Hurt Locker producer detonates Oscars row

Abject apology after email to Academy members breaks rules on lobbying

Their critically acclaimed portrayal of a bomb disposal team in the Iraq war has brought the makers of The Hurt Locker to the brink of an unexpected Oscar success. But they will be spending the run-up to the Academy Awards trying to defuse an explosive dispute that is entirely of their own making.

Nicholas Chartier, one of the four producers who are odds-on-favourites to receive the Best Picture gong for the film at next Sunday's event, has been thrust to the centre of an ugly controversy after breaking the strict, and strictly enforced, rules governing the way that Oscar contenders are allowed to promote their work.

His crime, if that is the correct word, was to email to a selection of voting members of the Academy, urging them not only to support his cheaply made, independent movie, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, but also to make sure that its nearest rival, the big-budget 3D blockbuster Avatar, was kept from the winner's podium.

"I hope you liked Hurt Locker," read his offending 19 February email. "If you did and want us to win, please tell ... your friends who vote for the Oscars, tell actors, directors, crew members, art directors, special effects people, if everyone tells one or two of their friends, we will win and not a $500m film."

Chartier's message, which was widely circulated in Hollywood, flouts Oscar rules, which ban film-makers from both directly lobbying Academy members, and trashing their rivals. The email was sent, possibly by accident, to the producers of rival films such as Inglourious Basterds and, indeed, Avatar, who cried foul. Quickly, Chartier issued an unconditional apology for his "naivete, ignorance of the rules and plain stupidity". He added: "My email ... was out of line and not in the spirit of the celebration of cinema. I truly apologise to anyone I have offended."

With Oscar voting to close on Tuesday, and awards worth millions in publicity, the email has detonated heated debate. To some, the producer is a scheming hatchet-man. To others, he was simply unlucky to be caught dabbling in one of Hollywood's most widely played games: each year, film studios spend millions employing PR firms to lobby for their titles. Expert campaigners lobby show-business journalists and opinion-formers, rather than Academy members. Crucially, they make sure not to commit their trash-talk about rival movies to paper.

Chartier's slip could have him banned from the awards and removed from the list of four producers in line for a gong. That would be unfortunate: he was an integral part of The Hurt Locker's against-the-odds journey to the screen, and at one point remortgaged his house to help raise the $15m it cost to make.

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