation of Chartier's invitation to the awards."

Before the ruling, a panicked Chartier, one of the film's four producers, each nominated for an Oscar, sent out another mass email, apologising for his previous message, saying it was "out of line and not in the spirit of the celebration of cinema".

Although he claimed that he was not aware of the organisation's ethics rules, he added: "I was even more wrong, both personally and professionally, to ask for your help in encouraging others to vote for the film and to comment on another movie."

It could have been worse for Chartier; the academy could have disqualified him from the Oscar race entirely.

No one knows which recipient of the first email reported him to the academy, but one thing is clear: the scandal is an embarrassment of toe-curling proportions for The Hurt Locker's director, Kathryn Bigelow, who has repeatedly claimed to have no feelings of rivalry or bitterness towards her rival Cameron -- in spite of him also being her former husband.


It would appear that the makers of The Hurt Locker, which features real actors, consider themselves more worthy than the technicians who made Avatar possible. "Let's be honest: this is Hollywood," one well-known writer said yesterday. "Everyone hates each other. People here can nurse grudges better than high school girls. The emotional immaturity is stunning, and then you throw in something like the chance to talk on a live international telecast, and it's really quite a combustible combination."

However, by historical standards of Oscars campaigning, Chartier's offence looks relatively tame -- especially when compared with the tactics of the veteran Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who become both feared and admired in the 1990s for his ability to win statues for what many critics thought were mediocre films, such as Shakespeare in Love.

It was during that era that Hollywood studios spent as much as $40m each on their Oscars strategies -- knowing that a Best Picture win would make back the outlay several times over in free PR -- compared with the typical budget of $1m-$5m today.

Mr Weinstein's most infamous ruse involved using a column by the former academy president and twice Best Director winner Robert Wise to praise Martin Scorsese's 2003 Best Picture contender Gangs of New York. Miramax then began to reprint the column in its own advertisements and publicity material, even though it was revealed that the article had in fact been ghost-written by the studio's publicist -- who was also advising the academy on matters of public relations.

Many in Hollywood have long regarded such shenanigans as just another unsavoury but necessary part of showbusiness. After all, even as far back as 1960, the notorious press agent WS "Bow-Wow" Wojciechowicz orchestrated a big effort to win his client Chill Wills a Best Supporting Actor statue for his role in John Wayne's The Alamo, using controversial methods. It culminated with an advertisement in The Hollywood Reporter that caused a national outrage. It read: "We of the Alamo cast are praying harder -- than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the Alamo -- for Chill Wills to win the Oscar."

Wayne himself was moved to apologise, and Wills was defeated.

In spite of the regularity of such ethically dubious stunts, the academy tries hard to distance itself from them. The last instance was in 2003, amid widespread concern that studios were essentially bribing academy voters with lavish celebrity screening parties, when strict new rules were introduced -- the very same rules of which The Hurt Locker has now run foul.

In a booklet explaining its 2003 crackdown, the academy told almost 6,000 members that "an unfortunate series of manipulative and excessive 'campaigns' has encouraged a public perception that perhaps an Oscar can be bought, rather than won by hard work and talent."

At the same time as the new guidelines came into effect, however, studios lobbied successfully to ban the so-called "screener" DVDs sent out to academy members. The ostensible reason was concern over piracy, although some regarded the move as yet another dirty studio trick: after all, voters were likely to see blockbuster studio productions at the cinema; they were much less likely to see an obscure, low-budget film unless they could watch it on a free DVD in their own homes.

Screeners are now once again allowed, but there are still plenty of ways for studios to wage Oscars war without suffering the fate of Chartier.

As for The Hurt Locker itself, its popularity is likely to protect it against too much of a backlash in the event of a Best Picture win.

The same could not be said of Shakespeare In Love, which somehow managed to beat Saving Private Ryan. The win prompted the New York Daily News film critic Jack Matthews to compose an open letter to Mr Weinstein.

"Your campaigns are obnoxious," he wrote.

"They're tainting the Oscar process, making Miramax a Cold War villain, and demeaning the films themselves."