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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 January, 2004, 11:39 GMT
Why were the Oscars moved forward?
By Keily Oakes
BBC News Online entertainment staff

The race is on for 2004's Oscars and this year its participants have to be ready for the starting gun a month early.

Gangs of New York
There was controversy over the campaigning for Gangs of New York
The powers-that-be at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences decided last year to move the glitzy awards ceremony forward from its usual date in late March to 29 February.

This was so smaller films without huge budgets would have the chance to shine as much as those backed by major studios, which can afford to back big-budget Oscar campaigns.

It is not the first time the Academy Awards have changed date. They were originally held in May in the 1920s, before moving to November then to April, followed by March.

The announcement of the latest change was made before the 2003 Oscars, leaving just 11 months between the two ceremonies.

Ripples

Regular cinema-goers may not have noticed much of a change, with end-of-year releases still veering towards the "worthier" Oscar-type film such as Cold Mountain, while blockbusters such as Hulk and X-Men 2 remained strictly summer fare.

But the ripples from the change of date have been felt across the pond, with Bafta forced into moving its ceremony just two years after it had repositioned itself as a precursor to the Oscars - rather than following it as it had previously.

The Baftas will now be held on 15 February, instead of at the end of the month.

Had the British ceremony kept its original calendar date it would have been held at the same time as the Academy Awards, arguably the glitziest awards ceremony in the world.

The Oscars would have undoubtedly overshadowed, if not eclipsed their British counterpart.

One the concerns of the Academy has been that in recent years studios have treated the awards like an election, aggressively campaigning for their films.

Violation

Miramax ran into trouble last year over its promotion of Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, which was nominated for 10 awards.

The problem arose when an advert it ran featured a complimentary quote from a former Academy president.

Oscars
Hollywood will gear up for the Oscars a month early
Incumbent president Frank Pierson was furious, saying "it was an outright violation of Academy rules", although no guidelines against it could actually be found.

Miramax claimed it was unaware what it had done was outside the rules, but it walked away empty-handed from last year's ceremony.

The previous year there were accusations of a smear campaign against A Beautiful Mind, which starred Russell Crowe.

There was a spate of unflattering stories surrounding the Nobel Prize winner John Nash, on whose life the film was based, calling him anti-Semitic and homophobic.

Although the major studios denied any involvement, director Ron Howard said it was a "shame" and "tragic", adding such behaviour was "not about reminding people of your virtues; it's about undermining the other candidate's credibility".

In this case, if there was a smear campaign then it was ineffective because Howard won the best director gong as well best picture.

The condensed period between the nominations on 26 January and the actual ceremony on 29 February should mean the studios have less of an opportunity to campaign on behalf of their films and means voters are less likely to be swayed by positive or negative publicity.

But the big movie studios will always have the mega-budgets to ensure voters do not forget their movies when it comes to ticking the box marked "best".

Pirates

The marketing departments will just have to work harder to find a way to promote movies in less time.

But in the wake of the furore, the Academy has put in place tough guidelines to prevent aggressive campaigning with the threat of expulsion for those found flouting them.

A Beautiful Mind
A Beautiful Mind won best film but Russell Crowe missed out on best actor
Another of the other big controversies surrounding this year's Oscars was an attempt by the Motion Picture Association of America to put a ban on preview copies of films - dubbed screeners - being sent to voters.

The MPAA is the organisation which represents the studios, and it tried to enforce the ban because it feared that these DVDs or videos could find themselves in the hands of digital pirates who could distribute them globally.

But following the ban there was an outcry from the independent film companies, who feared that Oscar voters could miss out on seeing their films if they had to visit the cinema to watch each eligible film.

The ban was eventually relaxed for Oscar voters, but remains in place for other ceremonies, to the annoyance of critics' groups and awards organisers.

The fight against piracy is continuing in the US, and so far one man has been charged with conspiring to violate copyrights on films including The Last Samurai and The Matrix Revolutions.

The films he allegedly tried to pirate were Academy "screeners", identified by a code the Academy has included on each tape.

Whether the shifting of the Oscars has any effect on the industry will probably not be known for several years, but no doubt on the night the politics behind the move will take a back seat as the red carpet is rolled out once more.




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