Oscars favorite in trouble over campaign blitz

Iraq war drama "The Hurt Locker" has been engulfed by controversy in the final sprint to the Oscars finishing line but should still win the coveted best picture prize at the awards extravaganza, analysts said Sunday.

The gritty independent film about a US army bomb disposal unit in Baghdad had emerged as the overwhelming favorite to win the top honor at next Sunday's 82nd Academy Awards after winning a string of other honors this year.

However the film's relentless procession towards best picture has been jolted in the past few days after it emerged that one of the movie's producers, Nicolas Chartier, had broken strict rules concerning negative campaigning.

Chartier could face censure from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after sending emails to swathes of Oscar voters urging them to vote for "The Hurt Locker" instead of a "500-million-dollar film."

Chartier's emails was seen as a direct attack on a best picture rival, James Cameron's big-budget science-fiction blockbuster "Avatar" - a clear breach of Academy rules which forbid negative campaigning.

Frenchman Chartier was forced to issue an embarrassing apology for his initial email, describing it as "inappropriate and stupid."

"My email to you was out of line and not in the spirit of the celebration of cinema that this acknowledgement is," Chartier wrote. "I was even more wrong, both personally and professionally, to ask for your help in encouraging others to vote for the film and to comment on another movie.

"As passionate as I am about the film we made, this was an extremely inappropriate email to send, and something that the Academy strongly disapproves of in the rules.

"My naivete, ignorance of the rules and plain stupidity as a first time nominee is not an excuse for this behavior and I strongly regret it."

A spokeswoman for the Academy declined to comment on what action - if any - might be taken against Chartier.

Analysts have speculated that sanctions could range from withholding tickets to the Oscars show for individuals connected to the film all the way to the nuclear option of eliminating the film from the best picture race.

Pundits however are skeptical that the controversy will adversely impact "The Hurt Locker's" Oscars hopes, noting that the furore erupted only days before Tuesday's 5:00pm deadline for final ballots.

"When it's this late in the game, most of the ballots or a good percentage of them will be in," said Pete Hammond, Maxim magazine film critic and an awards season expert with the Los Angeles Times.

"It takes time for a story like this to permeate into the Academy. Will it have any effect? I doubt it. The bottom line is I think people still tend to vote for the film they like the best."

Veteran Oscarologist Tom O'Neil, from the Los Angeles Times's theenvelope.com agreed.

"I'd say around three-quarters of the ballots were done by the time this broke," O'Neil told AFP. "The widespread consensus is that 'The Hurt Locker' has it in the bag and that even these issues aren't going to trip it up."

This year's Oscars, which take place at the Kodak Theater, will see eight other films vying for best picture along with "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker."

Other nominees include South Africa's acclaimed science-fiction thriller "District 9," Pixar's animated "Up", sports drama "The Blind Side," and Quentin Tarantino's World War II revenge fantasy "Inglourious Basterds."

Recession-era drama "Up In the Air" is also nominated along with low budget films including "An Education," "Precious" and "A Serious Man."

Like the best picture race, clear favorites have emerged across most of the other major categories.

Kathryn Bigelow is widely expected to become the first woman in Oscars history to win the best director prize for her work on "The Hurt Locker," while Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock are poised to take the top acting awards.

Bridges, 60, is expected to win for his portrayal of an alcoholic country singer trying to rebuild his life in the drama "Crazy Heart" while Bullock is the favorite to edge out Meryl Streep for her performance in "The Blind Side."

"It looks as if all the top award races are locked in now," said O'Neil. "It looks like there will be virtually no suspense.

"Usually you can feel the rumblings of a possible upset at this stage. But there's been nothing like that so far."