The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is considering action against a producer of "The Hurt Locker" who sent out multiple e-mails urging academy members to vote for his movie in the Oscar best-picture category and "not a $500 million film," an obvious reference to close-competitor "Avatar."
The e-mails by Nicolas Chartier, one of four nominated producers for "The Hurt Locker" and who put up the financing to make the front-running film, 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.
The initial e-mail was sent Feb. 19 and obtained by The Associated Press. 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 craft 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 behavior 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 honor and I should have taken the time to read the rules."
"Avatar's" distributor, 20th Century Fox, declined comment on the e-mails, as did director James Cameron or anyone connected with the 3-D sci-fi sensation -- Hollywood's biggest modern blockbuster.
The motion picture academy itself will hold off on announcing how exactly it plans to discipline Chartier until Oscar voting closes at 5 p.m. PST on Tuesday. The academy's Unger refused to speculate on what action might be taken.
Possible measures include public censure, taking away Chartiers Oscar tickets, and the unlikely option of removing "The Hurt Locker" -- about a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq and the season's top award-winner so far -- from best picture consideration, according to several academy members familiar with the situation. The members spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to comment about the matter.
It's also possible that if "The Hurt Locker" wins, the academy won't extend membership to Chartier, like it does to most newly minted Oscar winners, the members said.
With Oscar ballots due Tuesday, the controversy surrounding Chartier's actions may have little effect on the March 7 Academy Awards because most voters have already mailed in their ballots, said one of the academy members.
But that hasn't stopped Hollywood insiders from bandying about heated opinions referring to Chartier's e-mails as everything from harmless enthusiasm to egregious politicking that should result in the film's disqualification.
As one academy voter put it, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject: "If 'The Hurt Locker' doesn't win best picture, I wouldn't want to be that guy. They'll be pointing at him."
In addition to Chartier's e-mails, "The Hurt Locker" is also facing complaints -- just now surfacing, though the movie was released last June -- from veterans and active soldiers over the accuracy of its combat scenes.
Late-in-the-game controversies surrounding Oscar front-runners is nothing new. When Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" was up for several Oscars in 2003, a transcript from the grand jury testimony of Polanski's 1977 sexual assault case was published on a Web site. Polanski still won the Oscar for best director.
A year earlier, rumors circulated that schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, the subject of Ron Howard's "A Beautiful Mind," harbored anti-Semitic beliefs. The movie ended up winning four Oscars, including awards for picture, director and adapted screenplay.
And, similar to this year's e-mail controversy, DreamWorks ran ads in 2004 quoting critics touting Shohreh Aghdashloo's supporting actress performance in "House of Sand and Fog" over that of Renee Zellweger in "Cold Mountain." That campaign backfired, too, with Zellweger winning the Oscar.
"I suppose I'm just naive, but I've always chosen to believe that academy members vote solely on the basis of merit," says film historian Leonard Maltin. "I do know some academy members, and they are very conscientious about their vote. They distance themselves from any jockeying of position and name-calling."