First the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disqualified a song. Now it could be facing the music.
For the first time in its history, the academy this week revoked an Oscar nomination on ethical grounds, citing improper campaigning by the composer of "Alone Yet Not Alone," which would have been one of the five contenders for original song at this year's Oscars.
But the action has prompted criticism that the academy has cracked down on a small movie that can't compete with big-budget Oscar campaigns mounted by studios. "Alone Yet Not Alone," from a film of the same name about 18th century Colonists in the Ohio Valley, is a low-budget, faith-based movie that features an iconic quadriplegic pastor.
"If the academy is just hoping they can keep quiet and this story will go away, they need to find a different strategy," said Daniel Diermeier, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and an expert in crisis management.
"It's a David-and-Goliath story, and in those stories people always side with the little guy," Diermeier continued. "And then you add a faith-based culture-war dimension that plays into how some parts of the population see Hollywood. There are incentives all over the place to keep the story alive."
An Oscar nomination can be a major financial boost for a film, even if it has little chance of winning. Small films especially can benefit from the exposure that comes from one of television's most-watched nights.
In revoking the nomination for "Alone Yet Not Alone," the academy said that the song's music writer, Bruce Broughton, a longtime academy member who serves on the music branch's executive committee, improperly emailed members of the branch during the voting period. The song was co-written by lyricist Dennis Spiegel and sung in the film by Agoura Hills pastor Joni Eareckson Tada.
Broughton sent an email to about 70 of the branch's 239 members whose addresses, he said, came from his own Rolodex, not an academy database.
"I'm dropping you a line to boldly direct your attention to entry #57," he wrote, alluding to the track's number on a CD of contending music. "I'm sending this note only because it is extremely unlikely that this small, independent, faith-based film will be seen by any music branch member; it's the only way I can think of to have anyone be aware of the song."
He concluded that he hoped the song would "get noticed and be remembered among the many worthy songs from more highly visible films."
The academy's board of governors concluded Tuesday night that Broughton's actions violated the bylaw that campaigning must be conducted "in a fair and ethical manner."
Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said in a statement, "[U]sing one's position as a former governor and current executive committee member to personally promote one's own Oscar submission creates the appearance of an unfair advantage."
But Broughton has cried foul, saying he was simply trying to draw attention to his independent movie, as many in Hollywood do during awards season.
"They had previews and parties and huge promotion," Broughton said of the studio campaigns for Oscar-nominated songs from other films, which include box-office hits such as Disney's "Frozen" and Universal Pictures' "Despicable Me 2." "We had no budget. There's no Oscar campaign. All there is is this really stupid email that went out to about 70 people saying, 'Please look at my song.'"
After sending out its statement Wednesday, the academy offered no further comment on Thursday. But already the story had gained traction, with "CBS This Morning" bringing Broughton on the air and conservative-leaning outlets such as the Drudge Report and the Washington Times setting up a Hollywood vs. Middle America battle.
"Christian Film Stripped of Oscar Nomination," a headline blared on Drudge.
Even some in Hollywood thought that Broughton, a music personality, longtime head of the music branch and a USC professor, had been given a raw deal.
Veteran awards consultant Cynthia Swartz says she doesn't understand how Broughton's email was different from any number of other things that the academy allows during campaigning for Oscar nominations. Producers and studio executives, she notes, routinely send email invitations to friends for screenings of their movies, events that also include refreshments.
"The punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime," says Swartz, president of Strategy PR, one of the industry's leading Oscar consultancies, adding that she believes his actions were "innocuous."
During awards seasons, studios spend millions of dollars in a bid at a nomination, throwing glittery parties and taking out reams of newspaper advertising. The academy has spent years making sporadically successful bids to tone down these efforts. (The latest has involved the limiting of splashy catered affairs for contenders, a move that has yielded mixed results.)
The group has never, however, taken such a drastic step. It is the first time an Oscar nomination has been revoked for a scripted U.S. feature (the previous four times were for documentaries, shorts and foreign films). When a producer on best picture nominee "The Hurt Locker" in 2010 sent an email to members asking them to vote for his candidate and not "that $500-million movie," a reference to "Avatar"— his Oscar tickets were taken away, but the nomination was allowed to stand. "The Hurt Locker" went on to win best picture.
In an interview, pastor Eareckson Tada said she was unsure what to make of the academy's decision.
"If it was for reasons connected with a faith-based message, it shouldn't surprise us that Hollywood would shun Jesus," she said. "Jesus has been shunned by much weedier characters."
But she said she was keeping an even keel. "It's been a 13-day roller coaster [since the nomination] and now it's over, which I'm just fine with. There had been no invitation and I hadn't gone out and gotten my nails done," she said, laughing. "And the rescinding of the nomination doesn't detract from song's beauty or message. I hope it brings more attention to it."
(The film is set for a wider release from the San Antonio-based Enthuse Entertainment in June.)
Broughton, however, was less sanguine. "It does feel like they're trying to make an example of me here," he said. "They wouldn't do this to John Williams."
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