The first public campaign violation of the 2010 Oscar season is the result of "an honest, stupid mistake," according to the P.R. company whose client sent Oscar voters a letter violating Academy rules.
Chris Sparling, the screenwriter for the low-budget film "Buried," was apparently so emboldened by his surprise win at the National Board of Review that he sent a letter to all members of the Academy's writers branch, in which he extolled the merits of his screenplay, quoted from reviews of his film, mentioned the NBR win and begged voters to "please consider ['Buried'] for fourth or fifth [place on the nominating ballot]."
Praising the screenplay, quoting from reviews and mentioning the NBR are clear violations of AMPAS campaign regulations, which prohibit anything but brief cover letters devoid of pitching.
As for the suggestion that voters put his film fourth or fifth on their ballots, that's just plain dumb: if every member of the branch listed "Buried" in one of those spots it still wouldn’t be enough for a nomination, which requires first- and second-place votes.
"He didn't know, and we didn't catch it," Mark Pogachefsky, whose mPRm public relations firm was used as the return address on Sparling's letter, told theWrap on Thursday evening. "It was that stupid."
Pogachefsky added in an email that in the pre-holiday rush on December 23, Sparling's letter was not properly vetted by mPRm staff.
Dave Karger, who first revealed the story on the Entertainment Weekly website, compared the letter to one sent prior to the last Oscar show by "The Hurt Locker" producer Nicolas Chartier, whose invitation to that show was rescinded after he asked voters to vote for his film over "Avatar." (Chartier was given his Best-Picture Oscar a few days after the ceremony.)
But Chartier's letter came in the thick of a heated Best Picture race between the two frontrunners; Sparling's was written on behalf of a film that has little chance of being nominated for anything. It's certainly conceivable that the Academy, when its offices reopen after the New Years holiday, could issue some sort of reprimand – though taking away the writer's Oscar tickets is not likely to be necessary, or even possible.
This is the first violation to be disclosed publicly in this Oscar season, though a few private grumbles have been heard about other tactics and packages, including what was said to be an overly lavish box containing one potential contender released earlier in the year.
The Academy has yet to speak out about any 2010 violations.
"Buried" was directed by Rodrigo Cortes; the film is set in Iraq, but takes place entirely inside a coffin in which an American contractor played by Ryan Reynolds finds himself buried.
You could argue that this minor brouhaha has given the film a higher profile in the Oscar race that it would otherwise have had — though considering that it's up against the likes of "The King's Speech," "The Kids Are All Right," "Inception," "Black Swan," "Another Year" and "The Fighter," it's hard to imagine that a little notoriety will do it much good.
The beginning of Sparling's letter, as quoted by Karger:
"Here’s your writing prompt.
"You are to write a feature-length screenplay with only one on-screen character. This character is to remain in only one location for the entire duration of the film, and that one location must be a 2′ x 7′ wooden box. You cannot use flashbacks, cut-aways, or any other narrative device that would take the action outside that box.
"The film based on your screenplay must be met by incredibly high critical praise. Roger Ebert must give it 3 1/2 out of 4 stars and give it two thumbs up; Varietymust remark that the film is '…an ingenious exercise in sustained tension that would have made Alfred Hitchcock proud;' Jeffrey Lyons must describe the film you wrote as 'Mesmerizing;' and you must be awarded Best Original Screenplay of 2010 by the National Board of Review.
"Sound impossible? It’s not. In fact, all this exactly describes the film BURIED."