LOS ANGELES – Academy Awards (search) overseers were hoping for a kinder, gentler buildup to the Oscars. So far, their wish has been granted, with none of the shady campaigning that has sullied recent Hollywood awards seasons.
The race to take home a little gold guy has been as strenuous as ever, though, with stars and filmmakers glad-handing like politicians and Hollywood trade papers awash in glossy ads plugging Oscar contenders.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (search) implemented tougher rules this year to rein in campaigning and keep the focus on the merits of the movies as much as possible. Parties overtly intended to influence Oscar voters were prohibited, along with ads carrying endorsements from academy members and smear campaigns against particular films.
Anyone violating the rules could be kicked out of the academy or have their film pulled from Oscar contention in some categories.
The rules simply forced campaigners to be more circumspect on placing ads or arranging parties so the events were not transparently held to solicit Oscar support.
Still, the new rules may have injected a greater sense of decorum into the awards season.
"I think it actually has," said Chicago Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper (search), co-host of TV's "Ebert & Roeper and the Movies." "Also, I think a lot of studios were beginning to sense that it was backfiring. This very aggressive campaigning, just like in politics, can have a backlash that works against you."
Last year, Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein (search) was criticized for suggesting that academy members consider voting for Martin Scorsese (search) as best director on "Gangs of New York" as a career award. Miramax's campaign for "Gangs" also included ads reprinting a column by Oscar-winning director Robert Wise that praised Scorsese, prompting the academy's ban on such quote ads. Scorsese lost at the Oscars.
Two years ago, Universal Studios complained of a smear campaign against its eventual best-picture winner "A Beautiful Mind," though no evidence surfaced that other studios were bad-mouthing the film.
This season has been free of such backbiting.
"People are so afraid this year of having their membership revoked," said Pete Hammond, a film reporter for the trade paper Daily Variety. "They've been very careful about distancing themselves from anything that could get them in trouble."
A shorter Oscar season also has left less time for unseemly behind-the-scenes developments. The academy moved the Oscars to late February, three weeks earlier than usual, hoping the shorter season would boost the ceremony's sagging television ratings.
Bruce Davis, the academy's executive director, said sheer awards fatigue from months of earlier movie honors may have been undermining viewers' interest in the Oscars.
The biggest issue facing the Oscars last fall -- an attempt by studios to ban special videos of competing films so awards voters can watch them at home -- has had little or no effect. The ban eventually was lifted, and while those "Oscar screeners" may have arrived a little later than normal, "we did not have a single complaint from members that they felt they didn't have time to see the films," Davis said.
The date change for the Oscars prompted studios to begin awards marketing sooner, with ads appearing in trade papers weeks earlier than usual. The Hollywood Reporter had about 1,000 pages of awards ads this season, the same as last year, said Lynne Segall, associate publisher.
"Everything was really just pushed forward a month," Segall said. "There hasn't been any less campaigning."
Parties where nominees mingle with academy voters remain commonplace, though the events are camouflaged to avoid any appearance of blatant Oscar campaigning.
Julianne Moore held a party for pal Patricia Clarkson, a supporting-actress nominee for "Pieces of April," while Universal held lavish bashes for "Seabiscuit" and "Lost in Translation" -- two best-picture nominees -- to celebrate the films' DVD releases.
Acting and directing nominees also have been regulars on talk shows and at question-and-answer sessions at film festivals or other screenings of their movies. Peter Jackson, the best-director favorite for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," was honored at last month's Santa Barbara Film Festival, while Charlize Theron, the best-actress front-runner for "Monster," split the actress prize at this month's Berlin Film Festival.
Like everything else in Hollywood, being seen is half the battle.
Best-actor front-runner Sean Penn (search) lost ground when he skipped last month's Golden Globes, where he won the dramatic-actor prize for "Mystic River." While Penn sat home, Bill Murray of "Lost in Translation" earned points with a drolly amusing acceptance speech after he won the Golden Globe for comedy actor.
Murray is viewed as Penn's main competition for the best-actor Oscar.
When Oscar nominations were announced two days after the Globes, Penn issued a gracious statement acknowledging the honor. Penn, who did not attend the Oscars the three times he was previously nominated (and lost), plans to be there this time. He even showed up at the Directors Guild of America awards and the academy's luncheon to honor nominees -- accompanied by his mother.
"Even a die-hard non-campaigner like Sean Penn had to do an abrupt about-face when he realized his Oscar bid was in trouble when he got guff for snubbing the Golden Globes," said Tom O'Neil, author of the book "Movie Awards." "You suddenly saw the reclusive Penn at the Oscar lunch with his mom so we could see the softer, sweeter Sean."