Thanks to a rule change, studios this year are allowed to directly invite Academy Awards voters to ritzy screenings as part of their campaigns for Oscar nominations. So there’s been an explosion of the events across Los Angeles.

It has resulted in a spurt of business for some theaters, although not everybody is thrilled that Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters can be wined and schmoozed by the studios.

In addition to question-and-answer panel discussions with stars and directors, many of the screenings have offered open bars and hors d’oeuvres. Popular venues include the academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills and the Harmony Gold Preview House in Hollywood.

The Harmony Gold’s manager, Kate Tardiff, said the screenings have been a tailwind for business.

“This was a really good awards season for us,” she said, adding that the theater increased revenue from screenings by about 30 percent to $530,000 through Dec. 31, partly due to this season’s awards screenings. The highest volume of screenings usually stretches from September through January. The Harmony Gold hosted 42 in November alone.

The theater hosted Q-and-A discussions after showing Oscar contenders such as Fox Searchlight’s “The Descendants” and Weinstein Co.’s “My Week With Marilyn,” featuring George Clooney and Michelle Williams, respectively.

Tardiff said most of the screenings at Harmony Gold this year were modest, with a few including food or drink.

Other promotional events have brought prenomination parties to Wolfgang Puck’s Cut restaurant in Beverly Hills and Hotel Bel-Air.

In the past, voters were technically forbidden from attending these types of receptions and presentations before or after screenings, although some did on the sly. But a change of rules adopted in September by the academy allowed studios’ awards consultants to openly invite the 6,000-plus voting members of AMPAS to screenings complete with Q-and-A’s and receptions, along with other shindigs.

“That’s why we’ve seen an explosion of screenings,” said Tom O’Neil, editor of GoldDerby.com, a website that tracks awards season news.

Cost control

The idea was to encourage academy voters to see the movies on the big screen rather than on handout DVDs. The food and drink was envisioned to be modest and meant to encourage attendees to drop by a screening on the way home from work, not an elaborate spread put on by the few studios with megabudgets.

However, screenings with Q-and-A’s and receptions are a relatively low-cost way for the studios to lobby academy voters.

The Harmony Gold charges studios about $3,000 to rent the 350-person theater for a weekday night – with an additional charge of a few hundred dollars for the time needed for a Q-&-A. Meanwhile, the academy’s Samuel Goldwyn, which seats more than 1,000 people, goes for about $6,000 a night, including use of the reception room, and was used for a few screenings this season, such as Weinstein Co.’s “The Artist.”

In some cases, sponsors pay for the food and drinks. So for a studio, the screenings are often far less expensive than purchasing even the cheapest for-your-consideration ad in the Hollywood Reporter, which costs about $30,000 per page.

“It virtually costs nothing. It’s the rental of the theater,” said Pete Hammond, an awards columnist for Deadline.com, who noted that some awards campaigns, such as for Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter,” run in the millions.

Although academy voters were previously discouraged from attending screenings with Q-and-A’s and receptions, the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America staged their own screenings with panel discussions and receptions in the build-up to their own awards presentations, and academy voters often attended those.

An academy public relations representative didn’t return a call.

In a November post on Deadline.com, Hammond reported that a PR person for the academy said one of Hammond’s blog posts helped trigger the academy’s decision to loosen the rules. Last January, he wrote about how academy voters were attending screenings that were actually parties thrown by celebrity friends of potential nominees.

However, as a result of the loosened rules, some are claiming that studios are using their marketing budgets to replace the celebrity bashes.

One awards consultant cited three lunches for academy voters at Cut restaurant in Beverly Hills, while other parties were staged for Academy voters at the Hotel Bel-Air.

The consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she felt she couldn’t compete with films that had bigger-budget support than hers, and said the excesses were egregious.

But the proliferation of screenings hasn’t just been about handouts and perks, studios have been pushing a wide array of films this year. Whereas the Weinstein Co.’s “The King’s Speech” took an early lead in the best picture category last year, many have noted that there is an absence of a clear front-runner this time.

John T. O’Loughlin, chief revenue officer at the Los Angeles Times Media Group, said the strong contention led to the highest number of Times screenings in the series’ five-year history.

“It’s still a wide-open playing field,” O’Loughlin said.

In all, the Times hosted 17 screenings from October through last month. He noted that the Times moved the events from the Landmark Theater in West Los Angeles to the ArcLight Cinemas in Sherman Oaks for more space to accommodate the sponsor, British carmaker Land Rover. The series also picked up a sponsorship deal with Dutch brewing company Heineken International for the screenings.

In the screening series, the Times editorial staff picks the films to be screened and the newspaper generates revenue from advertisers that sponsor the events.

As awards season comes to a turning point with this week’s Oscar nominations, the academy will put in place restrictions that ban screenings from providing food and drink until voting closes Feb. 21. Inviting voters to lunches and parties to promote contenders will be forbidden as well.

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